THE ASCENSION

He showed himself to them alive, after his suffering, by many proofs. He was seen by them for forty days, during which he spoke about God’s kingdom. [Acts 1:3 (NTE)]

He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead; Whose kingdom shall have no end. [Nicene Creed]

viceroy butterflyYesterday was the 40th day of Easter and Ascension Day (or the Feast of the Ascension): the day we remember Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Although Augustine of Hippo and his contemporaries John Chrysostom and Gregory of Nyssa held that the Feast of the Ascension originated with the Apostles and possibly dated as far back as 68 AD, no written evidence of its celebration until Augustine’s time in the fourth century exists today. From his time on, however, it has been a church holiday. Nowadays, it is observed primarily in Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and liturgical Protestant churches.

At Easter, we celebrated Jesus’ resurrection: His return to life and to His disciples. Yesterday, some of us may have observed His departure from the disciples. Whether or not we consider Jesus’ ascension into heaven a religious holiday, it is a significant event in Christianity. Rather than stopping at the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, we should continue through His ascension, when Jesus was seated at the right hand of God, and all the way to Pentecost, when His Holy Spirit came upon His followers.

Jesus’ ascension signified that His task on earth was complete. His time here over, He was returning to His full heavenly glory to reign as the one true King. Until His return, only one more piece needed be put in place – the giving of the Holy Spirit – which would happen ten days later on Pentecost.

Unlike most partings, Jesus’ departure was not a sad farewell but a joyous one. It must have been a glorious sight as the disciples stood on the Mount of Olives and watched Jesus being taken up in a cloud. If any had doubted before, they now knew for sure that Jesus truly was God and His home was in heaven! As they stood there, astonished, with mouths agape, two angels appeared and assured them that someday Jesus would return in the same way He left: physically and visibly!

Before parting, Jesus commissioned the disciples to be His witnesses “to the ends of the earth.” The disciples didn’t just stand there and wait for His return and neither should we. He gave us all a job to do until that day comes.

As Jesus said this, he was lifted up while they were watching, and a cloud took him out of their sight. They were gazing into heaven as he disappeared. Then, lo and behold, two men appeared, dressed in white, standing beside them. “Galileans,” they said, “why are you standing here staring into heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you saw him go into heaven.” [Acts 1:9-11 (NTE)]

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HE HAS FAITH IN US!

And I’ve got something to tell you, too: you are Peter, the rock, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell won’t overpower it. [Matthew 16:18 (NTE)]

Kandersteg - SwitzerlandAfter Simon Peter professed his belief in Jesus as the Messiah, the Lord declared that he would be known from then on as Peter (Petros) meaning rock (petra). Yet, a short time later, the Rock became a stumbling block when he resisted all that being the Messiah required: Jesus’ suffering and death. When studying the man our Lord chose to lead His church, we find Peter had enough faith to climb out of the boat but not enough faith to trust Jesus when the wind started to blow. Impetuous, Peter immediately wanted to memorialize the Transfiguration rather than learn from it. Presumptuous, he hastily spoke for Jesus regarding paying tax to Caesar. Rash, he used his sword to wound the high priest’s slave. He resisted Jesus when the Lord knelt with a wash pan at his feet and, after boldly declaring his commitment to Jesus, denied him three times within a few hours! Yet, it was to this man that Jesus entrusted the job of shepherd and the task of feeding His sheep!

The rest of the disciples were no better. Along with Peter, they thought Jesus was talking about bread when He warned them about the yeast of the Pharisees, argued with one another about who among them was the greatest, fell asleep when asked to pray, abandoned Jesus following His arrest, and returned to fishing after the crucifixion.

Not a one was a scholar, aristocrat, or priest. Yet, it was to these common ordinary men, men who had sinned and who were likely to sin again, men who had failed Jesus while He was flesh and blood, to whom Jesus entrusted His church! Although the only thing extraordinary about the disciples was their faith in Jesus, He charged them with the Great Commission: the future of His church. Have you ever wondered at the tremendous faith Jesus showed in the disciples 2,000 years ago? Legions of angels could have spread the Good News wider and faster than any mortal and yet Jesus had faith that His band of ordinary men would obey His command and succeed!

Christ’s followers continue to be as unremarkable and flawed as were Peter, John and the rest of the disciples. Nevertheless, Jesus continues to have faith in us. It is through the power of His Holy Spirit that we carry on the good work begun by those first believers. Let us continue to have faith in the God who has such great faith in us!

A dozen ignorant peasants proclaiming a crucified Jew as the founder of a new faith; bearing as the symbol of their worship an instrument which was the sign of ignominy, slavery and crime; preaching what must have seemed an absurd doctrine of humility, patient suffering and love to enemies – graces undreamed of before; demanding what must have seemed an absurd worship for one who had died like a malefactor and a slave, and making what must have seemed an absurd promise of everlasting life through one who had himself died, and that between two thieves. [“The Divine Origin of the Bible” by B.B. Warfield]

Jesus came towards them and addressed them. “All authority in heaven and on earth,” he said, “has been given to me! So you must go and make all the nations into disciples. Baptize them in the name of the father, and of the son, and of the holy spirit. Teach them to observe everything I have commanded you. And look: I am with you, every single day, to the very end of the age.” [Matthew 28:18-20 (NTE)]

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NATIONAL DAY OF PRAYER – MAY 7, 2020

After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed: “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you.” [John 17:1 (NIV)]

taos, NMThis pandemic may have may have postponed the Olympics but it hasn’t delayed the National Day of Prayer. Today’s observances, however, will look quite different from previous ones. There won’t be any prayer breakfasts or luncheons and large groups won’t assemble in parks, churches or on courthouse steps. Instead, churches will stream their services and religious leaders from across the county will participate in a national broadcast to be aired tonight from 8 to 10 PM ET (see their website or Facebook page for details). Because of the many “virtual” events planned, today’s observance actually could be this day’s largest prayer gathering.

The theme this year is “Pray God’s Glory across the Earth.” Since the Westminster Catechism says, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever,” I understand why we’d want to pray God’s glory across the earth. Man was created to give glory to God and this year’s theme probably was chosen long before coronavirus so drastically impacted the lives of people throughout this nation. In all likelihood, prayer resources, promotional materials, and PSAs were finished and distributed by the time we’d heard of COVID-19. I wondered how we can pray God’s glory when our hearts are so broken but that’s precisely what Jesus did on the eve of His death and betrayal. John 17 tells us that Jesus didn’t pray with anxiety, doubt or fear. His prayer focused on the glory of God: the revelation of his character and presence. Jesus’ words show us that the purpose of prayer isn’t for us to get something from God; it is to give God the glory He deserves!

The National Day of Prayer task force asks us to pray today’s prayer together, yet individually, at noon your local time. Please join me today in saying the following prayer. Let us lift our voices as one people and pray God’s glory across the earth!

Lord, we exist to give You glory. We exist because of Your glory, and in Your glory, as our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. We give you thanks and praise for every breath and moment You have given to us. We repent of our sin; for the shameful things we have done against You and for our silence when we did not speak up to proclaim Your Name, profess Your Word, or protect and practice Your will. We ask Your forgiveness.

We pray that the knowledge of the glory of the Lord will spread across our nation and the entire earth as we seek Your Kingdom and righteousness; as we walk in obedience to You, and in humble unity, love one another.

Jesus, the Bible says that You are “the knowledge of the glory of the Lord.” You have taught us to pray, commanded us to love, and commissioned us to share Your gospel of grace. Your glory fills our hearts and families, it overflows into our neighborhoods, workplaces, campuses, churches, entertainment, and media.

We give thanks for our military and ask that Your glory would spread to, and through them as they preserve freedom around the world. We pray for our government, that all of our leaders and laws would be filled with Your glory, that they would magnify Your Holy Word and honor Your will and ways. We pray that Your grace and glory would spread to bring hope to the hopeless, and love where there is hurt and hate.

God, use us as we pray your promise, that “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” In Jesus Name, Amen! [Kathy Branzell, President, National Day of Prayer Task Force]

For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. [Habakkuk 2:14 (NIV)]

Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness. [Psalm 29:2 (NIV)]

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KOINONIA – FELLOWSHIP

pelicans - royal terns - clam passGod is faithful! And it is through God that you have been called into the fellowship of his son, King Jesus, our Lord. Now I must appeal to you, my brothers and sisters, through the name of King Jesus our Lord, that you should all be in agreement, and that there should be no divisions among you. Instead, you should be fully equipped with the same mind and the same opinion. [1 Corinthians 1:9-10 (NTE)]

Because there are various Christian fellowship associations, our churches have fellowship halls, and they sponsor fellowship meetings, meals, and events, we tend to associate Christian fellowship with friendship and socializing. Christian fellowship, however, is a great deal more than simply spending time with other believers. The Greek word commonly translated as “fellowship” is koinonia. While it does mean fellowship, association, community, and communion, it also denotes intimacy, participation, or a share which one has in something. No one English word fully captures all that koinonia encompasses.

Signifying more than merely associating with each other, the sharing of food and necessities, or even joining together in the celebration of the Eucharist, Paul used koinonia to include the fellowship Christ’s followers have both with one another and with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the church’s sharing of Jesus’ sufferings, and their combined effort both to serve one another and to spread the gospel with the funding of missions work. In that light, koinonia (Christian fellowship) is far more than filling a pew for an hour a week, gathering for coffee before services, or bringing a dish to a church potluck. Rather than a membership in a club, koinonia is more like the commitment a businessman makes when he forms a partnership and it was during a video Bible study with N.T. Wright that I first heard koinonia translated as “partnership.”

Perhaps, because my husband has been involved in several business ventures with partners, the word “partnership” resonated with me. His partners were more than just acquaintances, friends, or colleagues and their partnerships required an investment of some kind. In some cases that was a capital investment but, in others, it was sweat equity through a service that added value. Along with financial responsibility, his business partners shared the same vision and goals, were passionate about their venture, and motivated in pursuing it. Seeing themselves as a team, they didn’t base decisions on their individual wants but looked to what was best for the business. They knew and appreciated both their own strengths and weaknesses and those of their partners. Because his partners were committed, ethical, honest, and dependable, his ventures succeeded.

Sometimes, we mistakenly think of ourselves as customers and the church as a business we patronize; if we like the ambiance, approve of the message, and enjoy being with the other patrons, we continue to support it. That, however, is not koinonia! We may not get the minister’s or worship leader’s paychecks, but we are partners with them and with each other. If anyone is the customer in this scenario, it is God! He is the One we all serve and the one we are supposed to please. He is the One who matters and He, as the only customer, is always right!

Simply put, koinonia is the art of Christian community. In the spirit of koinonia, rather than “members,” many churches have what they call “partners.” With membership, people are inclined to ask, “What do I get from this group?” but, when we become partners, we ask “What do I bring to this group?” Partnership means a commitment (and not just to regular attendance). It’s a commitment to study, serve, and support. It means living an authentic Christian life both in and out of church, growing in God’s word, praying with and for others, focusing on commonality rather than differences, sharing spiritually and materially, and reaching out to others. In koinonia, our connection to Jesus connects us to one another and we become partners in Christ!

The winning word in the 2018 Scripps National Spelling Bee was koinonia. Knowing how to spell it or even knowing what it means is useless, however, unless, as Christians, we live in koinonia!

My prayer is this: that the partnership which goes with your faith may have its powerful effect, in realizing every good thing that is at work in us to lead us into the King. [Philemon 1:6 (NTE)]

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THE OPEN DOOR

There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. [Galatians 3:28 (NLT)]

weggis - switzerland - mudslide chapel

When this pandemic first began, many thought of it as a Chinese virus. We now realize it’s not a Chinese, Italian, or even a New York thing; it’s affecting everyone everywhere, if not directly then indirectly. Lockdowns, quarantines, social distancing, face masks, make-shift hospitals and morgues, silent streets, shortages, closed churches, along with shuttered stores, schools and businesses and the financial fallout from those closures: these have altered the lives people across the globe. COVID-19 is no respecter of borders; as of yesterday, the number of confirmed cases was more than two million in at least 177 different countries.

Acknowledging that there is nothing typical about church during this pandemic, we didn’t air a typical church service on Palm Sunday. Instead, we chose to host a global celebration of our global Savior and offered messages and music from Britain, Ireland, Scotland, India, South Africa, South Korea, China, and Cuba, along with words and music from across the U.S. As I watched an Englishwoman recite a poem about prayer, witnessed a couple raise their voices in praise from a rooftop in a strangely silent Havana, joined a family as they sang from their living room in India, and shed a tear while a South Korean violinist played Ave Maria in an empty room, I realized how much this pandemic has brought us together across the world.

As beautiful and inspiring as were Palm Sunday’s musical offerings, I was touched most by the words of a man in China who thanked our church for its free App. His words reminded me that Jesus can be as contagious as COVID and that faith, hope and love can cross borders as easy as a virus. Coronavirus reminds us that, rather than an isolated community, we are part of a global community. We are not one church or one denomination; we are not Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Orthodox. We are one Church—the global Christian Church—and we follow one Savior—Jesus Christ!

While unable to attend church, we can continue being the Church and our congregation is larger than we think! My church has fewer than 70 people but in their first 24-hours, our Palm Sunday service was seen by over 5,700 people and our Easter one by over 7,800 (with over 80% of those views out of the U.S.!) Just as borders can’t stop COVID-19, they can’t stop Jesus. Let us thank God that today’s technology allows us to reach much further than we ever thought possible.

Alexander Graham Bell said, “When one door closes, another opens.” The rest of his quotation is, ”But we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.” Lament over the closed doors to our churches must not blind us to the digital door that has opened. Imagine the possibilities if, instead of being a single church or denomination, we acted as one family and all of Christ’s followers reached out virtually to join hands with the rest of the world. We serve a global Savior; indeed, in Christ there is no east or west!

In Christ there is no east or west, In him no south or north,
But one great fam’ly bound by love Throughout the whole wide earth.
In him shall true hearts ev’rywhere Their high communion find;
His service is the golden cord Close binding humankind.
In Christ now meet both east and west, In him meet south and north,
All Christly souls are one in him Throughout the whole wide earth.
[John Oxenham (1908)]

Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace. For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, in all, and living through all. [Ephesians 4:3-6 (NLT)]

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DON’T STOP AT FRIDAY – Good Friday 2020

Earthly people are like the man of earth; heavenly people are like the man from heaven. We have borne the image of the man made of earth; we shall also bear the image of the man from heaven. [1 Corinthians 15:48-49 (NLT)]

loretto - santa fe NMEaster will be a little different this year. Instead of getting up early for the sunrise service, we’ll have all day to go to online church and, rather than new Easter attire, we can attend church in sweats or jammies and our proverbial Easter bonnet can be a baseball cap. The kids won’t have brunch with the Easter Bunny, no family or friends will come for dinner, and, instead of hunting for Easter eggs, we’ll search for hand sanitizer or face masks on the Internet. Fortunately, we don’t need new clothes, eggs, brunch, jelly beans, Peeps, parades, Easter lilies, chocolate bunnies, beautiful hymns, or even a church service for Easter. All we really need is the Resurrection!

Nevertheless, some people are just Christmas through Good Friday believers. While they believe Jesus was born, walked the earth, and died on the cross, they doubt His resurrection and the promise of our resurrection. Their faith stops on Good Friday rather than going all of the way to Easter Sunday. Some of those in the church at Corinth were like that and, in 1 Corinthians 15, we find Paul’s response to those who couldn’t believe in the resurrection of the body. Without resurrection, he said, Jesus couldn’t have risen from the dead and, if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, their faith was futile; they were merely false witnesses whose faith was grounded on a lie.

If we only believe from Christmas through Good Friday, we have a philosophy but not a faith and Jesus was just a godly, wise, and loving man. Paul suggests that, without the resurrection of Jesus and His followers, we might as well live with the attitude, “Let’s eat and drink, because tomorrow we’re going to die!” If our belief stops at Friday, we finish like a Looney Tunes cartoon with, “That’s all folks!” On the other hand, if we believe through Sunday, our lives are just beginning! That Jesus was raised from the dead means that even though all people die, all those in Christ will rise again! Instead of a philosopher who offered answers, the Resurrection means we have a Messiah who was the answer.

When we accept the resurrection of the dead, we’re bound to wonder how it’s done and what we’ll look like. Rather than putrefied remains, ashes or the broken bodies we had at death, Paul uses the analogy of a seed growing into a plant. Transformed, our resurrected bodies will be as different from our earthly ones as an oak is from an acorn, a chicken from an egg, a butterfly from a caterpillar, or a sunflower from its seed. Because imperfect finite bodies can’t inhabit a world that is infinite and perfect, Paul explains that God will take our perishable bodies and replace them with ones that are spiritual and imperishable. By spiritual, Paul doesn’t mean something ghostly or indistinct. There will be a body of some kind but, unlike our earthly one, it won’t be subject to decay, weakness, or death. Incapable of deterioration, it will be a beautiful and perfect vehicle for God’s Spirit.

I like C.S. Lewis’ explanation. Pointing out that, in this life, we tend to think of the soul as inhabiting the body, he suggests that, in the glorified body of the resurrection, the physical body will inhabit the soul and, rather than being less, we’ll be more. Of course, it’s all speculation. We don’t know what it will look like nor can we understand how it will be done because we’re not God. But, because we are Resurrection Sunday people, we know that it will happen!

The body that Jesus wore when he walked the earth—the one that fed a multitude, healed the sick, ate with the disciples, prayed in the garden, sweat blood, stood trial, was beaten, had nails driven into it, and hung on a cross—was a body like ours. Subject to pain, injury, disease and death, it was a body designed for an earthly life. But, Jesus’ story didn’t end on Friday and He rose on Sunday with a body suited for heaven!

One day, we will inherit His everlasting kingdom with everlasting bodies of our own. Yes, we will die in mortality, weakness, and infirmity but we will be resurrected in glory, strength, and power. We will be resurrected because we are Easter people!

On what does the Christian argument for Immortality really rest? It stands upon the pedestal on which the theologian rests the whole of historical Christianity—the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. [Henry Drummond]

‘I am the resurrection and the life,’ replied Jesus. ‘Anyone who believes in me will live, even if they die. And anyone who lives and believes in me will never, ever die.’ [John 11:25-26 (NTE)]

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