Rediscovering Union with Christ
Union with Christ is the basis for our relationship with the triune God. By it we may join Jesus in joyful communion with the Father in the loving bond of the Holy Spirit so the deepest longings of our souls are satisfied. The meaning of our lives unfolds in loving and serving the God with whom we are united. This, in turn, leads to communion in love with others and meaningful service to the world.
This is deep mystery: Jesus makes us one with himself. We are joined to his body. He takes up residence in our hearts. This union is so close that even marriage is but a sign of it! We are taken into his life so all that he has is ours.
Yet how seldom we speak of this in worship. We do not thrill to the news because this mystical union, so central to the New Testament and to the Reformed tradition, seems a strange concept to us. The reality is overwhelming, yet it rarely touches me. Perhaps union with Christ simply seems too good to be true. Or perhaps this truth is too demanding upon our whole lives to be appealing. We’re just not used to being so mystical. But there it is at the heart of the faith, from Jesus’ teaching about the vine and the branches to Paul’s constant use of the phrase “in Christ.” Recovering this reality will, I believe, renew and refresh the church powerfully.
But what is the way into such truth? We dig deeper. Our union with Christ is based upon his prior and continuing union with us. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The Son of God joined himself to our humanity. He became what we are in order that we might become what he is.
We’re frail, sin-stained human beings who could never enter heaven or be united to a holy God on our own. We require a bridge. The basis of our communion with the triune God is that Christ’s union with our humanity continues. He has taken our humanity, now glorified in resurrection, back to the Father’s right hand. Thus joined to him we too may enter the heavenly places, today in worship, tomorrow in body and soul.
How do we know this is so? Here is where we hit bedrock. The doctrine of the ascension assures us that Christ Jesus retains our humanity. He did not drop his body nor us when he moved from this realm to the heavenly realm. Rather, he went to pave a new and living way into the holiest place—for us.
Worship can bring us into this mysterious truth, often more effectively than only teaching the doctrines. Between Easter and Pentecost, the church can celebrate the ascension of Jesus. In doing so, we may intentionally draw the connections between the fact of the ascension and our daily experience of union with Christ. We have a deep treasure box to draw from, including Scripture, great hymns, and patristic writings.
The following service ideas are meant to help you focus on celebrating ascension as the way to recover joy in union with Christ. You can use the services between Easter and Ascension or have the series culminate on Ascension Day. (Easter is on April 8, 2007; Ascension Day is forty days later on May 17, 2007, with five Sundays between the two.)
Psalm 110, Acts 1:1-11; 1 Peter 3:22
Sermon Overview: “Whatever? No, What of It?”
This is a look at the ascension proper and the idea that Jesus, as a human, has gone into heaven on our behalf.
Jesus has not forgotten us. He has taken our humanity with him. That is the guarantee of his return. Jesus holds in himself our very nature. By keeping his flesh, he offers his perfect obedience as a human in our name and on our behalf. Jesus has not discarded this flesh we love, this world we love. The eternal Son of God has woven the stuff of creation forever into his being. He cares about this world. He cares about the sparrows and about you and me. He cares enough to cleave to us for all time. Flesh is in heaven. Spirit and flesh are united. In Christ, we can be connected to God the Father.
“Crown Him with Many Crowns” PH 151, TH 295
“The Head That Once Was Crowned with Thorns” PH 149, TH 298
Because the risen Jesus has ascended into heaven,
although we are weak, there is Jesus Christ,
powerful enough to make us stand.
Although we are feeble,
there is Jesus Christ, who is our strength.
Although we are full of miseries,
Jesus Christ is in immortal glory and we shall partake of all his benefits.
Yes, the devil is called the prince of this world.
But what of it?
Jesus Christ holds him in check; for he is King of heaven and earth.
There are devils who make war against us.
But what of it?
Jesus Christ rules above, having entire control of the battle.
We are subject to many changes, which may cause us to lose courage.
But what of it?
The Son of God, who is exempt from all change, is our head. We must, then, take confidence in him.
—Adapted from John Calvin, The Deity of Christ and Other Sermons
(Audobon, NJ: Old Paths Publications, 1997), pp. 238-9. www.oldpathspublication.org
Seeking the Lost
Ezekiel 34:11-16; Psalm 23-24; Matthew 18:10-14; Luke 19:10
Sermon Overview: “Search and Rescue”
This sermon connects the Lord as Shepherd with the ascension of Jesus, all in the context of our rescue from sin by a redeemer who came down from heaven and has now returned to prepare a place for us.
Psalm 24 is a dramatic enthronement psalm, celebrating the Lord’s presence in the Jerusalem temple as an emblem of the Lord’s reign over all the earth. It raises an important question: “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place?” The answer is daunting: the Lord requires “clean hands and a pure heart.” We cannot go up to the place where God is. We are cut off from heaven.
We are lost, like sheep who have strayed. But the story of our salvation is that the triune God fulfilled the promise recorded in Ezekiel 34 by coming himself in the person of Jesus Christ. As Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18 and his words to Zacchaeus show, Jesus came to seek and gather home the lost. By coming to us, he has found us. But that in itself does not get us all the way “home.”
Christ undertook a great search-and-rescue mission. The Word made a foray into the depths of the land of our lostness. He found us, his own handiwork, and returned to heaven bearing us up as a shepherd carries home the lost sheep. He returned as the head of the humanity to which he is joined, offering and commending to his Father our human nature.
“Hail the Day That Sees Him Rise” TH 290
“Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord” TH (red) 292 (These words by Clowney, set to the popular tune ENGELBERG, draw together the entire theme of the service.)
“The King of Love My Shepherd Is” PH 171
Affirmation of Faith
We do not doubt but that the selfsame body which was born of the virgin, was crucified, dead and buried, and which did rise again, did ascend into the heavens, for the accomplishment of all things, where in our name and for our comfort he has received all power in heaven and earth, where he sits at the right hand of the Father, having received his kingdom, the only advocate and mediator for us. Which glory, honor, and prerogative, he alone amongst the brethren shall possess till all his enemies are made his footstool, as we undoubtedly believe they shall be in the Last Judgment. We believe that the same Lord Jesus shall visibly return for this Last Judgment as he was seen to ascend.
—The Scots Confession (1560), ch. 11
Gifts Flow from Christ’s Union with Us
Psalm 47; Jeremiah 32:1-15; 1 Corinthians 3:21-22
Sermon Overview: “Investing Against All Odds”
In Jeremiah 32 the Lord instructed Jeremiah to purchase an ancestral property in his hometown of Anathoth just outside Jerusalem. The timing could not have been worse for a real estate transaction. The king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and no one doubted his future success. Nevertheless, Jeremiah obeyed and redeemed the land from his cousin. As God instructed, he had the documents of purchase placed in a clay jar so they would be preserved through the years as a testament to God’s promise that “houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land” (Jer. 32:15). Although it could be considered a foolish investment in the short term, Jeremiah made a pledge for the future in trust that God would keep his word.
In the incarnation, Jesus bought the field of our flesh. He purchased then redemption of humanity and bore the surety of that redemption in a vessel of clay. In his ascension in the flesh, Jesus holds now for us in heaven the hope of a glorified humanity against the ravages of mortality we endure in the world. Surely to the powers and principalities that strut their authority in this present age, this retention of humanity appears as foolish as a field bought before all land is swept up by a mighty king.
We suffer here the pressure of foreign occupation. We often stare, stunned, as all we hold dear is plundered. We wander, confused, in a strange land whose very language sounds alien. Worse yet, we may begin to believe that Babylon is all there is when the memory and hope of Jerusalem recedes. Yet the ascension boldly taught and preached calls us to a magnificent hope. Jesus holds title to our humanity as a pledge of future restoration. While we are pilgrims through a barren world, we sojourn with the knowledge that the promised land is held in trust in the very nerves and sinews of the still-incarnate Christ.
These images rescue the church from mortal despair and an over-identification with the world. The sight of the ascended Jesus dawning in our hearts through the Holy Spirit transforms the church. When we live and serve in this hope, the desert valley of the world turns to a place of springs as we pass.
“All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” PH 142, TH 296
“At the Name of Jesus” PH 148, TH 163
Litany (Psalm 47)
God is gone up with a merry noise,
the Lord has ascended with the sound of a trumpet.
Clap your hands, all peoples.
Shout to God with the voice of joy.
He who descended is he who has ascended above the heavens.
This day, Christ has led the firstfruits of our nature into heaven.
All that is good, all that is joy in this earthly flesh has gone up!
Nothing is lost. Nothing is left behind except our mortal frailty.
So the memory of love now sundered,
is more than memory; it is anticipation.
The dream of a body that works without pain, without weakness.
is more than a dream; it is anticipation.
The hope that neglect and negation, harm and hurt, will cease,
is more than hope; it is anticipation.
For Christ Jesus has gone up with a merry noise.
The Lord has ascended with a shout of triumph.
Jesus has taken us with him,
the Lord has brought flesh into heaven.
Sermon Overview: “Where You Go, I Will Go”
This sermon uses Ruth’s entreaty to stay with Naomi as a type for Christ’s embrace of us in his descent and ascent. Follow the Scriptures listed in the chart to trace the story of Jesus as he united himself to us throughout the whole course of his obedience. Also follow the story of how Jesus invites us to be joined to him throughout the whole course of our sanctification.
In descending, the Son of God said, as Ruth said,
Do not urge me to leave you: Luke 13:34
Or to return from following you: Luke 15:20
For where you go, I will go, Luke 15:4-5
And where you lodge, I will lodge: John 1:14
Your people shall be my people, Hebrews 2:11
And your God, my God. Hebrews 2:12
Where you die, I will die, Hebrews 2: 9
And there I will be buried. Luke 23:53
Thus may the Lord do to me, and worse if anything but death parts you and me. Romans 8:32
In ascending, the Son of God said,
I urge you not to leave me Matthew 14:16
Or to turn back from following me, Matthew 11:28
For where I go, you will go John 14:3
Where I lodge, you will lodge Ephesians 2:6
My people shall be your people John 14:20-23
My God shall be your God John 20:17
Where I die, you will die Galatians 2:20
And there will you be buried. Hebrews 13:12
Thus may the Lord do to you and worse, if anything but death parts you and me. Romans 8:38-39
“Alleluia, Sing to Jesus” PH 144
“Rejoice, the Lord Is King” PH 155, TH 310
Litany of Celebration
God wished to become incarnate, to renew his image
so he came looking for the lost sheep.
He searched the remote regions until the lost was found.
Now Jesus takes the sheep upon his shoulders and brings it to his Father.
The sheep is human nature—all we who have gone astray.
Today, he brings us home in his ascension,
laying us on his heart, carrying us in his great arms.
See now how we have gained more than we lost in the Fall!
Having lost paradise, we have gained heaven.
Wounded within paradise, when we fell in Eden,
We have found healing east of Eden.
Having been killed by the tree of life,
We have been made whole by the Christ-killing tree.
Having been sunk in the port, the calm waters of paradise,
We have returned to life in the waves of the sea,
in the turmoil of the wild world.
Where is your mischief, then, pirate of humanity?
The cross on which our captain was fastened as to a mast
has become the rudder of our shipwrecked nature.
The cross steers us to the heavenly harbor.
For our captain has triumphed, he has guided us home.
Therefore rejoice. Look today to the second Adam.
He has been received into the highest heaven.
Christ’s ascension is our uplifting.
We have gained more in the new Adam than we lost in the first!
In Christ, we have penetrated the heights of heaven,
in his ascending, we are received into the Father’s house.
—Adapted from various writings of the Church fathers