GCI sermon for May 16, 2021 (Ascension Sunday) …
What led up to you following Jesus? Some of us had parents who were Christians and taught us about Christ from infancy. Some of us may have had miraculous experiences that suddenly revealed the reality of God. Others went on a journey for truth and Jesus found them at the end of the road. Whatever the story, we often tend to think about how we started following Christ by looking at things that happened in our lives that guided us toward Jesus.
What if we could ask Jesus that question? What if we could each ask Jesus, “What did you do to get me to follow you?” Do you think his answer would be different from our answer? I believe the answer is “yes.” I would focus on things that happened in my life, and there is nothing necessarily wrong with that. However, Jesus would talk about things that he personally did to draw me nearer to himself. Jesus’ answer would be far more intimate and personal. His answer would reveal his deep love and commitment to me long before I knew him.
His answer would include his birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension. His answer would be to remind us that if he hadn’t ascended and taken us to the Father, we would still be wandering around in our own helplessness. We would not be participating in the relationship and communion of the Father, Son and Spirit.
In John 17 Jesus prayed about and for the 12 disciples, and this exquisite prayer reveals the immensity of the promise of bringing us into the presence of the Father. Let’s keep in mind that Jesus prays this prayer in the shadow of the cross, on the evening of his betrayal. With his death so close at hand, he made sure this prayer gave us hope, sure promises, and a view into the things most important to him.
An exercise you may want to try at home is to read this passage and think in terms of what the disciples initially heard and what thoughts might have come to mind. Then read it and ask how they came to understand even more after the resurrection. Finally, I suggest you read it a third time and ask how this prayer has meaning to us as we think of Jesus’ ascension.
Let’s begin with verses 1-5.
After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed. (John 17:1-5 NRSV)
While it might be fun to guess what the disciples were thinking, it’s more important for us to read this passage through the lens of the ascension and see what Jesus was praying for them and for us.
Four key observations:
- Jesus is asking God to glorify him so that he can glorify the Father—a reciprocal and mutual relationship. Glorify means to give honor, to show a person’s greatness.
- Jesus lets the disciples know that he has been given all authority—specially the authority to give eternal life.
- He defines eternal life—to know (be in close relationship with) the Father and the Son.
- Jesus is finishing the work he was given to do.
I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. (John 17:6-10 NRSV)
Four more key observations:
- Jesus makes clear his purpose was to make the Father known to us.
- Jesus makes clear that we belong to the Father already and he gave us to Jesus. “All mine are yours and yours are mine.”
- Jesus emphasizes the unity between him and the Father once again: everything is from you… the words I gave them are from you… they know I came from you… they know you sent me.
- Jesus is glorified in his relationship with us.
You see the emphases on our connection to the Father through the Son, and our connection to the Son because of the Father. The Father knew us before the incarnation and gave us to Jesus.
And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.
I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth. (John 17:11-19 ESV)
Another four key observations:
- Jesus makes it clear he is leaving this world and returning to the Father. He had used similar language previously, but the disciples did not know what he was saying.
- We are under the Father’s and the Son’s protection. Earlier Jesus had said nothing can snatch us out of the Father’s hand.
- The world will hate us because we do not belong to the world. We are not held in bondage by the ways and means of the world.
- We have been sanctified by the truth, and truth has a name. It is Jesus.
Let’s finish the prayer:
I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them. (John 17:20-25 ESV)
Final four observations:
- This prayer isn’t just for the 12, it is for all who believe in Jesus.
- Jesus tells us we are not only one with him and the Father, we are also one with one another—including the original disciples. We are all in communion with each other and with the Triune God.
- This unity helps others believe in Jesus, that he was sent by the Father, and that they are loved.
- Jesus’ desire is that we are with him—where he is—so we can participate in his glory and share his love with others.
And this leads us to the importance of the Ascension.
When Jesus ascended…
- He received his full glory. Recall he told Mary to not cling to him because he had not yet ascended.
- That glory was also given to us in order that we might participate in the communion shared by the Father, Son and Spirit.
- He was given all authority in heaven and earth. Recall before giving the disciples their commission in Matthew 28, he reminded them that he had been given all power and authority. After giving them the commission, he reminded them he would be with them always.
- He took us with him. Yes, we are still here, but Jesus asked the Father that we could be where he is—at the Father’s right hand. We are already citizens of God’s kingdom.
- The promise of eternal life became a reality to all who are in Christ.
Jesus’ prayer makes clear that the goal of Christ’s work was to unite us to the triune God and each other, but that is not all. In John 17:13, Jesus says that he spoke his prayer out loud so that the hearers may have “the full measure of joy within them.” John later stated in 1 John 1:4 that he detailed his witness of Jesus to make his readers’ “joy complete.” These two passages help us to understand that knowing the details of our reconciliation and redemption brings us joy. When we see the extent of God’s love and care for us, joy bubbles up.
The ascension completed the work God gave his Son. When Jesus returned to the Father his work of rescuing and redeeming us was complete. Salvation is a done deal for all those who believe that Jesus is who he says he is, and we are in him. Forgiveness is past tense. The ransom has been paid. Hope is restored. God’s plan to bring us back into relationship with himself was enacted. Because Jesus ascended, we have access to the throne of God, to the very presence of the Father, who loves us and desires to be in intimate relationship with us.
We can only imagine what the disciples thought as they listened to this prayer. We can only imagine how many times the words of this prayer came back to encourage them in the years ahead. What we do know is the words of this prayer were answered at the ascension. God’s greatest joy is to be one with his children. The ascension brought about that joy.