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Monday, August 26, 2013

Pastorates manuscript, #3

Christian churches throughout the world proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Why, then, are so many churches -- especially in the developed world, in the West -- decaying, declining, and dying?

I love movie versions of the life of Jesus.  Jesus’ story makes such great cinema!  Nearly every story of Jesus ends with his resurrection.  Often when we proclaim Jesus in the Christian church, our proclamation ends with his resurrection.  When we consider our own identity as his 21st century followers, we think of his death and resurrection.  But the New Testament story does not stop with Jesus’ resurrection.  

In the first verses of Acts, Luke writes that in the first book (the gospel of Luke) he wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until his ascension.  The implication is that after his ascension, Jesus continued to act and to teach.  We should not be surprised by this!  Before his crucifixion, Jesus himself told his disciples, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear.  But when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13).  If we are to understand God’s intention for the Christian church, we need to better understand both Jesus’ ascension and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost.

Jesus’ Ascension

Sometimes well-meaning teachers talk about Jesus’ ascension as if the problem is just to get Jesus’ physical body out of the way so that his spiritual presence (via the Holy Spirit’s arrival at Pentecost) can empower believers simultaneously all over the globe.  This is not the Bible’s teaching!  No, Jesus ascends to the heavens physically, but more importantly he ascends in authority.  The ascension of Jesus (see Acts 1) points to the fact that Jesus is now exalted as Lord of all creation.  It is in the ascension that Jesus takes up his rightful place “at the right hand of the Father” as the creeds put it.  During his earthly ministry, Jesus’ most common title for himself was “son of man,” an allusion to Daniel 7:13-14.  Daniel sees one “like a son of man” who comes before the Almighty and is given authority to judge the nations.  Jesus alludes to these verses during his trial before Caiaphas, and the song of all creation in Revelation 5 echoes these ideas.  Paul certainly understands Jesus in these same terms in Philippians 2 and Colossians 1.  Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords.  It is in Jesus’ ascension that he takes up this mantle of authority.

To be the church, we must rightly understand the sovereignty of Jesus.  As someone has put it, if Jesus isn’t Lord of all, he isn’t Lord at all.  Jesus is Lord over all creation, over all nations, over all people, and -- don’t miss this -- over the church.

What does this mean?  It means that the church doesn’t belong to us.  When Peter confessed that Jesus was the Christ, the son of the living God, Jesus said, “On this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18, emphasis added).  Jesus is Lord of the church.  So all our positions of authority, whether as pastors, as teachers, as members or tithers or committee members or volunteers, are under the authority of Jesus.

This is obvious, right? If it is so obvious, why do we strive to control the church?  Why do we battle to the death over the worship schedule, the stewardship program, or the color of the new carpet?  Why is it so hard for people who have received some position in the church to share that authority?  Why do so many Christians have a complex about trying to control things?  If we strive to get our own way, to have our own control, we are not living in the ascension of Jesus Christ.

The ascension means Lordship for Jesus, and it means freedom for us.  It means that there are very few hard and fast ironclad rules for the church.  What ironclad rules there are have to do with the Lordship of Jesus, not with the structures or traditions of the church.

In the ascension Jesus takes up his authority, his sovereignty over all time and all space.  When we face a decision, it is Jesus’ word alone that matters.  When our circumstances seem difficult, we can trust that Jesus is working to shape and lead his church.  When the work of the church is too difficult for us, we can confidently ask Jesus to raise up workers -- and then we can confidently share the load without trying to control the outcome.

While it may seem that this is all obvious, the church has too often been held captive by human desires for control.  We must do more than pay lip service to the Lordship of Jesus.  We must learn to trust him to be Lord in fact, not just in name.  How does this work in practice?  It has to do with Acts 2, with the Father’s gift to the church -- the gift of the Holy Spirit.

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