May 4th, 2016 by Christopher Caudle
“When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.”
(What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Ephesians 4.7-13
The gifts listed here as the benevolence of Jesus are frequently explored and discussed. Different eras and situations have led the church to focus on the varying aspects of these roles, their functions, qualifications, relationship to one another and their place in the life of God’s people today.
This includes the close attention given to the right ordering of the church in the days of the Undivided Church, the renewed focus on the role of pastors as teachers in the days of the Reformation, and the fuller embrace of the distribution of gifts during the days of Charismatic Renewal. In our day the church has offered surveys and questionnaires to help people discover their own spiritual gifts as we all share in the ministry of Christ’s one body. And, for good measure, we have often added Strengths Finder, DiSC profiles or the Myers-Briggs template to discern how God has made us both like and unlike those around us.
But as a wise teacher pointed out to me, when the ascended Jesus gives gifts to his people, the gifts that He gives are not merely functions or skills.
The gifts He gives are people. People with faces, testimonies, and histories. People with favorite foods and bands. Each with unique strengths and challenges. Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors and Teachers.
People with flesh and blood, souls and bodies. And it is they who will equip the other saints for the work of ministry.
Christianity is intensely personal. This is why the apostles have to be assured repeatedly that Jesus’ promised going away would in fact be better for them than his staying on earth after His resurrection. This is why it was so good that Paul had Silas in the prison cell at midnight to sing as they suffered. It’s why we value both the words and voices of our friends. It’s why our hearts break at funerals and we draw strength from one another as we hold hands during the Lord’s Prayer. It’s why we value both the official and personal connection to our mission partners across the Communion. It’s why bishops not only sign Confirmation certificates, but also lay hands on the candidates as they pray and embody the presence of Christ by the Spirit among their people.
The ascended Jesus affirms the essential dignity and glorious potential of our humanity, our bodily-ness, and he does not attempt to wean us out of it as he begins his heavenly session, or rule. His presence now for us in the Presence of the Father in heaven assures us that the place he has gone to prepare is well suited for us as we are and will be; both our souls and bodies. And that the personal gifts of the personal Holy Spirit allow us to each become more human, more deeply attuned to both God and our neighbor.
And from him we receive these gifts with thanksgiving. And these gifts are more than just skill, or strength or strategy. They are given to us, they arrive before us and among us as brothers and sisters.
This week, Bishop Carl celebrates the first anniversary of his consecration as a bishop in Christ’s church and as a Bishop Emissary of the Diocese of Boga in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As he begins the second year of his Episcopacy, we give thanks with friends across the world that God did not give to the church merely a role to be filled, but a friend and shepherd and witness and defender of the faith.
This weekend, we honor our mothers and the numerous other women who have been God’s gracious gifts to us. We give thanks for their strength and insight, for their modeling of redemption and care. We see in the lives of women both in our day and in the history of our families and faith that God has been good to us through their lives and ministries.
We will also conclude the second half of Acts chapter 16, seeing how God forms a new church from unlikely beginnings with unlikely people for an amazing role in the spread of the good news. Their experience can fuel our own approach to life as a disciple of the ascended Jesus.
If you would like to help out with Sunday’s sermon, I’d love to hear what you would sing at midnight if you were imprisoned like Paul and Silas. Send your song title (and a link to the song if you have one) to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Happy Ascension Day (on Thursday)
grace and certain hope,