In the name of the Father and of the † Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Dear Friends in Christ,
This past Thursday was forty days after we gathered to celebrate the Lord’s resurrection. It is remembered as Ascension Day, because on that day, forty days after his resurrection our Lord ascended into heaven.
It is with great joy and with shouts of thanksgiving that we have continued to meet on Sundays and to remember the resurrection of our redeemer. Jesus died, but he is not dead. The tomb could not hold him.
We have been singing with angels and all the company of heaven that Jesus triumphed over sin and death. He is victorious over sin – your sin. He has swallowed up death forever – your death.
Remembering the day of our Lord’s ascension, gives us an opportunity to hear how the apostles spent those forty days after the resurrection. It also gives us insight into what Jesus was continuing to do for us.
In the Book of Acts, Luke wrote: “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up.” In his first book, the Gospel according to Luke, he had written about the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. In the Book of Acts he summarizes what he wrote by calling it “all that Jesus began to do and teach.”
What an interesting way to begin the second volume of his writings. Luke is saying, “there is more to come from this Jesus.” He is saying, “Jesus is going to continue to do and teach.” It is good news for us to hear that Jesus did not stop his work of salvation.
What more did Jesus need to do? When he said, “It is finished,” wasn’t that the end? What about the empty tomb, certainly that was the end of his work of salvation? Yes, on the cross the debt we owed was paid for in full, your sins were forgiven. At the empty tomb, Christ was victorious over death, your death. You have the promise of eternal life.
So what was left to do. Luke tells us that during the forty days after his resurrection Jesus “opened the minds of the apostles to understand the Scriptures.” Jesus led his disciples in a marvelous Bible Study. Jesus was preparing to leave this earth.
Someone had to teach the world about what he had done. Someone had to proclaim the good news so that people could know and believe. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of Christ. He was giving them his word so that those who heard them would hear him and be able to believe.
Jesus led them into an understanding of his death and resurrection. He taught them why his death was necessary. As the good shepherd, Jesus had laid down his life for them. He became the new Passover Lamb whose blood was shed to take away their sins.
Jesus explained the significance of his resurrection. His death on a cross had paid for their sin. The wages of sin was paid in full. Death no longer had a claim on them. His resurrection was God’s proof to them that their death had been swallowed up in the victory of Jesus on the cross.
Jesus opened their minds and filled their hearts with the good news that their sins were forgiven and that they had the promise of eternal life. He prepared them so that they would be faithful witness to the world. They would witness to the world why Jesus died and rose. Jesus taught them so that when his Holy Spirit came they would be equipped to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name to all nations.
Jesus continued to do and to teach through the witness of the apostles. He continues to do and to teach through the church, through his word and sacraments. He continues to take away fear and bring peace, to give comfort and strength, and to open the minds and hearts of those who hear his word.
In a few minutes, you and I will join in saying the Nicene Creed. When we stand to speak, we will get to these words, “And I believe in one holy Christian and apostolic Church.” We believe that the church is holy. The redeeming work of Jesus Christ makes those who believe holy in the eyes of the heavenly Father.
We believe that the church is Christian. It is Christian because it is the gathering of believers who follow Christ, who believe that he is the Son of God and the Son of Man. However, what does it mean that we believe in the apostolic church? First I can tell you what it does not mean.
It does not mean that we believe the apostles did something to pay for our sins or to earn a place for us in heaven. Believing in the apostolic church does not mean that we worship the apostles. It does not mean that we believe we should pray to the apostles because they have a more direct line to God than we do.
To understand what it means to believe in the apostolic church, we must understand who the apostles were. The were witness of the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. They were witness who Jesus taught what it all meant. They were men given the authority by Jesus to carry the good news about Jesus Christ into the whole world.
They were to take the message of forgiveness and peace to people, tribe, and nation. Jesus said to them, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
They would not accomplish their witnessing on their own. It would not be their strength, their intelligence, or their personalities that would make their efforts successful. The Holy Spirit was given to them so that the message of Jesus could give faith to those who heard it.
There was nothing special about these men. In fact, they all had disappointed and abandoned Jesus. Peter denied knowing Jesus, when Jesus was arrested John followed at a distance but did not open his mouth in defense of Jesus. The rest of the apostles ran away when Jesus was arrested.
In this way, you and I are like the apostles. You have heard Jesus say, “Love one another,” yet it is easier to find fault with one another. You have heard Jesus say, “Believe in me,” yet you believe in yourself, in what you yourself do.
We all find ways to run away from Jesus when others criticize the church – when the church is called old fashioned, out of touch, hypocritical or intolerant. We may even betray him by saying we love him, but telling others it doesn’t matter what they believe. We have said, “I do not know the man.”
The apostles were sinners, so why do we say we believe in the apostolic church. We believe because not because we believe in those men but because we believe in what they were given and what they have passed on to us. Today’s gospel lesson from John chapter seventeen is part of pray that Jesus prayed on the night when he was betrayed.
In this part of the prayer, Jesus is praying for his apostles. He prayed that they would not lose their faith, that they would not completely fall away. He knew they would sin but he knew that with him there was forgiveness.
He prayed, “I have given them your word.” When we say we believe in the apostolic church we are not saying we believe in the apostles as men. We are saying we believe in the Word that Jesus gave them.
We are saying that we believe in the message of good news that they received from Jesus. It is a message that they not only heard but also witnessed with their very eyes. They heard and saw that Jesus came to give his life as a ransom for them and for all who believe in him.
Jesus sent the apostles into the world with the word of truth, the good news that he sacrificed himself for sinners. Jesus endured the punishment that all sinners deserve. The apostolic church is the church that receives the message that the apostles were given and that they spread to the four corners of the world.
When we say we believe the witness of the apostles and the Word of God that they proclaimed, we are saying we believe the words of Jesus. In Luke chapter ten we hear Jesus telling his apostles, “The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.”
We join the apostles in confessing that we are sinners. We are the ones for whom Christ came into the world. We are the ones whose sins he carried with him to the cross. We are the ones whose sins are forgiven.
Jesus prayed for the apostles. He prayed that they would not be overcome by the world and its philosophies and its messages. His prayer was answered. Through the power of the Holy Spirit the apostles gave to the world what they had received. They gave the message of Good News, of forgiveness, of a new and eternal life.
You have received the message the apostles received. The Holy Spirit has given you faith to believe in that message and to believe in the very one who is the living Word of God, Jesus Christ.
Jesus is the Apostles of the Father. When he opens his mouth, sins are forgiven and the dead are raised from the dead. Through his apostles, Jesus opens his mouth to you. Believe the words of Jesus given to you through the apostles and now through your pastor, “Your sins are forgiven. You are raised from the dead; you have a new life in Christ.”
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria