Beckett: Sermon – Witnessing the Gospel

Date: May 26, 2022
Festival: The Ascension of Our Lord
Text: Luke 24:44-53
Preaching Occasion: Zion Lutheran Church, Mt. Pleasant, MI
Appointed Scriptures: Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53
Sermon Hymn: LSB #491 Up through Endless Ranks of Angels

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. The portion of God’s Word that we shall consider this evening, the Holy Spirit caused to be recorded by Luke for our comfort and for our learning. We place special emphasis on these words, “Thus, it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things” [Luke 24:46-48]. We place these words of our Lord alongside His words recorded in Luke’s sequel, Acts, “But 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” [1:8].

The Apostles walked with Jesus for three years in His earthly ministry. They were eyewitnesses of His life, His death, His resurrection, and His ascension. The Lord promised He would send them His Holy Spirit after He leaves to help them remember and understand all they had seen Him do and all He had taught them, which the Spirit caused to be recorded through them for the benefit of Christ’s church. Before we contemplate on the significance of Jesus’ ascension for us today, I would like us to reflect a little bit on Jesus’ life, looking at one particular event of His ministry. I invite you to open your Bibles to John 5 as we do so…

There was a paralysed man at the pool of Bethesda. For 38 years, he had suffered from this irreversible condition. Like the other blind, lame, and paralysed people there, he waited by the pool for a long time every day in hopes that he would receive healing. Jesus walks by this man and He asks, “Do you want to be healed?” This seems to us a silly question because we expect the obvious answer, “Yes!” But instead, we hear a heartbreaking answer, “Sir, I have no one.” Do you hear the sadness? The despair? The loneliness?

I wonder how many people there are among us who feel they have no one: like the old woman at the nursing home, confined to a wheelchair or armchair, who never receives a phone call or a visit from her family or anyone from church. When I first started doing shut-in visitations during my pastoral training in Missouri, I remember one bitter old man who said to me, “I don’t have anyone. My family all moved to California. Nobody cares about me, so why should you?” And then he demanded, “Go away!” But I stayed. Do you hear the despair? The hopelessness?

Or the teenager who is bullied online and in person. No one helps him. He’s an outcast. To help him or her would mean to sacrifice your own popularity and the likelihood of being bullied yourself. Do you hear the words, “I have no one”? Or someone who suffers with depression. Life is not worth living. You think you’re unlovable—worthless. You tell no one about this because you believe yourself to be helpless, and you’re ashamed, and that no one can understand. Do you hear the words, “I have no one”? Or the 16-year-old girl who receives a pregnancy test that’s positive. In fear and anxiety, she wonders if her parents and her church will still love her and accept her, or if they will cast her out with a scarlet letter. Will they help her for these next 9 months or condemn her? So, thinking it’s her only choice (which is no choice at all), she goes to a nearby abortion clinic—or perhaps one far away—in secret because she has no one.

But the man at the pool does have someone. He didn’t know it, but he has Jesus. And Jesus looks at him and says, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And the miracle happens. He doesn’t need physical therapy to retrain his bones and muscles; he can run and walk right away! The man who said he has no one now has the One, the One named Jesus Christ.

And so, what about the woman in the nursing home? The victim of bullying? The one with depression? The vulnerable mother? They have no one, so Jesus comes to them. Of course, in His ascension, Jesus is no longer visibly present, but He is present, though in a hidden way. But hidden does not mean absent. As the Apostles received their final commission from the Lord, He is present through His witnesses. That is, He is present in His church, which He calls His body. As the Holy Spirit reveals through Paul to the Ephesians, which we heard this evening, God the Father “put all things under [Christ’s] feet and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body” [1:22-23a]. Therefore, wherever His people go and witness, there is Christ; and wherever His people gather, there is the church, Christ’s body.

And what do witnesses do? It is no different than what witnesses do on the stand in a courtroom: they speak the truth of the matter. And the truth we speak, in Christ’s words, is this: “…that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed” to the ends of the earth. To wrap this up in a single word, we witness the Gospel. This is what He has given His church to do; this is what He has given you to do. It is the continuation of His work through the Holy Spirit in His body, the church. In His ascension, Christ makes Himself present everywhere wherever His Word is preached and the Sacraments administered for the forgiveness of sins. We witness the Gospel to the neighbours closest to us: to the one who is homebound, the one who is bullied, the one who is depressed, the one who is pregnant, the one who is single, the immigrant among us, and anyone else within our social circles.

Our natural inclination is to turn “from one form of self-help to another, even to suicide.” Thinking we have no one, we turn to ourselves, and we are hardly of any help. Because of this, Christ has commanded that we preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins to the ends of the earth [Pieper I:316]. Theologically, we call this the wide sense of the Gospel—that it contains “the entire teaching of Christ” and so “includes the explanation of the Law and the proclamation of the favour and grace of God” [FC SD V, 4]. In other words, “The Gospel accuses all people of being under sin and subject to eternal wrath and death and for Christ’s sake offers the forgiveness of sins and justification, which are received by faith” [Ap IV, 62].

On the other hand, we have the narrow or strict sense of the Gospel, which is “nothing else than a proclamation of comfort and a joyous message which does not rebuke nor terrify but comforts consciences against the terror of the Law” and “directs them solely to Christ’s merit, and lifts them up again through the delightful proclamation of the grace and favour of God, won through Christ’s merit” [FC Ep V, 7]. Whoever, therefore, believes they have no one, they do not need the Law that accuses and kills but the Gospel that brings them the One, our ascended Lord.

We not only go to them as the church, and therefore Christ’s body, but we especially bring them to the church, Christ’s body, where they receive the Gospel for the forgiveness of their sins. Here, like you, they not only receive Christ Himself—especially in His Holy Supper—but they also become part of Christ Himself in His body, the church. They become part of the community of saints, no longer alone. Here, like you, they receive the forgiveness of sins. The Greek word for “forgiveness” can also mean “release” or “cancellation.” Forgiveness is like being released from prison and your record being wiped clean of every crime, or your financial debt being cancelled without you having to make any debits. It is credited to you for free, and it says that way forever.

Jesus releases you not only from the sins you’ve done, but also the sins that have been done against you. When we do Divine services one and four, we speak the wide sense of the Gospel from 1 John [1:8-9] as we repent and receive forgiveness. Let’s see if you have it memorised. I’ll say the first part and you say the second, just as we normally do: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

That word “unrighteousness” in Greek means violation, or injustice. You are not only forgiven for all the wrong you’ve done against God, neighbour, and even yourself; you are also cleansed from the abuse done to you. The one with depression abuses himself, and indeed, is spiritually abused by that demon of the mind. His mind and spirit are violated. The one who is bullied is abused and violated by the bully. The woman who becomes pregnant through rape or emotional manipulation is violated by the aggressor. Many survivors of rape and victims of sexual assault describe themselves as feeling “dirty” or “filthy.” In Christ, the filth of these and more are cleansed—they are washed away. The injustice done against you has received its due on the cross.

This release and this cleansing of forgiveness is precisely the work Christ is doing in His ascension at this moment. As I always like to say, Christ in His ascension is not on vacation; He is at work. As our Book of Concord puts it in the Augsburg Confession, Jesus ascended “in order to rule and reign forever over all creatures, so that through the Holy Spirit He may make holy, purify, strengthen, and comfort all who believe in Him, also distribute to them life and various gifts and benefits, and shield and protect them against the devil and sin” [AC III, 4-6]. In short, Christ ascended so that He might rule with all authority over heaven and earth [Matt. 28:18] in a present yet hidden way. this is what we witness in His Word and Sacraments.

In His Word of the Gospel, Jesus is no longer the Judge of you but the Judge for you. Your sin is condemned, and Satan and his demons will be cast into Hell. You are redeemed—put in the right—for the sake of Christ. This takes place whenever you hear the Gospel that your sins are forgiven, whether that be in Absolution at the beginning of the service, the Holy Scriptures, the sermon, or private Confession & Absolution. In Baptism, Jesus sent His Holy Spirit from the throne of God to wash you in, with, and under the water to cleanse you of all your sins and even the sins committed against you—you are washed of all violations and injustice, whether self-imposed or coerced against you. And in the Lord’s Supper, our ascended Lord comes to you Himself, for just as He is bodily risen from the dead and is bodily ascended at the right hand of God the Father, so He bodily comes to you in the bread and wine to cleanse you with His holy blood. If the analogy isn’t too imperfect, it is like hemodialysis in which the perfect, pure blood of Christ cleans your blood—He cleans you thoroughly in body and soul.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, consider your neighbour who has no one. Are they homebound? Bullied? Depressed? Is she a pregnant teenager? An immigrant? Single? You are called to witness the Gospel to them—to make known to them that they are not alone. For they have Jesus, who comes to them through His body, the church, which is made up of members like you. Whether you are His hand, foot, arm, leg, mouth, or whatever it is [1 Cor. 12:12-27], you extend the hand of the Lord through the preaching of the Gospel; for this is what Christ has done and still does for you as you regularly hear and receive the Gospel through His Word and Sacraments for the forgiveness of your sins. Therefore, get up and walk to the ends of the earth—wherever your neighbour is—to witness the Gospel for the forgiveness of sins until that Day when we see our Lord return in the same way the Apostles saw Him ascend.

Until then, may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in the Gospel of Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.

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