Malankara World

Sermon Based on the Lectionary of the Orthodox Church

Ascension of Our Lord

by Pastor Robin Fish

Mark 16:14-20

And afterward He appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at the table; and He reproached them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who had seen Him after He had risen. And He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it shall not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover."

So then, when the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them, and confirmed the word by the signs that followed. Mark 16:14-20

Who, Not How - or Why

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

This is the Gospel text appointed by ancient tradition for the celebration of the Ascension of our Lord. You might have noticed that it is not, primarily, about the ascension. Two-thirds of the way through the pericope, Mark disposes of the Ascension with one sentence, "So then, when the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. " I suspect the ascension was well enough known among the disciples of Christ - which, by now meant the Christians in the Church - that he did not feel that he needed to expand on the topic. Perhaps everyone knew Jesus was no longer walking among us, and it wasn't a controversy for them about how He went away. The most likely reason that the ascension text isn't primarily about the ascension is that this is the only Gospel text that even comes close to talking about the ascension, and the first concern of Mark in these verses was to talk about the Gospel itself.

Mark is chiefly concerned with the disciples of Jesus, and what happened next. Of course, next doesn't go too far, since the original readers of Mark were very close in time to the end of the Gospel account, so, from our perspective, they were "next". The historical content of the Gospel is very short. These verses are practically part of the Easter narrative. Jesus rises, meets the women, Mark mentions that Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene, then to two of them walking in the country (which I assume refers to the two on the road to Emmaus, but Mark doesn't really say). Then is our Gospel text, where Jesus is reproaching the Eleven for their unbelief at the initial reports of His resurrection. Jesus could reproach them because, as hard as it is to accept that someone has risen from the dead, Jesus had promised them He would - several times in fact.

Then we come to the most familiar part of the end of Mark's Gospel, the part where Jesus commissions the Disciples to go and tell the Gospel everywhere, to anyone who will listen, and He describes the conditions of salvation, "The one that believes and is baptized shall be saved; the one that does not believe shall be condemned." It was these words that stuck in my mind, as I planned the service, and formed the theme for the sermon: Who - Not How or Why.

Mark covers a tremendous amount of stuff in a very few words, in the ending of his Gospel account. He tells us of the Lord's unhappiness with the unbelief of the disciples at the various accounts of the resurrection. Why was Jesus unhappy? It wasn't just that He had already explained to them repeatedly that He was going to die and then rise again. Mark includes it here (where almost no other account says anything about Jesus being reproachful about this momentary unbelief) because hearing the very same thing is how the faith is to be spread. Jesus is about to send them out to tell what happened, what they witnessed, and what Jesus did. This telling is to result in one of two conditions, either the hearers believe, and get baptized, or they do not believe - disbelieve is how the NASB translates it - and they end up damned, condemned to eternal destruction for not taking God at His Word. Faith, as Paul teaches us later in Romans, comes by hearing about Christ.

In verse 14, Jesus reproaches them for their unbelief and hardness of heart. In verse 15, He tells them to go out and preach this Gospel to all of creation. In verse 16, He says that the ones that believe, and are baptized, shall be saved, and the ones that do not believe shall be condemned. The signs that will follow the proclamation of the Gospel among those that believe are next. They are interesting, but, as much as they appear to say that any believer becomes immune to the troubles of the world around them, that isn't what they are promising. There is no tradition in the church that everyone had these powers at any time in the history of the church - although there are legends about specific people at specific times and places that showed this sort of gift. These signs seemed to be limited to the first generation of believers - with a possible exception of a second generation individual of two. They appeared to be some sort of miraculous validation of the message in very specific places.

Paul talks about the miraculous conditions of the shipwreck, when no one was lost. He talks about being bitten by a viper coming out of the firewood, and how that impressed his captors. Other than that, there is nothing in the Bible, really. Early church history talks of the legend of Polycarp, the student of the Apostle John, who seemed to die gloriously, but other than a few legends there are no accounts of these signs. The only sign spoken of in the New Testament, and that was not often, was the disciples healing people with the laying on of hands. We know that happened, and they seem to have ceased, and Mark indicates that they did - telling us that the signs did follow, and that the Lord confirmed the Word by those signs.

He doesn't do than longer, at least generally. He doesn't need to. The Church is the confirmation of the Word of the Gospel. Just as we don't need tongues today because we have schools of language and time to learn them, the Holy Spirit has demonstrated the truth of the Word by creating faith in so many that have heard of Christ.

That is the reason that my attention was drawn to the Who of salvation. When Mark talks about the work of the Apostles, he says who will be saved, but not that they must do anything in specific, or that they must pass a test of worthiness of any sort. There are no hoops to jump through. Here is nothing special that they are required to do. It is simply the preaching of the Gospel, and those that believe it have eternal life - or shall be saved. He mentions baptism, but it is in a way that seems to me to suggest that if they believe, why of course, they will be baptized! Then, as though to protect against the idea that Baptism somehow merits salvation, when Mark speaks about what condemns a man, he speaks only of unbelief. Be Baptized without faith, and it is of no effect, or so Mark seems to imply.

As to faith, either you believe the Gospel or you don't. It doesn't appear to be something you do, as though you work it up in yourself. Either you believe what you heard preached or you don't. It is that simple.

And what is it they were to preach? The Gospel. The facts of Jesus, the love of God, the good will which God has toward each one of us, the death and resurrection of Jesus on our behalf, to pay the price of our guilt in sin. There wasn't a lot of fancy theology there. Basically, it was history, linked to the good news of the nearness of God that Jesus taught, the intimate love and knowledge of God about each of us, how we can trust Him, and now we can pray directly to Him, and about the forgiveness of sins, and who Jesus was and what He accomplished for us and for our benefit.

All of the "theology" stuff came later. We had to define words that the devil cause men to misunderstand. We had to stand up for the truths that were plain as day, that men confused because they did not believe, or did not want to believe. When men tried to deny that Jesus was really human, we had to stand up and show them how the record was clear on that. When they wanted to pretend that He wasn't true God, we needed to do the same. Then came controversies over Baptism and the Lord's Supper and what God really demanded of us to get to salvation, and - well, over time pretty much every detail of the Gospel those first men proclaimed has been twisted or denied, until the confession of the truth, and the careful explanations of the why we believe this or that has come to fill more pages that the original accounts and doctrines of the Apostles.

It started right away. Most of the New Testament is about explaining the Gospel and correcting the false doctrines people came up with. The creeds are the result of trying hard to make what was once so clear remain clear in the face of the devil's attempts to distort, confuse and deny the truth. Our confessions do the same thing sixteen centuries later. And today every newsletter article and every sermon both proclaims, and tries to make clear and certain for you the Gospel which, when preached and believed, saves. It saves. It saves those that believe it. Such will, of course, seek and find Baptism - unless, like me, they were brought to Baptism by their parents and grandparents as an infant, and raised in the faith, never to wonder if it were true or not - or to wonder and be reassured by the clear confession of the faith by the church around me.

He that believes and is Baptized shall be saved. Jesus Christ really lived, and really died, and really rose again. His death is your life, for because of Him, your sins are forgiven, and God loves you. He loves you happy or sad. He loves you rich or poor. He loves you healthy or sick. He loves you because of Jesus, and because He has chosen to love you. The only part of this that you have a part in is being you. God did the saving work. God chose you. God preached the truth into your ears. God created your faith, and God will bring you to salvation. One way day you will rise from the dead, and you, too, will ascend to Jesus, just as He ascended to His Father.

According to Mark, after Jesus ascended, He sat down at the right hand of God the Father - in the place of favor and power. Then, He worked with those that preached the Gospel, and gave them success. He is with us today, according to the promise that where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them. He is doing what He has always done, saving us. This text just tells us the who of salvation - not the how or the why. The how and the why is Jesus. You are the who.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

See Also:

Ascension Sermons and Bible Commentaries

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