What happened at the Ascension? “God raised Christ from death and set him on a throne in deep heaven…Christ rules the church….The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence.” (Ephesians 1:20-23, The Message)
Andrew Purves in The Crucifixion of Ministry takes issue with the theology of WWJD: “What would Jesus do?” He argues that it turns Jesus into a teacher of fixed moral ideas which must be imitated, i.e. a moralist not a Savior. Even with a little help from the Holy Spirit, it sounds like a religion of obedience to moral laws. This is to define Christian activity as something we do in Jesus’ name. But the Gospel is the good news about what Jesus does, not what we do. Our ministry in Jesus’ name derives from and is dependent upon the continuing ministry of Jesus. “The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence.” Instead of WWJD we should speak of WIJD – “What is Jesus Doing?” God is acting today through the continuing ministry of Jesus who is present to us through the Holy Spirit. This is the significance of the Ascension.
Dr. Purves believes that the ascension is often forgotten. This is how he describes its significance. The ascension is “the upward movement of Jesus by which the now alive human Lord returns to eternity to continue his ministry…The ministry of Jesus does not end with his resurrection. In his ascension he does not abandon his humanity. He is not the ascended Lord apart from everything that has happened between his incarnation and resurrection. …The earthly ministry of Jesus that was past and particular now becomes present and universal. [He fills everything with his presence.]
Without the ascension Jesus’ ministry remains in the past, even given his resurrection. It is not enough for us to believe that he who died for us is alive again. He must yet reign in power and be present in ministry. By his ascension he ever lives to continue the ministry he had while on earth. In this sense the disciples were no more privileged than we are. The Lord who was there with them is, in his Spirit and freedom, here with us. It should be clear why I said that the loss of the ascension is fatal to our ministries. If Jesus is not now a present, acting and reigning Lord, it is completely up to us to do something messianic in imitation of him; and that is beyond our abilities, although we flail around, and tragically keep trying.
Jesus’ ascended ministry is not something new or different in content from the ministry he exercised while on earth. As in the flesh he was spiritually present to those to whom he ministered, now ascended he is spiritually present to us through the Holy Spirit. He is the same Lord, the same spiritual presence (though not now in the flesh of his body) and he does the same ministry, which has at its core our restoration to communion with the Father.” (pp.62-63)
“Christ rules the church…The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence.”
It is Christ who is presently reigning over us, directing us, speaking and acting in us, and filling everything in the church with his presence. Therefore, Dr. Purves believes that every meaningful question concerning the significance of Jesus for Christian faith is posed in the present tense, Who are you, Lord, and what are you up to? “Who is Jesus Christ for us today and what is Jesus doing here and now, in this hospital room, during this committee meeting, in this service of worship, in this counseling session and so on?” It is not our ministries that make Christ present; it is the present, living Christ who makes our ministries possible.
If we believe in the present reality of the reigning Lord Jesus Christ who acts in the power of the Spirit, we will seek to discern what he is doing now. We will not see ourselves as bringing Christ into the present, but as responding to his presence. He is already there to enable us to do his will. Our job is to identify and bear witness to who Jesus Christ, clothed with his gospel, is for the person in need, or the business in hand.
Let me highlight the significance of this understanding by contrasting it with another perception of ministry that is pervasive in our churches and seminaries. Clergy are expected to be Good Samaritans – to help hurt and wounded people. They are expected to identify problems people have and to draw on their own knowledge and abilities to assist in healing. The pastoral skills of the ministers enable them to become messianic figures to that person and so do Christ’s work. Through their efforts, and the programs they administer in the congregation, they, inadvertently, displace the ministry of Jesus.
The pastor is supposed to respond to the needs, hurts and all kinds of personal problems of people but may neglect to call them to trust in the saving work of Jesus and to follow him in lives of fruitful and joyful discipleship. The ministry of the church is not about us, and our skills, or our programs. It is about the present reality of Christ. “Apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) “The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence.”
We cannot heal the sick, raise the dead, calm the demonized, guide the morally afflicted, sober up the alcoholic, make the wife beater loving, calm the anxious, pacify the conflicted, control the intemperate, have answers to all the “Why?” questions, give the teenagers a moral compass and preach magnificent sermons every week, all the while growing the congregation and keeping the members happy.
The church is not about what we do but about what Christ is doing, and what he is saying. What he is doing among us and within us. What it is he wants us to share in. What he is up to in our community. We need the eyes to see and the ears to hear what Jesus is up to. If we believe in the present reality of the reigning Lord Jesus we will listen more to what he is doing rather than seeking to displace his ministry with our own programs and activities.
Too many sermons are full of oughts, shoulds, musts and have tos. The message so often is that we are responsible for bringing in the reign of God, when it has already happened. The impression given is that Christ cannot reign without our efforts. He is impotent to bring in his kingdom without our help. We can do it with him if we try hard enough. What is the gospel for lower energy Christians? What am I supposed to feel or do when I discover that I can’t raise the dead, heal the sick, mend the marriage or undiagnose the cancer? I have to rediscover that Christ is doing without me, all that is necessary, and witness to him. Who are you Lord, and what are you up to? God is acting in Jesus with or without our help. That is good news.
Christianity is about something Jesus does, not something we do. Everything we do of worth is dependent and derived from the continuing ministry of Jesus. He is present to do his saving work in our midst. This is the good news. Our emphasis is always to be placed upon Jesus Christ and not what we do. The focus is on Christ’s promised faithfulness to be present to and for us as God who loves, forgives and blesses us. He is the human One who offers to the Father the life and ministry that is acceptable to God. It is not what we do that makes Christ present, it is the present, living Christ who makes the church possible. We share in his life by discovering who he is and what he is up to. Wherever Christ is, and wherever we are joined to him, there is the true ministry of the church. It is he who is speaking and acting.