The Feast of the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ, 13 May 2021
A Sermon on Ephesians 1:15-23 by Samuel D. Zumwalt, STS
Ephesians 1:15-23 English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles
15 For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, 17 that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, 18 having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might 20 that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. 22 And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
THE WORD OF GOD: OUR HEAD
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Alcoholics Anonymous has a number of slogans that serve both as a reminder and as an encouragement not to go it alone like “one day at a time” and “easy does it.” Old friends and former parishioners have often talked about someone being on a dry drunk, meaning that they talked and acted like they were drinking again. Those with more experience and a better support system would say after the fact that they had been doing stinking thinking, which, if not interrupted, can lead to drinking again. Some of the marks of stinking thinking including the nursing of resentments against others or oneself, the idea one could control his or her drinking, and that nobody in his or her life really cared after all… so it didn’t matter if they drank again.
You don’t have to be a drunk to get caught up in stinking thinking. There are plenty of other addictions that don’t involve alcohol. Pot smoking on a regular basis, abusing prescription drugs on a regular basis, eating disorders on a regular basis, watching porn on a regular basis, sexual impropriety on a regular basis, gambling, et cetera. In short, the common thread is that all addictions are directed by stinking thinking. Persistent isolation fueled by stinking thinking leads to repeated trouble. Repeated trouble leads to destruction.
On Monday of this week, the daily lectionary readings included this powerfully insightful passage from James: “13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. 14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (1:13-15).
Stinking thinking is being lured and enticed by one’s own desire (reinforced by the devil and the world). Desire when conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when fully grown brings forth death.
Headless thinking is related to stinking thinking. It means a person is being directed by faulty thinking. When your thinking (and my thinking) is not directed by the Lord Jesus, God’s Son who was crucified for your sins and mine, dead, buried, risen from the dead, and ascended to the seat of power, then it’s headless thinking, because Jesus, the Head, isn’t ruling our thoughts.
Headless thinking doesn’t mean no one isn’t in charge. It means one’s thinking isn’t informed, shaped, and directed by Jesus, the Head, whose seat of power is not spatial but universal. His reign isn’t from a throne somewhere out in space in a galaxy known as heaven. Jesus, the Head, is the Head of the Body of Christ, which is ever expanding to reclaim what the Lord Jesus made.
Headless thinking is distorted thinking, even malevolent or evil thinking, especially when a person in a position of earthly power is certain he or she is going to save the world. The problem is that headless thinking is being done by people who are certain they are doing their own thinking. Headless thinkers are sometimes charming and sometimes seductive, but, their thinking apart from the Head, who has all authority, power, and dominion now and forever, is evil. And the saddest part of all for those who must suffer the consequences of their headless thinking is they often really do believe they are on the side of good. But by their fruits you will know them.
Twenty years ago, a management guy wrote that the good is the enemy of the great. He was talking about settling for comfort over stretching and growing to be the best one could be. He was talking about the beginning of decline. And some pastors applied that idea to their churches.
The problem with salvation stories that don’t point to Jesus as the only Savior of the world, who is now the universal Head, is that all other stories are headless thinking especially when done by woke billionaires, woke millionaire athletes and actors, and woke politicians, academics, and, yes, even woke theologians and pastors. Salvation stories apart from Jesus bring hell on earth.
Just before the Lord Jesus ascended to the seat of power, which, again, is not spatial but universal, His wrong-thinking disciples asked if He were about to restore the earthly kingdom of David in Jerusalem. As I have often said, the sound you hear from Jesus is His banging of His own head against the wall at such unbelievable stupidity after all they had seen and heard. He told them they needed to wait in the city until they were clothed with power from on high. He was speaking of the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit would restore them to right thinking in which the Head would thereafter inform, shape, and direct their thinking. So, again, that our Lord Jesus ascended into the clouds was not a sign of spatial rule somewhere up there and no longer down here. No, the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ is about His eternal rule and reign.
As a professor of mine told me almost forty-five years ago, “If we soaked a crowd with a water hose in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that would be a valid Baptism in that it involved both water and the Word of God. But without trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, the newly baptized would not know who and Whose they are.” So… that one can find the Word of God and the Sacraments in churches is no guarantee of right thinking if the Word of God is not truthfully proclaimed as Law and Gospel (no to sin but yes to sinners) and if the sacraments are performed without the Head informing, shaping, and directing the thinking of those churches. You can have a beautifully read performance of the Word of God and an aesthetically pleasing enactment of the liturgy, and all of that with heretical preaching and teaching, which is not right thinking informed, shaped, and directed by the Lord Jesus Christ, the Head of the Body of Christ. When the Lord Jesus Christ prayed for the Oneness of His Church at the last supper (a text we will hear Sunday), He wasn’t singing the old song: “Why can’t we be friends? Why can’t we be friends?”
So… the apostles were not yet ready on Ascension Day. They needed to have the eyes of their hearts enlightened before they could think rightly and know the hope to which they and we are called in Christ Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, the Head of the Body of Christ. The early Church called Holy Baptism “enlightenment,” when the dead are raised, the eyes of the spiritually blind are opened, when the ears of the spiritually deaf are unstopped, when the spiritually lame now leap like a deer, and the tongues of the spiritually dumb rightly proclaim Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father. That doesn’t happen when stinking and headless thinking refuses to renounce the devil, his works, and his ways in order to confess the one true God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).
The end of the story to which Ascension Day points is when, once and for all, those who have made themselves enemies of the cross of Christ finally understand that Jesus is Lord even if they do not confess Him as their Lord and Savior. All of His enemies have already been placed under His feet, which is to say, He is Lord even if some refuse to believe it. While right thinking people of God with the eyes of our hearts enlightened ought to pray and hope for the salvation of everyone (the fancy Greek word for such a restoration is apokatastasis), that is not at all how the story ends on the last pages of the Bible when God wins. The late Anglican priest Robert Farrar Capon once wrote (and I’m paraphrasing) that you have to be a damned fool to go to hell, because God doesn’t want anyone to go there. In other words, the death of God’s Son Jesus is big enough for everyone, but He won’t force anyone to receive the forgiveness only He can give. God knows best of all: You can’t make somebody love you.
For the next ten days until the Day of Pentecost, I invite you to meditate, to ruminate, and, yes, to pray in accordance with St. Luke’s description of the newborn Church in Acts 2:42. Luke writes: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” A right thinking Church in which the Lord Jesus Christ is the Head of the Body learns God’s story from the apostolic writings in Sacred Scripture within the fellowship of the Body of Christ, where the Head comes always in His holy supper and where the ordered prayers point only to the good and gracious will of His Father, through the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit. May St. Matthew’s remain such a parish where the Head does our thinking.
In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
©Samuel David Zumwalt, STS
St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church + Wilmington, North Carolina USA