On this Ascension Sunday, I want to focus on two promises. Two promises contained in Galatians which we also found on the lips of Jesus just before he was enclosed in a cloud and ascended to Heaven. A couple of promises that appear in Galatians chapter 3 as well as Acts chapter 1. A duo of promises that have begun to be fulfilled over the past two thousand years of church history – and will be completed when Christ returns.
The two promises are:
• The Spirit will be given to the Church
• The Gospel will be given to the Gentiles
1.The Spirit will be given to the Church
So the first promise we see in our readings this morning is that the Spirit will be given to the Church. In our reading from Acts 1, in verse 4, we are told that “On one occasion, while he was eating with [his disciples], Jesus gave them this command: ‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.”
And then in verse 8, on ascension day itself, Jesus repeats this promise when he says: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you”.
In Galatians 3 meanwhile, the apostle Paul makes it clear that the Church in Galatia has the Holy Spirit. His whole argument in that chapter takes it for granted that the Galatian Christians have received the Holy Spirit. He cannot believe that they are trying to live their Christian lives by their own human efforts, rather than by the grace and power of the Spirit.
This is the meaning of Paul’s exasperated question in verse 2: “Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?”
Next Sunday we celebrate Pentecost, when with tongues of fire and a strong wind, Jesus first poured out his Spirit on his Church. Ever since that day, from his place at his Father’s side, Jesus has been constantly sending the Holy Spirit to his people:
• He is pouring his Spirit upon new Christians – transforming their hearts and minds so they can know and love God.
• He is pouring his Spirit on mature Christians – sanctifying us, helping us to grow more and more into the likeness of Christ,
• And he’s pouring out his Spirit upon his whole Church, empowering and equipping us for our mission to the world.
Christians from around the world can testify to the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Helping them do and say things they could never do in their own strength, by their own effort. As Paul says in our Galatians passage, it is simply foolish to try and live the Christian life in our own strength – in the power of the flesh instead of the power of the Spirit. We are to pray for power from above to complete our God-given mission as individuals and as a Church.
Do please participate in the Thy Kingdom Come prayer initiative this week, as we respond to the Archbishop pf Canterbury’s call to prayer. Pray that the Holy Spirit will get to work in the lives of those we know and love.
You see, the ascended Jesus may be physically absent from us, but his Spirit is with us always. The Spirit has been given to the Church. Christ has kept his first ascension promise!
2. The Gospel will be given to the Gentiles
Jesus second ascension promise appears in verse 8 of Acts chapter 1. Just before he disappears from sight, Jesus tells his disciples that “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’
In short, Jesus is promising that the Gospel message will be given to Gentiles as well as Jews. People from all around the world will get the chance to hear and believe the Good News. Men and women from every nation will be able to receive God’s forgiveness by believing in Christ. Citizens of every country will be able to become children of God.
This same promise is repeated by Paul in Galatians as well. He writes there that God “redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus.” The Galatian church that Paul was writing to was made of Gentiles as well as Jews. They themselves were living proof that people of all races could become Christians.
Over the past two thousand years this promise has been gloriously fulfilled. Starting from the first apostles, billions of people from every country and continent have become Christians. The Gospel has been preached to almost every ethnic group. The Church now has members from Australia to Azerbajan, from America to Antarctica.
Christ keeps his promises! Our role today is to make sure his Gospel continues to go out to people from every background, every walk of life. May God give us the words, the boldness and the opportunities we need to share the Gospel message with all those we know.
Conclusion – the importance of faith
So as I finish, its clear that Christ keeps his promises. The Spirit has been sent to his Church. The Gospel has gone to Gentiles as well as Jews.
Did you notice the common denominator between both those promises? Both promises become reality people put their faith in Christ. It is by faith that we receive the Spirit, and it is by faith that Gentiles are saved. Both Acts and Galatians are clear on that.
Faith, not works, is the great Christian virtue. Faith is the secret ingredient we need to start following Jesus and what we need to keep on following him. Someone’s spiritual health and is determined solely by their faith in Christ, not by their good character, church attendance or charitable giving. Those are things that flow from faith – they don’t precede it or trump it.
As Paul puts it in our passage in Galatians: “those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith”.
So above all else, may we be people of faith. People who trust and obey our risen and ascended Lord Jesus.