And Jesus led them out as far as to Bethany; and he lifted up his hands and blessed them. And it came to pass while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem, with great joy; and were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God--LUKE xxiv. 50- 53.
On this day it is fit and proper for us--if we have understood, and enjoyed, and profited by the wonder of the Lord's Ascension into Heaven--to be in the same state of mind as the Apostles were after His Ascension: for what was right for them is right for us and for all men; the same effects which it produced on them it ought to produce on us. And we may know whether we are in the state in which Christian men ought to be, by seeing how far we are in the same state of mind as the Apostles were. Now the text tells us in what state of mind they were; how that, after the Lord Jesus was parted from them, and carried up into Heaven, they worshipped Him, and returned to Jerusalem, with great joy, and were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God. It seems at first sight certainly very strange that they should go back with great joy. They had just lost their Teacher, their Master--One who had been more to them than all friends and fathers could be; One who had taken them, poor simple fishermen, and changed the whole course of their lives, and taught them things which He had taught to no one else, and given them a great and awful work to do--the work of changing the ways and thoughts and doings of the whole world. He had sent them out--eleven unlettered working men--to fight against the sin and the misery of the whole world. And He had given them open warning of what they were to expect; that by it they should win neither credit, nor riches, nor ease, nor anything else that the world thinks worth having. He gave them fair warning that the world would hate them, and try to crush them. He told them, as the Gospel for to-day says, that they should be driven out of the churches; that the religious people, as well as the irreligious, would be against them; that the time would come when those who killed them would think that they did God service; that nothing but labour, and want, and persecution, and slander, and torture, and death was before them--and now He had gone away and left them. He had vanished up into the empty air. They were to see His face, and hear His voice no more. They were to have no more of His advice, no more of His teaching, no more of His tender comfortings; they were to be alone in the world--eleven poor working men, with the whole world against them, and so great a business to do that they would not have time to get their bread by the labour of their hands. Is it not wonderful that they did not sit down in despair, and say, "What will become of us?" Is it not wonderful that they did not give themselves up to grief at losing the Teacher who was worth all the rest of the world put together? Is it not wonderful that they did not go back, each one to his old trade, to his fishing and to his daily labour, saying, "At all events we must eat; at all events we must get our livelihood;" and end, as they had begun, in being mere labouring men, of whom the world would never have heard a word? And instead of that we read that they went back with great joy not to their homes but to Jerusalem, the capital city of their country, and "were continually in the temple blessing and praising God." Well, my friends, and if it is possible for one man to judge what another man would have done--if it is possible to guess what we should have done in their case--common-sense must show us this, that if He was merely their Teacher, they would have either given themselves up to despair, or gone back, some to their plough, some to their fishing-nets, and some, like Matthew, to their counting-houses, and we should never have heard a word of them. But if you will look in your Bibles, you will find that they thought Him much more than a teacher--that they thought Him to be the Lord and King of the whole world; and you will find that the great joy with which the disciples went back, after He ascended into heaven, came from certain very strange words that He had been speaking to them just before He ascended--words about which they could have but two opinions: either they must have thought that they were utter falsehood, and self-conceit, and blasphemy; and that Jesus, who had been all along speaking to them such words of wisdom and holiness as never man spake before, had suddenly changed His whole character at the last, and become such a sort of person as it is neither fit for me to speak of, or you to hear me speak of, in God's church, and in Jesus Christ's hearing, even though it be merely for the sake of argument; or else they must have thought THIS about His words, that they were the most joyful and blessed words that ever had been spoken on the earth; that they were the best of all news; the most complete of all Gospels for this poor sinful world; that what Jesus had said about Himself was true; and that as long as it was true, it did not matter in the least what became of them; it did not matter in the least what difficulties stood in their way, for they would be certain to conquer them all; it did not matter in the least how men might persecute and slander them, for they would be sure to get their reward; it did not matter in the least how miserable and sinful the world might be just then, for it was certain to be changed, and converted, and brought to God, to righteousness, to love, to freedom, to light, at last.
If you look at the various accounts, in the four gospels, of the Lord's last words on earth, you will see, surely, what I mean. Let us take them one by one.
St. Matthew tells us that, a few days before the Lord's ascension, He met His disciples on a mountain in Galilee, where he had appointed them to await him; and there told them, that all power was given to Him in heaven and earth. Was not that blessed news--was not that a gospel? That all the power in heaven and earth belonged to HIM? To Him, who had all His life been doing good? To Him, in whom there had never been one single stain of tyranny or selfishness? To Him, who had been the friend of publicans and sinners? To Him, who had rebuked the very richest, and loved the very poorest? To him, who had shown that He had both the power and the will to heal every kind of sickness and disease? To Him, who had conquered and driven out, wherever He met them, all the evil spirits which enslave and torment poor sinful men? To Him, who had shown by rising from the dead, that He was stronger than even death itself? To Him, who had declared that He was the Son of God the Father, that the great God who had made heaven and earth, and all therein, was perfectly pleased and satisfied with Him, that He was come to do His Father's will, and not His own; that He was the ancient Lord of the earth, the I AM who was before Abraham? And He was now to have all power in heaven and earth! Everything which was done right in the world henceforth, was to be His doing. The kingdom and rule over the whole universe, was to be His. So He said; and His disciples believed Him; and if they believed Him, how could they but rejoice? How could they but rejoice at the glorious thought that He, the son of the village maiden, the champion of the poor and the suffering, was to have the government of the world for ever? That He, who all the while He had been on earth had showed that He was perfect justice, perfect love, perfect humanity, was to reign till He had put all His enemies under His feet? How could the world but prosper under such a King as that? How could wickedness triumph, while He, the perfectly righteous one, was King? How could misery triumph, while He, the perfectly merciful one, was King? How could ignorance triumph, while He, the perfectly wise one, who had declared that God the Father hid nothing from Him, was King? Unless the disciples had been more dull and selfish than the dumb beasts around them, what could they do but rejoice at that news? What matter to them if Jesus were taken out of their sight, as long as all power was given to Him in heaven and earth?
But He had told them more. He had told them that they were not to keep this glorious secret to themselves. No: they were to go forth and preach the gospel of it, the good news of it, to every creature-- to preach the gospel of the kingdom of God. The good news that God was the King of men, after all; that cruel tyrants and oppressors, and conquerors, were not their kings; that neither the storms over their heads, nor the earth under their feet, nor the clouds and the rivers whom the heathens used to worship in the hope of persuading the earth and the weather to be favourable to them, and bless their harvests, were their kings; that idols of wood and stone, and evil spirits of lust, and cruelty, and covetousness, were not their kings; but that God was their King; that He loved them, He pitied them in spite of all their sins; that He had sent His only begotten Son into the world to teach them, to live for them--to die for them--to claim them for His own. And, therefore, they were to go and baptize all nations, as a sign that they were to repent, and change, and put away all their old false and evil heathen life, and rise to a new life, they and their children after them, as God's children, God's family, brothers of the Son of God. And they were to baptize them into a name; showing that they belonged to those into whose name they were baptized; into the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They were to be baptized into the name of the Father, as a sign that God was their Father, and they His children. They were to be baptized into the name of the Son, as a sign that the Son, Jesus Christ, was their King and head; and not merely their King and head, but their Saviour, who had taken away the sin of the world, and redeemed it for God, with His own most precious blood; and not merely their Saviour, but their pattern; that they might know that they were bound to become as far as is possible for mortal man such sons of God as Jesus himself had been, like Him obedient, pure, forgiving, brotherly, caring for each other and not for themselves, doing their heavenly Father's will and not their own. And they were to baptize all nations into the name of the Holy Spirit, for a sign that God's Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, would be with them, to give them new life, new holiness, new manfulness; to teach, and guide, and strengthen them for ever. That was the gospel which they had to preach. The good news that the Son of God was the King of men. That was the name into which they were to baptize all nations--the name of children of God, members of Christ, heirs of a heavenly and spiritual kingdom, which should go on age after age, for ever, growing and spreading men knew not how, as the grains of mustard-seed, which at first the least of all seeds, grows up into a great tree, and the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches of it--to go on, I say, from age to age, improving, cleansing, and humanising, and teaching the whole world, till the kingdoms of the earth became the kingdoms of God and of His Christ. That was the work which the Apostles had given them to do. Do you not see, friends, that unless those Apostles had been the most selfish of men, unless all they cared for was their own gain and comfort, they must have rejoiced? The whole world was to be set right--what matter what happened to them? And, therefore, I said at the beginning of my sermon, that a sure way to know whether our minds were in a right state, was to see whether we felt about it as the Apostles felt. The Bible tells us to rejoice always, to praise and give thanks to God always. If we believe what the Apostles believed, we shall be joyful; if we do not, we shall not be joyful. If we believe in the words which the Lord spoke before He ascended on high, we shall be joyful. If we believe that all power in heaven and earth is His, we shall be joyful. If we believe that the son of the village maiden has ascended up on high, and received gifts for men, we shall be joyful. If we believe that, as our baptism told us, God is our Father, the Son of God our Saviour, the Spirit of God ready to teach and guide us, we shall be joyful. Do you answer me, "But the world goes on so ill; there is so much sin, and misery, and folly, and cruelty in it; how can we be joyful?" I answer: There was a hundred times as much sin, and misery, and folly, and cruelty, in the Apostles' time, and yet they were joyful, and full of gladness, blessing and praising God. If you answer, "But we are so slandered, and neglected, and misunderstood, and hard-worked, and ill-treated; we have no time to enjoy ourselves, or do the things which we should like best. How can we be joyful?" I answer: So were the Apostles. They knew that they would be a hundred times as much slandered, and neglected, and misunderstood, as you can ever be; that they would have far less time to enjoy themselves, far less opportunity of doing the things which they liked best, than you can ever have; they knew that misery, and persecution, and a shameful death were before them, and yet they were joyful and full of gladness, blessing and praising God. And why should you not be? For what was true for them is true for you. They had no blessing, no hope, but what you have just as good a right to as they had. They were joyful, because God was their Father, and God is your Father. They were joyful because they and all men belonged to God's family; and you belong to it. They were joyful, because God's Spirit was promised to them, to make them like God; and God's Spirit was promised to you. They were joyful, because a poor man was king of heaven and earth; and that poor man, Jesus Christ, who was born at Bethlehem, is as much your King now as He was theirs then. They were joyful, because the whole world was going to improve under His rule and government; and the whole world is improving, and will go on improving for ever. They were joyful, because Jesus, whom they had known as a poor, despised, crucified man on earth, had ascended up to heaven in glory; and if you believe the same, you will be joyful too. In proportion as you believe the mystery of Ascension-day; if you believe the words which the Lord spoke before He ascended, you will have cheerful, joyful, hopeful thoughts about yourselves, and about the whole world; if you do not, you will be in continual danger of becoming suspicious and despairing, fancying the world still worse than it is, fancying that God has neglected and forgotten it, fancying that the devil is stronger than God, and man's sins wider than Christ's redemption till you will think it neither worth while to do right yourselves, nor to make others do right towards you.