Happy Ascension Day!

We know why we celebrate Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter. But “Ascension Day”? Really? Is there such a thing?

Indeed there is. Today is Ascension Day, the Thursday that falls forty days after Easter Sunday. And it has been a thing in the Christian Church for a very long time. The ancient church observed Ascension Day, also known as Ascension Thursday or Holy Thursday. In the east, early church fathers such as John Chrysostom (c.349-407), the bishop of Constantinople, and Gregory of Nyssa (c.335-c.395), the bishop of Nyssa, mention it frequently in their writings. In the west, Augustine (395-430), the bishop of Hippo, claimed that the day was of apostolic origin and universally observed in the church for centuries.

During the Protestant Reformation of the 16th and early 17th centuries, Ascension Day was not deleted from the liturgical calendar. Although the Protestant Reformers sought to reform worship and the liturgical year according to Scripture and emphasized the importance of the Lord’s Day as the primary Christian holiday, they did not disparage everything in the church calendar. The liturgies of the Palatinate (the region of the Holy Roman Empire in which the Heidelberg Catechism was published in 1563), Strasbourg (where the reformer Martin Bucer labored), and those prescribed by the Synod of Dort included five “evangelical feast days”: Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost.

Many Reformed churches still celebrate Ascension Day by holding a special worship service on a Thursday evening. In fact, the Church Order of the URCNA encourages its observance, along with Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost. If we are unfamiliar with Ascension Day, it may be due to the tradition from which we’ve come. Sadly, American evangelicalism has become disconnected to the practices of the historic Christian church.

Still, we might wonder why we should bother with a day that observes Christ’s ascension. Do we really need to celebrate when Jesus floated off to heaven? Christmas is about his incarnation. Good Friday is about his death of atonement. Easter is about his glorious resurrection. But the ascension seems to be little more than a mode of transportation. It’s not an event upon which we tend to meditate.

Perhaps our lack of appreciation for Christ’s ascension has something to do with our lack of observing Ascension Day. We need to understand and remember the importance of the ascension. We confess it in the creeds as an essential event in redemptive history, as essential as Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection. Without the ascension, Christ would not have sent the Holy Spirit upon his new covenant church empowering his apostles to be his witnesses in the world (John 14-16; Acts 1.8). Without the ascension, we would not have the gift of the ministry of the Word, which the Spirit uses to build us up in the faith and mature us in Christ (Eph 4.7-16). Without the ascension, we would not have a great high priest in heaven, who has presented himself for the propitiation of our sins, ministers on our behalf in the true tabernacle, and intercedes for us continually (Heb 2.17-18; 4.14; 7.23-25; 9.11-14; 10.11-14). As the Heidelberg Catechism summarizes so pastorally, Christ’s ascension benefits us because, “First, he pleads our cause in heaven in the presence of his Father. Second, we have our own flesh in heaven – a guarantee that Christ our head will take us, his members, to himself in heaven. Third, he send his Spirit to us on earth as a further guarantee. By the Spirit’s power we make the goal of our lives, not earthly things, but the things about where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand.”

Like Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost, Ascension Day focuses our attention on God’s mighty acts in Christ, which occupy center stage in redemptive history. Let us give God thanks today for Christ’s ascension into heaven, upon which he led a host of captives and gave gifts to his church!

~ Pastor Brown

Why We Do What We Do: THE INVOCATION

At the beginning of every Divine Service, just after the call to worship, we stand together and call upon the Lord in a prayer called the “invocation.” What is the invocation and why do we do this?

To invoke someone or something means to appeal to that person or thing for help. In the ancient world, when kings made covenants with each other, a lesser king (the vassal) had the privilege of calling upon a greater king (the suzerain) for help if, for example, an invading army threatened his land. He could invoke his covenant privilege and receive help from the greater king with whom he was in covenant. Of course, such a covenant also meant that he must be loyal to the suzerain and not go behind his back to make secret treaties with other kings.

In a similar way, we call upon our Great King for help when we invoke his name at the beginning of the Divine Service. The prayer of invocation is not an empty ritual, but a covenant privilege. We are actually calling upon the living God who has made a covenant with us through the Lord Jesus Christ. He summons his covenant people in the call to worship. We then stand together in reverence and awe, recognizing the authority of our Suzerain. We call upon his name and confess that our help is not in ourselves or in the false gods of this present evil age, but “our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Ps 124.8). We ask him to receive our worship, nourish our souls, and bear fruit in our lives to his glory. We humble ourselves before his majesty and cry for help. He responds with open and uplifted hands, pronouncing a blessing upon us in the salutation: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age” (Gal 1.3-4).

As we participate in the invocation every Lord’s Day, let us remember that God’s people have done this since the days of Adam and his son Seth: “At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord” (Gen 4.26). Let us exercise the covenant privilege that Christ has purchased for us. May our hearts be encouraged and filled with joy because of God’s promise: “They will call upon my name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘They are my people’; and they will say, ‘The Lord is my God.’”

~ Pastor Brown

WHY WE DO WHAT WE DO: MEMBERSHIP VOWS (part 4)

A fourth reason we take membership vows in church is to participate in the sacraments Christ has provided to his church. For example, one does not have the right to be baptized without joining the visible church. Christ instituted Christian baptism as a one-time, initiatory sacrament that not only signifies the washing away of sins with his atoning blood, but also identifies the baptized person as a member of God’s visible covenant community as circumcision did in the old covenant (Matt. 28.18-20; Acts 2.39). Thus, one is to be baptized into church membership, and in this way placed under the oversight of a local body of elders. Baptism cannot be separated from church membership (Eph. 4.4-5).

Likewise, one does not have the right to partake of the Lord’s Supper without church membership. Christ established the Supper as a holy meal for the members of his church. It not only signifies his body and blood offered on the cross, but also nourishes the faith of repentant sinners (1 Cor. 10.16; John 6.22-60). As the governors and overseers of the church (Rom. 12.8; 1 Cor. 12.28; 1 Tim. 3.1-7), the elders have the responsibility of supervising participation in the Lord’s Table, and ensuring, as much as possible, that people do not partake in an unworthy manner (1 Cor. 11.17-34).

Participation in the sacraments requires biblical church membership. While Christ has appointed the sacraments as visible signs and seals of the gospel for the nourishment of our souls, he did not design them to be individualistic practices. The sacraments are acts of divine service to his assembled people on the Lord’s Day. He condescends to his flock so that he can feed them with his means of grace.

If we profess to be Christians, we must practice the Christian faith according to the Word of God. The New Testament makes it clear that every Christian is to be baptized into the body of Christ and held accountable for his doctrine and life. It tells us that for our good God has provided us with pastors, elders, and deacons, as well as the communion of saints in the local church.

If you have been baptized but you are not a member of a true congregation of Christ’s church, you are living an irregular life that the New Testament does not recognize as Christian. The Lord calls you to repentance. He calls you to come home to the safety and benefit of his sheepfold. We urge you to join a true church, a body of believers that confesses the truth, submits to the authority of Christ as delegated to elders, and meets each week to worship God and receive Christ through Word and sacrament. We are not free to roam as a spiritual drifters on the internet or as perpetual visitors from church to church. Find a good church and join it, for in this life we can do no better than to take up our place in the body of Christ, receive the means of grace, and enjoy the communion of saints.

~ Pastor Brown

Why We Do What We Do: MEMBERSHIP VOWS (part 3)

Another reason why church membership is both necessary and helpful to the Christian is that without it biblical church discipline cannot exist. Church discipline is the practice of applying the Word of God to members of the congregation who are in rebellion (i.e. unrepentant of a particular sin) or involved in some public scandal that affects the health of the church as a whole. The purpose of church discipline is the restoration of wayward disciples, the preservation of the church’s doctrine, the peace and purity of the congregation, the protection of the church’s reputation in the eyes of the unbelieving world, and the honor of God’s holy name.

Christ gave his church the authority to exercise formal church discipline when he said to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16.19). Reformed churches have understood these keys to be the preaching of the gospel and the exercise of church discipline. The Heidelberg Catechism puts it like this:

83. Q.  What are the keys of the kingdom?

A.  The preaching of the holy gospel and Christian discipline toward repentance. Both preaching and discipline open the kingdom of heaven to believers and close it to unbelievers.

84. Q.  How does the preaching of the gospel open and close the kingdom of heaven? 

A.  According to the command of Christ: The kingdom of heaven is opened by proclaiming and publicly declaring to each and every believer that, as often as he accepts the gospel promise in true faith, God, because of what Christ has done, truly forgives his sins. The kingdom of heaven is closed, however, by proclaiming and publicly declaring to unbelievers and hypocrites that, as long as they do not repent, the anger of God and eternal condemnation rest on them. God’s judgment, both in this life and in the life to come, is based on this gospel testimony.

85. Q.  How is the kingdom of heaven closed and opened by Christian discipline?  

A.  According to the command of Christ: If anyone, though called a Christian, professes unchristian teachings or lives an unchristian life, if after repeated brotherly counsel, he refuses to abandon his errors and wickedness, and, if after being reported to the church, that is, to its officers, he fails to respond also to their admonition – such a one the officers exclude from the Christian fellowship by withholding the sacraments from him, and God himself excludes him from the kingdom of Christ.  Such a person, when he promises and demonstrates genuine reform, is received again as a member of Christ and of his church. 

Reformed churches confess this because it is what the New Testament teaches. Jesus gave instruction on discipline and public excommunication in Matthew 18.15-20. Paul wrote a whole chapter to the church in Corinth describing how sexual immorality amongst Christians defiles the church, and that the offender, if unrepentant, is to be excommunicated and delivered to Satan (1 Cor. 5). See other examples in 1 Tim. 1.18-20; 2 Tim. 2.14-18; and Titus 1.10-14; 3.10-11.

Without church membership, however, the church cannot fully use the keys which Christ has given to her. The elders cannot excommunicate an unrepentant offender who was never in communion with the church in the first place. Church membership, therefore, provides every member of the congregation – including the minister and elders – with accountability. It allows the elders to fulfill their duty of ensuring that purity of doctrine and holiness of life are practiced (Titus 1.9; Heb. 1.17); it permits the deacons to care for the needy within the church (Acts 6.1-7; 1 Tim. 5.9); and it makes every member in the congregation responsible for his doctrine and life. Through this loving practice, Christ watches over our souls and helps us to persevere in the faith.

~ Pastor Brown

WHY WE DO WHAT WE DO: MEMBERSHIP VOWS (part 2)

“Why is it necessary that I become a member of this church? I just want to attend regularly.” Perhaps we have asked that question at some point. Coming from evangelical churches where membership was not a thing, we might be tempted to view church membership as an unnecessary formality.

 

 

 

 

the Bible, however, gives us at least three reasons why membership in a local congregation is essential for the Christian. This week, we’ll consider the first of these reasons, which is that biblical church membership provides us with spiritual nurture through pastoral care.

 

Christ is the Head of his church (Eph. 1.22-23; 4.15) and the King of his kingdom (Matt. 28.18; Heb. 2.8-9; 1 Cor. 15.25; cf. Ps. 110.1). He was not only crucified and raised from the dead, but also exalted to the right hand of the Father in heaven. In other words, Jesus not only saves but also rules. And the way he rules his citizens is through his Word and Spirit, and the officers he has appointed at the local congregation. Consider the exhortation the writer to the Hebrews gives at the end of his sermon-letter: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Heb. 13.17). This is Christ’s design. As his subjects and possession, we must submit to what he has ordained.

This can only be done through church membership. Membership in a local congregation creates a formal relationship between the pastor and elders and the congregants. This formal relationship is a covenant that obligates the pastor and elders to watch over the souls of those who belong to Christ. It is part of our submission to our Lord. We never mature beyond the nurture of the church. No Christian can sustain himself as a self-feeder. We cannot be our own pastors and elders. Rather, God has commanded us to submit ourselves to the preaching, teaching, and oversight of those shepherds whom he has placed over us in his love.

It has been the historical practice of Reformed churches to require a public vow to that end. For example, the fourth and final vow of Public Profession of Faith, Form Number 1, in the Psalter-Hymnal (used by the United Reformed Churches in North America) asks: “Do you promise to submit to the government of the church and also, if you should become delinquent either in doctrine or in life, to submit to its admonition and discipline?”          

According to the command of God, pastors an elders are responsible to care for the souls over which they have been appointed (Heb. 13.17). For example, one of the ways that elders care for church members is through the historic practice of family visitation (Acts 20.28). Family visitation is a blessed opportunity for Christ’s servants to bring his Word close to the hearts of his children, and for the elders to help bear some of the spiritual burdens of the family. Likewise, the pastor makes himself available to every member who needs to meet with him for spiritual counsel. He also visits the sick in their homes and in hospitals. These are blessings and benefits to those sheep whom Christ has entrusted to the care of the pastor and elders.

Christians who avoid church membership, however, miss out on these benefits and inevitably put their spiritual wellbeing at risk. Rather than seeing membership as an unnecessary formality, we should see it as an essential part of God’s covenant of grace with us in which he feeds, nurtures, and cares for his sheep. 

~ Pastor Brown