I’m writing this on the morning of Memorial Day, May 28, 2012. It struck me that yesterday was Pentecost Sunday, and I didn’t hear a word about it in church. There was the usual and rightful recognition and honor of those who had served in the military. Sometimes we honor college and high school graduates about this same time also in our churches, and may even have a sermon directed toward them in some way. But I cannot remember any Sunday ever in the years that I’ve attended a church – whether the mainline church before I came to faith in Christ or the evangelical churches since – that Pentecost Sunday was ever even mentioned. And when I served as a pastor, the thought never struck me to give any kind of recognition to Pentecost Sunday. And the same goes for Ascension Sunday. This is traditionally the Sunday before Pentecost Sunday, and it commemorates the ascension of Jesus into heaven after his resurrection. But I cannot think of any time that I can remember it ever being mentioned in any of the evangelical churches that I’ve attended.
Here’s the significance of these observations. In our churches we often have special services, preaching and celebrations, and quite rightly, of Christmas, Good Friday and Easter, as we remember and celebrate the birth, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In addition, there may also be special services and sermons during the cultural holidays of Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Thanksgiving, and sometimes even Valentine’s Day. But these two Sundays, which commemorate the ascension of Jesus to the right hand of God, and the bestowal of the Holy Spirit, are very significant both Biblically and theologically, and were considered practically equal to Christmas in the early church. Somehow these two celebrations became overlooked, and our cultural celebrations intruded. And in our churches we’ve carried on, because often enough in our evangelical churches our routines become our liturgy and the way we did things last year become our tradition.
So here’s my suggestion. Let’s not use these days as a chance to put together another set of traditions. Rather, let’s give our preaching and teaching to such subjects as the Lordship of Christ, the ascension and the bestowal of the Holy Spirit on the church for the beginning of its worldwide mission from Ephesians 1:21-23 and the end of the gospel of Luke and the beginning of the book of Acts. (To be honest, I can’t remember ever hearing a sermon on the day of Pentecost in an evangelical church.) Let’s bring back some of the great hymns and music of the church which celebrate these events and their continuing significance. Next year, 2013, in the western church, these days are May 12 and May 19. Ascension Sunday and Mothers Day are on the same Sunday, so my suggestion would be to recognize Mothers Day but center the Sunday on the ascension and exaltation of Jesus Christ in both the music, praying and preaching. I think that would put things into proper perspective.
As far as preaching and teaching on these subjects, a theology of the New Testament and a systematic theology should give a wealth of material, as well as simply looking, studying, and meditating on the Biblical passages. In addition, there is an excellent little book on the ascension (The Ascended Christ) by Henry Barclay Swete which is a free Google eBook.