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Graham Redding on Ascension as a Lost Heirloom

Graham Redding reflects on connecting Christ's incarnation and ascension

“Some years ago, I was invited to a retirement home to visit a lady who’d had a severe stroke,” says Graham Redding, senior minister at St. John’s in the City Presbyterian Church in Wellington, New Zealand.

“The woman was totally dependent on others for care. She hadn’t been to church in decades. And she was worried about her future.

“I had a choice,” Redding recalls. “I could present the contractual model of coming to faith in Christ. But that can breed a self-righteous attitude of ‘I’ve asked for forgiveness, I’ve been restored, so I can relax.’ Or, a person weighed down with guilt might ask for forgiveness but still not feel God’s love, which only compounds the failure and guilt.

“I said, ‘We’re going to pray. But first I want to give you an assurance. Christ himself is praying for you even before you pray. We will pray in accordance with the gospel that you have been given new life already. So let’s pray for what Christ has done and continues to do for you. He’s here with you.’ ”

After that prayer, with tears rolling down her cheeks, the woman told Redding that she felt freed.

Offering that perspective of Christ—his vicarious humanity and role as mediator and high priest—is what we should be doing each Sunday, not just on Ascension Day, Redding says.

Connect Christ’s incarnation and ascension

“The Orthodox Church has a wonderfully developed doctrine of incarnation and ascension. For the rest of us, ascension is like a lost family heirloom,” Redding says.  

In Prayer and the Priesthood of Christ in the Reformed Tradition, he urges churches to recover a Trinitarian conception of prayer and worship, which requires appreciating Christ’s vicarious humanity.

“So often we cast the humanity of Jesus in individualistic terms. We say he had to become human to die for us on the cross. For many Christians, the cross is the completion of the Easter story until Christ comes again,” he explains.

The vicarious humanity of Christ is the doctrine that links ascension to incarnation. In Jesus, God became one with us in taking on flesh and blood. That he ascended, bodily, shows that humans matter in heaven as well as on earth. God redeems all of who we are, not just our souls. The assumption of incarnation is completed when our humanity is lifted up into the presence of God. Because the second person of the Trinity stands in our place in the heavenly sanctuary, we can, through worship, be lifted into the communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Redding links the incarnation with the doctrine of sanctification. He explains that in the Institutes, John Calvin talked about sanctification before justification. Calvin said our humanity has already been sanctified in Christ.

“This understanding leads us to put a stronger stress on being in union with Christ rather than on following his long-ago example,” Redding says.

Our High Priest perfects our prayers

An anthem he wrote for St. John’s 150th anniversary includes these lines: “For courage to be human, not more religious be, to look for God in others, affirm their dignity. For acts of deep compassion, a people versed in prayer, for union in communion, the life of Christ to share.”

Understanding Christ’s priesthood makes us better versed in prayer. Prayer is far more than a duty or way to talk with God. It’s an eschatological event.

“Prayer is essentially a redemptive activity, in and through which the church participates in the Son’s communion with the Father and in his mission to the world…. To the extent that much prayer today is believed to be a private and individualistic affair, this book maintains that, first and foremost, prayer is a corporate, ecclesial event. It is eucharistic,” Redding writes.

He likes how the 1993 PCUSA Book of Common Worship presents the order of service in four parts: gathering, Word, Eucharist, and sending. Its basic premise is “joined in worship to the One who is the source of its life, the church is empowered to serve God in the world.”

Apply the ascension in weekly worship

Since Redding began weaving ascension concepts into printed and liturgical announcements, sermons, and study groups, St. John’s in the City has analyzed its entire liturgy.

The congregation has come to understand worship as joining in what’s already going on in heaven. “The priesthood of Christ means that we submit our sin-laden prayers to the One who is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. That gives us a certain freedom to try new things in worship—because it doesn’t rest on us to get it absolutely right,” Redding says.

Prayers of confession need not itemize every sin, because though we are all born in sin, we have total grace and sanctification in Christ through his vicarious humanity and ascension. That’s why the confession of sin at St. John’s ends with an assurance of pardon, not a prayer for pardon.

Likewise, those who lead intercessory prayer know they don’t have to pray comprehensively or with perfect knowledge of God’s will. “Christ, our worship Leader and ascended High Priest, stands in our place before we’ve started. By the Spirit, the church participates in his life of intercession,” Redding says.

Even the offering is seen as sharing in Christ’s continual self-offering.

Recover the centrality of Communion

After studying communion’s theology and history, the elders at St. John’s decided to experiment with celebrating it monthly instead of quarterly.

They understand that Christ is present, by the Spirit, in the sacrament. The words “lift up your hearts” and “we lift them up to the Lord” remind believers to set hearts and minds on “things above,” where our lives “are now hidden with Christ in God.”

Celebrating the Eucharist more often also reminds St. John’s that we dwell in a world of flesh and blood, of wood and stone. It takes the elders hours to fill tiny cups and set them on oblong trays for passing down rows. When instead they ask worshipers to come forward to stations and dip bread in a chalice, foot traffic snarls.

The church’s narrow aisles and scant liturgical space reflect their ancestors’ focus on Word, not Sacrament. But making communion a central event is worth some inconvenience if it helps worshipers “see that the Christian life is not simply imitating Christ but sharing in his life,” Redding says.