Yesterday was Ascension Sunday—forty days after the celebration of Christ’s resurrection, when we remember Christ being “taken up” into heaven before the disciples (Acts 1:9). Two realities struck out to me yesterday as I reflected on the biblical accounts of the ascension, one related to mission and the other related to prayer.
First, in the moments before he ascends, Jesus gives his disciples their final charge, sending them out into the world, with his power and presence to continue his mission. We know this command as the Great Commission, which is probably best known as it appears in the closing words of the Gospel of Matthew: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). But, as my friend Jim Goodroe highlighted for me recently, that Great Commission actually appears in one form or another at the end of all four gospels and in the book of Acts (Mark 16:15, Luke 24:46-48, John 20:21, Acts 1:8).
In Luke and Acts, there’s a dynamic that I think it is easy for American Christians to overlook: the gospel, Luke records, “will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47). The Great Commission is explicitly international—it is for every nation—but it starts locally. The Church is called, ultimately, “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8), but the disciples are told to begin where they are, in Jerusalem. Acts’ version of the Great Commission is also explicitly to Samaria, which for the disciples was a geographically proximate but culturally distant place: in fact, the Samaritans were so despised by most Jews that the disciples John and James asked Jesus if they should call down fire on one of their villages (a suggestion that earned them Jesus’ rebuke) (Luke 9:54).
As we remember Christ’s ascension into heaven, we would do well to remember his parting words, and to recognize that the call to make disciples still starts in our own communities, among our own people and—thanks to the reality of immigration—to people from every nation, even to those groups that the culture around us views with suspicion or spite. The contemporary application falls apart at a certain point, though, because we’re not bringing the gospel out from Jerusalem for the first time, and many (if not most) of the immigrants who arrive in our country are already vibrant believers. They are probably more likely to share the good news of a relationship with Jesus with a native-born U.S. citizen than we are with them. Immigration becomes a two-way street, with God using the movement of people to advance his Kingdom in multiple directions: he brings many who have not yet embraced the hope of the gospel into communities where, if we are obedient, Christ-followers will get to know them, genuinely love them as our neighbors, and in appropriate ways share the good news. Others arrive in this country with a passionate Christian faith and share the gospel here with those in their own ethnic group and beyond: for them, we are “the ends of the earth.” My prayer is that we have the eyes to recognize that immigration presents an amazing opportunity to join God in his mission, not—as, unfortunately, polls suggest many American evangelicals currently view immigration—as a threat.
One other dynamic of Christ’s ascension that I think is relevant as we think about immigration relates to where Jesus went when he “was taken up into heaven” (Mark 16:19). One of my pastors noted yesterday the significance of Jesus—who was and who continues to be fully God and fully human—returning to “the right hand of God” the Father (Mark 16:19). Jesus is not, he said, just sitting around waiting for us to join him: he is serving as our Advocate (1 John 2:1). Sitting at the right hand of the Father, there is a Human Being, one who is “fully human in every way” (Hebrews 2:17), “who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Christ’s humanity is not incidental: it is why he can plead our case: he identifies with us.
Not only do we have a human being pleading our case in heaven, our immigrant brothers and sisters in this country (and around the world) can take solace in the fact that there is an Immigrant seated at the right hand of the Father, pleading their case. One of the ways the ways that Christ shares our human experience is that he experienced—in his case, as a small child—fleeing his homeland in the middle of the night, crossing borders in search of safety and a better future (Matthew 2:14). Though the gospel account does not give us a lot of details of the Holy Family’s stay in Egypt, we can presume that Jesus knows precisely what it feels like to be a foreigner in a foreign land. He knows the sense of displacement. He may have felt unwelcome and marginalized when he arrived in Egypt. And, now, that one-time Refugee sits at the right hand of God the Father: as one of my favorite hymns puts it, he is “A great High Priest whose name is Love / Who ever lives and pleads for me.”
“Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). As the U.S. Senate is now considering an immigration reform bill that many within immigrant communities (and beyond) feel is desperately needed, I want to encourage us to commit more fervently than ever to pray, trusting that Jesus brings our requests directly to the Father. Of course, we can and should also advocate with our Senators and Representatives—I firmly believe that we are called to emulate Christ in serving as advocates for others, particularly those whose voices do not get fully heard in our democracy (Proverbs 31:8)—but we would be ignoring our greatest resource if we failed to approach God in prayer.
Please commit to prayer by signing up below; our friends at the Evangelical Immigration Table will send you a weekly prayer request and reminder via email. And please challenge others to join in via social media, using the hashtag #pray4reform. The problems in our immigration system are overwhelming, and the forces seeking to dramatically limit immigration—and the great missional opportunity that it represents—are vocal and mobilized, but our God is greater and stronger, and he promises to hear and bring justice to those “who cry out to him day and night” (Luke 18:7).
Commit to be a Prayer Partner
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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