The Ascension of Our Lord (Observed) (May 13, 2007)
The Ascension of Our Lord is one of those days that doesn’t get a lot of attention. One reason it doesn’t is that it never falls on a Sunday. Forty days after Easter, the Ascension always falls on a Thursday. Another reason is that I don’t think we fully appreciate the significance of the Ascension. We just got through having a big shindig to celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord. That’s the big one, right? Well, yes, that is right. But we dare not overlook the Ascension as an important event in the life of our Lord Jesus.
The Ascension should not be understood as the “departure” of our Lord, as he if is gone from us and is now in another place. Don’t view the Ascension as a spatial event, where Jesus has simply traveled from one location to another.
Years ago, an atheist Russian cosmonaut who was orbiting the earth said, “I don’t see God up here anywhere. He must not exist.” He might as easily have said, “I don’t see Jesus up here anywhere.”
Also, I remember seeing one of those nutty tabloid magazines with a picture on the cover of a crystal city jutting out from an asteroid. The headline said, “Hubble Telescope Discovers Heaven”...as if heaven were to be located in a certain set of coordinates in outer space.
But heaven is not simply above the clouds somewhere. Heaven, rather, is that unseen realm where God is. It is an eternal and infinite realm not limited to time and space...or an asteroid. We know from the Scriptures that God is present everywhere, and therefore, so is his right hand. So when we confess that Jesus bodily ascended to the right hand of the Father as true God and true Man, we are not saying that he left us. Instead, we are saying that he has entered into the unseen glory of his heavenly Father and is no longer visible to our eyes. And so, St. Paul writes in Ephesians 4 that Jesus “ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.” (Eph. 4:10) And earlier we heard these words from Ephesians 1, that God “put all things under [Christ’s] feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” (Eph. 1:22-23) The Ascension of our Lord, then, is not about our Lord’s absence. It’s about his presence, especially FOR the Church and IN the Church.
Jesus ascended to be with us always. And remember, he did this IN THE FLESH. Jesus doesn’t only fill all things as true God. He also fills all things as true Man. It’s not as if the Second Person of the Holy Trinity hung his “Jesus costume” on a coat rack when he ascended into heaven. No, Jesus remains true God and true Man. When Jesus is present, he is present not just spiritually but bodily as well...even if you cannot see his body. How can this be? I don’t know. But God always does what seems impossible to us, so this shouldn’t be so hard for us to accept. So if you want to come into the presence of Christ, you must seek him according to his human nature, in those concrete places where he makes himself tangibly present for you. Although you can’t see Christ, you can hear him whenever his Word is preached and taught in its truth and purity. Although you can’t see Christ, you can come into contact with him wherever his Sacraments are rightly administered. It is through those real, physical things that the hidden Jesus is perceived and grasped by the faithful.
So let’s ask ourselves a couple of questions. “Do we properly recognize the reality of Christ’s presence? And when we are gathered for the Divine Service, do our actions fit with this truth of our faith?” Very often, our answer must be “No.”
Take, for example, the hubbub surrounding the recent visit of Queen Elizabeth to the United States. First of all, I want to say that I don’t understand what the fuss was all about, briefing all of our officials on the proper way to greet the Queen. If our officials had been in England, that’s one thing. But she’s here on our soil, and as far as I’m concerned it should be “When in Rome, do as the Romans.” But the English press, and even some American reporters, had a fit when President Bush, after he mistakenly said that the last time she was in the USA was to celebrate our bicentennial in 1776, turned and gave the Queen a little wink. How dare he do such a thing! You just do not act so informally with royalty! And then, when Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was greeting the Queen, she extended her hand first, instead of waiting for the Queen to extend hers first. The Queen apparently was quite put out over this display of impropriety. My response: Who cares what the Queen thinks? Didn’t we declare independence from English royalty? I mean, I understand being polite, but who makes these silly rules? The point here is that, apparently, there is a certain amount of decorum when you are in the presence of royalty.
If such a fuss is made over earthly royalty, shouldn’t we be even more concerned with how we act in the presence of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords? When a person comes into the real presence of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the appropriate attitude would be one of reverence and holy awe. And yet, people often come into church without bowing to the altar of the Lord or praying to him or honoring him in any way. They plop down in the pew with no sense of humility for where they are. They bring in their lattes and mochas and begin to carry on conversations as if they were relaxing at Starbuck’s. And I must confess, that I, too, am guilty of this. I don’t bring my coffee in with me, but I am often worried more about how I come across to the congregation rather than bowing in reverent humility as we prepare together to enter into the Holy of Holies of Word and Sacrament.
Many worship services nowadays are conducted and constructed as if Christ were not really here but far away in heaven somewhere while you and I are doing our own things here on earth. But is that really how we should conduct ourselves when we truly believe that we are in the presence of royalty, standing before the King of Creation?
All of this betrays our unbelief in the truth of the Ascension, our disregard for the real presence of Christ in his preaching and his Supper. Therefore, let us repent together of our lack of faith. And let us learn again the amazing, comforting reality of the Ascension, a reality that is still in effect today. Just as the watery cloud received Jesus on the Mount of Olives, so also he is here in the waters of Baptism to cleanse you by his Spirit and make you a child of God. Just as the two men in white spoke the words of God to the disciples as they looked up, so also ministers are sent by the Lord precisely for the purpose of being his mouth and his voice, to speak the Gospel of forgiveness right into your ears in his stead and by his command. And just as it was the body of Christ that ascended, so also he gives his very body and blood into your mouth under the bread and wine, that you may be partakers of his life. Christ Jesus, who fills all things, is literally present in the flesh in his Church to fill you with his mercy.
The risen Lord comes to you in this way in order that you might share with him in his Ascension and in his divine majesty. In fact, Jesus took on your human nature in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary precisely so that you would be raised with him from the depths of sin and death to the heights of the life and glory of God. And now, in the person of Jesus Christ, we see our human nature raised to the right hand of God.
And your Ascension with Christ is not only a future thing. There is a sense in which it is also a present reality. Listen to what Paul says in Ephesians chapter 2: “Even when we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ...and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” (Eph. 2:5-6) Now there is an awesome truth! By baptism, you are in Christ. Christ is seated in the heavenly places. Therefore, there is a sense in which you are already in the heavenly places with Christ. Here’s how Paul puts in Colossians 3: “Your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Col 3:3) Your very existence, your eternal well-being, is kept secure in Jesus, who has ascended into heaven.
There is not much else that can make you more certain of your salvation and eternal life than this. When you begin to waver in your Christian hope, when you aren’t sure whether or not you are saved, remember the Ascension. Remember that you are a member of Christ’s body. He is at the right hand of God as the victorious ruler of all. Nothing can conquer this Conqueror, this Redemeer of yours. It is as Romans 8 puts it: “[Nothing] in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him. Therefore, he is truly able to work all things together for the good of those who love him, for you who have been called according to his purpose. Even in the midst of the ups and downs of your life, the Lord, who has begun his good work in you will bring it to completion in the Day of his return. You will rise again on the Last Day and you will bodily ascend into heaven, just like your Savior did.
So then, brothers and sisters in Christ, take comfort in the Ascension of our Lord. Know that he is Lord over all things for the sake of his Church. Believe that he is with you always by his Word and Sacraments. And have confidence that just as Christ shares fully in your humanity, so also in him you share forever in the life of God himself.
NOTE: This sermon is a revised version of one I preached on Ascension Day 2001. As I was working on this version, I recall possibly borrowing some material from another source. I didn't note that source on my manuscript from 2001, so if anyone recognizes any copyrighted material here, I will gladly delete this post from my blog.