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The Ascension of Our Lord
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
I think we sometimes misunderstand the ascension of our Lord. We think of it as Jesus’ farewell, where He is going away and separating Himself from us to some other far-away place. He’s now above it all, and we’re pretty much left to ourselves down here. But that is not the case. The ascension of our Lord should not be seen as a trip, where Jesus is traveling from one location to another. For heaven is not simply above the clouds somewhere. Rather, heaven is that unseen realm where God is, a realm that is not limited to space and time. 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, we are not saying that He left us, but rather that He is present everywhere as true God and true man in the unseen glory He shares with His heavenly Father. St. Paul writes in Ephesians that Jesus “ascended far above the heavens that He might fill all things.” The ascension of our Lord, then, emphasizes not Jesus’ absence but rather His presence, especially for the church and in the church.
That’s why after Jesus is carried up to heaven, the disciples worship Him. For He isn’t gone. His presence now is simply going to be different, a hidden presence that is not seen but heard in the living voice of His Gospel and tasted in His holy supper. Jesus’ promised the disciples, “I am with you always, to the very close of the age.” That’s why the disciples return to Jerusalem not with sadness but with great joy. Their Lord, Jesus, is now enthroned as the King of all creation. He came to this battlefield, earth, and engaged the enemy in decisive combat. By His holy cross He crushed Satan and sin, and by His resurrection He destroyed the power of the grave and brought everlasting life to His people. Now, as the triumphant conqueror, Jesus has ascended in majesty to His rightful place as the Lord of all. As the Father’s right hand man, Jesus has power and authority over all things for the sake of us, His people.
So, the question that must be asked of us is this, “Do we really believe in the Ascension?” That may sound silly to say here in church, but think about it: Do we really believe that our Lord is the ruler of all things, including our own lives? Too often we live as if the Lord isn’t really there above us; we judge everything purely by what we can see. When the world seems to be going crazy and everything seems to be falling apart for us, we sometimes have our doubts about whether or not God is really in control, don’t we? When things don’t turn out as well as we hoped and planned, when our health goes bad or the finances or relationships go wrong, we become unsure of whether or not Christ really cares for us. Maybe He watches over others, but does He really watch over me? When our prayers seem to be going unanswered, very often the last thing we believe is that Jesus is still the Lord, at least not for us. And then we begin to try to take control of matters ourselves with our worry and anxiety. We try to take over the role of God Himself with our attempts to manipulate people and events. All of this takes its toll on us physically and emotionally.
And what about the Ascension truth that Christ is truly present with us, particularly in the divine service of His Word and Sacraments? Do we believe that Jesus is really among us right now? I think the primary reason why people sometimes get bored with church and don’t really think they need it is because they fail to perceive Jesus’ real presence. All they see here is a bunch of sinners and an ordinary preacher and a liturgy that’s nice but doesn’t seem to be particularly relevant. That’s the temptation we all are constantly faced with, to walk by sight and not by faith, to look for God in other things that appear to be more spiritual and powerful and glorious and exciting rather than looking for Jesus where He has promised to be for us. Our failure to recognize Jesus’ presence among us here, just like our failure to recognize His lordship over this world, is a result of our old Adam’s unbelief, of which we must all repent.
Let us all, rather, remember and trust in what Jesus did as He ascended. It is written, “He lifted up His hands and blessed them.” That is the last thing the disciples saw, and that is what you are to see continually by faith. Jesus is still lifting up His hands to bless you. When you come into this place, look for and see that, which only believers can see. Just as the watery cloud received Jesus, so also He is in the waters of Baptism which you have received to continually cleanse you by His Spirit. Just as the two men in white spoke the words of God to the disciples as they looked up, so also pastors are sent by the Lord to be His mouth and His voice, to speak the Gospel of forgiveness into your ears in His stead and by His command. And just as it was the body of Christ Jesus that ascended, so also He gives His true body and blood into your mouth under the bread and wine at His table, that you may be partakers of His life and have your cup overflow with His mercy. The risen and ascended Jesus is still present in the flesh to bless you. He who fills all things makes Himself accessible to you in the Word and the Sacrament to fill you with His lovingkindness.
Believing in Christ’s saving presence here, we are also made able to see His lordship over the whole world and even over our particular lives. The Lord is paying attention to you for your well-being. It is written in Romans, “God works all things together for the good of those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose.” And you have been called according to His purpose in Holy Baptism. Therefore you may know and trust that whether times are good or bad, the Lord will never forsake you. The Ascension of Jesus to the right hand of the Father is a call for you to believe that He is working all things, even the difficult and painful things, for your eternal good. Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords to conquer anything that stands opposed to your salvation. It is written, “Jesus must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death.”
In the meantime, until that day of our resurrection, Christ stands before the Father as our Great High Priest. Having offered His once for all sacrifice for sins on the cross, Jesus is now interceding for us before the Father’s throne. It is written in I John, “We have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” Jesus pleads for us in heaven by the virtue of His blood and the merit of His saving, righteous work. When the devil accuses us of our sin and demands that we must suffer the punishment of hell, Jesus stands in as our lawyer and advocate and points to the cross where that sentence has already been paid for us. By faith in Him we are declared not guilty.
In the Old Testament, one of the special garments that the High Priest wore when he appeared before God in the temple was something called an Ephod, an apron-like vest that hung from the shoulders and over the chest of the High Priest. Attached to the two shoulder straps of this Ephod were precious onyx stones. Into these stones were engraved the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. And in the center of the Ephod, over the chest, were twelve other precious stones, each stone representing a particular tribe of Israel. So on his shoulders and over his heart the High Priest carried the names of God’s people. Every time he entered the temple into the presence of God, he placed the whole people before the eyes of the Lord. This one man embodied every man of Israel as he carried their names into the Holy of Holies to offer sacrifice for them and plead their forgiveness.
This Old Testament High Priest and his Ephod portray in black and white what we see in full color in our ascended Lord Jesus Christ. He is the great High Priest who came down from heaven to unite to Himself the Ephod of our flesh. Just as the Old Testament High Priest put on the Ephod when he ministered, so Christ our High Priest put on our human nature when He came to minister among us. But unlike the Old Testament priest, Christ didn’t just wear our human nature like clothing and take it off when He finished His work. No, He actually became our flesh, became human, united the Ephod of our humanity to Himself forever.
And just like the Old Testament High Priest, Christ bears our names in the Ephod of His humanity. Your name is, you might say, tattooed into the flesh of Jesus your Priest. On His shoulders and over His heart Christ carries the names of God’s people. Having made His sacrifice, Jesus is now ascended to the temple of heaven for you, where He places you and the whole Church before the eyes of His Father and prays for you. This one Man Jesus embodies all of you as He carries your names into the heavenly Holy of Holies.
In a very real sense, then, you have already ascended into heaven. Your ascension with Christ is not just a future thing; it's a present reality. When you see Jesus ascend, you are by faith seeing yourself ascend. For He has taken up your human nature forever. And you are members of His body. Therefore, you also are at the right hand of the Father. Heaven is already yours in Christ. Ephesians 2 says: “Even when we were dead in trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ . . . and raised us up together and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” You’re already there, because Jesus is already there, and you are in Him. Colossians 3 puts it this way: “Your life is hidden with Christ in God.”
I know of nothing that can make you more certain of your salvation than this. When you begin to waver in your Christian hope, just remember the Ascension; just remember that you are a member of Christ's body by your baptismal faith. And He is at the right hand of God as the victorious Ruler of all. It is as Romans 8 puts it: “I am convinced that . . . (nothing) in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 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.
So then, brothers and sisters of Christ, take comfort in this ascension of His. Know that He is Lord over all things for the sake of the church. Believe that He is with you always by His words and His Sacraments. And have confidence that just as Christ shares fully in your humanity, so also in Him you are given to share in the life of God Himself, as the communion liturgy for today prays, “Jesus was taken up to heaven that He might make us partakers of His divine life.”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
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