“Ascended Is Not Absent”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“…he ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty…” (Apostles’ Creed). Just fifteen words. But fifteen words are significant in the Apostles’ Creed, which does not even come close to including everything Jesus did. This “ascended into heaven” is the reason why we are gathered here this evening. Forty days ago we celebrated the greatest festival of the Church Year, the Resurrection of our Lord. Tonight we celebrate His Ascension into heaven, which means His return to the place where He was before He was conceived in human flesh in the Virgin’s womb. “And the word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14, ESV). But why should we celebrate Jesus’ return to the Father? Because the Christian teaching about the Ascension opens up into everything else we believe about Jesus, His relationship to the Church, and His relationship to the world through the Church.
In fact, you are in this building precisely because Jesus ascended into heaven. He told His disciples, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:45-49, ESV). All nations, including the United States of America, including Minnesota, including Fisher and Euclid. And this preaching of repentance and forgiveness of sins has spread to all nations because Jesus ascended into heaven. As He said to His disciples in John’s Gospel: “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning” (John 15:26-27, ESV). And a few verses later, “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7, ESV). And so Jesus did send the Spirit on Pentecost, and so the disciples did bear witness, beginning from Jerusalem. And God added to their number all whom He saved, all the way up to us in the year of our Lord 2008.
You are here because Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father. And God keeps you in His family, His Church, because Jesus ascended and the Spirit was sent. So the Second Article of the Creed about the Son cannot be separated from the Third Article about the Spirit. What do we confess? “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” The Holy Spirit, the Helper who was promised by Jesus, for whom the disciples waited in Jerusalem, is the same Spirit who has called you by the Gospel, enlightened you with His gifts, especially the gift of faith through water and the Word, and the one who continues to make you holy and keep you in the true faith. All of this because Jesus ascended. As He said, “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.”
The evidence of the Spirit’s work in you and in me is sometimes hard to see. How is the Spirit making us holy? Do you feel more holy than last week, or last year? And if we begin to doubt the Spirit’s work as we look at ourselves, we begin to doubt Jesus’ presence, because the Spirit does not speak on His own authority, but from within the authority of the Triune God. Jesus says, “He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:14, ESV). People all around you are in doubt about, or deny, the ongoing presence of Jesus with His people. From the atheist who thinks Jesus died and stayed dead, to those within the Church who deny His physical presence on earth with us in Baptism or the Lord’s Supper. And the spiritual eyesight of your faith and mine fades under these assaults against Jesus’ presence. Jesus’ ascension becomes His absentation. In practice, if not in actual belief, Jesus’ body becomes an absent body, somewhere up in heaven, rather than forever being the eternal Son with the human body born of Mary. But if Jesus’ body is absent, then Jesus is absent. If Jesus comes to us only as a free-floating spirit hovering in the air whenever Christians get together, then Jesus does not come to us at all. Because Jesus is not Jesus unless He is both God and Man. If His humanity can somehow be separated from His divinity, then He ceases to be the Savior who died on the cross for your salvation and mine. When you are tempted to doubt the work of the Spirit of God, you are tempted to doubt the presence of Jesus in His body, and then you are tempted to believe in a Jesus that doesn’t exist. That is, the devil is trying to get you to worship only a divine, spirit Jesus-and we call that idolatry. That Jesus cannot forgive your sins and be really present with you, because that Jesus cannot die and rise again. That is a false Jesus. We are all tempted to engage in that Jesus-idolatry because we do not see Him like the disciples saw Him. We see and feel only water in the baptismal font. We see and taste only bread and wine in the Supper. We see and hear only the pastor when he forgives our sins. And our sinful, blind, deaf, tasteless selves get in the way of the Jesus who wants to come and forgive our sins.
Notice, though, that what Jesus says to His disciples is incredibly significant: “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you…” (Luke 24:44, ESV). Even though His disciples see Him and He speaks with them, He is not present with them in the same way that He was before His death. He is resurrected. His Body is glorified and deathless. And He is here in that same Body, now ascended to the right hand of the Father, today. People of God, sins-your sins-are forgiven in this place only because Jesus Christ is present here in His crucified, risen, and ascended body. Ascended does not mean absent. It means that whatever the Son of God does He does in-and only in-the body born of the Virgin. And, above all, it means that Jesus will come to you in a few minutes and feed you that very body: the body that was conceived by the Holy Ghost in the Virgin Mary; the body that suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; the body that rose again on the third day; and the body that ascended into heaven, sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; and the body we will see when Jesus comes again in glory to judge the quick and the dead. The body and the blood of this Jesus, and no other, are the body and blood which you will eat and drink in the bread and the wine of the Sacrament. This Jesus, fully God and fully Man, is the Jesus who forgives your sins when I speak the absolution. This Jesus, Son of God from eternity and Son of Mary in time, is the very Jesus whose blood washes away your sin in Baptism. And this Jesus is the one who continues to speak in and through the Church, as His Body is fed here and then moves out into the world. You are a part of His Body and He is speaking through you; He is serving other people through you; and He is calling them to hear and believe, and become part of His Body through the Word and through Baptism. And all of this He does because He ascended to His Father and our Father, His God and our God (John 20:17). Ascended and reigning in glory, He sends the Spirit of God upon His disciples, both then and now. Your flesh and mine will be tempted to listen to the devil’s lies about Jesus’ absence, but here are Jesus’ words to you, the words of the Ascended One who has never lied: “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:18-19, ESV). Because He is present in His Body, He is in you and you are in Him. And if you eat and drink the Body and Blood of this God-Man, you can be sure that when you see Him coming in the same way He went into heaven, His life flowing through you will mean resurrection and a new, glorified body like His. “And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming… Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we will be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 2:28, 3:2, ESV).
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 4:7, ESV).
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 4/26/08