[Meant to record it, but didn’t]
“Gone Away to Be Present”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We confess the words every Sunday, passing quickly over the immensity of their meaning. And yet, we have very little in the Scriptures and very little in the Lutheran Confessions on this article of the Faith, the Ascension of our Lord into heaven, to sit at the right hand of the Father until He returns to judge the living and the dead. We do not explain it, we simply confess it. We confess that the Ascension is of a single piece with Jesus’ suffering, dying, and rising. We cannot say that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, that He died and was buried, that He rose again on the third day, without also saying that He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty, and that He will come again in judgment. When we talk about the crucified and risen Lord, we should also be reminded that He is the ascended and ruling Lord of the Church. He sits, even now, at the right hand of God—which does not mean that Jesus is on the physical, directional right of the Father, but that He has, in the same flesh that was crucified and raised, all the power and glory of God. Daniel prophesied of Jesus’ ascension hundreds of years earlier: “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (Daniel 7:13-14, ESV). The one “like a son of man,” is fully God and yet we serve and worship Him in His human Body, with His human soul; the eternal Son of God is forever the time-born son of Mary.
But what does that have to do with us, besides the fact that He will one day return in the clouds, just as the disciples saw Him go into heaven? It has everything to do with us, because the fact that Jesus is ascended is exactly the opposite of His being absent. In fact, Jesus ascended so that He could be with us on earth in a way that He never was prior to His ascension. By ascending to the ever-present right hand of the Father, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, who breathed the breath of life into the Body of Christ at Pentecost, Jesus is fulfilling His promise to His Apostles: “See, I myself am with you all the days until the completion of the age” (Matthew 28:20). The Trinity is not a tag-team; Jesus has not handed off the relay baton to the Spirit so He can take a rest. Jesus did say: “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). Behind those words is the mystery of the Trinity, because if the Spirit is present, then Jesus is present, though not like us in our bodies. Even between His resurrection and ascension, He was only present in one physical location. But after His ascension, He is present as His Father is present, because He and the Father are one. Jesus is ascended, but He is not absent. He is simply present in another, more glorious way, as St. Paul writes to the Ephesians: “[the Father raised Christ] from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (1:20-23, ESV).
It would be a strange thing if the Head was separated from the body as far as heaven from earth, if the One who fills all in all could not be present in His Church. No, Jesus is present always and forever, just as He said; He is hidden in the forms of water, word, bread, and wine, but He is actually and physically present—present to forgive your sins and mine. He is present in the same Body in which He suffered, died, rose, and ascended; He is present in the same Body that we will see coming on the clouds to raise our bodies from their death-sleep, to judge us worthy of eternal life for the sake of His own holiness and righteousness, and to bring us into the new creation, re-made by Him who is the Word of God in flesh. It is all of one piece, an undivided fabric of unlimited grace and love. And it is all for you. He took flesh because your flesh, descended from Adam, was corrupted. He suffered in your place because you could never atone for your own sin. He died an eternal death in those few hours so that you never will. He rose again, leaving your sin and death buried in the ground. In the forty days after His resurrection, while He ate and drank in the kingdom with His Apostles, He shaped the first bricks of His Church—of which you also are living stones—that would be hardened in the fire of the Holy Spirit. And, finally, He ascended to the right hand of God’s almighty power, fully glorified, so that He can make Himself present, both God and Man, in His Word and in His Supper. And all of this so that when He comes to judge the living and the dead, you will be found worthy of eternal life, because you have been clothed in the crucified, risen, and ascended Jesus.
It is of these things that you and I are witnesses. We bear witness in our bodies as we come together to hear His Word and eat His Supper: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26, ESV). As the first thousands of the Church discovered: “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers,” and “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42, 47, ESV). And we bear witness to the ascended Lord in our bodies also when He drives us back out from this place into the world, scattered to our various and distinct vocations; in those places and at those times, we are salt and light and, as God grants us the opportunity, we proclaim the power-filled Word, as those scattered in the early persecutions did (Acts 8:1ff.). From the end of the earth (Acts 1:8) to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20), where Jesus is, His Church bears witness. And so we do not stand wide-mouthed, gazing into heaven—though we watch and pray, “Come, Lord Jesus.” But we know that He will keep His promise, and return in the same way that the Apostles saw Him go. Until then, come and eat. Jesus is present: “King of kings yet born of Mary,/As of old on earth He stood,/Lord of lords in human vesture,/In the body and the blood,/He will give to all the faithful/His own self for heav’nly food” (LSB 621:2).
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). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 5/15/09