Thursday, May 5, 2016
Sermon for the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord - Lk 24:44-53
When teaching about Genesis chapter 3 and the Fall in catechesis for junior high kids, one of the really interesting things is how they immediately jump to the big question. Having learned that God is omniscient – that he knows all things – they instantly ask the question: “Since God knew that Adam and Eve were going to sin, why did he let it be possible in the first place?”
It is a very good question. It is also one for which God has revealed no specific answer. In general, when God doesn’t provide the answer to a question the best course of action is to just leave things there as a question we can’t answer.
In this case, if we admit that only God knows for sure, we can also say that there seem to be two observations we can make. First, it appears that God wanted creatures who could freely love and obey him. Certainly he could have created robot like creatures who did not even have the possibility of failing to obey. But that is apparently not the interaction that God wanted to have with the crown of his creation. Having created us in his image, we could only be what God wanted us to be if we also had the ability to reject his love.
The second observation goes even deeper than that. We often talk about God restoring his creation through the ministry of Christ. After all, the Bible begins in the Garden of Eden in Genesis and then concludes with the Garden of Eden restored at the end of Revelation.
But the truth of the matter is that things can never be restored to exactly what they were like before the Fall. The reason is that something new has happened. It did not exist before the Fall, and now it will never cease to exist. This new thing is the incarnation of the Son of God. God the Father sent forth the Son as he was incarnate through the work of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. In the incarnation we now meet Jesus Christ who is true God and true man at the same time. There is one Jesus, yet in the personal union he has a divine nature and a human nature.
You will notice that I said “he has a divine nature and a human nature.” The important thing for us to recognize is that this is still the case. We see in the ascension of our Lord that Jesus ascended and was exalted by God as the One who is still true man. Christ has taken resurrected and transformed humanity into God’s presence. In this exaltation we see that Christ has triumphed in his saving work and we receive the assurance that we will dwell in God’s presence as transformed people too.
In our Gospel lesson we hear words that Jesus spoke to the disciples after his resurrection. He says, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Our Lord begins by declaring that he is the fulfillment of God’s revelation in the Old Testament.
At first glance, that content may have seemed surprising. But Jesus opened their mind to understand the Scriptures and said, “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.”
Jesus had suffered and died. He had been numbered with the transgressors in our place. But now he had risen from the dead on Easter. In the verses just before our text, Luke leaves no doubt about what “risen from the dead” means. It is as a bodily and physical person – as someone who is truly human that he has risen from the dead.
Luke tells us that when Jesus appeared to the disciples they were frightened because they thought they saw a spirit – they thought they saw a ghost. So Jesus said, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. Then he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them. In his resurrection, Jesus did not lay aside his human nature. He is still true God and true man. In our text we learn that Jesus “led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven.”
Jesus’ ascension isn’t just about leaving. In the book of Acts, we learn that it is part of his exaltation. On the day of Pentecost Peter said, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.”
We often look at the ascension as if it is almost a bad thing. After all, it means Jesus has withdrawn his visible presence from us. But that is to ignore what it means for Jesus. For him, it is exaltation. As Peter goes on to say, “For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, “‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
Jesus the Lord reigns. His ascension and exaltation is the ultimate demonstration he has won the victory over sin, death and the devil for us. It’s like when the championship team has the championship banner unfurled for all to see. It is the public demonstration of the fact that the championship is theirs.
The championship is theirs. It belongs to the team. But of course in a very real way that championship also belongs to their fans – to the people who have identified with them. And here too the metaphor applies to Jesus’ ascension – except in this case it is Jesus who identified with us.
Jesus identified with us by entering into our existence. He identified with us when he was baptized in the Jordan River and took on the role of the suffering Servant whose mission was to suffer and die in our place. Though we sin in thought, word and deed, he did not. Instead he went forth as the perfect sacrifice for our sin.
But his identification with us didn’t stop there. He did not cease being true God and true man. Instead in his ascension and exaltation Jesus took our human bodily existence – transformed by the resurrection – into God’s presence. In doing so he began the victory that will be ours on the Last Day. Humanity already now dwells with God and therefore we know that we will too when Christ returns to raise us from the dead.
Today we celebrate and rejoice in the fact that Jesus Christ – true God and true – ascended into heaven and was exalted at God’s right hand. And there is no better way to do this than in what is about to take place in the Divine Service. The nature of the Sacrament of the Altar flows forth from the truth about who the exalted Lord still is. He is God and he is man. He is God for whom nothing is impossible. And he is man whose true body was nailed to the cross and whose blood was shed. Because he is one Christ – the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises – that death has won the forgiveness of our sins.
And now in the miracle of the Sacrament the One who is true God and true man uses bread and wine to give us his true body and blood. He gives us the very price he paid for our salvation, and in doing so he applies it to each one of us. His resurrected body is not locked up in heaven. Instead it will be here on the altar as food for the new man to help us live in faith.
In our second lesson we hear the account of the ascension that is found at the beginning of Acts as Luke uses the ascension to bind together the two volumes of his work. There the angels say to the disciples, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
The angels promised that the ascended Lord would come again. In the Sacrament Jesus comes to us in, with and under bread and wine. It is a coming in which he is present in his body and blood for us. As we prepare for this we will sing in the Sanctus, “Hosanna. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” We will use the words that the crowds on Palm Sunday used to acclaim Jesus as he entered Jerusalem. And they could not be more fitting. For in the Sacrament Jesus the risen and ascend Lord does come to us. He comes in his true body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. And because he does this now, we know that his return on the Last Day will be a source of joy for us.