Were I to ask you what the most important days of the Church Year were, undoubtedly, Christmas and Easter and Ash Wednesday and Good Friday would make the list.
If you’re a good Lutheran, you’d want to include Reformation Day, October 31st.
And if you’re a great Lutheran, you know you’d rejoice to celebrate the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession on June 25th.
But Ascension belongs on the list, too.
Consider what we confess in the Creed: “[Jesus] ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From thence He will come to judge the quick and the dead.”
Let’s unpack that.
Of the utmost importance at the Ascension, there are these two things.
First, Christ ascended to His Father’s right hand as a Human being and not simply as God.
Once He was made Man, taking upon Himself our flesh, He kept it.
And so, Jesus opens heaven for souls and bodies.
Second, Christ has removed His familiar and visible presence from us—we never see Him as His disciples saw Him—but He has still promised to be with us always.
The apostles in Acts are rebuked for gawking into heaven after Christ: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?” (Acts 1:11).
Instead, they should look—by faith—where Jesus has promised to be: in His Word and in the Sacraments.
First: Christ is still a human being.
When He became Man in Mary’s womb He denied Himself and did not always or fully use His Divine rights and attributes as a Man.
In Confirmation classes, you learned that this is called the “humiliation of Christ.”
Jesus was true God—still—but He didn’t (always) use His power. If He had, He couldn’t have been killed, and the one who came to suffer in our place—to keep the Law for us—to be killed, for us, as a Sacrifice for our sins—must be killed so that we, who look upon Him, would be saved.
So—in humiliation—He denied Himself.
When His work was complete, He rested His Body in the tomb, as a Man. His soul went to Abraham’s bosom; Jesus died a Christian.
The resurrection was the coming back together of His human Body and Soul.
Since “It is finished,” (cf. John 19:30) still, He no longer denied Himself.
Jesus passed through the rock and the locked doors in His human body.
His appearance was changed in such a way that, though the scars left by the cross remained, He wasn’t identified by sight alone. The disciples needed faith to know that it was Him, that He had risen from the dead, that He’d come in peace.
For forty days He was among the disciples in this exalted state.
In Confirmation classes, you learned that this is called the “exaltation of Christ.”
Jesus was truly Man and truly God, and He showed it.
He was visible and physical when He wanted to be. He ate fish. But He also rebuked Mary Magdalene not to seize Him.
Then, forty days after the Resurrection, He visibly ascended to His Father’s right hand to receive His place in the Kingdom and rule according to His mercy.
He ascended as a Man, a human, and thus He paved the way for us out of Hell and into heaven.
He opened the pearly gates that they would let us, humans redeemed by Christ, in.
And He’s there now, as a Man, in His body, with His soul, inherited from Mary, with scars on His wrists and feet and side.
When you grieve because of sin and death, remember the Ascension of Christ.
God’s not done with your body after your death.
That’s why Christians don’t cremate.
That’s why the best and surest comfort for the grieving Christian is the resurrection and ascension of Christ.
Where He is—there you shall also be!
Now, Jesus has removed His visible presence.
He’s not among us as He was before the crucifixion.
He doesn’t deny Himself at all but fully and always uses all of His Divine rights and attributes as a Man.
And yet—Jesus has promised to be among us, to be with us always to the end of the age.
He’s present now—with us and for us—as a Man according to His sacramental presence.
The most important bit of His presence is His bodily presence in the Holy Communion.
St. Paul—who received this instruction from the Lord after the Ascension—St. Paul writes: “The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?… For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me’” (1 Corinthians 10:16; 11:23-24).
Even though Jesus has removed His visible presence, in His exalted state, His human nature is not limited.
As a Man, He uses His Divine rights and attributes and can be physically present in more than one place and in more than one way.
This is a mystery.
We don’t comprehend it. We confess it. We believe it.
It should, however, be no more of a stumbling block to reason and logic than the Incarnation itself.
If we, by faith, can worship the Babe in Mary’s arms as the eternal, uncreated, Creator of all things, contained, somehow, in a seven pound eight ounce baby boy, then we shouldn’t balk to take Christ at His Word and confess and believe that He gives us His actual, risen Body and Blood for us to eat and drink in the Supper for the forgiveness of sins.
We believe this according to the accomplished sacrifice of the cross and the clear word of God.
The Lord’s Supper isn’t simply a memorial meal.
We receive the fruit of the cross—the forgiveness of sins—the very Body of Jesus—and are joined to Him forever.
There’s a kind of sacramental presence also in Holy Baptism—in the Word of God—in the Absolution—and in the Church.
Not in the bodily sense of the Sacrament of the Altar. That is a gift unique.
Christ gives us and joins us to His risen Body, His Flesh and Blood, His soul and His divinity.
Yet there’s also a presence of Christ in the water of Baptism according to His command and promise.
He Himself is the baptizer and He lays His own name upon the baptized, bestowing His Holy Spirit, reconciling them to His Father, and taking up residence in their hearts. Not in a bodily sense—but in a real and enduring way, all the same, and that through the water combined with God’s name and promise.
In the Absolution and in the Word, we see this strange mode of presence again. Jesus says: “He who hears you, hears Me” (Luke 10:16).
Jesus speaks to His sheep—not in their silent thoughts and imaginations, not in a still, small voice—but in the external Word.
It comes to them and bounces around their eardrums or shines into their eyes or on their fingertips and enters into their hearts.
For faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God (cf. Rom. 10:17). The Lord’s sheep hear His voice. They know Him, and in His Word, He comes to them.
And when the saints of God gather together, Jesus is there, too, speaking to us, absolving us, claiming us as His own.
He’s with us—God With Us—still. Risen and ascended.
But not gone.
So don’t gawk into heaven but come where He promises to be.
Look at the bread and wine—the water—and the Word—and see Jesus.
Then—look to your left and your right—and see Christ in your neighbor.
“As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
God is with you. In ways you can’t comprehend.
But most certainly in ways you can believe and confess and rejoice.
In Jesus’ name, Amen!
Ascension Sermon, 2018
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt