Video of the Divine Service here.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Here’s the order of things: Jesus, who died, was raised from the dead by the working of God’s great might; then He was set at the right hand of God’s power, and all things were subjected to Him—to the Son of God, who was already over all things, but now to Him in His flesh. For a little while, God made Him lower than the angels, when He took on flesh. But now He has exalted Him—raised Him up in His created flesh and put Him over all creation, including the angels. And because He took on flesh, was raised from the dead in that flesh, ascended in that flesh, and reigns as Lord over all creation in that flesh—now He lives as the head of His Body, the Church. And He lives in His resurrected flesh. And He will come again in His resurrected flesh, in which we will see Him.
We can work it backwards, too: there is no Church if Jesus is not Lord of all things; He is not Lord of all things if He is not ascended in His flesh; there is no ascension if He’s not resurrected in the flesh; there’s no resurrection if He was not conceived, born, suffered, and died in the flesh.
But we can very easily tend in the opposite direction of this order: that Jesus is gone. He’s left a lot of teachings behind (though He Himself didn’t write anything). He drew up the plans for a new kind of community—which, incidentally, is often a community that looks like how I would organize it and that just happens to run counter to the organizations, structures, and institutions I already hate. The evidence of how easily we think these thoughts is how easily we can say things like, “If Jesus were here today…” or “if Jesus were walking the earth now…” or even “what would Jesus do?” What would Jesus do if He were here? Is that what we mean? Even people who claim to be the most fervent followers and the most authentic disciples say things like that.
But those are unbelieving questions, because Jesus is here. Jesus’ ascension is not about His absence. At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, He doesn’t say, “And, lo, I will be with you again one day, at the end of the world.” In Ephesians 1, Paul doesn’t describe Jesus above and the Church below, and never the two shall meet until Jesus comes again. Even that language, of Jesus coming “again” implies that He’s left. Now it’s true, the angel says to the disciples, “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). But Jesus’ departure from before their vision is not the same as Him being absent. Otherwise, He is contradicting what He says in Matthew 28, that He is, presently, with the disciples all the days until the completion of this age. His ascension is much more like what happens when He disappears from the house in Emmaus when the disciples recognize Him “in the breaking of the bread.” They saw Him go, and they will see Him again. As He says in John 14, which we heard last week, “Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I am living, you also will live” (John 14:19). He has not left us as orphans; He is not an absentee Savior. He simply points us to different means by which He is present with us.
No, Jesus’ ascension, His exaltation to the right hand of God’s power, is for this reason: so that He will be present with us all, all the days, until the completion of this age. The right hand of God’s power is how He saves, as Psalm 20 says, “Yahweh saves His Christ; he will answer from his holy heaven with the saving might of his right hand” (20:6, et al.). The glory that the Son had with the Father before the world existed is the glory He now has as the Man Jesus. The ascension is much more about exalting the Man Jesus, in the flesh, to the highest place, above all rulers, powers, and authorities, than it is about the Son of God leaving us behind.
Now, He has sent the Spirit, who speaks to us the words that Jesus spoke. Now the Spirit calls us by the Gospel of this Jesus. Now He is present with us, not according to physical sight, but according to the faith that the Spirit creates in us. He is present with us, not according to physical sight, but according to His promise: This is, now, My Body and My Blood. I forgive you your sins, here and now. I am with you all the days. The difference is not in whether He is present, but how. And, according to His own word, neither the whether nor the how are in doubt for His Christians. For a little while—as we will hear on Sunday—we are still in the world, subject to its temptations, struggles, burdens, sins, and deaths. Jesus is no longer subject to any of that, having conquered by His cross. But He stands at the side of the Father, interceding for you, giving you His eternal life, speaking His reassuring words. He has not left you as orphans, nor will He. He is Lord over all creation; all things have been put under His pierced feet, and the only thing for which we are waiting is the seeing of that victory.
It is not for us to know times or seasons, when He will be revealed to us, or when we will see Him. And our job is not to stand watching the sky. It is to do what those early Christians did, who knew that the same Jesus they saw disappear, will reappear in clouds of His glory with angels and archangels and all those who have fallen asleep in Him. Since we, like they, have the assurance of His continuing presence, we look to those we can see, those whom the Lord has given us to serve according to our vocations; so that, when He appears, we may be found doing what He has given us to do, faithful and standing firm as the Church of whom He is the living head—not absent, but present and giving us life by His own living Word and His own living Body and Blood.
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, 5/23/17