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Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
A curious question from the Apostles sets up the Ascension event, its meaning, and implications. They ask the risen Christ: “Lord, will You at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel?” Jesus does not answer the question directly but tells them to remain in Jerusalem (praying and keeping watch) until they receive the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Then, as they are looking on, Jesus ascends before their eyes, tipping us off to a double transition for Jesus: enthronement in Heaven but also His abiding Word-and-Sacrament presence with His people and the giving of the Holy Spirit who reveals this same Jesus is present with and for His people.
Now, if Easter is about Jesus as the prototype of the New Creation, then the Ascension is about His coronation as the One who rules forevermore on Earth as it is in Heaven. Easter tells us Jesus stands as the firstborn of the New Creation. His Ascension depicts Him running the New Creation in the power of the Holy Spirit.
We need to get this picture right in order to receive the true comfort to be found in Christ’s Ascension. The Ascension is not about Heaven, about thinking of Jesus in Heaven above calling the shots. Because as soon as we say, “Heaven,” most people today think about a timeless, nonphysical, immaterial place where spirits collect like thoughts in some mind “somewhere way up there.” That is not the biblical picture.
Rather, Jesus’ Ascension is when God the Father “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 over all things to the Church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:20-23).
When the Apostles, when the Church Fathers, when Luther and the Confessions talk about something “spiritual” they are talking about things that have to do with the world of God’s Spirit. And God’s Spirit works most definitely within, not apart from, the world of space, time, and matter in which we now dwell. So, when Luke recounts Jesus going up to Heaven in a cloud forty days after His Resurrection, and when Paul writes of Jesus being “exalted” to Heaven (Philippians 2:9-11), the one thing we should not think of is, after His death, Jesus is now “going to Heaven” and not seen until the Last Day.
In fact, that is the reason for the “cloud.” It is not the cloud of Jesus’ absence, but a New Covenant fulfillment of an Old Covenant type: the shekinah or glory cloud of the presence of the Lord. Norman Nagel explains the cloud as “a guarantee of the presence of God.” So, at the Ascension, a cloud is used to mark Jesus’ entry to the realm of God, which we can neither understand nor measure with our present little thoughts and limited experience.
Jesus did not travel thousands of miles like a rocket. He rose a little way above the earth and a cloud received Him out of their sight. Most of the artists throughout the centuries portrayed the Ascension in this way. Much like the cover on our bulletin, Jesus rose above the crowd a little and a low-hanging cloud enveloped Him. All that was gone was the sight of Jesus. He is still there. The cloud means He is no longer within our ordinary limits. Jesus is now present and does things in the whole range of God’s way of being present and doing things while remaining a man, but a man fulfilled and glorified.[i]
The Ascension, then, is essential to our Christian faith because, along with Pentecost, this signals a shift for how God, in Christ, is continually present with His people, with the Holy Spirit illuminating this reality through the gift of faith.
The Ascension of our Lord teaches us how Heaven and Earth are not separated by the expanse of the universe or an impenetrable brass ceiling. They overlap and interlock and finally will be visibly joined forever. The whole point of Jesus’ identity, all along, asserts He has been a one-man, walking Temple—the place where Heaven and Earth overlap, where grace and nature meet, where the invisible is made visible, where eternity and time are manifest in a single person whose blood atonement perfectly avails. So, Christ sits at the right hand of God with all the authority of Heaven and Earth given to Him. Having undergone the transformation process called “Resurrection,” Jesus embodies where people on Earth encounter the life, power, and authority of Heaven.
Heaven and Earth are not the same kind of space. They are not merely continuous, like Minnesota and South Dakota or houses next to each other on the same street. Heaven permeates the Earth. Heaven will be on the Earth and the Earth will be permeated with Heaven; so that the terms become synonymous.
So, if Jesus is now in “Heaven,” He is present to every place on Earth. Had He remained on Earth in a non-resurrected Body, then He could not be present more than one place at a time. The Ascension following the Resurrection—which gave Him a transformed human body capable of moving seamlessly between Heaven and Earth—enable Him to be present everywhere Heaven breaks through according to His promise and probably many other points as well.
But where Jesus has most certainly promised to break through is in the holy Gospel, Holy Baptism, and Holy Communion. This should give every Christian great comfort because it eliminates guess work in trying to find Jesus. He is here, like this, for you, just as He promised, and in those things, He welds Heaven to the Earth. For something so full of mystery, at least this aspect of the mystery is gone: He is here for all who seek Him where He promised to be found—in His Word and Sacraments. The Ascension didn’t take Jesus away from the Earth; it brings Him closer! As we pray in the prayer that our Lord has taught us: His Kingdom does indeed come on Earth as it is in Heaven.
The Father “seated [Jesus] at His right hand in the heavenly places… and He put all things under His feet and gave Him as head over all things to the Church, which is His Body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:20-23).
To be sure, this a great mystery. And just as is true with other great mysteries of God, our Lord’s teaching that Jesus now “fills all in all” has been met with confusion and doubt and opposition. “How is it possible,” some ask, “that Jesus, since His Ascension, can be with us not only spiritually but also physically?” It’s just not logical! The risen Christ is in Heaven. Human bodies cannot be more than one place at a time, so Christ’s Body cannot be here on Earth with us. “The finite cannot hold the infinite,” they say. “Jesus only promises to be with us spiritually.”
Doubting God’s clear Word is not unusual. After Jesus spoke of other great mysteries of God, the disciples responded: “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (John 6:60). Many of the truths of Scripture are difficult to accept; some are hard to understand. They don’t fit the common sense of our Old Adam. But whether God’s great mysteries are logical or reasonable to our limited minds is unimportant. Our Lord doesn’t call you to understand everything He says or teaches. He calls you to trust His holy Word. He calls you to believe in His Son as your Lord and Savior. The important thing is that God has spoken this great teaching for your benefit: The Father “seated [Jesus] at His right hand in the heavenly places… and He put all things under His feet and gave Him as head over all things to the Church, which is His Body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:20-23).
You might be wondering: “Why is Jesus’ presence so important to us? Why worry about where Jesus is right now, so long as He someday returns for us? This mystery is connected directly to Christ’s bodily presence in Holy Communion. Those who believe Jesus traveled to a far-off location at His Ascension also believe that, in Holy Communion, Jesus is not bodily present but only “divinely present” or “spiritually present.” Therefore, they believe, when you receive the bread and wine in the Holy Supper, you are not actually receiving Christ’s Body and Blood. It is only symbolic, a way of remembering Him. You are only communing with Jesus in your mind.
This would be like saying that when you receive medicine from the doctor, this medicine does not actually have the power to work in you, to cleanse and heal you, but that the medicine is only something for you to think about. A placebo.
In truth, if you believe Jesus is only spiritually present, but not actually bodily present in, with, and under the bread and the wine, then your unbelief in His Word will prevent His blessing of cleansing and healing from working within you (1 Corinthians 11:27-29). In fact, those who eat and drink without recognizing the Body and Blood of the Lord are sinning against the Body and Blood of the Lord and bring temporal judgment upon themselves. So you see, it makes a day-and-night difference as to how you read and understand this teaching of Christ’s real presence. It’s a matter of spiritual health, perhaps even physical health.
To be sure, this is not an easy thing to believe. Human logic and reason cannot comprehend such a mystery. It can only be accepted through faith, which is the gift and work of God.
That’s why Jesus created and gave us more gifts. He gave the Office of the Ministry: apostles, evangelists, pastors, and teachers (Ephesians 4:11). Just think, without preaching and Sacraments, Jesus would still fill all this creation and universe (we know that He does—it says He does!), but He would fill it invisibly, silently. Jesus would still be here, but He would not be here for our benefit, like the way that water is everywhere, in the air we breathe, in the clouds above, underground, but we can’t drink this moisture that is all around us until it manifests itself in a place, in a way that we can receive it.
Water is everywhere—it’s in the air; it’s even in you, but you go to the sink or water fountain to drink it. You go to the bathtub or shower to wash dirt off in it. You must go to the place where it is available in a form that you can use.
Jesus’ preaching and Sacraments are like a faucet—it’s where Jesus shows Himself in mercy, and it gushes out. It’s where you can see Him, hear Him, touch Him with your own hands. In Word and Sacraments, you can hear and touch and taste God Himself, the Mighty One sitting on the throne in Heaven.
That’s the purpose of Christ’s Office of the Ministry—that He gives human hands to baptize us, a mouth to speak in every place, now, on the earth, at the same time, and that He would still take bread in His hands, bless it, and give it to you to forgive you. In the same way, He uses common ordinary things like water, bread and wine, Jesus uses a common, ordinary man to bring you the forgiveness of your sins. It is His work with a man in His office. Jesus preaches. Jesus baptizes. Jesus communes you.
That’s the miracle and wonder of the Ascension and the purpose of His sacramental ministry for us. The Divine Service, this Divine Service—all this is Jesus and Heaven on a Thursday night in May 2020, and each Lord’s Day, for your benefit. Christ really is among [us] as one who serves” you (Luke 22:27)—the fullness of the Godhead, dwelling bodily (cf. Colossians 2:9). Jesus’ Kingdom comes on Earth as it is in Heaven.
So Luther is exactly right to say that the Lord, sitting in Heaven and at the right hand of God (which is everywhere!), thrust even you under the water with His own hands and promises you forgiveness of your sins, speaking to you upon Earth with a human voice by the mouth of His minister.
That’s how absolution is explained in the Small Catechism: “We receive absolution… from the pastor as from God Himself, not doubting, but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in Heaven.” That’s why the pastor will ask someone during private confession, “Do you believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness?” For Jesus does not lie; it is His Body; it is His Blood on the altar; it is His Word of Absolution. In these means, we find Christ Himself, ascended to be present here for you.
Here in this very place, Christ’s Kingdom comes on Earth as it is in Heaven. Christ is graciously present for your forgiveness. The finite is still very capable of holding the infinite, wherever or whenever God wishes to limit Himself. What God desires most is to be with you forever, wherever you are now, whatever is happening now. And most of all, so that you will be where He is forever.
The Ascension brings Jesus’ human, risen, saving Body, even to us. This is why the Ascension, forty days after the Resurrection, is so important and marvelous! This is why we Lutheran so long to be together for worship. This is why, while we thank God for them in times when we cannot gather in person, online worship services will never replace corporate worship services. Even while Christ sits at the right hand of God, He comes here to be with you in His means of grace. So you may believe and never doubt—you are forgiven of all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[i] Nagel, Selected Sermons, 145