Luke 24:44-53; Acts 1:1-11

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

    You would think that the disciples would be sad and sorrowful when Jesus ascended.  For by all appearances, He was gone; He went away.  And yet it is written that after the ascension of our Lord, the disciples return to Jerusalem with great joy, continually praising and blessing God in the temple.  Why would that be?  And why is the Ascension a cause of rejoicing also for us?

    When Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father, it was not as if our Lord had gone far away, separated from us in some confined physical spot above the clouds somewhere called “heaven.”  For remember, heaven is the unseen realm where God is, an eternal and infinite realm not limited to space and time.  We know from Scripture that God is present everywhere, and therefore, His “right hand” is everywhere.  So when we confess that Jesus ascended bodily to the right hand of the Father, we are not saying that He left us, but rather that He has entered into that unseen glory of His heavenly Father, as both true God and now also as true man.  St. Paul writes in Ephesians, Jesus “ascended far above all the heavens that He might fill all things.”  The ascension of our Lord, then, emphasizes not Jesus’ absence but rather His presence, especially for the church and in the church.

    This glorified presence of Christ began even before the Ascension, at Easter.  By the power of His bodily resurrection, Jesus was already exalted to heavenly majesty and filled all things.  The stone was rolled away not to let Jesus out but to let the disciples in, so they could bear witness to the empty tomb.  And consider Jesus’ resurrection appearances.  The disciples are gathered together with the doors locked, but suddenly Jesus comes and stands among them.  He had been there all along, but now He reveals Himself to them visibly.  They are given to touch His hands and side.  Or what about His appearance to the Emmaus disciples?  Jesus makes Himself known to them in the breaking of the bread and then simply vanishes from their sight.

    Throughout the 40 days between His resurrection and ascension, Jesus came out of His glory to appear to His disciples and to eat, talk, and walk with them.  He did this for their benefit to show that He had truly risen from the dead in the flesh.  Jesus’ ascension is really no different from the other times after Easter when He removed Himself from their sight.  It’s not that He went away.  Rather, He appeared out of glory, and He returned to glory.  But His final parting showed that they shouldn’t expect any more of those appearances until the Last Day.  The pillar of cloud that received Jesus, along with the message of the angels, was to convince the disciples that He would no longer be visibly present among them.  

    This, in part, is what the Ascension is meant to teach us.  We will not see Jesus until He comes again in a cloud with power and great glory on the Last Day.  This age of the church in which we live is the age not of the eyes but of the ears, of hearing and holding to the Word and preaching of Christ, who is unseen and yet truly present among His people.  Right before He ascends, He sends out His apostles to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins.  The glory of Christ is not visible but hidden in that preaching of the Word.  Until the second coming we walk by faith, not by sight, believing Jesus’ words, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

    If we’re honest with ourselves, though, we must admit that we struggle to believe this.  For we sinners are people of the eyes, aren’t we.  If we can’t see it, experience it, feel it, it doesn’t seem real or true to us–out of sight, out of mind with the Lord.  There’s so much else that distracts us and catches our eyes in this fallen world.  And when we don’t see God, we then act as if He doesn’t see us.  Think about it: we’re usually better behaved when we know there are security cameras around or a cell phone is recording us than we are when the only One who knows and sees is the Lord.  Too often we live as if Christ is absent in our day to day lives, that He’s not a very present help in time of need, that He doesn’t see.  Even while we confess that He is seated at the right hand of the Father, we are tempted to doubt whether or not He really is in control, the King of creation.  We see the chaos in the world around us, we experience the disorder in our own lives and even in our own bodies, and we wonder, “If Christ is really ruling all things, why is He allowing this to happen?”  

    Repent of such thinking.  Turn away from your own wisdom and from merely what your eyes can see.  Trust again in the sure and comforting truth of the Ascension that is spoken into your ears today.  And if you must go with your eyes, then consider what the last thing was that the disciples saw of Jesus.  It is written, “He lifted up His hands and blessed them.”  That was the final vision and image of Himself that Jesus gave to His church. Therefore, that is how you also are to picture what our ascended Lord is doing even now, lifting up His hands to bless His people with the gifts He won for you in His death and resurrection.  Jesus is enthroned as King over all things, and He is at work in your life to bring you to share in His royal inheritance.

    Pay attention to the cloud.  Remember how in the Old Testament the Lord was present in the pillar of cloud to shield the Israelites from the attacking Egyptians and to lead them through the Red Sea safely to the other side.  The Son of God went down into the depths for His people and destroyed the threatening armies of hard-hearted Pharaoh.  And in an even greater way our Lord Jesus went down into the depths of death for us and blazed the trail through.  By passing through the waters of baptism, we are set apart to be His people.  We walk with Him to the resurrection of the body on the other side, and our enemies are left dead on the shore.  Sin and Satan and worldly powers can do us no lasting harm.  For just as the Lord was present with Israel in the cloudy pillar throughout their journeys, so the Lord is with us in His words and sacraments to lead us to the Promised Land of eternal life.

    So when the enemy threatens, stay close to the cloudy pillar.  Take refuge in Christ.  For He says to you this day, “All that I accomplished for you on Good Friday and Easter I now give to you.  Forgiveness of sins, everlasting life, and redemption are yours.  Receive them all as a free gift.  Though you are still in the midst of the battle, look up to me and see my hands outstretched over you.  Know that through Me your victory is assured.  At the end of the day, the devil who dogs you, the sin that grabs at you, the disease and the death that frightens you–all of them will be defeated enemies.  Just look to Me and cling to Me.  You are safe under the shelter of My wings.  I will work all things, even the evil things, for your good.  For you are those who love Me and whom I have called in baptism to be My own.  It is My good and gracious will to save you.  Nothing in all creation can separate you from My love.”

    That’s why the disciples weren’t sad when Jesus’ ascended, but instead they rejoiced.  And we also rejoice this day, because all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to our Redeemer.  One of us, our Man is on the throne, one who is on our side, our true human brother, Jesus.  He is there at the Father’s right hand as our advocate, our lawyer.  It is written, “Christ Jesus, who died, more than that, who was raised to life, is at the right hand of God (the Father) and is also interceding for us.”  Jesus is speaking on our behalf with the Father even now.  Jesus has won for us the Father’s favor through the shedding of His blood.  Since that is so, since Jesus is on our side, who now can bring a charge against us or condemn us?  Not even the devil himself!  It’s all been answered for by Jesus, and the Ascension shows that the Father has accepted the payment Jesus made.  God the Father has embraced and honored His Son’s redeeming work and has exalted Him and received Him to His side.  

    And here’s where it gets even better still:  by receiving Jesus to His side, the Father has also received you to His side.  For you are in Christ, aren’t you?  You are members of His body.  In that sense, then, you have already ascended to heaven. That’s how sure your salvation is.  It’s not just a future thing, it’s a present reality.  We sang it in the hymn, “He has raised our human nature on the clouds to God’s right hand.  There we sit in heavenly places, there with Him in glory stand.”  And that hymn is based on the words of Ephesians 2: “Even when we were dead in trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ . . . and raised us up together and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”  You’re already in heaven, because Jesus is already there, and you are in Him.  Colossians 3 puts it this way: “Your life is hidden with Christ in God.”  

    What else could give you greater confidence and certainty of faith than that?  Jesus ascended on high so that this Gospel would be preached to you and to all the nations in His name.  And what is done in Jesus’ name is in truth done by Jesus’ Himself.  In the Acts reading Luke spoke of all the things that Jesus began to do and teach before His ascension. That means that even after His ascension He continues to do and teach.  Jesus is still very much with us and among through the ministry of His saving Gospel.  

    That’s why being at divine service is so important.  For this is where the ascended Lord makes Himself accessible to you in the flesh, in His glorified human nature.  People sometimes say, “Well, since God is everywhere, I can worship Him anywhere.  Being at church isn’t necessary.”  But those who think that way are missing the point.  As a wise man once put it, water is everywhere in the air, but if you want a drink to quench your thirst, you need to go to a well or a fountain.   In the same way, the Lord who is present everywhere locates Himself and makes Himself accessible for you with His grace.  The fountain flows from the pulpit and the altar and the baptismal font.  Here is where you come into His presence with thanksgiving.  For here is the gate of heaven.  The right hand of God is extended down into the chancel.  Here is the throne of the King of creation, who comes to you with His true body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.  By receiving this holy sacrament, you are made to be partakers of His divine life.  Heaven and earth come together here in Jesus who ascended in the flesh to be with you always.

    So then, be rid of all your doubts and fears, and believe this Ascension Gospel.  Jesus is Lord over all things for the sake of His church, for you.  Your salvation is complete and secure in Him.  Christ is interceding for you before the throne of the Father.  Jesus is present here to bless you with His words and supper.  And the Lord, who has begun His good work in you, will bring it to completion when He returns on the clouds.  Let us all, then, rejoice in the Ascension of our Lord.

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠