Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Ascension often feels like the poor cousin among church festivals. It is often overlooked and passed over without being missed. There are a few congregations that will worship today. Some congregations will observe the Ascension on this coming Sunday, but that will bump the Sunday After the Ascension off the calendar. Most, I suspect, will simply not observe it at all. This seems like poor treatment for one of the feasts of Jesus, and an event that appears in our Creeds and that St. Luke thought important enough to narrate twice. Maybe we really don’t like good-byes, and we don’t know quite how to celebrate this one.
We understand the reason why we celebrate Good Friday: Jesus’ sacrificial, atoning death on the cross for the salvation of the world. We understand why we celebrate Easter: Because of Jesus’ resurrection, the tomb is empty, and death is defeated. He is risen indeed! Alleluia. But Ascension Day? There are no Ascension Day parades, no Ascension Day sales at the mall. I have never heard anyone say, “Sorry, we can’t make it to church, we’re going to Grandma’s for Ascension Day.” When compared to Christmas and Easter, Ascension seems not to be very important. So, why the Ascension? What does it all mean?
Jesus is Reigning
The facts of the Ascension are summarised in the Apostle’s Creed, “He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father, Almighty.” This is not a return to the way things were before. The world has changed, because now Jesus is its enthroned Lord. The ascension is Christ’s coronation. The Ascension is the proper place for the much loved “Halleluiah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah. Not Christmas. Not Easter. Ascension. “Halleluiah. For the Lord God Omnipotent Reigneth. Halleluiah. The kingdom of this world is become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ and he shall reign forever and ever. Halleluiah. King of kings and Lord of Lords. And he shall reign forever and ever. Halleluiah.”
The feast of the Ascension is the celebration of the present reign of Jesus Christ over all things. Christ had triumphed; the King was returning to His city, to His throne, to sit and reign. Now He reigns over all things. The victory over Sin and Death is won. Death has lost its sting, and Sin has lost its power. The Law is fulfilled. Christ has conquered by His obedience and death and now lives and reigns for all eternity
The resurrection and ascension do not mean that there is life after death; it isn’t even a promise that we’ll go to heaven when we die. To confess that Jesus has ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God, is to claim that God has exalted him . the same Jesus who welcomed the sinners, who suffered and died in shame and rejection by this world is now exalted into the very presence of God himself, and there he receives kingly power. That means that Caesar is not Lord, nor are any of the powers, pursuits, or promises that struggle for control of our lives. It means you owe Jesus your complete and undivided loyalty.
Jesus Christ rules over all creation, and he governs and rules as exalted Lord in the interest of his church, for your benefit. Christ will never stop ruling and governing this universe on your behalf. All things will work for the good of God’s children (Ro 8:28). It means that all things are under his control and for our good. Christ Jesus right now is ruling all things for the sake of his church!
The Ascension tells us that Christ is still in charge. He reigns. That’s so important for us today. As we suffer in fear for our future. In a present time that is filled with pandemic, with chaos, with confusion and one crisis after another. Christ now reigns over this mess. He reigns over every king, every authority, every premiere, ever mayor, over the angels, the devils, the viruses, you name it, he reigns over it. They are all under his feet, the same feet that were nailed to a cross to save us. He is ruling and governing all things for the good of his church, both individually and collectively. When you hurt, he knows it. Your King Jesus knows your weaknesses, and he will give you the strength to endure, to endure to the end. Though many ears seem deaf to the church’s message, there are still those who rejoice to hear the good news. There are still precious souls being gathered into Christ’s church and nurtured here. So take heart. You do not need to fear death, the devil, or the world with all its hostility. Christ lives! He reigns!
Jesus Didn’t Leave Us
At the end of Luke’s gospel and the beginning of Acts, Luke describes Jesus ‘going up’ from earth into heaven. He disappeared in a cloud, and yet he hasn’t gone anywhere. The right hand of God is not a place, as we think of place. Luke is not giving you hints about heavenly geography. God’s right hand is bigger than that! But Jesus hasn’t gone anywhere in ascending to the right hand of the Father. Heaven is simply where God is, and God is everywhere. God does not have a right hand as we do. His right hand is everywhere. Paul says, Jesus “ascended up far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things,” (Eph. 4:10).
Jesus didn’t go to a better place. He didn’t leave this world behind. He didn’t orphan his disciples or go back on his promise, “Never will I leave you. Never will I forsake you. Look I am with you always to the end of the age.” Jesus didn’t leave. He became present in a different way. In some ways more present. Jesus withdrew his visible and physical presence. So, how do we live as Jesus’ followers without his visible, physical presence? To be present visibly and physically means to be in one place and not in another. There are boundaries and edges. But, if you are present everywhere, if you fill all in all, then you can’t be seen. This is why Jesus told his disciples that it would be good for them that he leaves. He fills all in all, which means there is no place where he is not. Jesus Christ, always true God and true man, is still with us, and present everywhere. The resurrection appearances of Jesus show that quite nicely. He’s here, He’s there, He’s wherever He wants to be. In the upper room, on the road to Emmaus, on a mountain in Galilee. He seems to appear and disappear at will. And that’s precisely the point. He who fills all things in every way can appear wherever He wants whenever He wills.
Oh, His visible presence is removed. But He is not removed. His promise stands forever: “Look, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” “The visible presence of Christ has passed into His sacraments” said one pastor long ago. Jesus withdraws His visible presence, but we still have His sacramental presence. Ever since Jesus ascended, we continue to encounter Jesus through the preaching of the Word and the Sacraments, through the fellowship of the church, and through ministry with the poor and the oppressed. He dwells in our hearts by faith. He is present where two or three are gathered in his name. He is present in his office to absolve and baptise and give out his body and blood in the sacrament. He is present in your neighbours for you to love and serve. Jesus is still present with us. There is no where in heaven and on earth where he is not because he fills all in all.
For now, and for as many days as we are given, we have a purpose as Baptised forgiven Christians. That is, to proclaim his reign far and wide. We don’t’ grow his kingdom. We don’t spread the kingdom. We don’t enlarge the kingdom. The kingdoms of this world are already now the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, who reigns forever and ever. Many people haven’t quite gotten the memo yet. But they will. Our task is to proclaim the reign of Christ to the ends of the earth, for as many days as he delays.
Jesus promised his disciples that on Pentecost, which we will celebrate ten days from now, that they would be equipped with power from God to perform their new tasks. The Ascension tell us that the Lord Jesus Christ is King of kings and Lord of lords and that he shall reign forever and ever. The Ascension also tells us that he hasn’t left us. He is still present to strengthen us in faith toward God and love towards our neighbours. “Halleluiah. For the Lord God Omnipotent Reigneth. Hallelujah.”
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.