Fascinating Facets of the Ascension
We confess the Ascension in all 3 creeds, but what good does that do if we don't know what it means that Jesus sits on the right hand of the Father? Do we think He sits there with His hands folded on His lap? Like a precious jewel the Ascension has many facets each more fascinating as they reflect on one another.
What do we know about the Ascension of our Lord Jesus? We know it happened 40 days after Easter. We know Jesus ascended visibly, bodily into heaven. Paul knows more, and this is where he starts. He prays that the Father of our Lord Jesus may give you the Spirit of revelation in order that you might forever know 3 things. Think of it. In our text Paul tells you what God forever wants you to know in sickness in health, in richer in poorer, in gladness in sadness, in life and death.
And what's the first thing he wants you to know about the Ascension? The hope to which God has called you. Zech. 9:12 calls us "prisoners of hope." but Prov. 13:12 lets you know you can escape that prison. It says, "Hope deferred makes the heart sick" You see the truth of the Proverb depicted on the Road to Emmaus. The sad, dejected couple who don't believe Jesus has risen say forlornly, "We had hoped Jesus was going to redeem Israel."
Hope deferred does make a heart sick, but the rest of that Proverb is also true, "But desired fulfilled is a Tree of Life." The hope you've been called to is not good health or happiness here. It's not your candidate winning the election. It's not that your children be prosperous, successful people. If that's all you're hoping for, you're the 3 year-old whose best hope is for a cookie after supper that will be gone in minutes.
The hope of your calling is not the only thing Paul wants you to forever know. He wants you to know that the saints are the inheritance of God. Get that? The only thing God Almighty expects to take away from this universe is the saints? Saints aren't perfect people but forgiven ones who've been washed in the Blood of the Lamb. He's not inheriting the gold; that will melt. God's not inheriting the purple mountain majesty; that will burn up. He's not inheriting the rings of Saturn or the Cat's Eye Nebula; these will dissolve. His inheritance is you, just you. If a relative tells you they are leaving you a particular thing for your inheritance, how much more do you pay attention to it, see to its care?
But there's an even more fascinating thing to know. God wants you to know for now and all time the immeasurable greatness of His power that raised Jesus from the dead and seated Him at His right hand. I think you would be more hopeful and comforted at being God's inheritance if you knew what power God must have if He can raise dead flesh and blood to life and then place flesh and blood in heaven to reign over all things.
There are more facets of the Ascension than these. There's an answer to the restlessness you feel. There's an answer to the homesickness you mistakenly think could be done away with by returning to any earthly home. Augustine said, "Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in Thee." 16th century philosopher Pascal is paraphrased as saying that there is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which can never be filled by a created thing. It can only be filled by God made known in Christ.
What we all want is what the hymn "Nearer by God to Thee" sings. But that 19th century hymn doesn't mention Christ as the means for getting nearer. What gets you nearer is the cross of suffering, a staircase to heaven, and faith. Contrast this with what Paul knows. The Father takes the Son and sits Him on His right hand in the heavens.
Don't think of this as a local place; think of this as every place. It's the Reformed who think of the right hand of God as a local place. You can refute that by saying, "'If the right hand of God be a place, in what place is God's left hand'" (Krauth, 817)? No, it is foolish to form opinions about heavenly things from earthly geometry. We are to form them from the Word of God (Melanchthon in Krauth, 482). Our text describes the right hand of God" as "in the heavenly places." And "far above all rule and authority and power and dominion." Later in Ephesians Paul says Jesus "ascended higher than the heavens in order to fill the whole universe." The right hand of God is not a physical place, but a position of power, majesty, and might where flesh and blood just like ours is as near to God as can be.
But it's not just Jesus who is in this position. All those in Christ are as well, all the Church is. That's what Paul says, "The Father gave Jesus as head over all things to the Church, which is His body." Where the Head is the body must be too. The Church looks at everything through the eyes of Christ; it hears everything through the ears of Christ. Church here is capitalized. We're taking about the one Holy, Christian, and Apostolic Church we confess in in the Creed. We're not talking about people who deny the words of Christ, who aren't built on the prophets and apostles. We're not talking about people who accept the killing of the unborn, sex outside of marriage, or marriage regardless of gender. Such people aren't the body of Christ and so are very far away from God.
Churches who live, move, and are in God's Word, preaching the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins for Jesus' sake, and administering the Sacraments according to Christ's institution, are the Body of Christ. It is His Blood that courses through their veins; it is His Water that quenches their thirst; it is His Words that direct their thoughts, life, and faith. You can't be any nearer to God than to be the very Body of His only beloved Son.
These fascinating facets of the Ascension call forth a reaction. The French would say ca alors [sah ah luhr]. We would say "Oh my!" "How about that!" or "I'll be!" We will say that when we get through our hard heads and harder hearts that all this is Him for me, Him in place of you, Him in behalf of you. Our flesh and blood fallen, sinful, and dying can't even enter the presence of God let alone the realm of heaven. The Message Bible paraphrases Rev. 18:15 saying the sins of Babylon "stink to high heaven." It's not for nothing that the Old Testament again and again describes the Churches sacrifices as sweet smelling before God.
How so? Because they were offered in faith in the One who was coming to be a wrath removing sacrifice. The blood of goats and bulls wasn't sweet before God, but the Blood of His Son is; sweeter than even the Wine He gives with His Blood in Communion. The Body and Blood of Jesus are so sweet that not even in death did they putrefy. They were offered in our place. God gave His holy Son death so that He might give life to dead sinners. God gave His only Son loveless, merciless wrath, so that He might give you sons and daughters love and mercy that endures forever. Ca a'lors! In Christ, I have life, love, mercy, and forgiveness. In Christ, I reign and rule on heavens high throne right now.
Paul says that Christ has a name "above every name that is named, not only in this age but in the one to come" and that "all things are under His feet." Ca a'lors! We're the Body of Christ. That means those feet are our feet. This is just too much to take it. It's like looking at a diamond against the sun. It explodes with light so bright you want to look away, but don't.
You know how we end our prayers "in Jesus' name?" You know how demons, sickness, and sins were sent away "in Jesus' name?" You know how you have been baptized into Jesus' name? You know how I have forgiven you in Jesus' name? You know how Communion bodies and bloods you to Jesus' name? You know how the names of celebrities, presidents, superstars open doors? The name of Christ which you bear as a Christian has far more power and privilege not only in this age but in the age to come.
And what about His feet whose feet we, the Church, the Body of Christ are? Hear the all's. Christ has ascended far above ALL rule, authority, power, and dominion, and above ALL names. And the Father put ALL things under His feet and gave Him as Head over ALL things. Your sins, your worries, your fears are under your feet. Your age, your health, your life, your death, are under your feet because your feet are Jesus' feet. When sins that have been forgiven for Jesus' sake, when worries that have been taken out of our hand in Jesus' name, and fears that have been banished in Jesus' name rise up against us, it's as strange, as wrong, as bizarre as the footstool our feet are resting on standing up and towering over us.
In the 70's these big gaudy rings were popular. They were bright and faceted, but they were worthless. I don't think people took much thought of what happened to them. But real deal diamonds are another matter. The question is: Is the Ascension a real deal diamond? Most Christians churches don't have special services devoted to it. Even among our kind of Lutherans the Ascension is losing ground. The diamond is getting rougher and on its way to costume jewelry. Consider the fact that our hymnal has 12 Ascension hymns in it; the latest hymnal has just 5. Not much to ca a'lors about apparently.
But we can't just drop the Ascension as if it didn't happen. If we do that, then the Easter accounts are no more than stories of the Spirit of Jesus appearing. A spirit can just fade way, but a physical being must go somewhere. Something must happen to him (Adapted from Miracles, 242-3). Jesus went somewhere far above the heavens to fill the universe with the very same flesh and blood we have.
And hear the confidence and comfort Luther takes from this fact, hear this German shout ca a'lors: "'Our solace, boldness, self-confidence, security, victory, life, joy, our honor and glory are seated up there in person at the right hand of GodSatan we dare you to touch a single hair of His head''' (Brecht, III, 353). I dare him to touch any part of His Body. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Ascension Sunday (20160508); Ephesians 1: 16-23