How Can the Absent Christ Be Present?
This is the last sermon in a series of 13 dealing with "Questioning' the Sacraments." Tonight we bring it all together facing the question of how the absent Christ can be present still.
That He is absent we can't deny. Luke makes this clear. Although Luke writes both his Gospel and Acts to the same man he includes the Ascension both times. In his Gospel Luke simply says, "While He was blessing them, He left them and was taken up into heaven." In Acts he writes, "He was taken up before their very eyes and a cloud hid Him from their sight."
The angels too confirm that Jesus is gone. They tell the disciples looking up at only a cloud, "This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen Him go into heaven." The Church acknowledges this by snuffing the Christ candle that has been lit since Easter at the point the Gospel says, "He left them and was taken up into heaven." Something is different now. No more would Jesus pop in and out. No more would He walk and talk visibly with His disciples. We won't see Him that way again till He returns in glory.
But this is good news. Did you catch that in the text? What does the risen Jesus tell the weeping Mary Magdalene to tell the disciples? That He has risen? That's what you'd expect wouldn't you? But that's not what Jesus said. He said, "Say to them, I am ascending." The big news is not that He has risen from the grave victorious over their sins, our death, and the power of the devil. The big news is that He is ascending to God the Father. On Maundy Thursday Jesus told them a similar thing saying, "It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Holy Spirit will not come to you. But if I go, I will send Him to you."
Jesus ascending means that His work of redemption is done. Remember Jesus carried the sins of all people. Heaven is closed to sin even when carried by a perfect Jesus. But heaven opens to receive Jesus today because He paid for, atoned for all sins. Isaiah says the Father saw the suffering of Jesus and was satisfied. His wrath against sin and sinners was quenched. Marred by none of His own sins and no longer covered with ours, heaven gates had to open wide to Him. "Well done My good and faithful Son," boomed the Father's voice, "Come reign with Me."
So Jesus isn't here to go look at. Jesus warned us, "See that you are not led astray. For many will come in My name, saying, 'I am he!' and, 'The time is at hand!' Do not go after them." Jesus is not appearing in a stadium in Florida, in French toast at I-Hop, or in a tie-dye t-shirt. He has ascended to the right hand of God, and that's where He visibly remains till the world's end. Scripture locates Jesus there for your comfort. Because He is there John can say that when we sin we have an Advocate with the Father and Paul can say He is at the right hand of God interceding for us.
There is a locatedness to our God in Christ. His is at the Father's right hand, but because we can visibly locate Him there doesn't mean He limited to being there. Ephesians says the right hand of God is "far above all rule and authority, power and dominion." And that Christ "ascended higher than all the heavens in order to fill the whole universe." Before the Ascension, Christ didn't always use His divine power to be everyplace all at once as a Man, but after He did. Before the Ascension when the Man Jesus was in Galilee He wasn't in Judea, when He was in a boat He wasn't on shore. Now, the Man Jesus is everywhere all the time because the right hand of God fills the universe.
Something has changed in the Ascension and it's for the better. Our text makes this plain. Jesus says the reason that Mary is not to cling to Him is "because I have not yet ascended to the Father." That means after the Ascension she can cling to the body and blood of Jesus, she can cling to the physical Jesus. But once again we're back to how?
Before we look at the how we want to look at the fact that the absent Christ is present. We know this because He promises it. Before His ascension, Jesus promises, "I will be with you always even to the end of the age." This is more than what TV promises: that dead loved ones live on in our hearts and memories. This is more than feeling Jesus' presence. This is more than the Holy Spirit assuring you of Jesus' presence. There's a world of difference between being with someone in spirit and being with them tangibly, "touchably."
The Church confesses Her Lord Jesus is with Her still today tangibly, "touchably," really. The Body of Christ cannot live detached from Her Head Christ anymore than a branch can from a vine. The Church finds Jesus present in His Word and Water. We stand at the Gospel reading not because we need to stretch our legs but because the Gospel reading is Jesus' mouth speaking into our ears. That's why before He speaks to us we chant, "Glory be to Thee O Lord," and after He speaks we chant, "Praise be to Thee, O Christ." And we're not chanting to a Christ far away in heaven but present right here, right now in His Gospel.
Though you hear a pastor's voice when you're absolved, it is the voice of your risen and ascended Jesus for He promised, "The one who hears My pastors; hears Me." Though it is the lips of the pastor that move when you are absolved it is the risen and ascended Jesus who is forgiving your sins in this time and place. That's why part of the liturgy for private confession includes the pastor asking, "Do you believe my forgiveness is God's forgiveness?" It's the same with Baptism. It's the pastor's hand in the water, but it is the hand of Christ that does the baptizing. Paul says as many as have been baptized have put on Christ not their pastor. Peter says in Baptism we've been sprinkled with the Blood of Christ not the pastor's blood.
Before absenting Himself in a visible way, Jesus promised that He will be with us always. The Lord keeps His promises through Words that forgive and teach us, through Water that cleanses and rebirths us, and most of all through the Bread that is His Body and the Wine that is His Blood.
If you want to know what the invisible God who reigns and rules in the heavens is really like; if you want to know what His real intentions are towards repentant sinners, then you must hear these Words from the lips of Jesus about the Bread and Wine on that altar: "Take eat; this is My Body given for you. Take drink; this is My Blood shed for you." Right here in this physical place for a single moment life is the way it is suppose to be in all moments and will be in eternity. Man is joined to God without barriers. Men and women are again walking with God in Eden's garden. Where are their sins in this meal? Carried away on His Body; washed away by His blood. Where is death in this meal? Swallowed up by the One who is Everlasting Life. Where is the Devil in this meal? Nowhere to be found for the Devil has no part and wants no part of God the Son.
By Baptism and Absolution the Lord is certainly very much with us, by us, in us, for us, but Holy Communion is special. It is the only Sacrament where all five senses testify to you of the gracious presence of Jesus, your God and Savior.
St. Chrysostom speaks of the sense of touch saying the pastor, "Constantly handles the common Lord of all." He speaks also of the sense of taste saying, "You have been counted worthy to touch His flesh with your tongue." Our sense of sight is involved too. As the Old Testament Church saw Christ in the pillar of cloud, so we see Him in Bread and Wine. So is our sense of hearing involved. It is the Lord who invites us to lift up our hearts. It is the Lord who invites to take eat, take drink. Even our sense of smell is involved. St. Paul says Christ has an aroma. To those being saved it is a sweet smell. To the lost it is the stench of death. There is an aroma of sweet wine about the Holy Communion because here Christ is present to share sweet forgiveness and life eternal.
We celebrate Christ ascending bodily into heaven today by gathering around a feast on earth of His Body and Blood. Christ ascended into heaven to bring heaven to earth. This is how St. Chrysostom saw it. He says of the Communion service, "At such a time angels stand by the priest, and the whole sanctuary, and the space around the altar is filled with the powers of heaven in honor of Him who lies thereon."
There is a real communion in this time and place of our God in heaven and us on earth. It's a real communion between His Body and Blood and ours. It's a real sharing of these mortal bodies with His immortal one. As we sing in a hymn, "O Lord, we praise Thee, bless Thee, and adore Thee, In Thanksgiving bow before Thee." We bow here because of the reality of the Lord's presence. Look at what a group of people bow before and you'll know a lot about them. We bow before visible Bread and Wine because we know it's much more: It's Christ's Body and Blood. A Reformed Christian thinks it's blasphemous that God should become a wafer and wine and we bow before them, but then again, it is blasphemous to Muslims that God became a carpenter in Galilee and people bowed before Him.
We glory in both facts. We celebrate and revere as a poem says: "That God became man in Palestine and lives today in Bread and Wine." Our God no longer walks the earth visibly in Palestine but we still see Him today in Bread and Wine. This reality is the center of our church, our worship, our lives. English author Chesterton ridiculed "men who took off their hats in Christ's church while denying He was present on His altar." That's true. How silly to show any respect if there's never anything here but bread and wine! But if you believe your God is visibly here in Bread and Wine, well that changes everything, doesn't it? Even in the presence of earthly royalty people act differently. From the shepherds at the manger to Thomas in the upper room what dropped people to their knees was the realization they were in presence of their Lord and God. Wherever His Word and Sacraments are Jesus is still present to us no less than He was to them. The how' will remain a mystery but not the glorious fact. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Ascension of our Lord (20070517); John 20: 14-17