He's not the Man He Used to be
"He's not the man he used to be" is a statement made to indicate someone has changed. Can we say this about Jesus whom Hebrews says is the same yesterday, today, and forever?
On Ascension Sunday as we celebrate the bodily ascension of Jesus into heaven we can say Jesus is not the Man He used to be. He's bigger, grander, mightier than before. We don't really "get" the Ascension if we think it is just a change in location. Handel's Hallelujah Chorus, which is about the Ascension, will hardly explode from the mouths of people who think Jesus is still the Man He used to be when He walked the dusty roads of Palestine in the 1st century.
He's not. No more does this Man humble Himself. No more does this Man deliver Himself into the hands of sinners for them to do to Him whatever they please. No more does this Man not use His divine powers fully as a man. No more does the Creator of all things go hungry. No more does the Lord of all humanity suffer their inhumanity. No more does the God of all flesh and blood allow His flesh to be bruised and His blood to be shed.
Your Jesus is too small. Get rid of that anemic picture of Jesus you have painted on your brain: the one where all the color is drained from His face, where He looks wimpish and sickly. Delete that picture. Jesus is no longer a Man of sorrows but one of joy. He's no longer a Man acquainted with grief; He's acquainted with heavenly celebration. He no longer bears the griefs and sorrows of the world on His shoulders as punishment for sin. No a regal, heavenly mantle now drapes the shoulders of this Man.
Jesus is not the Man He used to be. In the wilderness after battling Satan for 40 days He needed angels to come and minister to Him. Once in Gethsemane He needed an angel to strengthen Him. But now the Man who relied on their ministry commands and directs them. The Epistle tells us that the Man Jesus ascended "far above all rule and authority and power and dominion." These are names for the angelic ranks now at Jesus' command. While He walked the earth, Jesus had to pray to His Father if He wanted the help of angels. Now the Man commands them directly.
Our view of Jesus has to be lifted up out of Judea and Galilee and raised all the way to the throne room of heaven. That's where the Gospel takes us. Luke ends with Jesus ascending into heaven. Revelation begins in heaven, and there we see the Man Jesus in a whole new light. Four wonderful beings surround His throne; elders cast down their crowns before Him. Angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven praise Him.
Jesus is not the Man He used to be. When He walked the earth, He went from Nazareth, to Capernaum, to Jerusalem, and so on. This Man, Jesus, was only at one place at one time. If your child was sick in Capernaum and Jesus was in Jerusalem, you had to send for Jesus. If Jesus was in the Temple, He couldn't be with Mary and Martha in Bethany. When Jesus was on the shore praying and the disciples were caught in heavy seas, the Man Jesus had to walk out into their space.
Not anymore. Ephesians 4 says that the Man Jesus "ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe." There is no place that the Man Jesus is not. There is no place that the human nature of Jesus is not. People have no problem with Jesus' divine nature being everywhere. They readily accept Jesus being invisibly present in His divine nature wherever they may be. But that was always the case even when Jesus visibly walked the earth. As the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus never ceased to be everywhere all the time. On Christmas when Jesus lay in the lap of the Virgin Mary, He didn't stop being everywhere the Holy Trinity was. He remained the all-knowing, all-powerful, present-everywhere God the Son.
However, since the Ascension, Jesus is not the Man He used to me. Now His human nature has been exalted to the right hand of God. Now also according to His human nature there is no place that the Man Jesus isn't present. This is not how is: Jesus divine nature is everywhere; Jesus in the Spirit is present everywhere, but His human nature is confined to heaven sitting on the right hand of God physically.
No, since the Ascension, Jesus is not the Man He used to be. Now His human nature fully uses all the power and prerogatives of His divine nature. He is in Capernaum and Jerusalem at one and the same time. The Man Jesus occupies all of heaven and He is everywhere on Earth. He's in the deepest depths of the oceans and on the highest peaks of mountains. Jesus fills the earth, the solar system, the galaxy, and the universe. The Man Jesus has gone and is at where no man has gone before.
After His Ascension, Jesus is not the Man He used to be. Gone should be our picture of a meek and mild Jesus; in its place should be a picture of Jesus as the cosmic ruler of all. However, sometimes we say someone's not the man he used to be in a bad way. A man doesn't remember his roots; is not as kind as he once was; thinks he's too good for us. If we think the ascended Jesus is so far above us that He has little more to do with us, we're saying He's not the Man He used to be in bad way. In fact, we're using it falsely. Jesus is the Man He used to be.
Jesus is still 100% true Man. The Ascension is not Jesus putting off His flesh and blood. Jesus doesn't peal off His human nature as a molting insect does its exoskeleton. The Ascension is the Man Jesus, an air breathing, heart pumping, bones, tendons, and skin human being, sitting down on heaven's throne to reign supreme over all things visible and invisible.
Do you realize what a radical confession of faith that is? Most of us have grown up with this faith and so it seems "normal." It's anything but. The idea of flesh and blood being in heaven at all is totally contrary to what people naturally believe. Cicero speaking of Hercules in heaven said that his body was not taken into heaven "'for nature would not permit a body of earth to exist anywhere except on earth'" (In City of God, NPNF, i, ii, 481). Likewise, Plutarch shows you the faith of the 1st century A.D. as well as that of the 21st. "We must notcontrary to nature, send the bodiesof good men to heaven; but we must really believetheir virtue and their souls are translated out of them" (Noble Romans, 24).
People don't naturally believe a Man sits on heaven's throne. No, a god in blinding light does. They expect to see a light at the end of a tunnel waiting to embrace them. People expect to be in heaven spiritually where they will commune with a god who is spirit. That's not what the Ascension teaches. The God-Man Jesus is on heaven's throne ruling all things, and Jesus is still the Man He used to be. Yes, the very same Man who suffered and died to win heaven for you will embrace you physically in heaven.
Listen to the Ascension readings. Jesus led them out as far as Bethany, walking physically beside them. Then Jesus raised His physical hands, showing once more the holes the nails had physically made. And then Jesus was physically carried up into heaven. All this shows that one day the Jesus who spread His physical arms to be nailed to a cross is going to spread those same arms to physically embrace you in heaven. The Jesus who suffered the pangs of hell bodily on your behalf is going to let you wrap your arms around that same body.
Jesus is the same Man He used to be. Having His human nature exalted to heaven's throne hasn't changed Him in the least. He's still the Good Shepherd who loves to carry smelly sheep. He's still the waiting Father eager to hug and forgive prodigal sons covered in pig manure. He's saying from heaven's throne what He said from earth's cross, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." He who prayed on earth for the fallen to be restored, the broken to be made whole, and the filthy to be washed clean is still praying so today. Romans 8:34 says, "Jesus is at the right hand of God interceding for us."
You know on earth you need a license to practice law. Only the God-Man Jesus is licensed to practice in God's heavenly courtroom. 1 John 2:1 says, "If anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous One." The Ascension guarantees your Advocate is there. The Man Jesus is there with the sweet odor of grace when the stench of your sins reaches high heaven. He's in heaven to plead for mercy when there is no reason on earth for God to be merciful. He's there to advocate your cause when Satan or your own conscience bedevils it.
Jesus is not the Man He used to be in that He now fills all things, but He is the same Man in that He promises to meet His disciples at certain places just like He did when visibly on earth. He told them He would meet them on the other side of the sea and He did. He told them He would meet them in Galilee and He did. Jesus still does that.
Jesus promises that though He rules the cosmos with His Word, He still wills to meet you here and teach you personally through sermons and Bible classes. And though Jesus blankets the universe with His presence, He still promises to cover you in a special way in Baptism saying that as many of you who have been baptized have been clothed by Him. And even though He is as far above earth as heaven itself, He is as close to you as what you eat and drink. He promises to meet you for dinner on a weekly basis. He even promises to be Dinner feeding you with His Body, refreshing you with His Blood.
When you're tempted to think lowly or lightly of the ascended Jesus, remember He's not the Man He used to be. When you're tempted to think Jesus is too far beyond you to care about or for you, remember He is the Man He used to be. There's comfort in both thoughts. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Ascension Sunday (20140601)