May 1, 2008

The Ascension of Our Lord: Mark 16.14-20

For forty days, the sign out front has read, “Christ is risen. Alleluia!” Now it’s time to change it, and the other day I was wondering if there was something “Ascensiony” to put there. My first fleeting thought turned out to be inappropriate: “Christ is gone. Alleluia!”

Yet isn’t that the way we treat the Ascension? Christ is gone, so we can live as we please.

Christ is gone, and so His Word can be ignored.

Christ is gone, and we must make our own way.

Christ is gone, but He has left us rules. -OR- Christ is gone, but He taught us to throw away all rules.

But then also, Christ is gone, and so we have no comfort. Christ is gone, and we are left with ourselves – our brokenness, our misery, our failures. Christ is gone, and we have replaced him with constitutions and bylaws, synods and programs, social causes and feel-good music. Yet it all fails, and we are left empty, and finally, alone.

And there is something horrible about being alone. We long for community, to be truly loved and accepted. But even if you find it – in a spouse, in a family, in a friend – you know it comes to an end. We are mortal, unstable and full of corruption.

But throughout Easter we have rejoiced in the victory of Jesus over death. In His body He is immortal, and free of corruption. In the waters of Baptism we were joined to Him, and we also shall be freed from death, freed from the corruption of our bodies, freed from the corruption of our souls by sin. Christ is the firstfruits; those who die in Him shall also rise in their bodies.

Ascension takes this one step further. Ascension fulfills Christmas, fulfills the incarnation. Christ who took on our flesh in the womb of the virgin Mary, was crucified in the flesh, died in the flesh, buried in the flesh, and rose again in the flesh, has now ascended in the flesh into the heavenly places. And that flesh, that human nature, He shares with you. In a mystical yet very real sense, your flesh now sits in the heavenly places. The Apostle says, “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2.4-7). Now we are waiting for the ages to come, when He will show us those exceeding riches of His grace, when we with our bodies shall dwell where He has gone.

Yet He does not leave us alone. Jesus is not gone, but is present with His Church in a new and powerful way. How did our Gospel tonight begin? “[Jesus] appeared to the eleven as they sat at the table.” In the New Testament we are given this pattern, that Jesus meets with His disciples at table. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus showed the disciples that He had fulfilled all the things written in the Scriptures, and then He was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

It is the same way for us. Christ is not gone. He is with us in the breaking of the bread. Here He not only feeds us with His crucified yet deathless body, He not only infuses us with His healing blood, He also speaks to us His Word: “I forgive you.”

Remember how He said, “Wherever two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them”? The Ascension doesn’t change that. Just the opposite – He ascends, is no longer present in the ordinary way, so that He can be present in this extraordinary way, this most wonderful way of being present for us and with us. In that same place our Lord promises that when the Church, gathered in His name, agrees together and asks the Father, the Father will hear and answer our prayers. And again in the same place, He promises that when that church binds sins on earth, they are bound in heaven; and when the church looses sins, forgives sins on earth, they are forgiven in heaven.

So the presence of Jesus is not something that is felt through emotions, although we do have them. The voice of Jesus is not something that whispers inside our minds. The presence and voice of Jesus is located in the Word He speaks to us, forgiving us and guiding us by the Scriptures. The presence and voice of Jesus is located in the absolution the minister says. The presence and voice of Jesus is located in the Holy Communion whereby His crucified, risen, ascended flesh is joined to our poor, lowly flesh.

When things seem to be going poorly for our congregation or synod, remember: Christ is not gone; He is with us, He is our Shepherd, and He is still giving us His gifts.

When things are going poorly for you, or you feel alone, remember you are not alone: the ascended Christ is still with us, and He will not leave you nor forsake you.

When your body is ailing, and you approach death, remember you are not alone. Christ is not gone, but He who endured death and the grave for you will lead you through it, and on the last day, He will bring you to where He bodily ascended. And so we shall ever be with the Lord.

And now let us rejoice, for Jesus of Nazareth, our Redeemer, our Savior, our God, has ascended on high; He has led captivity captive; He has given gifts to men; He fills all things. Where the Head is, there is the body; where Christ is, there is the Church. In His Supper we are with Him in heaven, and He is with us on earth; our sins are forgiven, life is given, we abide in His light and His love, and nothing—nothing—else matters.

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