Sunday After the Ascension

Acts 1:15-26; John 17:11-19

I have been thinking a lot about plant life lately. I am not a gardener, but my wife and many of you in the church are, and now is the time of year when growth is happening. Life is springing forth, seeds to buds, buds to stems and leaves, each day growing a bit more. As we water these plants, and as they are warmed and fed by the sun, they reach higher and higher, seeking yet more so that they may continue to grow, to live, to flourish. We, like these plants, began as seeds and continue to grow, but only because Jesus Christ is not here with us but above, beyond us. He sits at the Father’s right hand, and from there, his power reaches via the Holy Spirit to every corner of the cosmos. He is the gardener who sends the Spirit like water, as the Father shines like the sun, preserving, protecting, and nourishing us that we might grow, reach out for more, and flourish everlastingly, signs and embodiments of purest life. 

The Ascension, therefore, is not an insignificant episode in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, nor is it simply a convenience so that he could take his leave of this world. It is inextricable and essential to the mission of God in saving humanity. It is in the Ascension that Christ, in returning to the Father’s right hand (all very analogical and metaphorical language, no doubt), now exercises power over all creation, acting for his people, building his kingdom through the Holy Spirit, and moving us close and closer to the consummation of that kingdom, where we will all see God face-to-face. The Ascension is the logical and necessary conclusion to the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. I am going to make three points to argue this point.

1) Christ was lifted up for our salvation. Hebrews makes this clear when we are told that we are to approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” How are we able to do this? Because, “we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, 2 a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent that the Lord, and not any mortal, has set up.”

The Word, the Son of God, did not just come down and take on human flesh to empathize with our suffering, but also to then return, taking that human flesh with him, so that our bodies too might transcend into God’s presence. Salvation is not just about being justified before God, or being purified because Jesus died for us, or even resurrection. It is all of those things, together accomplishing the fullness of salvation, union with God as recreated people, who never again shall die. As Augustine once put it, “What was lifted up into heaven, if not what had been taken from earth?” Jesus’ humanity, transfigured by his divinity, enables us (all humanity) to return to God. 

2) The Ascension also sets the stage and is the necessary precursor of Pentecost; it is because Christ ascends that he then sends the Holy Spirit. John 16:7 says, Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you.” God in flesh leaves, but in order that God the Spirit may indwell us. Our Acts passage records Christ telling his disciples, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now,” and “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” We are filled with the Spirit, who unites us to Christ, and is our guarantee of salvation, and our guide into the knowledge of Jesus Christ as we exercise faith, hope, and love. He is the water that rests in us, giving life to our roots, our deepest selves, and as we drink deeply we continue to grow.

3) Finally, we have been raised with Christ, who rules over all creation, even now. He reigns, even as the broken world yet resists and strikes at us through all means, whether powers, or health, or discouragements of all kinds. But we are not broken, or defeated, by the worst the world can throw at us. As St. Paul puts it in Ephesians, “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.” He is in authority, and he shall continue to rule into the age to come, which shall never end. His authority often seems absent now, as we see bombs being dropped in multiple wars worldwide, as evil people seem to only grow in wealth and power, as the frailest among us are cast aside. But his power is real, and it is exercised in the mysterious workings of God to eventually bring about his plan. We are only given glimpses, for It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority,” but to receive and trust his Spirit to guide us through the evils of the world, and by witnessing to him bring life, light, and blessing to our surroundings.

Luther once said, “I believe that he is ascended, therefore, he can help me and all believers in all our necessities against all our adversaries and enemies.” Do you believe that? Do you trust him? He and only he can help you, and deliver you from the storm of life. Like the marriage vows many of us said to our spouses, he comforts us, honors and keeps us, in sickness and health, and is faithful to us, forever and ever. 

The Ascension is central: Christ was raised for our salvation (1), sends the Spirit once he does (2), and rules all creation from the Father’s side (3). I conclude with the words of Cyril of Jerusalem: “Do not think that because he is absent in the flesh He is therefore absent in the spirit; he is here in the midst of us, listening to what is said of him, seeing our thoughts, searching our hearts and souls; he is ready even now to present all of you, as you come forward for Baptism in the Holy Spirit, to the Father.” Amen.

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