Ascension Day Sermon| Rev. Rolf Preus| May 24, 2009
But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore He says: When he ascended on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men. (Now this, “He ascended” – what does it mean but that he also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and from and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head – Christ – from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love. (Ephesians 4:7-16)
Ascension Day actually occurs every year on a Thursday. That’s because it is forty days after Easter and ten days before Pentecost. Since we don’t have Ascension Day services on the actual date of this Holy Day, we observe our Lord’s ascension on the following Sunday. This morning I invite you to consider with me this theme: “Christ reigns above with us below.”
But how can he do that? How can he be above and below at the same time? It stands to reason that a man cannot be in two different places at the same time. And because it stands to reason some have forced the Holy Scriptures to agree with this reasonable demand and have taught that Jesus is absent from his church. John Calvin, the famous Swiss reformer, said that since Jesus is at God’s right hand in heaven, he is not simultaneously here on earth. He said that Jesus is here with us only in his divine nature, but that his human nature is confined to the Father’s right hand.
Calvin’s rationalistic approach to the Bible has done untold harm to the church over the past four hundred and fifty years. It has spawned too many heresies and sects even to mention, and it all comes from trying to fit God’s word into a human system of thought. Calvin appealed to the wisdom of the great Greek philosopher, Aristotle, who said that the finite is not capable of the infinite. So Calvin reasoned that God, who is infinite, can be omnipresent (that is, present everywhere), but a man, who is finite, cannot be omnipresent. Therefore, Jesus, can be omnipresent only in his deity and not in his humanity. This is what led Calvin to deny the precious truth that the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Supper are the body and the blood of Jesus. How can Christ’s body be in heaven and on the altar at the same time? Impossible! And so today, many Protestant churches that follow Calvin’s teaching, deny that the Lord’s Supper really is the body and the blood of Jesus, given and shed for the forgiveness of sins. Think of the millions of Christians who are deprived of the great comfort that this holy Supper gives because man elevates his fallen, sinful, reason above the clear words of the Holy Scriptures!
The Bible clearly teaches a different doctrine than the one John Calvin taught. Our text makes it crystal clear that Jesus is not confined to a certain location. St. Paul writes, “He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.” The right hand of God is not a geographical location on the map. It is rather Christ’s position of honor, authority, glory, majesty, and power. All that belongs to the Father belongs to the Son, and everything that Christ has he has as both our God and our brother.
John Calvin and his disciples are wrong to teach that Jesus our God can be where Jesus our brother is not. Jesus is the God-man and there is only one Jesus. He is always our God and he is always our brother. He is always of the same substance as God the Father and he is always of the same substance as Mary, his mother. And this one Lord Jesus, true God, eternally begotten of the Father, and true man, born in time of the Virgin Mother Mary, reigns above with us below.
All things are under his feet. He who was despised, rejected, humiliated, and crucified is the King of kings and Lord of lords. And he shall reign forever and ever. He is the Ruler of the nations. He shatters the nations like brittle pottery as the Psalmist says. He speaks his word and the earth melts. The powerful fall into the dustbin of history. He governs all things by the word of his power. There is no authority anywhere except that which is under his authority. Every unjust ruler, every lying witness, every oppressive and tyrannical despot, all those who shut their eyes to the suffering and the ears to the cries of God’s holy people will one day face Jesus and be judged by him. For it is the same Jesus who suffered, died, rose, and ascended into heaven who will one day return to judge the living and the dead.
Even before rising from the dead, Jesus descended into hell to throw the devil’s defeat right in his face. He who ascended is the One who descended. The devil’s destruction is certain, and with him all evil.
Christ’s ascension into heaven was predicted by the Psalmist who wrote, “You have ascended on high, you have led captivity captive; you have received gifts among men.” (Psalm 68:18) Receiving gifts means that he wins the war and receives the spoils of battle from those whom he has defeated. However, when the New Testament apostle quotes the words of Old Testament prophecy he changes the words “received gifts among men” to “gave gifts to men.” The victory of Jesus over our spiritual enemies is not only a victory in which Jesus does the receiving, but also a victory from which Jesus does the giving. He didn’t ascend into heaven simply for the purpose of being adored, but to serve us.
Who are the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers that Jesus sent? Are they not our servants? Doesn’t Jesus send them to his church to be his ministers as well as the ministers of the church? He who has taken into captivity that which held our souls in bondage now gives us his holy word by which we become and remain free. He gave us the Bible through the apostles. He also established in the church and for the church an office of preaching and teaching this same word that is written down in the Bible. Jesus continues to send men who will be pastors and teachers. Jesus promises that through the holy doctrine they teach his holy people will be perfected. They will be what Christ redeemed them to be. They will be his holy Christian Church.
Our text gives us three things that come about as a result of the preaching of the preachers Jesus sends: The saints are perfected; Christ’s ministry is accomplished; the body of Christ is edified. As the individual saints are set toward perfection, that is, toward the goal of perfect holiness, the ministry of Christ is taking place and the church, that is, Christ’s body, is being built up.
There is a sense in which we are perfectly holy already. God, for Christ’s sake, has already forgiven us all our sins and the gospel keeps on giving us this forgiveness in our need. A saint is a holy person. Every Christian is a saint because every Christian has received the divine verdict that tells us we are righteous, we are forgiven, we are clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ and stand before God free from blame. There is another sense in which we are not yet completely holy. We still have the sinful flesh. We have sinful desires and thoughts that lead us into sinful words and sinful acts. This is why we need constantly to be receiving from Jesus what Jesus alone can give us. We need the work of the ministry.
This ministry of Christ is not the work of men. It is the work of Christ. It is done through men, but is doesn’t come from men. What does the pastor say as he absolves the congregation? He says, “By the authority of God and of my holy office, I forgive you all your sins.” He says, “My virtue of my office as a called and ordained servant of the word.” It is the authority that God gives to this office here on earth. Jesus Himself, who is at the right hand of glory with all the powers of the universe subject to him, exercises this authority through his ministry among us. And this is how Jesus builds up his holy body, the church.
The absolution that Christ speaks to us through his ministers declares us righteous. God says it and so it is. The Jesus who bears our sins to forgive them and who speaks the words to impart this forgiveness to us is also the Jesus whose body we are. He is the head and we are the body. We are joined to him in a union that is more intimate than any other kind of relationship we have in this life. This relationship is called the “mystical union.” It cannot fully be understood except by analogy, but the mystery is that Jesus chooses to join himself to us now and forever. He will not leave us or forsake us. He will not ignore us. As a head cannot forget the body to which it is attached, so Jesus cannot but think of us where we live.
And he understands us. He who bore our weaknesses in his own body knows them intimately, even better than we do. He knows how easily we are distracted and misled. This is why he wants to teach us. Popular teachings are much like popular clothing styles. They come and they go and people follow along. It’s hard not to follow where the strong winds of popular opinion are blowing. This is why we need to be grounded in Christ’s teaching. This is why learning and teaching our children the pure and wholesome doctrine of God’s word is vital to the survival of the church. And this is also why we must learn to love the doctrine that God reveals to us. God is love. His doctrine reveals his love. When we teach and confess his truth we must always do so in love. To contend for the pure doctrine of God’s word without a spirit of humble and self-giving love is to take God’s name in vain. If we aren’t speaking the truth in love, we aren’t speaking the truth at all.
Doctrine is often associated with cold and lifeless propositions that are to be learned and obeyed but that have no spiritual power. But this is not true of Jesus’ doctrine. The doctrine or teaching that comes from Jesus is life giving. It creates life. It joins us to Jesus who is the way, and the truth, and the life. This heavenly teaching is grounded in God’s love for us, and it opens up our minds to understand the depth, the width, and the breadth of that love. We understand, not as the intellectually curious who enjoy a new tidbit of religious information, but as children who are given their true identity and home.
The winds of human doctrine blow hard. Each new trend blows down that which went before. But the holy Christian Church remains. Why? Jesus defends her. He governs her. He who fills all things and governs the whole universe by his word deigns to remain with us and to serve us here below. Where he is, there we shall be because where we are, there he has already been. When he faced the cross of his own public shame, he set his face against the suffering because he saw in the future the great joy he would receive after he had purged our sins in his own body and won eternal joy for us. And so we look to him, the Author and Finisher of our faith, and clinging to him whose blood has bought us we remain here on earth the Holy Christian Church, the body of Christ. Where the body is, there the head is also. Amen