Ascension Day, May 16, 1999| Rolf D. Preus| Isaiah 57:15; Acts 1:1-11; Mark 16:14-20
Where do you go to find God? The Christian knows. You go to Jesus. Last week we saw how it is only through Jesus that God is our Father and that we may pray to him with the confidence of children with their loving Father. We find God when we find Jesus. So we ask, Where do you go to find Jesus?
Now we are immediately faced with a mystery. It appears as if Jesus is gone from us. He went up into the sky until a cloud hid him from sight. He talked about going away and then he went away, promising to return. He said that if he didn’t go away, the Comforter would not come. So it appears as if Jesus is gone from us, that he is absent, somewhere else.
On the other hand, Jesus promised his disciples that he would never leave them. He said, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) He said, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20) Jesus is present with his church, not absent from his church.
How can this be? How can he leave and yet not leave? How can he talk about being present with his church while at the same time he talks about leaving and coming back? St. Paul explained it this way in his Epistle to the Ephesians. In discussing how God the Father raised His Son from the dead he wrote:
He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far
above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not
only in this age but in the age to come. And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him
to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all
in all. (Ephesians 1:20-23)
We should not expect to see Jesus walking the streets of Palestine as he did nearly two thousand years ago. Still, he is present with us. He did not ascend into heaven to be absent from his church. He ascended in order to fill all things so that he could be present with his church everywhere at all times. Now this is a wonderful mystery. Jesus is not limited by space and time as we are. He can be and is present in various different places at the same time. He ascended into heaven and is even now at the right hand of the Father. The “right hand of God” is not a geographical location millions of miles away from us. It is not as if Jesus is stuck somewhere else, absent from his church, where he sits on a throne thinking about us. Or that he watches us from afar maybe on a giant television screen that shows him what’s going on here on earth. No, Jesus is here. The “right hand of God” is a figure of speech that means Jesus has equal power and authority to God the Father. It means that he who was humbled is humbled no more. He lives to rule over his church and he does.
When we call Christ’s ascension into heaven and his session at the right hand of God a mystery we are using a biblical term. St. Paul wrote about the mysteries of the faith. In 1 Timothy 3:16 he wrote,
Great is the mystery of godliness:
God was manifested in the flesh,
Justified in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Preached among the Gentiles,
Believed on in the world,
Received up in glory.
It is called a mystery because no human mind can fully understand it. We simply believe it because God himself reveals it. In 1 Corinthians 4:1, St. Paul refers to pastors as “stewards of the mysteries of God.” Our job is not to figure out these mysteries but to teach them, to place them before God’s people as clearly as we can.
How the mysteries of God can be true only God knows. How can Jesus be present with us here at (First American Lutheran Church in Mayville) River Heights Lutheran Church in East Grand Forks and at the same time be present with Christians on the other side of the world? I don’t know. John Calvin, the famous Swiss theologian and the father of the Reformed churches, figured out that Jesus wasn’t really present with his church. Calvin was quite bright. He was familiar with the philosophy of the ancient Greeks. Aristotle had shown that the finite could not contain the infinite. That’s the kind of thing people think about when they don’t have enough work to do. At any rate, John Calvin agreed that the finite could not contain the infinite, so he concluded that since man is finite and only God is infinite, that Jesus was present with his church only according to his divine nature. Christ’s human nature, according to Calvin, was finite. He could not be in more than one place at one time. So he insisted that the “right hand of God” was a place far away from us. Jesus in his human nature was absent from his church, according to Calvin. Calvin’s teaching is very reasonable. Calvin’s teaching is also very wrong. Reasonableness might be a good way to judge politics, law, or even ethics. It is a very poor way to judge theology. We Christians must daily confess that our own human reason is completely corrupted and stained by sin. We need to submit humbly to the word of God even when it teaches us things that are completely unreasonable. Calvin’s highly educated human reason led him to deny that the bread of the Lord’s Supper really is Christ’s body. After all, a human body is finite and cannot be at more than one place at the same time. So says Aristotle. So says human reason. So says John Calvin and his disciples. So say most Protestants who follow the same reasoning as John Calvin did. But God says something quite different. God promises that Jesus – true God and true man – remains present with his church as he promised. Jesus is not absent. Jesus is present. The whole Jesus, in both his divine and his human natures, is present wherever his gospel is proclaimed and whether his sacraments are administered. Let human reason whine and complain about how it cannot understand this. Faith believes this because God says it. It was surely against the error of John Calvin that the hymnist wrote this wonderful stanza about the Lord’s Supper:
Though reason cannot understand yet faith this truth embraces;
Thy body, Lord, is everywhere at once in many places.
How this can be I leave to Thee, Thy word alone sufficeth me,
I trust its truth unfailing. (TLH #306 vs. 5)
This truth is important. It is not a mere theological detail. Jesus, our God and our brother, is here with us right now. He is here in this room. But how often do we talk as if this just isn’t so? We talk about Jesus in the past tense, as if he isn’t here anymore, as if Jesus’ ascension into heaven was his way of avoiding us for a couple of thousand years. But nothing could be further from the truth! It is the ascended Jesus who rules over his church on earth through his holy gospel. You hear a minister talk, but it is Jesus who gives the gospel to you and assures you that he loves you, has suffered for you, and lives to intercede for you. You listen to a man’s words, but it is Jesus who baptizes the baby, and it is Jesus who gives his people to eat and to drink of his body and blood for the full and free forgiveness of all their sins.
When you pray in Jesus’ name, when you suffer losses nobody can understand, you need to remember this precious mystery: Jesus is present with you. As both true God and true man, Jesus is present with you. As your God who can do anything you ask, Jesus is present with you. As your brother who has felt all of your pain, Jesus is present with you. With so much talk these days about compassion and true empathy, that is, the ability to feel the suffering of another, only Jesus who truly knows what you suffer. Do you face temptation? He faced the same temptation. Do you suffer from guilt? He who bore the sins of all people felt the guilt of all those sins. Do you wonder if anybody in this world can understand specifically what troubles you? He can and he does. He can as the all-knowing God who made you. He can as your dear brother who took your place and suffered everything you have ever suffered and more.
This is the Jesus who is here with us whenever we gather in his name. St. Paul said it so plainly in 1 Timothy 1:15, “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” Yes, and he still does it. He still saves sinners right here in this world. And this is how he rules over us. He dies for us and rises again. He assumes his full authority as the Son of God and Savior of the world. Jesus reigns. Jesus is Lord. Jesus governs his church. But pay close attention. Watch how he does it. He serves us. He speaks kindly to us. He continually takes off of our burdened souls the sin that would drive us away in despair. He is present in his gospel to do that. He continually washes our guilty conscience clean. He is present in our baptism to do that. He continually feeds us with his precious body and blood. He is present in his Holy Supper to do that. He never stops interceding for us before the throne of God’s grace. This is what Jesus does, and this is what his ascension means. This is what the Bible teaches us when it speaks of Christ sitting at the right hand of God the Father.
Calvin’s baleful influence is surely felt here in America. From the early Puritans to the Moral Majority to the more recent non-denominational independent churches, Jesus the Savior is portrayed primarily as Jesus the example to follow. The children wear the bracelet with the letters, WWJD, “What would Jesus do?” This fad had even found its way into conservative Lutheran circles. I found various WWJD novelties for sale in the on-line catalog for Northwestern Publishing House. Well, Pastor, what’s wrong with that? Shouldn’t we ask ourselves what would Jesus do? Shouldn’t Jesus serve as that model of behavior for our children? Who better than Jesus lived a life worth emulating? Who more than Jesus ought our children imitate?
I agree. No one is more worthy of imitation, and surely every Christian should follow the example of Christ’s deep love and humility. But I ask, how do we think of Jesus? I mean, what do we think about when we think about Jesus? Is he the one who came into our world to set us the example and now has left us to watch from afar as we try to follow it? Is he the greatest moralist of all time whose principles for living will yield success in our personal lives and businesses and relationships? Or do we think of Jesus as the one in whom we may take refuge when our conscience is afraid, as the one who has never left us and never will leave us, but welcomes us again and again as he speaks gently to our sinful and broken hearts and by that speaking gives us that love which knows no bounds, that love which swallowed up our sin and death, and even now rules our hearts. We needed more than an example. There were plenty of them in the Old Testament. We needed more than a teacher. God has been teaching his people for thousands of years. We needed a Savior. And we still need him. This is why Jesus invites us to church and this is why Jesus, our ascended King and Lord will never ever leave his church. We don’t need to ask, “What would Jesus do?” We know what he did. He did what we couldn’t do. He saved us from sin, death, and the devil. And we know what he is doing. He is ruling over his church through the proclamation of his gospel and the administration of his sacraments. So we seek him where he may be found, and we always find the one who receives us and makes us fit to enter heaven. We stay with this Jesus who shows us the Father.
I walk with Jesus all the way,
His guidance never fails me,
Within his wounds I find a stay,
When Satan’s power assails me;
And my his footsteps led,
My path I safely tread,
In spite of ills that threaten may,
I walk with Jesus all the way. (Lutheran Hymnary, #269 Vs 5)