Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Ascension of our Lord

Sermon on Mark 16:14-20
For Lamb of God Lutheran Church, Pleasant Prairie, WI
May 13, 2010 (The Ascension of our Lord)

Ascension Day is one of those Church festivals that seems to be overlooked more often than not. We talk about it during the Sundays before and after, we confess it in the Creeds, we don’t forget that the Ascension happened, but not many Lutheran churches in America today have services on the day of the festival itself, and those that do don’t have very many of their members in attendance. Of course, it doesn’t help that it falls on a Thursday every year. In today’s secularized society, there are very few Church festivals that employers and the government actually recognize, for which they allow their employees to take time off. Even Sundays aren’t a day off any more for most people who work in retail, so it’s not surprising that the only non-Sunday Church festival the rest of the world recognizes is Christmas. And so Ascension Day services are usually held in the evening, if at all, and usually not very well-attended.

But while it isn’t surprising given the realities of the world in which we live, it’s also very unfortunate. The Ascension of our Lord is one of the three high festivals that comprise the Easter Season. Easter itself and Pentecost are the beginning and end of this most festive season in the Church Year, but the Ascension is just as high and important a festival as the other two. It’s an integral part of the events that lead from Jesus’ resurrection to the institution of the Holy Christian Church at Pentecost. In fact, it’s an integral part of the salvation Christ won for us.

Now, that last statement may seem odd at first glance. From a human perspective, the Ascension doesn’t even seem to be a happy occasion. Jesus ascends upward from the earth, and then vanishes from the disciples’ sight. He is no longer visible to physical human eyes. It sounds downright disappointing at first glance. Why would Jesus leave them now, only ten days before they were to begin their ministries as apostles and pastors in the Church? Why wouldn’t He, now that He is risen from the dead, stay with them to guide and teach the young Church?

Well, there are a couple of reasons why the Ascension had to happen. Firstly, and most importantly, Jesus is showing the disciples the fact that He is seated at His Father’s right hand, not just as God, but also as Man. He, our human brother, born of the virgin Mary, is now seated at the right hand of God the Father. Where the head of the Church is, there the rest of the Church is as well. The Ascension teaches us that we human beings are now restored to the fellowship of God the Father. Not only that, but God’s right hand is not so much a physical place as it is a status, a position within the Godhead. God is everywhere, so being seated at the right hand of the Father means Jesus as man is everywhere as well. And not only that, but not only His divine nature but His human nature is part of our God’s gracious presence for our salvation. Which means that His body and blood can be, and are, present on thousands of altars every Sunday, eaten and drunk by millions of Christians, without being divided or used up, while at the same time remaining a real human body and real human blood. The Ascension is the festival that teaches us, in other words, that we now have access to the Creator Himself through His Son, and that our human nature now is part of what is saved through the forgiveness of sins won by Christ on the cross. Salvation isn’t a matter of entering some dreamlike state or becoming some sort of angel or other spiritual being; rather what is saved includes every part of our human nature, including our physical bodies, which will be raised up when Christ returns in glory and which will live forever with Him in eternal righteousness and purity. The physical is also redeemed.

And that’s part of what makes it so unfortunate that the Ascension gets ignored by the Church so often these days. Religion seems to be so often made into a private matter that deals solely with the spiritual realm and therefore doesn’t have anything to do with “real life.” In fact, many Americans are suspicious of, or even openly hostile to, politicians and other important people who allow religious considerations to influence their decision-making in any way. The idea that “religion is a private matter” no longer means that Government can’t interfere in religious affairs, but that religion is not supposed to have anything at all to do with the physical, real world, and that those who are influenced by it are themselves not living in the real world. The Ascension is a healthy corrective to that idea, because it is precisely Christ’s physical body, and therefore through Baptism into Him, our physical bodies, that are redeemed and perfected by the salvation won for us by Christ on the cross. It’s precisely the physical world He created that He has now redeemed. It’s precisely the physical, everyday lives we all live, the physical, everyday vocations we all have, that are sanctified by the physical, human body of Christ which is now part of the new creation and eaten and drunk in the Lord’s Supper. The physical is redeemed. We are reunited with our Creator. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +