Sunday, May 12, 2013

Sunday after Ascension, Series C

Sermon on John 17:20-26
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
May 12, 2013 (Sunday after Ascension)

While I was at the Seminary, one of my classmates told me that when he was in grade school he used to hate Ascension Day.  He used to hate the idea that after everything that Jesus and His disciples had been through together, including His whole ministry, His death, and His return from the dead, after all that, Jesus would leave them alone.  Why would He do that?  It doesn’t seem fair.  It doesn’t seem right.  The disciples deserved to have Him around to guide and encourage them as they set about the task of building the new Christian Church which Christ wanted them to build.  But instead He leaves and ascends into heaven.  As this friend of mine grew up, and as he learned more about the Christian faith, he of course realized that Jesus didn’t leave on Ascension Day.  He was no longer visible to them with their human eyes, but He was still there.  After all, He was seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, and that means that He filled the whole creation.  He was with the disciples, and with us, in a way that is even more wonderful than His physical, visible presence on earth.  He, who is both God and Man, is glorified in heaven and with us on earth at the same time.  We who have been baptized into Him have Him dwelling within us constantly as we live out our lives in immersed in our baptismal grace; and that baptismal life is nourished as we hear Him speak to us in the proclamation of the Word, and we receive Him into ourselves through the Sacrament of the Altar.  He who is raised to God’s right hand is our brother, our fellow human being, and at the same time He is with us.  That means that where He is, we are there as well.

Christ describes this glorious reality in our text for today.  This text, by the way, is part of the great “high priestly prayer” which Christ prays on Maundy Thursday, on the way out to Gethsemane.  Before He suffered in our behalf, He prayed for us.  None of us, of course, were alive during Jesus’ earthly life.  We are those who, in His words to Thomas, have not seen and yet have believed.  We are the ones Jesus prays for in this section of the prayer, who believe through the word proclaimed by the apostles.  He prays that we may be one with each other and with Him, even as He is one with the Father.  He prays that we might be with Him where He is, and that we might behold His glory.  He prays that the love with which the Father loves the Son may extend to us as well.  He prays, in other words, that we might join Christ in His heavenly existence, that we might partake of the life of the Godhead Himself.

When Christ ascended into heaven, He showed to His apostles, and through their Word to us as well, that these things He prayed for have come true for us.  You see, where He is there we are as well, because He is part of us, and we are part of Him.  He is part of us, because He took upon Himself a human nature when He was born of the Virgin Mary.  We are part of Him because we were baptized into Him and have received His Word and His body and blood, and we have been nourished by Him as branches are nourished by the vine.  Where He is, there we are as well.  He is united with the Father, and we are united with Him, and through Him, with the Father.  He is glorified, and we are also glorified with Him.  He is loved by the Father, and we are loved with Him.  Of course, Christ was at the Father’s right hand all along; He was ruling the world all along; He was glorified all along; He was in the Father’s love all along, even while He was walking around here on earth.  But what happens in the ascension is Christ shows us that these things are true of Him also according to His human nature, and that because these things are true of Him as man, mankind shares in them.  We share in them.  In the words of our hymn of the day, “He has raised our human nature On the clouds to God’s right hand; There we sit in heavenly places, There with Him in glory stand.  Jesus reigns, adored by angels; Man with God is on the throne.  By our mighty Lord’s ascension We by faith behold our own.”

But as we think about that, as we think about the fact that we are with Christ where He is at the Father’s right hand, that we share in the love of the Father and behold Christ’s glory, this raises a question.  Do we show forth to the world around us that this glorious reality is true of us?  Does the world know through us that the Father sent Christ and that Christ has sent us?  That’s one of the things Christ prays for in this text.  Does the world know that we are perfectly united as one in Him?  Or does the world see the Church as just another human organization, full of silly fights and arguments and petty grudges and pride?  Putting it more personally, has your selfishness, your sinfulness, and your pride contributed to the negative view the world around us has of the Church here in this place?

If we examine ourselves with this question in mind, we will see that, yes, it has.  I think we can all identify incidents in our life when our behavior has contributed to the poor view the world has of the Church.  Fortunately the unity which Christ brings to us, the love of the Father which He shares with us, and the knowledge of God which Christ declares to us, these things are stronger than our petty little sins.  The Church is one.  We confess this in the Creed: “I believe in one holy Christian and apostolic Church.”  Wherever Christ is, there His people are.  Even though because of false teachers we cannot always recognize the Church in some places, Christ knows where His sheep are, and He is present with them, just as He is present with us, and through Him we are all one.  This unity may be hidden from the world sometimes, but it is there.

By the way, some people have used this Gospel lesson to argue that all the different churches that are around, the Presbyterians, the Roman Catholics, the Methodists, the Orthodox, the Lutherans, and so on, ought to ignore their doctrinal differences and become one big denomination.  This isn’t what Jesus is saying.  All that would happen then would be that we would all be arguing with each other about doctrine inside one church structure, rather than between different church structures.  But we would all still be as divided as we ever were.  As far as I’m concerned, if we are going to be divided about doctrine, we might as well be honest about it and keep our churches separate as well.  Of course, on the other hand, we as a Synod ought always to be talking with the denominations around us to see if perhaps we can resolve some of the doctrinal differences that keep us apart from others.  Where divisions within congregations and even within and between denominations have been caused by the sins of pride and self-serving ambition, rather than by the reaction of Godly people against false teachers, there our text does convict the sinner and bring him to repentance.  But unity at the price of truth is no unity at all.  Instead of a false, superficial, external unity between religious denominations, this text talks about the true unity that is granted by Christ Himself through His forgiving and renewing presence by the power of the Holy spirit.

Christ didn’t leave His apostles alone when He ascended into heaven.  Instead He showed them that because He is always with us, and we are always with Him, that we too now partake of the Father’s love, the Son’s glory, and the unity which we have by the power of the Holy Spirit.  What He prayed for on Maundy Thursday before going out to Gethsemane was shown to be true on Ascension Day.  And now Christ comes to us.  As we daily drown our old Adam in the water of our Baptism so that a new man daily comes forth and arises to live before God in righteousness and purity forever, as we hear the proclamation of the Word of God and study and meditate upon that Word, and especially as we receive into our bodies the body and blood of Christ Himself, we are continuously united with Christ and the Father, and through them with all other Christians, not only those who are living, but also those who have passed on before us.  The God-Man who gave up His life for us now unites us with Himself and with one another through His own body and blood.  This is why the Sacrament of the Altar is called “Holy Communion,” because not only is it a communion, a fellowship, between the bread and the body, and between the wine and the blood, but also it is a fellowship between Christ and us, and through that Christ creates and sustains our fellowship with one another.  As you receive Christ’s body and blood today, you will be showing to the world that you are one with Christ and that we are one with each other through Him, and that we recognize that unity in our common confession of the true doctrine.  We eat and drink of Christ and so be joined to the love and the fellowship of the Holy Trinity.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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