Dear Brothers in Christ,
Behold, today I tell you a mystery: Christ is ascended into heaven. And that is my excuse for sitting at my computer for a half an hour or so after typing that first sentence and before typing this second one. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ's Ascension is a mystery. Paul writes to Pastor Timothy: "Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great: He appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory" (1 Tim 3:16). This holy celebration preaches repentance and forgiveness of sins to us. It forces our proud hearts to the humble recognition that human wisdom is foolishness. We do not truly know the Lord as well as we would like people to think that we do.
For a time we may deceive ourselves into thinking we have got things figured out. Say something enough times and it begins to make sense. Simul iustus et peccator. As Christians, and especially as called and ordained servants of the Word, we speak often of the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection. Behold, these things that we speak of often are also mysterious - yet our familiarity with them de-mystifies them. Each December as we hear the world speak of a jolly fat man who comes from the cold bringing gifts to the nice and avoiding the naughty, we speak of the One who comes from the Father, who took on human flesh because He hungered to do the will of the Father. He only brings gifts to the naughty since it is not the healthy who need a doctor. As we hear the world speak of Mother Nature awakening at springtime and bunnies bringing teeth-decaying chocolate, we speak of the One who awoke from death and whose body saw no decay. "He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification" (Romans 4:25). He whose body hung dead on the tree brings the sweet wine of forgiveness and salvation found in Him. He does this that we may be found in Him eternally safe from decay. We preach Christ crucified - as if it makes sense!
We think it makes sense that God would want Gentiles in the Church - and yet St. Paul says this too is a mystery (Ephesians 3:6). Because we know our fellow non-Roman Catholics have been deceived into de-mystifying the Sacraments by their human reason with believers' watery confessions and bread and wine memorial meals, we recognize for a time that these Sacraments too are mysterious. And yet as stewards of these mysteries we become familiar even with these - until we are snapped out of it by one of our confirmand's verbalizing their misunderstanding that the bread contains a P-I-E-C-E of the Lord because how could the whole body of Jesus fit into such a little bit of bread? And then we are aware again of that great mystery.
But with the Ascension of our Lord, we really are not confronted on a regular basis with false teachings or false emphases. It is just sort of there in the Creed, quickly said, often without much thought, and then forgotten. When was the last time that you spoke extensively of the mystery of the Ascension outside of this week or a Confirmation class? Christ's being taken up in glory just does not come up.
When it does come up, mostly 40 days after Easter by the command of the calendar, we are forced to face the tension of the life of faith and the walking by sight. It is enough to make a young - and not so young - pastor reach for another pastor's orthodox sermon. Jesus ascends, and yet Heaven is not up. The disciples are rebuked for looking into heaven, yet the Holy Spirit inspired St. Paul to instruct us, "Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on the earth" (Col. 3:2). Jesus is gone, however not only not forgotten, but also present always. His body is at the right hand of God, and yet His human nature is never separated from His divine nature. As the Confessions teach, "the right hand of God is precisely the almighty power of God," therefore "He can be and is truly present with His body and blood in the Holy Supper according to the words of His covenant" by this communicated power (FC:SD, VIII.28-9). And not only is He really present in the Supper, but also "where two or three are gathered in [His] name," there He also is in their midst both according to His divinity and humanity.
We could further speak about the paradoxical mystery of what Christians possess even now, and yet not yet - especially as related to our enemies of sin and death. We watch our world heading down sin's path farther and farther, and - sadly - the flock entrusted to us too often walking to the same drumbeat - just like their pastors.
In the Epistle for the Ascension, Paul writes, "God placed all things under [Christ's] feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way" (Eph 1:22-23). This rebukes our human wisdom that wants to walk by sight. Our earthly eyes look for evidence of Christ being in control and sees dreadful voters' meetings, graying congregations, the wandering and erring sheep - and our own rebellious and lazy hearts that do not desire to say, do, or even think about the hard stuff. The evening news brings into our homes the sexual sins of other church bodies, our fellow Americans' who champion same sex marriage, terrorists' bombings, and partisan power politics. And the question is asked, "Is the Ascended Lord in control? Of me? Of the church? Of the world?" And the flocks entrusted to us live this tension too.
The mysterious answer that rebukes our sinful doubt is still a divine yes, God is the Lord of the Nations AND of the Church. In "Law and Gospel" Walther says, "It is a glorious and marvelous arrangement, passing comprehension, that God governs the kingdoms of this world, not by immediate action, but through the agency of men who. are far too short-sighted and far too feeble for this task. But it is marvelous beyond comparison with this arrangement that even in His Kingdom of Grace, God performs the planting, administering, extending, and preserving of His kingdom, not in an immediate manner, but through men who are altogether unfit for this task. This is proof of a loving-kindness and condescension to men on the part of God and. of a wisdom of His that no intellect of men can encompass or sound to its depth. For who can measure the greatness of God's love which is revealed in the fact that God desires not only to save this world of apostate men, but also to employ men from this very world, fellow sinners, for this task? Who can compute the riches of the wisdom of God, who knows how to accomplish the work of saving men by the agency of other men who are quite unfit and unqualified for this work, and that He has hitherto gloriously pursued, and still is pursuing, this work? My dear friends, you are beholding in this arrangement a mighty reason, not only for humble wonder, but also for heartfelt joy and exultation; for in days to come God wants to make you instruments of His grace for this work" (p. 36).
Behold, this week we speak of a mystery that we do not understand - and this mystery is results in our eternal comfort and joy, for that is how the Scriptures present the Ascension. We follow the example of the Apostles who saw Jesus ascend. After worshipping Him, they "returned to Jerusalem with great joy" and witnessed these things from that joy. They were given the Word of God which opened their mouths and moved their pens boldly to proclaim the mystery of the Gospel, that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ and have life in His Name. For the Word made flesh has mysteriously rescued you from Satan's grasp and redeemed you from death. He goes to the right hand of the Father for you, as one of us, to be your Advocate. He paves the way into Paradise for you. For you are His brother and His friend. You are worthy of His love only by the power of His invitation; by the gift of His Name. He has made you a member of the royal family by Grace.
Of course, this is mysterious and does not make sense. The Gospel never makes sense. For if all this was not unreasonable enough, there comes the fact that it is all for free. That is the way of the Gospel - by grace. And that is always a mysterious stumbling block to sinful flesh. It is overly simple: Preach the Gospel to every nation. Let everyone off the hook for free, for Christ's sake, in Christ's Name.
Don't make it work. Don't use guilt - or anything else - to manipulate people. Just preach. Live by faith. Behold, it is a mystery - but that mysterious Word has saved you.
No, we truly are not competent in ourselves to speak of the mysterious Ascension - or any work of God. But this truth throws us back upon the Gospel of the Cross, for we are reminded by our weakness that we are not God. We still need our competency, our righteousness, our salvation to come entirely from Christ (2 Cor 3:5). Or, as St. Paul later wrote to the Corinthians: "But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. It is written: "I believed; therefore I have spoken." With that same spirit of faith we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you in his presence. All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God. Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal" (2 Cor 4:7-18). Amen.
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