He Ascended Into Heaven
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Dear fellow redeemed in Christ our Lord. Today is 40th day of Easter, the festival of the Ascension of our Lord. Ascension doesn’t get a lot of attention for some reason, perhaps because Ascension Day never falls on a Sunday; it always comes on a Thursday. Or perhaps it is because people don’t quite know what the Ascension is all about and what significance it holds for them. In spite of that we are going to give attention to it and seek to discover what it means that Jesus “ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”
First, the Ascension should not be understood as our Lord’s departure, as if He is gone from us and in another place. The Ascension is not to be seen as an event where Jesus is simply traveling from one location to another.
Heaven is not simply above the clouds somewhere; Heaven is that unseen realm where God is, an eternal, infinite realm unlimited by space and time. We know from Scripture that God is present everywhere; He is omnipresent. So when we confess that Jesus ascended bodily to the right hand of the Father as true God and true man, we are not saying that He left us, but rather that He has entered into the unseen glory of His heavenly Father and is no longer visible to our eyes as He was then. Contrary to what some may say, the ascension of our Lord does not emphasize Christ’s absence, it emphasizes His presence, especially for the church and in the church.
This glorified presence of Christ began even before the Ascension – it began at Easter. By the power of His bodily resurrection, Jesus was already exalted to heavenly majesty and filled all things. Remember His resurrection appearances? The disciples were gathered together with the doors locked, but suddenly Jesus came and stood among them. He had been there all along, but now He revealed Himself to them visibly. They were invited to touch His hands and side.
Or what about His appearance to the Emmaus disciples? Jesus made Himself known to them in the breaking of the bread and then simply vanished from their sight.
Throughout the 40 days between His resurrection and ascension, Jesus came out of His glory to appear to His disciples and to eat, talk, and walk with them. He did this for their benefit, to show that He had truly risen from the dead. Jesus’ ascension is really no different from the times during that 40-day period when He removed Himself from their sight. It’s not that He went away; rather, He appeared out of glory, and He returned to glory. But His final removal from their sight had to be so convincing that they would no longer expect Him to return until his final appearing. Being lifted up from the earth and covered with the cloud, along with the message of the angels, was to convince the disciples that Jesus would no longer be visibly present among them.
This, in part, is what the Ascension teaches us. We will not see Jesus in the same way the disciples did until He comes again on the clouds in great power and glory on the Last Day. This age of the church in which we live is the age not of the eyes but of the ears; it is the age of hearing and holding to the Word of Christ who is unseen and yet truly present among His people. The glory of Christ is not visible but hidden in His church. Until the second coming, we walk by faith, not by sight, believing these words of Christ, “I am with you always, even to the close of the age.” (Mt. 28:20)
Jesus ascended in order to be with us always. And we don’t gloss over the fact that Jesus ascended in the flesh, for that is the key. It is not just that Jesus fills all things as true God; He also fills all things as true man. Jesus is present not just spiritually but bodily as well. So if you want to come into the presence of Christ, you will seek Him in those concrete and for-sure places where He makes Himself tangibly present for you. Although you cannot see Christ, you can hear Him whenever His Word is preached and taught in its truth and purity. Although you cannot behold Christ visibly, you come into contact with Him wherever His sacraments are rightly administered. It is through those real, physical things that the hidden Christ is perceived and grasped by faith.
But do we properly recognize and observe this reality of Christ’s presence? Especially when we’re gathered for the divine service, do our actions fit with this truth of the faith? Very often the answer is “No.” When a person comes into the real presence of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, it should be obvious that the appropriate attitude is one of reverence and holy awe, not silliness and disrespect. And yet, many people often come into church without honoring Him in any way. All across our land many services are conducted as if Christ is not really there but away in heaven somewhere while we’re doing our own thing here on earth.
That is why you will find that the sacred liturgy of Christ is treated so indifferently, sometimes even discarded altogether in favor of services which focus not on what Christ is doing for us but on what we are doing for Him. That is why the real proclamation of Christ’s living word is sometimes replaced with dramas and entertainment and musical performances that are more fitting for a theater – or a circus – than for a house of the living God. It has even gotten to the point where clowns are being used in worship; there are “blues” services and “rap” liturgies! That is NOT how people should conduct themselves when and if they truly believe they’re in the presence of royalty, standing before the King of creation!
Ultimately, all of this uncovers our unbelief in the truth of the Ascension, of Christ Himself actually being there in His preaching and His Supper.
Dear friends, let us learn again the marvelous and comforting reality of the Ascension, a reality that is still in effect for us today. Just as the watery cloud received Jesus, so also He is there in the waters of Baptism to cleanse you by His Spirit and make you a child of His Father. Just as the two men in white spoke the words of God to the disciples as they were gazing into heaven, so also pastors are sent by the Lord to speak the Gospel of forgiveness right into your ears in His stead and by His command.
And just as it was the body of Christ Jesus that ascended, so also He gives you His very body and blood into your mouth at His table – this table – that you may be partakers of His life. The risen and ascended Jesus is literally present in the flesh in the midst of His church. He who fills all things in heaven and earth locates Himself for you in specific places and times to fill you with His mercy.
The risen Lord Jesus comes to you in this way in order that you might share with Him in His ascension and in His divine majesty. In fact, it is for this very purpose that the Son of God became man. Jesus took on your human nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary so that through His death and resurrection you would be raised from the depths of sin and death to the heights of the life and glory of God. We sang it in the hymn just a moment ago: “Thou hast raised our human nature on the clouds to God’s right hand; There we sit in heavenly places, There with Thee in glory stand. Jesus reigns, adored by angels; Man with God is on the throne. Mighty Lord, in Thine ascension. We by faith behold our own.” (TLH 218:5)
What a powerful confession of faith! Our ascension with Christ is not just something in the future; it is a present reality. Just as Jesus is with us on earth, so also we are with Him in heaven even now. For in Christ God and man, heaven and earth are brought together. Heaven is already yours in Christ. You are already there, because Jesus is already there, and you are in Him. Having died to the world in baptism, Christ has now become the very life of those who believe. Therefore, what is true for Him is true also for you. Your eternal life is hidden and kept safe in Jesus.
That is why we are able to take comfort in Christ’s Ascension. Know that He is Lord over all things for the sake of the church. Believe by faith that He is with you always. For Christ did not ascend in order to be farther away from us, He ascended in order to be nearer to us in His Word and in His Sacraments. And you may be certain and confident that just as Christ shares fully in your humanity, so also in Him you are given to share in the life of God Himself.
As we prayed in the Collect, we pray again: “Almighty God, as Your only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, ascended into the heavens, so may we also ascend in heart and mind and continually dwell there with Him, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.” Amen.