I’m going to depart from the usual custom of preaching on the assigned readings for the Sunday. Instead, I would roll the calendar back three days to Thursday, forty days after our Lord’s resurrection, when the church rejoiced in Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of the Father. I’m doing this because the ascension is the forgotten leg of our Lord’s trifecta of salvation, the triple crown of His death, His resurrection, and His reign. And because Ascension Day always falls on a Thursday, forty days after Easter Sunday, we all too often miss not only the celebration but the teaching of this important fact: Our Lord who was crucified and raised on the third day now reigns over all things as King of kings and Lord of lords ascended in majesty at the right hand of the Father. And we reign in Him.
For this, I would have you hear this reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, the first and second chapters:
For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe, according to the working of his great might which he accomplished in Christ when he raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come; and he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fulness of him who fills all in all.
And you he made alive, when you were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience. Among these we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of body and mind, and so we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God — not because of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 1-2)
The ascension of Jesus is terribly misunderstood, even and especially among Christians. We think He left, gone to a better place, and we’re left to get together and read about Him from a book written by some of His friends. We think “heaven” is a place “up there” somewhere and that Jesus has left this place to go to that place. And in a sense, that gives our old Adam a bit a space to work with. Or so we think. With Jesus tucked off in heaven somewhere that is not here, we’re free to run things as we please. He’s left the show in our hands, so may as well make the best of it while He’s gone before He comes back to dole out rewards and punishments.
But Jesus hasn’t gone anywhere in ascending to the right hand of the Father, because the right hand of the Father isn’t a place as we understand “place.” Think about it. God is everywhere. Omnipresent. So His right hand is everywhere. So Jesus at the right hand of God is everywhere. And just because you can’t see Him doesn’t mean He isn’t there. The resurrection appearances of Jesus show that quite nicely. He’s here, He’s there, He’s wherever He wants to be. In the upper room, on the road to Emmaus, on a mountain in Galilee. He seems to appear and disappear at will. And that’s precisely the point. He who fills all things in every way can appear wherever He wants whenever He wills.
Jesus promised His disciples that He would not leave them as orphans but would come to them and be with them always, that He would never leave or forsake them. And so His ascension is not His leaving His church to fend for itself. No, quite the opposite. His ascension means that He is present with His church, and with the whole creation, in an even greater and more profound way than when He was seen by His disciples. Seeing cannot capture it. In fact to see would get in the way.
In ascending, Jesus withdraws His visible presence to establish His greater sacramental presence. Now He is hidden, not to be seen but to be heard. No one may look upon Him in His unattenuated glory and live. So He hides Himself. A cloud envelopes Him and takes Him from the disciples’ sight. They stare up into the sky, but Jesus is nowhere to be seen. He cannot be seen. And yet He is not gone but with them. Ten days later, at Pentecost, the ascended Lord Jesus would breathe on His church with the fiery wind of the Holy Spirit. The Lord is busy and active, reigning and ruling, lording His death and life over all creation, gathering His church, proclaiming His kingdom, sending His Spirit, praying for His church, interceding for sinners, mediating between God and Man, offering up His sacrifice in the heavenly sanctuary for the sin of the world.
So don’t come away from here thinking that Jesus is not here or anywhere in this world. The Father has put all things under His feet and He fills all things in every way. Most especially, and most importantly, He is present in the water of Baptism, in His Word, in the bread and wine of the Supper, in His holy office, in His church, indeed wherever even as few as two or three are gathered in His name, there He is, reigning in majesty at the right of God, present in mercy to forgive and raise us up.
A second misunderstanding is that Jesus is no longer human in His ascension, that He somehow left His humanity or He locked it up in some closet in His Father’s mansion, like a prom or wedding suit that isn’t needed any more. We do have this tendency to think that sometimes, that it’s beneath Jesus’ dignity to bear our humanity, or that heaven is some place where bodies aren’t needed any longer. We talk that way about our loved ones at their funerals, and we talk that way about Jesus in His ascension. It’s as though we don’t know quite what to do with His humanity. It seems awkward to think of a man, a flesh and blood human being, reigning over the cosmos at God’s right hand. That discomfort is our own discomfort. We aren’t comfortable with our own humanity. We think we need to rise above it, while the Son of God Himself comes down to be with us and become one of us. He’s quite comfortable with our humanity. He wears it well, without Sin.
The incarnation didn’t end with Jesus’ ascension. There was no Jesus suit left behind on the mountain when the cloud enveloped Him. Jesus assumed the throne in His humanity, as one of us. He came down from God in order to bring us to God. He left the royal throne to become Man, and as Man He died, rose, and ascended to bring humanity back to God. When Jesus ascended to glory, humanity ascended to the same glory. Unless Jesus is fully human, now at the right hand of God, He cannot mediate between God and Man, He has no sacrifice to offer, no blood to bring into the heavenly holy of holies, no prayer, no intercession, no redemption. It is precisely for this purpose, to raise up humanity to the right hand of God, that Jesus became Man, suffered, died, and rose again.
So don’t leave here this morning thinking that Jesus in His glory no longer bears our humanity. The Man Jesus, who is both Lord and Christ, reigns from the right hand of Majesty as King of all kings and Lord of all Lords. And He does it for the blessing of His body, the church, of which you are a member. Don’t think that this world is governed by nothing more than some impersonal forces and random events. The course of the cosmos is governed by the One who is God in our Flesh, who bears the marks of His suffering even now to redeem your suffering.
A third misunderstanding is that Jesus’ reign on earth is something that is going to happen in the future, a future kingdom of God on earth in which Christ will reign for a thousand years. You don’t have to go far on the radio dial to hear that. But the truth of the ascension is that the reign of Christ is now. Now have the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ. Now He reigns over all things. Now is the time of His reign on earth as His saints, His church, reign with Him. The work of redemption is done. “It is finished.” The victory over Sin and Death is won. Death has lost its sting, and Sin has lost its power. The Law is fulfilled. Christ has conquered by His obedience and death. As God rested on the seventh day to reign over His creation, so Christ and His church now rest in the creation’s sabbatical thousand years waiting for the consummation, the wedding day, the fulfillment of all things in the resurrection. Then you will see what is now already so.
So don’t leave here this morning thinking that Jesus is coming back one day to set up His kingdom and reign on earth. He already reigns as Lord of all, and you now live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him now in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.
Take it personally. The ascension of Jesus is your ascension too. You are baptized into Him. You’ve been crucified with Him, raised with Him, and as the apostle Paul says, you are seated in the heavenly places in Him. You, baptized believer, are ascended to the glory of the right hand of God in Christ. That’s in Christ. Now in Christ, not yet in you. In you comes on the Last Day, resurrection day, when the same Lord who disappeared in a cloud will reappear in a cloud to raise you from the sleep of death. Then you will see what you now believe. Then you will see and experience in yourself the immeasurable riches of His kindness to you in Christ.
Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ now reigns in glory.
His death is yours. You have died to Sin.
His resurrection is yours. You live to God in Him.
His ascended glory is yours. You reign in Him.
To Him be the glory forever.
In the Name of Jesus,