The Ascension of Our Lord (May 13)
May 15-16, 2010 -Text: Luke 24:44-53
Dear Friends in Christ,
This past week, while I was a cemetery for a committal service, the funeral director pointed out a head stone. There was only a head stone. No body. It was the grave of a young woman who had died at sea. Her body had never been recovered. No one even knows for certain just how she died. We don’t know if the body was destroyed or remains someplace at the bottom of the sea. There are many people, for whom we have no remains. Think of those who served aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis. When their ship was sunk by a Japanese submarine, they were left in the water for several days. Some died simply from being in the water. But a large number were killed by sharks. The character of the shark hunter played by Robert Shaw in the movie “Jaws”, was supposed to have been a survivor of the U.S.S. Indianapolis.
When we think of people who lived more than a thousand years ago, not having a body is more the norm than the exception. We did find the remains of Joseph Caiaphus, the high priest who condemned Christ. But basically we could say that we don’t have definitely identified remains for virtually all the people mentioned in the Bible. So it is not unusual that Jesus’ body has never been found. But what is different in the case of Jesus is that His body could never be found in a grave. I can tell you exactly where we can and do find the body of Christ, but it’s not in a grave. Jesus didn’t rise from the dead and then die again. In fact, He could not die again.
Forty days after Christ rose from the dead, Jesus led His disciples out to the Mount of Olives, just outside Jerusalem. From there He had made His coronation entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. And from there He was about to make His coronation entrance in the heavenly Jerusalem. You see we don’t believe in a dead Jesus, but a living Lord. This is a crucial point for us. For if Christ is dead, He cannot fulfill His promises. But if He is enthroned as the ruler over all things, then all His promises are valid and reliable.
It should be noted that when Christ ascended, He was engulfed in a cloud. What does a cloud do? It blocks our view. Throughout the Old Testament, Yahweh, that is Jesus, is the One who cannot be seen and cannot be rendered as an image. Yet, He is present. He is hidden within the cloud. We think of the pillar of cloud that led Israel in the wilderness. We think of the cloud that covered Mount Sinai. We think how that cloud descended from the mountain and took up residence in the Tabernacle. This was Christ present with His people. So Christ ascends into a cloud. That is to show us that Christ is still present with us, even though we don’t see Him with our eyes.
There would be implications to Christ’s ascension. It would mark a major change. The disciples would now be apostles. It all hinges around the words of Christ in our text. “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” The first half of this was completed. The second half was yet to come. They were to go out and proclaim this to all nations, in the name of Christ. What were they to proclaim? Repentance and the forgiveness of sins. You want a summary of the entire Christian faith? Here it is. It’s probably the best summary in the whole Scripture. The whole of the Christian faith is repentance and forgiveness of sins. They were to show people that they were sinners. That they were in violation of God’s law. Then they were to show people that in Christ, they had perfect forgiveness of their sins. They were to proclaim this in Jesus’ name. Don’t you dare miss this point. And if you are truly well versed in the Old Testament, you won’t miss this point. Throughout the Old Testament, wherever Yahweh placed His name, He was present. I have pointed out to you many times that Yahweh, the God the Old Testament, is Jesus Christ. So if repentance and forgiveness of sins is preached in Christ’s name, than Christ is present empowering that proclamation.
There are two major points that we should take from this. One applies to us personally. The second goes to the matter of missions and is directly in question in the Missouri Synod today.
First, this message remains in force for us today. I am a sinner. We are sinners. We examine our lives in the commandments, we see that we are idolaters, despisers of parents, murders, adulterers, thieves, liars and coveters. And if we examine our lives closely enough, we will see that we break each of these commandments every day, by thought, word, and deed. If we don’t see all this we have not dug deeply enough into our lives. But we must not get frustrated in such efforts. Most of the time, God, to protect us, doesn’t let us see all of our sins, lest we fall into despair. So rather we accept this as matter of confession - that is something we know to be true even though we don’t always see it in its entirety. Instead, God allows us to see enough of our sins so that we recognize our condition - that is so that we see that we are sinners. We must repent. In Lutheran theology, the word “I” is almost always used in connection to sin and repentance. I am a sinner. I need to repent of my sins. Then Christ, though Word and Sacrament forgives our sins. This message is first and foremost for us. It is the message we still need to hear.
This also then must shape our mission work. The mission is to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins. We cannot substitute a message we think is more winsome. That’s not the message Christ has given us. So much of what passes for missions today is driven by some other message. This ought not to be. This is why we have so many tensions in our church. We had a missionary recalled from Africa for baptizing people. They actually told him that if people come to him begging to be baptized, he couldn’t baptize them. In our missions here in America we have many abuses. A church in Detroit used a series on sex as a mission outreach. We now have many of our “cutting edge” pastors plunging into the emergent church movement. This takes us right back to the theology of a German theologian named Jurgen Moltman. In other words, it’s Seminex liberalism coming back under a new banner. And we’re all supposed to swallow it whole because it is for missions. But this not the mission Christ gave us. That’s why we condemned such teaching at our convention in 1973. The true mission is to proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Christ’s name.
Today we celebrate that Christ is our living Lord. He rules over all things. And He is still present among us. He conveys that presence by His name, His word, and most especially by His Body and Blood. Luther said that when look upon the consecrated bread we are looking upon the body of Christ. So we can do find His body among us, every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. And because Christ lives and rules, repentance and the forgiveness of sins in His name is proclaimed to the peoples of all nations.