Beloved. Today we celebrate that glorious mystery—Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Although Ascension Day was actually this past Thursday, 40 days after Easter, we are celebrating it today in our Sunday liturgy. Our text is from St. Mark’s Gospel, and true to the way St. Mark writes, it is very compact; he fits a lot of time and events in a few verses. If we only had St. Mark’s Gospel, we could easily think that on Easter Sunday itself Jesus rose from the dead, showed Himself once to the apostles, gave them the Great Commission to go out into all the world preaching the Gospel and then ascended. But the other Gospels tell of Jesus’ other post resurrection appearances. And today’s epistle from St. Luke tells us that there were 40 days between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. After [Jesus] had suffered, he presented himself alive to the apostles with many convincing proofs. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and told them things about the kingdom of God. Reading the accounts from the other Gospels, we see that things were different after the resurrection. Jesus wasn’t with the disciples all the time like before when He walked with them throughout Palestine. Instead, now Jesus would “drop in” for a while, teach them or even perform a miracle. The ascension, would, in grand fashion mark an end to Jesus’ post resurrection appearances; the ascension made it crystal clear that the disciples were no longer to expect Jesus and converse with Him as they had done. St. Luke records the ascension this way in today’s Epistle: After [Jesus] said these things, he was taken up while they were watching, and a cloud took him out of their sight; and in his Gospel this way: [Jesus] led them out as far as the vicinity of Bethany. He lifted up his hands and blessed them. And while he was blessing them, he parted from them and was taken up into heaven.
What is vital to keep in mind is that Jesus was not like a rocket ship going higher and higher until He reached heaven. Instead, He ascended off the ground, yes, but only until and a cloud took him out of their sight and he parted from them and was taken up into heaven. Now the disciples were no longer to expect Jesus as they had before. When that cloud received Jesus, in the OT a sign/ symbol of God’s presence, Jesus was in heaven—both as God and as man. Think of the great joy there was in heaven as the saints and angels received Jesus, God and man, into the glories of heaven, as He Himself, as God and man, was clothed in that divine glory and honor—just as Jesus had prayed before His betrayal and arrest [Jn. 17.5]: And now, Father, glorify Me in Your presence with the glory that I had with You before the world existed.
The wonderful thing is that the disciples “got it.” They knew that Jesus had ascended into heaven in glory. The last image they had of Jesus was that of Him blessing them. And while he was blessing them, he parted from them and was taken up into heaven. Jesus’ arms are still raised in blessing on His Church and each of His dear Christians.
The disciples actually “got it” in another sense: they knew that with Jesus’ ascension, He wasn’t gone from them or locked away in heaven separated from them. Instead, they now knew that precisely because He had ascended into heaven, He could now be with them as they go into all the world and preach the Gospel; they would not be alone. Far from the ascension being a farewell, it was Jesus being with each of them no matter in how many different directions they went. That’s why, instead of being sad and despondent with His ascension, St. Luke records in His Gospel: So they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. They were continually in the temple courts, praising and blessing God. Notice—even though He was seemingly “gone” they worshipped him, that is, fell down in homage before Him because they recognized He was with them. His presence with them gave them such joy and confidence they were continually in the temple courts, praising and blessing God.
Jesus’ ascension is a glorious mystery for us and one for which we cannot praise and bless Him enough! As we ponder this mystery a few moments this morning, we will see that Jesus leaves so that He can enter not only heaven in all His divine glory and majesty but also our hearts and be with us.
St. Mark begins our text: Later, [Jesus] appeared to the Eleven themselves as they were reclining at the table. He rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they did not believe those who had seen him after he had risen. Here we see a glorious “proof” of Jesus resurrection. It wasn’t just St. Thomas who doubted the resurrection. They all at first did. Jesus had to do a bit of “salvific shaming”: He rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart. The very fact that Jesus had to remove their doubts shows that He truly rose from the dead. After all, the disciples saw Him dead and buried; people generally stay that way. Why should they believe those claiming that He had risen? So the fact that the disciples knew Jesus was actually dead and Jesus had to “prove” to them that He was alive is a powerful evidence of the resurrection. And, yes, it was a sin that the disciples did not believe those who had seen him after he had risen. Jesus had often prophesied His death and resurrection and now when it actually happened, they didn’t believe it. The same thing goes for us—it is so often so difficult to simply believe the word of Jesus. But it is true! Especially is it hard to believe the absolution when the devil keeps dragging sin before us and tries to convince us how “unforgiveable” it is. But the word of forgiveness/ absolution—Jesus’ word—stands! The words This is My body…This is My blood given and poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins are hard to believe; but they are true.
So now, with the certainty of Easter—that Jesus did rise from the dead as the One conquering sin, death, devil and hell—the work Jesus came to do is done. And what does it mean, then, that Jesus rose from the dead, that sin and death have been undone, that the devil has been defeated and hell vanquished? It means that the kingdom of heaven is open to all believers! Sin, devil, hell and death do not have a claim on us. With Jesus’ ascension into heaven, that He was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God, means that there is no doubt! Jesus did rise from the dead and the work of salvation is complete. Therefore do not doubt your salvation. Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven.
As glorious as that mystery is, we have by no means exhausted [nor can we] what that means. With Jesus’ ascension into heaven, we have a glorious completeness/ whole. Think about it—with Jesus’ incarnation/ taking on human flesh and blood in the virgin’s womb/ God becoming man/ Christmas—what do we have? We have God and man together in the one Person of Jesus. And now, with the Ascension, what is happening? When Jesus was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God, that means what? It means that the human nature has been brought into the divine kingdom. That should give us the greatest possible joy. Why? –Because man is in heaven. That means that heaven is also for us. It’s not just for the holy God and angels—heaven is also for true human beings. That’s for certain because there is one already there—Jesus the God- man. And where He has gone, we too will one day go. Here we are pointed to the articles of the Creed: the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. For us Christians, on the Last Day our bodies will be raised and reunited with the soul which has been in heaven since death and then we will be soul and body in heaven for all eternity. Jesus, the God-man, is there and so too will we—in soul and body.
But what about the meantime? Here, too, we have a glorious joy with the ascension! Then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. That phrase—at the right hand of God—we also confess in the Creed. But let us not get the wrong idea about it. Jesus is not just sitting on a throne at the right of the Father, biding His time until He returns in glory, all locked away somewhere in heaven. No! Far from it! Instead, the right hand of God is everywhere, that is, it is a position of power, authority and rule. In other words, Jesus is everywhere and He is ruling all things. St. Paul puts it this way [Eph. 4.10]: Jesus ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things. Jesus fills all things, that is, He is present everywhere—also as man. Jesus ascended into heaven, not to get away from us, but so that He could be even closer to us. During His earthly ministry, Jesus was at one place at one time. Now He is everywhere. One way we see this is in the Blessed Sacrament—Jesus can give us—and His dear Christians throughout the world, at the same time, His body and blood and unite with each of us. Why? Because He, the God-man, sat down at the right hand of God, and so is everywhere, also as man.
Jesus ascended into heaven so He could be closer to each one of us—in fact, in each one of us! In next week’s Gospel we will hear Jesus saying: If anyone love Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make Our home with him. Did you catch that? The right hand of God, because it is everywhere, also includes us, our hearts. Jesus ascended into heaven so that He could be everywhere—even and especially in the hearts of his dear Christians to save us and bless us. And that’s where Jesus wants to be. That’s why He told the disciples: Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. Now Jesus rules all things in heaven and earth. But when it comes to faith, He doesn’t force/ coerce anyone. Instead, He exercises dominion through the word and sacraments that He entrusted to the disciples/ the Church. Through the word and sacrament, by the Holy Spirit, Jesus works faith and builds and extends His Church, gathering people into His kingdom here on earth so that they may be in His heavenly kingdom soul and body for all eternity. Yes, the word and sacrament seem so weak and powerless, but to cheer and strengthen His disciples, Jesus gave them signs showing His power, that He is mightily at work in the word and sacrament: “These signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons. They will speak in new languages. They will pick up snakes. And if they drink any deadly poison, it will not harm them. They will lay their hands on the sick, and they will get well.” We read of those signs literally and in full force in the book of Acts and the early history as the Church was getting established. Now as the Church is established, there are different signs—in fact that the Church, faith, the word etc. are all still here is powerful evidence of Jesus’ mighty working and rule.
Remember, He is in you and at work in you as well with these signs! In my name they will drive out demons: you do that as you confess your sin with true sorrow and faith. They will speak in new languages: we have the language of faith and offer God our prayers, praises and thanksgiving. They will pick up snakes: we resist and diligently root out evil thoughts. If they drink any deadly poison, it will not harm them: we see this as by the Holy Spirit’s power we suffer contempt and ridicule for Jesus’ sake. They will lay their hands on the sick, and they will get well: we do this as we freely forgive those who have sinned against us. In short, as we live a life of faith and good works, we have that glorious certainty that Jesus is with us and in us.
What a glorious mystery we celebrate today—Jesus also as man ascended into heaven as Victor and now lives and reigns and is everywhere, even in the hearts of His dear Christians. We are never alone and need never fear. INJ Amen.