Texts: Acts 1:1-11; Luke 24:44-53
When we confess, “He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty,” what exactly do we mean? The Ascension of Jesus is just as important as every other act of Jesus: His birth, His life, His death, and His resurrection. Throughout the season of Lent, we focus on the death of Jesus that draws ever closer, culminating in His crucifixion on Good Friday. Three days later, and for the next forty days, it’s all about Jesus risen from the dead, though some of the Gospel accounts are pre-crucifixion accounts. But just as important is the Ascension of Jesus, and for good reason. When Jesus ascends, He takes His rightful place with the Father again. The Ascension of Jesus signals something for us, something that is most important for the life of the Christian – Christ will come again.
Everything up until this point has worked according to God’s divine plan. Despite that, there are still gaps in the thoughts and minds of the apostles. Luke records for us in Acts, “To them he presented himself alive after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” The authors of our Gospels record various post-resurrection appearances to the apostles and their lack of understanding of the big picture that Jesus is trying to paint for them.
The important thing for the apostles to know is that Christ has fulfilled all that was necessary to redeem creation. He had done exactly what He said He was going to do. But even then, the apostles have questions, gaps in their understanding. And so, Christ appeared to them following the resurrection, teaching them and preparing them for the next step: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” The apostles are tasked with proclaiming Jesus to the ends of the earth. But it’s hard to proclaim Jesus when you yourself don’t fully understand everything. That’s why He sends the Holy Spirit to them, to fill in the gaps, to empower and embolden them to proclaim all that they have seen and heard the last three years, to proclaim what that means for the sinner, and for the joy that comes to the repentant.
As Jesus proclaims this to the apostles, He ascends: “And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” Jesus is gone, truly gone now. It’s just the apostles and their task of proclaiming the Gospel; but they are still gazing upward, looking for Jesus. It takes angels to tell them, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
It’s time for the apostles to snap out of it, to stop looking for Jesus and get on with the task at hand: “that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” It’s time to do their job, to proclaim Jesus to the ends of the earth.
Are we on board with this? Are we ready to take up the mantle of the apostles or would we rather that Jesus could be walked with, talked with, eaten with, instead of preaching the Gospel? Is preaching of repentance and the Gospel enough to save? Is it enough for your loved one, for the world? Is it even the salvation you are looking for? Are you like the apostles, staring up, wishing Jesus would still be here with us or that He would come back, try something else that doesn’t involve as much work?
Have no fear, Christ will come back, of that you can be certain. He has promised as much. But in the meantime, there is much work that needs to be done. The Ascension of Our Lord is not some retreat from but rather, the advance in Christ’s saving work. Our priorities, our doubts, our gaps in knowledge, prove us to be skeptical of Jesus’ plan, like that of the apostles. We’re staring up into heaven, wishing He’d hurry back. Jesus is doing what He needs to be doing right now: sitting at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty. But surely there is more that needs to be done right now.
There is, and Jesus has tasked the apostles to go forth and spread the good news. Throughout the centuries, it trickles down through the ones who are called, to continue to spread the good news, to preach the Gospel. And what is it we do preach? Because Christ has risen from the grave, we know that we too will rise from the grave. But that’s only part of it. Because Christ has ascended unto the Father, so we will ascend as well. We will be with Him in glory. We will enjoy all of the benefits Christ has won for us. We have the forgiveness of our sins granted to us in our Baptism and won by Christ’s death and resurrection. We have life because Christ has laid down His life and taken it up again in order to grant life for all believers.
When Jesus ascended, He didn’t “check out” of this world and left salvation up for grabs. He is ensuring that the Church that lives by His Word and Spirit will endure and prosper until He returns. And Jesus will do just that, return. As we confess in the Creed, “From thence He will come to judge the living and the dead.” Just because Christ has ascended doesn’t mean that His work is done. By His death and resurrection, He promises to us, “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” Christ will indeed return and when He does, all will experience that return, either with joy or fear.
We are left much like the apostles were when Christ ascended, eyes raised to heaven, looking for our risen and ascended Lord. Luke ends the Ascension account with these words: “And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.” May that ever be the Church – filled with great joy and in the Father’s house, blessing Him for the gift of salvation that comes through Jesus Christ. In the name of Jesus, amen. Now the peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus, amen.