The gift of the return of Christ to the Father is that we are carried into the life of the Triune God and fully understood, known, and united with the God whose love for us and the world cannot be stopped, even by death.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, The Ascension of Our Lord (A, B, C); texts: Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
There is a prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi which includes this line: “grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.” There is deep wisdom in these petitions, a sense of what it might mean to fully inhabit the life of Christ which is our calling and our anointing in Baptism, that we look to the other’s needs and burdens before our own. This is right and good, and worthy of our prayer.
That being said, there is nothing quite like knowing that we are understood by another, loved by another. Perhaps that’s why it’s so important that we pray that we offer that to others. But I have been thinking a great deal this week about the gift Christ’s ascension gives us of being understood better, more fully, by the Triune God.
All our readings assigned for this festival focus on the reality that our Lord Christ leaves us.
Even Paul’s words to the Ephesians, which speak of Christ’s enthronement above all rule and authority, words which echo the psalm for today, are living in the reality that our Lord Jesus is no longer with us in the flesh. And Luke’s two ascension accounts, our first reading and Gospel, are strictly from our point of view. Jesus spends time with his disciples after his resurrection. He teaches them, talks to them, helps them understand. And then, 40 days after he is raised, Jesus ascends to heaven to return to the Father.
This is our common view of the ascension: the departure of the Incarnate One. But what if we focus for a moment not on what is happening here on earth, but on what might be happening within the life of the Triune God?
There is much to be said about the ministry and work that is left to us in our Lord’s ascension, that we are entrusted to bring the Good News to the world. But there is something in this whole story we might do well to consider: what happens when the eternal Son of God, now Incarnate as fully human and fully divine, returns to the Godhead (in whatever way his return might mean).
Right now we’re studying Hebrews on Thursday evenings, and that text suggests the idea that perhaps the ascension is important for what God learns as well.
I want to read just a couple lines from this great New Testament sermon to help clarify this: Hebrews 4:14-15, and Hebrews 9:24. First: “Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” And then: “For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.”
Christ left us, says this preacher, to be our high priest before God. We have lost the sense of what that image means for us. The high priest in Judaism was the one who could stand for the people before God. Who would make sacrifice on their behalf, and seek forgiveness for them. Who would enter the Holy of Holies on their behalf.
And a large part of the point of the sermon to the Hebrews is to say that Christians need no more high priests since Jesus has become the High Priest par excellence. And why is he such a great high priest for us? Hebrews says because he is like us, was tested like us, knows our pain, our sorrow, our fear, can sympathize with our weaknesses, even while being at the same time the divine Son of God.
The whole point of the Incarnation was for God to be with us. And in the Son of God, we have someone who knows us better than we know ourselves. Sometimes we think that the great news about “God-with-us,” Emmanuel, is that now we know God better through Jesus. That is true.
But this preacher suggests that a wonderful thing about God being with us in Jesus is that the Triune God now understands us better. What an insight, and what good news! Here is the profound implication of the ascension: raised from the dead and ascended to the Father, now Christ Jesus can speak on our behalf before God, be our great high priest.
Whatever mystery lies in the life of the Triune God, after the ascension it contains human flesh. At no point are we told that the Incarnation is undone, so humanity is now drawn fully into the life of God.
Consider what that means: God understands us now in a deeply different way. We normally have a sense of separateness between God and humanity that is understandable: God is God, and we are not. But somehow, ascended to the Father, the Son now brings us into God’s inner life. Our fears and hopes, our pains and delights, our sadness and our joys, our very flesh. These are now brought into the inner life of God.
So it’s no longer God on one side, us on the other. God up there, us down here, wherever we mean by “there” or “here.” The prayer we will hear Jesus pray next Sunday is fulfilled in this ascension: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.” To think that we are that known and understood by the Triune God is awe-inspiring.
This is the great joy of Jesus’ ascension.
The Son of God isn’t gone at all. We are not abandoned, left behind. Instead, he’s so deeply concerned for us, loves us so much, and since he knows us so intimately, he’s returned to the Father to plead for us, to intercede on our behalf, to be our Advocate before the Father. To bring us to God.
So as not to leave us orphaned here, he sends the Holy Spirit to be with us. To be another Advocate, he says, from God to us. (And Paul would suggest, the Spirit also speaks to the Trinity on our behalf.) But that’s the story of ten days hence.
For now, we carry this joy: in ascending, our Lord has gone to where he can do the most good for us and for the world, the throne of the Father. And even when we don’t know what to pray for in our pain or sorrow or fear or anxiety, we can know without doubt that our Lord is already there, praying on our behalf. Bearing our life into the life of God, that we might be fully understood and loved by the God who already loved us enough to die for us.
So let’s not stand here gaping at heaven as if today is a day of sadness.
Instead, let’s rejoice that we have such an Advocate in heaven for our sake, someone who knows us so well and loves us even more, who can always speak on our behalf.
And someone who leaves behind the gift of himself in this Meal, so we have him with us here, too. Someone who gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit, so we can be filled with God’s love and grace, who doesn’t leave us orphaned.
Today is not about a sad ending. It’s about the beginning of the great news of Jesus’ life on our behalf in heaven and his presence with us here in the Spirit. Thanks be to God, today is just the beginning of the course of God’s love in our lives and in the life of the world!
In the name of Jesus. Amen