SERMONS BASED ON THE LECTIONARY OF THE ORTHODOX CHURCH - “ASCENDED AND STILL PRESENT”
by The Rev. Charles Henrickson
Sermon Based on: Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23
Acts 1:1-11 (ESV)
In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 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.
And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. 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.” 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. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “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.”
Ephesians 1:15-23 (ESV)
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 toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him 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 the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
Where is Jesus, and what is he doing? That’s a good question to ask on this Ascension Day. Where did Jesus go when he ascended, and what is he doing now? Alright, you say, I know the answer to that question--we just confessed it in the Creed: He “ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father.” OK, fine, but what’s the big deal about that? Is that enough to have a whole special festival on it, that we have to come out and have church on a Thursday night? Well, I would say, yes. But I want you to be able to say yes, too, and to have some idea as to why we say that, more than just, “It’s forty days past Easter and that’s when Ascension falls on the calendar.” And so tonight, on this Ascension Day, let’s find out more about where Jesus is and what he is doing, and what that means for us.
In the Ascension account at the end of Luke, it says that Jesus “parted from them and was carried up into heaven.” In the text at the beginning of Acts, it says that Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight,” and the angels tell the disciples that this Jesus “was taken up from you into heaven.” Our reading from Ephesians says that God “raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.” OK, well, there you’ve got it: Jesus “ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father.” What we say in the Creed is simply restating what the New Testament tells us. But that still leaves us wondering what all that means and why it’s so important.
What does it mean that Jesus ascended into heaven and sits at God’s right hand? Does it mean that Jesus just went away, that’s he’s taking a break, like he’s on vacation for a few thousand years until he comes back? Does it mean that Jesus has been taken away from us, far away? We can’t see him anymore, and, oh, how I wish we could been so lucky to have been like those disciples and been able to spend some time with him and see him, for a few years at least. Oh, well. But now he’s gone, and we’ll just have to muddle through somehow. Is that it? Jesus is absent, stuck up there in heaven, and now we’re on our own. Jesus, missing in action. Out of sight, out of mind.
Nothing could be further from the truth. First of all, let’s unpack what it means that he “ascended into heaven.” To be sure, it does mean that Jesus rose up into the sky, bodily, in view of his disciples, on that day long ago some forty days after Easter. Jesus had told his disciples that he would be going away, returning to his Father, that the Father would glorify him upon the completion of his saving mission. And that is what is taking place, beginning, really, since Easter. Jesus appeared to his disciples over a period of forty days, met with them, taught them, let them touch his hands and his side that bore the marks of his crucifixion, by which he won our salvation. So the Ascension is part of that continuing exaltation of Christ, his glorification, and further proof of his victorious, bodily resurrection. It shows the Father’s approval of what his Son has done in dying for the sins of the world. God is saying yes to that. It shows the victory of the cross. Ascension Day is Christ’s triumph day. He is received into heaven with a “Job well done!” and “Welcome home!” And the angels are rejoicing.
But there’s more. Christ ascends into heaven and “sits at the right hand of the Father.” Now we need to understand this “right hand” business. In the biblical way of thinking and talking, to be seated at the right hand of a great king means to exercise royal authority. It is to be the king’s “right hand man”--we even have that expression in English. Why? Because for most of us, our right hand is our dominant hand, the hand with which we do stuff. So to be at God’s right hand means to exercise divine, heavenly power and authority. That’s where Jesus is and what he is doing now, seated at the right hand of the Father.
Now this is great and tremendous! Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ now is ruling all things in heaven and on earth. He is Lord of all! That is what Ephesians is getting at, for it goes on to explain what being seated at the right hand means: God raised Christ from the dead and seated him 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 the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
So Jesus Christ now is ruling all things for the sake of his church. We are intimately connected to Christ--he is the head, we are his body--and he is head over everything. All rule, all authority, all power and dominion, belong to the risen and exalted Lord Jesus Christ.
What’s more, when Jesus ascended into heaven and sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, he went there as our brother and our high priest. Christ is both true God and true man, and now ascended to the throne room of God, we have a friend in high places. Jesus knows our every weakness, and he is interceding for us, praying for us. He’s on our side, he has the Father’s ear, and he is able to help in every time of need. And Jesus ascended into heaven as our great high priest. Like the high priest went into the Holy of Holies with the blood of the atonement, so Christ enters heaven and presents his blood as the perfect sacrifice for our sins.
Our ascended Lord is seated at the right hand of God, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion. But does “far above” mean “far away”? Does Jesus’ absence from our sight mean that he is now distant and detached? Triumphant, yes, transcendent, yes, but rather cold and aloof, far removed from us, far away up in heaven. Is that the meaning of Ascension? By no means!
No, it is no contradiction to say that Jesus is both “far above” and “here and near.” Did you catch that? Jesus is both far above and here and near! Think of the Great Commission, in Matthew 28. The risen Lord Jesus meets with his disciples during those forty days, and he says: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” You see? There it is, both sides of the coin. “All authority”: Yes, Christ is exalted and will sit at the right hand of the Father. There’s the “far above.” And then, in the very same passage: “And behold, I am with you always.” “With you”! There is the “here and near”! They’re both true! And they’re both wonderful gospel for you, my friends!
Think of it. Remember what Jesus said? “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” You see, Christ is here, present among us, for we are gathered here in his name. Christ is here, present among us, present to save, present to bless, present to forgive your sins, for this is where his gospel is.
And one more thing. Think of Jesus’ words, “This is my body, this is my blood.” Those words are still true, even as we celebrate our Lord’s ascension into heaven. That Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father does not mean that he is limited to one small space off in a distant galaxy somewhere. No, Christ is here, and in particular, he gives us his body and his blood at this altar, for us Christians to eat and to drink, and so to receive his benefits. Yes, Christ’s true body and his true blood are here, really present in this sacrament, for your forgiveness, life, and salvation.
Where is Jesus, and what is he doing? The exalted Savior has ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of his Father. And thank God he is! It shows he has won the victory over death for us and will come again one day to bring us to himself. We share in his resurrection and eternal life. Jesus now is at the right hand of the Father, interceding for us, our brother and our sympathetic high priest. Jesus is ruling all things in heaven and on earth for the sake of his beloved church. That’s all good news. Jesus is “far above” all other rule and power, exercising divine, heavenly authority, for our good.
And not only is Jesus “far above,” he is also “here and near.” He is here among us, present with his church, present to bless you, God’s children. Your Savior is here, with you in your trials and difficulties, walking with you all the way. He could not be any closer.
Where is Jesus, and what is he doing? He is both “far above” and “here and near.” Seated at the right hand of the Father, and here among his people--that is our Savior, continuing to bless and guide us. Yes, Jesus is both “Ascended and Still Present.”