HE ASCENDED INTO HEAVEN
TO BE WITH US ON EARTH.
In the name + of Jesus.
M: Alleluia! Christ is risen!
C: He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
The Church has confessed it since it actually happened: “He ascended into heaven.” Jesus appeared to the disciples for forty days after his resurrection and spoke about the kingdom of God. Those appearances were often surprising, as Jesus suddenly showed up. Then Jesus suddenly departed, no longer visible to his disciples. But on the fortieth day after Easter, Jesus' departure was different. He was visibly lifted up from the earth until he was hidden by a cloud. Or, as the Apostles' Creed says, “He ascended into heaven.”
People often speak about loved ones going to heaven, or that we ourselves expect to go to heaven. As common as that expression is, I think it can be badly misunderstood. I suspect that many people think heaven is where all dead people go, whether they were Christians or not. Think about it yourself. When you hear that someone has gone to heaven, what do you think is going on? Is it that someone is floating on a cloud with a harp? Is it just that they are pain-free? Even Christians may have a pretty fuzzy idea about what it means that we go to heaven.
What's worse is that we are prone to accept the common belief that everyone goes to heaven. It sounds too mean that anyone should go to hell. It makes God seem mean and cruel. We all confess that God is love and that he is a Savior. It is easy to declare, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) It is harder for us to quote just two verses later: “Whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God,” (John 3:18), that is, unbelievers go to hell. People argue that sending someone to hell forever is not fair. And since we want people to view God as fair, we shy away from saying God sends people to hell.
If we fail to emphasize that God is holy, his word is not taken seriously. People don't want to be alerted to their guilt; they want to be told there is no reason to feel guilty. They don't want forgiveness; they want free-reign. Since God does not negotiate with sinners, men hate God's word and rage against it. If we try to proclaim God's word in a way that suits the taste of sinful men, then it is no longer God's word. Repent. God has given us his word to believe and to proclaim. He does not need us to serve as his editor or to apologize for him. The fact is that all people are sinners. All deserve God's wrath. All have earned the curse. If we pray that God would be fair, it does not mean that we all go to heaven. It means that all people go to hell. For, no one is innocent.
But God does not treat us as our sins deserve. It is Jesus Christ who was treated as our sins deserve. That is how God reveals his love to sinners. Jesus reminded his disciples: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” (Luke 24:46-48) It is what the Lord foretold. It is what Jesus has fulfilled. And it is what the apostles had witnessed. It was true sufferings and death which turned away real divine wrath. It was a real resurrection which brings true forgiveness of guilt. Forgiveness of sins, new life, and salvation come only by faith in Jesus. Apart from Jesus there is no forgiveness, no life, and no salvation.
When Jesus had told the apostles that he would be leaving them, they were grieved. More than anything, they wanted to be with Jesus. They recognized that with Jesus is forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. They did not want Jesus to leave them. They wanted to be with Jesus.
The Church longs for this even now. The point of eternal life is not that will be in heaven. It is that we will be with Jesus. When you consider how heaven is depicted in St. John's Revelation, we do not hear about people floating on clouds, lounging on the beach, or playing golf. John saw everything there focused on Jesus. He is on the center of the throne, and all the people are with him, surrounding him. That is why the Church meets together today: We want to be with Jesus. We want to hear his word. We want to be comforted by his promises and guided by his truth. We want peace, joy, and comfort which cannot be shaken or lost.
You might get the idea that being with Jesus is pretty much impossible. “He ascended into heaven.” But our confession continues: “He is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” The right hand of God is wherever God is at work, especially when God is working salvation. So, if Jesus is at the right hand of God, Jesus is where God is and especially where he is working to save. In other words, Jesus is with his Church which meets in his name to hear his word and receive his sacraments. Jesus is here with us as we meet. And Jesus is with you always, for you are always his. There is no place you can go where his mercy, forgiveness, and promises are not upon you. Jesus ascended to heaven so that he would be with you on earth. Far from abandoning you, he is with you always.
This is also why we are blessed whenever we partake in Holy Communion. We are not reenacting a meal that Jesus had with his apostles. Jesus, who fills all things, is also on our altars. We do not feast on a dead Jesus or a pretend Jesus. We feast on the living, exalted body and blood of Jesus. The body and blood which conquered death are given to us for our own salvation. No matter what Christian altar you are at, there is the right hand of God; there is Jesus there with his body and blood. Wherever his word is rightly preached and the sacraments are rightly administered, there is Jesus with his people to save, to bless, to comfort, and to forgive. Rather than have us go to one place on earth where we might get a glimpse of Jesus or a moment of his time, Jesus ascended into heaven so that he would be with us on earth whenever and wherever we may be.
Since we are Christ's people, we will also follow the path which Jesus took. He became flesh so that he could bear in his body the curse of our sins. The body which was laid in a grave rose from the dead. And the man, Jesus, ascended to dwell at God's right hand. So also, even though we will go to the grave, we too will rise. These bodies will be raised up holy and glorious. In our flesh, we will be taken to the glories of heaven. The point is not that we will float on clouds or play harps. The point is that we will be with Jesus. For, thanks to Jesus, man now has a dwelling place with God. And, thanks to Jesus, we will dwell with the Lord forevermore—God with man, and man with God.
Our prayer is that no one would go to hell. Thanks to Jesus, no one should have to. He is not mean or cruel; he is the loving Savior. Whoever believes and is baptized into him shall be saved. Jesus has given us the task of letting this salvation be known. “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations...” (Luke 24:46-47) Those who receive this word will rejoice in it. They will long to be with Jesus who loves sinners and saves them. Those who despise this word may have plans to go to heaven. But it is strange that they would desire to go to a place which centers on Jesus whom they reject and whose word they despise.
But not so for us. We long to be with Jesus. And Jesus longs to be with us. Jesus ascended into heaven so that he would be with us on earth. And so we continue to gather here in his name, because Jesus is here to bless us, to forgive us, and to save us. We join in the heavenly meal where Jesus feeds us, strengthens us, and sustains us. It is a moment where heaven touches earth. It is a rehearsal for the worship that will come in the mansions of heaven. For, the goal of the Christian faith is not to be in some nebulous place; it is to be with Jesus. And Jesus' desire is to be with us.
In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.