Ascension · Luke 24:44-53 · May 21, 2009
By Kent Burreson
A Journey for the Ages
This homiletical help provides reflections on central themes for the Ascension in light of the liturgical context and hymnography for the feast. The Gospel reading for the Ascension of Our Lord is the Lukan account of Jesus’ final teaching and his return to his Father. It is the end of Jesus’ earthly journey, culminating with his entry into his Father’s eternal presence, but the beginning of the pilgrimage of the Church on earth. The post-apostolic church father Irenaeus’ great 184 theme of recapitulation is accented in Luke’s own distinct way: the Church will, like her Lord, make the same pilgrimage of suffering and death that he has made from Jerusalem and the temple through every earthly Galilee to the heavenly Jerusalem. The church’s task is to proclaim to the world that all the spiritual tribes of Israel, Jew and Gentile, have been planted in Jesus in their final resting place (LSB 494, st. 4). It is a journey for the ages.
What do I mean when I say that the ascension is a journey for the ages? As Hebrews 9:24—26 proclaims, “For Christ has entered . . . into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. .. . he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” The enthronement of Christ Jesus at the right hand of his Father restores the relationship which had suffered the great divorce—between God and his human creatures. Humanity now stands in the presence of the heavenly Father, as at the beginning in the first garden of paradise, in Jesus, the Son of Man forever. Eternity, which had been broken by the fall, is now one again. There are no longer any ages (periods of time, rules or reigns, peoples or nations) divided from the will of God in the ascended One. The age of all ages (see Galatians 1:5; Philippians 4:20; Revelation 1:6, 5:13, 7:12; translated most often in the West as “forever and ever”) has come. In Christ’s ascension, the final age of God’s reign has begun. In Christ the Church enters the ages (the plural signifies its totality and completeness) of all ages and begins its journey to the consummation of this final age.
Embedded in the Gospel reading is the essential shape of Jesus’ journey and the pilgrimage of all Christians in him: the teaching of the Word; the journey through the Word’s death and resurrection by the Spirit; the final blessing of God before his presence in the ages of ages. Celebration of the ascension feast should accent this journey from the baptismal font through the Supper of the Lord’s body and blood to the final blessing at the eschaton of Christ. In this final appearance of Jesus to his disciples he opens their minds to see that the shape of his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, is the shape of the entire Scriptures and of the Church’s life. The liturgical context should call to remembrance this journey in concrete ways (remembrance of baptism at the beginning of the service, celebration of the Lord’s Supper) and the preaching ought to immerse the assembly in the story of their journey from death to life. For instance, the ascension feast provides another opportunity to affirm and pray for those who have recently been baptized, catechized, and confirmed: adults, youth, children, and infants.
The journey that Jesus makes is a journey from God to God as the promised Messiah, anointed and empowered by the Spirit to be the meeting place between God and humanity. At the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, he comes from God to his people in the temple, revealing his Father. Through his exodus from death to life, his recapitulation as the true Son of God of Israel’s exodus from slavery to freedom, he offers salvation in the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with the heavenly Father. This is the Word of God that has been fulfilled, revealed, and proclaimed in his person and his pilgrimage. It is also the life and pilgrimage of Christians which we make in worship week in and week out: in the hearing of the Word, in baptism, and in the Lord’s Supper.
The journey that begins with God seeks to return his creatures to him. The ultimate destination in this journey is to stand before the throne of the heavenly Father with our earthly brother, Jesus. On this day the church triumphantly acclaims that Christ has laid the first fruits of humanity in his own body at the throne of his heavenly Father. The preaching should lead the hearer to rejoice that in Christ she already has a seat in the Father’s assembly hall. Thus, the Ascension hymns rejoice in the triumphant elevation of our humanity into the Father’s presence, as this hymn sings:
He has raised our human nature
On the clouds to God’s right hand;
There we sit in heav’nly places,
There with Him in glory stand.
Jesus reigns, adored by angels;
Man with God is on the throne.
By our mighty Lord’s ascension
We by faith behold our own (LSB 494 st. 5).
Yet, each person must by faith behold their own humanity as baptized into the humanity (and divinity) of Christ. Thus, Christ gives the promise to his disciples to clothe the church with the power from on high (the anointing of the Holy Spirit) once he has ascended. In the power of the Spirit the church is able to bear witness to the journey that it is making to the heavenly Father in Jesus, following his lead. In its witness it invites all people to join the journey and personally make the final pilgrimage with Christ and ascend on high on the last day. The impetus for the church’s call and invitation to all people is reflected in this Ascension hymn’s prayer:
To our lives of wanton wand’ring
Send Your Spirit, promised guide;
Through our lives of fear and failure
With Your pow’r and love abide;
Welcome us, as You were welcomed,
To an endless Eastertide (LSB 491, st. 3).
It is a journey for all the ages for which this poem by John Donne so eloquently offers its praise:
Salute the last and everlasting day,
Joy at the uprising of this Sun, and Son,
Ye whose just tears, or tribulation
Have purely washed, or burnt your drossy clay;
Behold the Highest, parting hence away,
Lightens the dark clouds, which he treads upon,
Nor doth he by ascending, show alone,
But first he, and he first enters the way.
O strong Ram, which has battered heaven for me,
Mild Lamb, which with thy blood, hast marked the path;
Bright Torch, which shin’st, that I the way may see,
Oh, with thy own blood quench thy own just wrath,
And if thy Holy Spirit, my Muse did raise,
Deign at my hands this crown of prayer and praise.