The Ascension of Our Lord
May 5, 2016
Salem Lutheran Church—Black Jack, MO
North St. Louis County Circuit Ascension Service
May 8, 2016
Trinity Lutheran Church–New Haven, MO
In the name of + Jesus.
St. Paul writes in Romans, chapter 4, There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were also called in one hope of your calling—one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But in each of us it was given the grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ. Therefore He says, Ascending into the heights, He led captivity captive, giving gifts to men (vv 4-8).
Wait a minute, North County—we have a problem. Paul’s making a major point about the Ascension of our Lord by quoting Psalm 68…and he gets the quote wrong. Psalm 68:18 says, You have ascended on high, You have led captivity captive; You have received gifts among men (Ps 68:18 NKJV). So what gives? It’s not like it’s a minor change, either. “Receive” is the opposite of “give.” Paul, on a whim it seems, completely turns the relationship between God and men up on its head.
Psalm 68 presents God as the receiver of our gifts. But it was not always that way. In the beginning God created solely out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy. From the beginning He was the giver—body, soul, eyes, ears, husband, wife, children, house, home, work. His Word. The only thing man could give was a response to God’s gift—thanks, praise, and obedience.
But that all changed in a moment. Sin tore down this relationship of God as the giver and man as the receiver, and built it back up again from the bottom up. Sin created a divine debt. Now, we owed God something.
Psalm 68 was part of the Jewish Pentecost liturgy (that holiday we will celebrate 10 days from today started out as a Jewish holiday commanded by God). Pentecost, or the Feast of Weeks, was the end of festival season that began with Passover. It also coincided with the harvest of grains. So the gifts that were required at the season of Pentecost were two loaves baked with the harvested wheat; also seven lambs, two rams, and one bull for a burnt offering; one male goat for a sin offering; two male lambs for a peace offering.
But none of these gifts ever did the trick. Year after year the faithful would ascend to the temple mount and make the required offerings and year after year they would go right back to their same old ways. Never mind that a gift required by law is no gift at all. Gifts are given out of love with no prerequisites.
And that’s what was really lacking all along. The Law has the power to make you do something, but it doesn’t have the power to make you love doing it. It doesn’t cause you to do something freely simply for the sake of giving a gift. There’s always an expected transaction, always an expected return on your investment. “Ok, God. Here’s my gift. Now what are you going to do for me?” Human nature turns the relationship between God and man on its head.
Who will ascend into heaven, in order to bring Christ down? (Rom 10:6). That’s the question of a righteousness according to the Law. It’s the natural religion that resides in our hearts, planted there by Adam’s sin passed down from the beginning. Every religion invented by the sons of Adam involves some scheme or scam that attempts to ascend into heaven on a ladder of spiritual works or experiences in order to present a gift to God. And it’s not just made-up religions; our nature even imports this false righteousness of the Law into the Christian religion. Some turn the Christian faith into an upwards ascent from sinner to saint, heaping good work upon good work. Some turn the Lord’s Supper into a spiritual meal wherein we ascend to spiritually feast with God in heaven. Others believe that worship should function as some kind of mindless, spiritual conduit by which we break the shackles of the physical realm to tap into the spiritual realm. But even if we had a gift worthy to give, all our attempts at ascent are like trying to walk up the down escalator. For every step up, you get closer to the bottom.
So God is on high, and despite our best efforts we cannot bridge the divide with a gift worth giving. This leaves us at a distinct disadvantage.
St. Paul misquotes Psalm 68, but it’s not because he doesn’t know his Bible. He does it for a very particular reason. It’s because the ascent of Jesus cannot be understood apart from His descent. But what is it to ascend, writes St. Paul, except that He also descended into the lower regions of the earth? He who descended is Himself also He who ascended high above all the heavens, in order to fill all things.
This is the turning point from Old Testament to New, from God as receiver of gifts to giver of gifts. Because Jesus descended in order to give a gift we could never give. He offered Himself in human flesh as the perfect sacrifice. He suffered and shed His blood to pay the debt owed by a world of sinners. And when He ascends into heaven, He sets that gift at God’s right hand as an eternal testimony to a different kind of righteousness—a righteousness that is apart from the Law and revealed by faith.
Jesus Ascends to Lead Captivity Captive and Give Gifts to Men
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, today is the day when our Lord leads captivity itself captive. Stop and consider what a marvelous statement that is. Everything that prevented us from offering a pleasing gift to God, Jesus holds captive under His feet. He descended into our flesh and dwelt here on earth in order to bear our sin to the cross and suffer its punishment. He rested in the tomb to sanctify the grave. And He descended into hell so that the devil of all people would be the first to hear this Good News. And then He rose from the dead and ascended to heaven and now holds all of these captors captive. Sin, disturb my soul no longer. Death you cannot end my gladness. Satan, drop your ugly accusations. Christ is ascended. He is ascended indeed, Alleluia!
And He gives gifts to men. His ascension does not put us at a disadvantage, but quite the opposite. On the night in which He is betrayed, Jesus says, But I say to you, it is for your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Comforter will not come to you. But if I go, I will send Him to you (Jn 16:7). Jesus ascends in order to give an unparalleled gift: the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.
But the gift of the Spirit is not a detached gift. Christ Jesus locates His gift for our advantage. St. Paul further unfolds the Ascension gift: And He gave some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, toward the perfecting of the saints, for the work of service, for edification of the body of Christ, until everything should arrive into the unity of faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, into a completed man, into a measure of maturity of the fullness of Christ.
Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. In short, Christ Himself gives the Office of the Ministry as a gift to the Church. His Word is preserved for us in the Prophetic and Apostolic Scriptures and is still alive today in the holy conversation of the Divine Service.
This is what it means, that He ascended in order to fill all things. What a marvelous gift His Ascension is—in order to find Jesus and hear Him speak, you don’t have to save your money, buy a plane ticket and travel halfway across the world to stand in what would promise to be a very long line for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see and talk with Jesus. You simply have to find the nearest place where God’s Word is being preached by men sent to preach. And it happens every Sunday (and sometimes even on Thursdays).
Jesus ascended into heaven 40 days after He rose from the dead, but that doesn’t mean that He stays chained at God’s right hand. Christ’s ascension propels us into Pentecost (where we started with Psalm 68). Just 10 days after He ascends, the Holy Spirit descends in order to bring Christ back down—albeit now in a mysterious, sacramental way. The Spirit takes what belongs to Jesus—a righteousness that is apart from the Law—and delivers it to you. That is your Ascension gift.
So there is no more stepladder of works by which you climb to heaven; Jesus sends the Spirit down even to the depths of your sin to lift you up with a Word of Absolution. There is no ascent into heaven to spiritually dine with God; He lowers His right hand to this altar to give the same body that was pinned to a cross and blood that was shed by a spear in the bread and the wine. There is no need for a conduit to the spiritual realm; the Spirit was washed over you with water and you were named with the Name that is ascended above every name.
That’s where the Divine Service begins and ends. In the Name. And here’s the final ascension gift. In Christ, in His Name, you also have the hope of your own ascension. Not by any effort of your own, not by a gift you could give, but because of the gift of Christ.
In the name of + Jesus.
Jacob W Ehrhard