The Ascension of Our Lord
Tonight we celebrate our Lord’s Ascension and return to the Father’s right hand. What does it mean for us, here and now? When we get ready for Holy Communion, we will hear these startling words: “that He [Jesus] might make us partakers of His divine life.” That’s what Ascension Day means for us: our Lord Jesus Christ makes us “partakers of His divine life.” Jesus restores us to being fully human.
What does it mean to be fully human? On bright, sunny days, when life is going smoothly and there’s not a cloud in the sky or a problem on the horizon, we may think we know what it means to be fully human. When bills are paid, tummies are full, and happiness abounds, we might have an inkling of what being human is about. But do we really?
Being fully human means living in God’s image, as He created Adam and Eve, before they fell into sin. Genesis 1(:27) says, “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” Martin Luther commented on this verse and said, “Thus Adam had a twofold life: a physical one and an immortal one” (LW, vol. 1). Adam was fully human when he had both physical life and immortal life.
Luther also gives this lovely description of Adam’s “full humanity,” or the image of God: “Therefore the image of God, according to which Adam was created, was something far more distinguished and excellent, since obviously no leprosy of sin adhered either to his reason or to his will. Both his inner and his outer sensations were all of the purest kind. His intellect was the clearest, his memory was the best, and his will was the most straightforward—all in the most beautiful tranquillity of mind, without any fear of death and without any anxiety. To these inner qualities came also those most beautiful and superb qualities of body and of all the limbs, qualities in which he surpassed all the remaining living creatures. I am fully convinced that before Adam’s sin his eyes were so sharp and clear that they surpassed those of the lynx and eagle. He was stronger than the lions and the bears, whose strength is very great; and he handled them the way we handle puppies.” (LW, vol. 1) Wouldn’t that be great!
But deep down, in our heart of hearts, we know there is something amiss. We are not “fully human,” and we know it. That’s why we are always so unsettled, so often unfulfilled in life. We really do not know what it means to be “fully human”! As Luther also said, “I am afraid that since the loss of this image through sin we cannot understand it to any extent. Memory, will, and mind we have indeed; but they are most depraved and most seriously weakened, yes, to put it more clearly, they are utterly leprous and unclean.”
To be honest and truthful, we and all people on the face of the earth are sub-human, less than human. People who fly airplanes into tall buildings, with the express purpose of killing thousands of other people, are sub-human. People who kill innocent babies before they can be born, or elderly people because they are “an inconvenience,” are sub-human. Women who burn with passion for other women, and men who burn with passion for other men, are sub-human. After all, that so-called “lifestyle” cannot even procreate physical life.
Other examples might impact us more personally. Every form of sickness, from cancer to the common cold, shows that we are sub-human. Every frustration with family, friends, complete strangers, or even ourselves, shows that we are sub-human. Every time we get suspicious of someone else’s motives, every time we get mad at someone else’s actions, every time we talk poorly about another human being—friend or foe—we show we are sub-human.
When I say we are sub-human, I mean that we are less than what God planned for us to be. Because of the cancer of our sin, you and I live, work, and play far below the perfect life that God meant for us to have. Deep down we know this, because we always “try to do better.” But we cannot change our fallen, sub-human condition before God. Only one Person can do that for us—Jesus the Christ, the Perfect God and Perfect Man.
When Jesus came into this world, He took on our very flesh and blood. Jesus was fully human. Like Adam before sin, He had physical life and immortal life. And “in every respect [Jesus] has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). He Jesus lived perfectly and kept all of God’s commands perfectly. Then He went to the cross to be our substitute for our being sub-human. And here’s the best news of all: Jesus, the perfect fully human Son of God rose from the dead. Death is the biggest proof that we are sub-human. But Jesus conquered death. He rose again and gives us His resurrection life. And this Lord of Life makes us fully human.
So, when Jesus gets ready to ascend to God’s right hand, He commissions His Church, His followers, to help restore people to being fully human. We’ve heard St. Mark’s version of what Jesus said: “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” St. Matthew recorded it this way: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them…and teaching them…” (Mt. 28:19-20). And St. Luke phrased it this way: “that repentance [for] forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all nations” (Lk. 24:47). In other words, Jesus makes us and other people fully human when we hear and preach the Gospel—the Good News that Christ forgives our sins and gives us His divine life!
Jesus even gave some physical manifestations of how we will know that His Gospel message makes us fully human. Demons will be cast out, that is, people will come to faith in Christ. People will speak with new tongues, that is, they will speak the wonderful works of God’s grace and mercy in various languages around the globe. The serpent’s poison of death will no longer affect us, because we have Jesus’ fully human life in us. And when we, our pastor, and our church proclaim Christ crucified, risen, and ascended to forgive sinners and give life, you are actually healing people from their dreaded disease of being sub-human.
So, Ascension Day also reminds us of our purpose and mission in this world. Our Lord Christ wants us to view church as the place where He makes us fully human. Everyone who stays away from Christ’s pulpit and altar remain in their sub-human sickness. But everyone who comes to hear and receive Jesus’ precious Gospel and Sacraments receives Jesus’ own healing. Just look at what He has already done for you. He has baptized you and made you fully human by washing away all your sins. He continues to restore you to FULL HUMANITY every time you hear His Word proclaimed, every time you eat and drink His Body and Blood. As Luther said, “where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.” fully human life, that is.
So, don’t you want your family, your friends, your neighbors, and your co-workers to be fully human with you? Think about it this way. If Bill Gates came to give away ten thousand dollars to every person who walked through the church doors, I’d bet that you would bring everyone you could. Well, dear friends, Bill Gates has nothing compared to the riches of knowing Christ Jesus and being made fully human. Here, in this place, our Lord Jesus Christ always restores us and anyone who comes here to being fully human. That’s why, after Jesus ascended, the disciples “went out and preached everywhere” because the Lord Jesus “worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs.” Our ascended Lord Jesus still works through His Word and Sacraments to make us fully human. Amen.