Dear repentant and forgiven of the nations,
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is all for you, but you are nowhere to be found. In the Gospel Reading for Ascension Day it is strictly Jesus and His apostles in their unique role as eye witnesses to His resurrected body. There are no crowds where we might place ourselves in the picture. The wider group of unnamed disciples is not there to which we might claim the same vocation. Jesus is speaking to a select group of His, the Eleven, whom He named apostles and sent out with a task that is different than the callings He has given to us.
It is to these particular men that Jesus was speaking and to whom He imparted His gifts and blessing on the occasion of His Ascension into heaven. He referred to the words that He spoke to them while He was still with them. He spoke to them and was with them, not with us. We were not there. Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. He gave them a unique understanding of the Bible to be His apostles. That is why we regard their New Testament writings as the Word of God, inspired by Him. We can base doctrine and faith on their words. We cannot do that on any other words, not even the words that come from our denomination, or our church building, or our pastor. Those words must be founded on the words of Christ and His apostles. They are in a different category.
He said to them, “You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:48). They saw His suffering and they saw Him resurrected. They saw what we did not. They are the witnesses. So, St. Peter wrote, “We were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (1 Peter 1:16). And St. John wrote, “That... which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands... we proclaim also to you” (1 John 1:1, 3). We are not eyewitnesses. We cannot go about witnessing and testifying in that way.
Jesus promised, “And behold, I am sending the promise of My Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). That refers to the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon them in visible form and they were able to preach the Gospel in the languages of all those who had come to Jerusalem for the Feast (Acts 2). We will celebrate that great Festival of Pentecost in ten days. But we were not there. Even though a wider group of disciples were with the Eleven when the Holy Spirit came upon them, we were not in the room filled by the rushing wind of His coming, just as we were not with Jesus when He gave this promise to the Eleven apostles.
“He led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up His hands He blessed them” (Luke 24:50). Once again we were not there. I've never been to Bethany. Some of you may have visited the place, but you were not there when the Risen Lord Jesus lifted up His nail-marked hands in blessing. You were not there to see Him carried up into heaven while He was blessing them. I was not there. You were not there. What does the Ascension of our Lord have to do with us?
One way that people have tried to make the Ascension of Jesus meaningful for them is to look at it in an entirely spiritual way. You were not there, but Jesus' words come to you through the Holy Spirit. There is a little bit of truth to this. Mind you: a little bit. The Holy Spirit brings the words of Jesus to you. The words that He spoke to the apostles come to you. The Holy Spirit opens your minds to understand the Scriptures, like Jesus opened the minds of the apostles to see that what was written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled. And it all testified to the Christ's suffering and resurrection, and the preaching of repentance and forgiveness of sins in His name. This Holy Spirit which Jesus promised to the apostles has been given to you so that you might have power from on high.
But it is not quite the same power that was given to the apostles who were there with Jesus. You do not fully understand the Scriptures as the apostles did. You do not see Jesus as an eyewitness, even if you should have visions of some kind, of His resurrected body or His bodily ascension. Be careful about those kind of things because those promises and gifts were not promised and given to you. They were uniquely given to the apostles who served as eyewitnesses and were sent to proclaim and testify because they had seen with their eyes and heard with their ears. They did not see only in their hearts as a kind of spiritual experience.
The ascension of our Lord Jesus was not a spiritual occurrence. It was intensely physical. This was Jesus in the body that He received when He became incarnate in the womb of the Virgin Mary. This is the Jesus who was born in Bethlehem, who was circumcised on the eighth day, who had to be absconded to Egypt in order to prevent the first attempt to murder Him.
This is a very physical Jesus who was baptized in the Jordan River, to whom St. John pointed and said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1;29). This is the physical Jesus who laid His hands on the sick, who spat to make mud to heal a blind man, the hem of whose robe a woman touched for healing, who grabbed hold of the coffin during a funeral procession and raised a widow's son.
This is the physical Jesus who was kissed by Judas, slapped in the face, beaten over the head, scourged by soldiers, nailed to the cross, and whose side was pierced by a lance. This is the physical Jesus who was wrapped with spices and laid in a tomb, who had Thomas touch His nail-marked hands, and who ate with these apostles after His resurrection. The Ascension of Jesus is not a spiritual event. It is a very physical one. But you were not physically there. So what does it have to do with you?
It is more than something spiritual, even for you. Jesus was physically there. The Eleven apostles were physically there, to be eyewitnesses and spokesmen, to proclaim with voices, physical voices. That would be useless unless there are also physical ears to hear their proclamation. They were to proclaim the physical Jesus, with their physical voices, to all nations, real physical people: all nations, differing in physical characteristics of one type or another, some with light hair and some with dark, different shades of skin, some with flat noses and some pointy; all nations, beginning at Jerusalem, a real geographical location where real people lived and do live.
This is where you come in, not in a spiritual way, but in a very physical way. You are included in the Ascension account in the very physical “all nations” to whom the apostles are sent to proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins in the suffering and resurrection of the Christ. This proclamation has come to you from a physical Jesus who sent out physical apostles, who proclaimed with physical voices and wrote things down in tangible books. They ordained physical men to carry on this proclamation by laying their hands on them just as Jesus had raised His hands in blessing when He ascended into heaven.
These physically ordained men proclaimed the testimony of the Old Testament Scriptures and of the New Testament apostolic witness with physical voices to physical ears, and they laid their hands on more men and ordained them to carry on this proclamation; until it has come physically into your ears. It is not just spiritual. It is all very physical, just as your Lord Jesus is not just spiritual, but very physical. It is solid and grounded so that you may rely on these promises of Jesus, not coming out of thin air, but coming from your incarnate Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who has bodily ascended into heaven and sent the promise of His Holy Spirit to you, also in concrete and tangible ways.
You were not there when Jesus spoke with His apostles, but you have the same tangible Scriptures that were written about the Christ, so that you can see with Your eyes and hear with your hears: the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms. You were not there when Jesus opened the mind of the apostles to understand the Scriptures, but you have their expositions of the necessity of the suffering and resurrection of the incarnate Jesus. That is, you have their proclamation of repentance and the forgiveness of sins: that Jesus' suffering, death, and resurrection paid for the sins of the whole world, and so there is forgiveness for all who look to Him in repentance and faith. You were not an eyewitness, but there were eyewitnesses to tell you what they had seen with their eyes. There is no use having eyewitnesses if no one needs to be told what happened. They are physical witnesses for you.
You have not received the gift of the Holy Spirit in visible form like they did, but you have received the same Holy Spirit in the tangible means that were given to you. Through water and the Word in Holy Baptism, the Spirit has been poured out upon you that you might believe the physical things that have been physically accomplished by the incarnate Lord Jesus for your salvation; that you might be really and truly forgiven for all of your sins, even those very physical sins committed with your physical body that you know to be so very real.
Jesus physically ascended into heaven. He is fully present at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. He is bodily there for you, physical you. And He is coming again, physically, to raise the dead bodily, and to live and dwell with His people incarnate forever. You were not physically present at the ascension of our Lord. But you have all the physical benefits that come from what He has physically accomplished for you.
Jesus' ascension into heaven is no less real than His incarnation, suffering, death, and resurrection. He has accomplished it all for you in His physical body, that you might be assured that your salvation is not just an idea in your head, not a spiritual concept that will slip out of your fingers, but a real, solid, tangible, and physical salvation. It is one that you can see as water pours over the baptized. It is one that you can hear as the sound waves created by the vibration of vocal chords strike the tiny bones in your ears. It is one that you can taste as the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper distribute the body and blood of Jesus into your mouth.
The bodily ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ gives to you a salvation that is as real as it gets. You were not physically present when He ascended into heaven. But He is truly present to bestow His gifts upon you physically, that you might be saved from all your sins and be with Him body and soul forever.