A World of Our Own
Tell me if this 1965 hit from "The Seekers" wouldn't be a great ballad for the past 2 months: "Close the door, light the light/ We're stayin' home tonight/ Far away from the bustle and the bright city lights/ Let them all fade away, just leave us alone/ And we'll live in a world of our own." Yes, we've all had "A World of Our Own", but it wasn't much to my liking. Christ's Ascension makes a better one.
His starts by opening not closing the door and by snuffing the candle rather than lighting the light. The door that's opened today is heaven's, and it's opened to flesh and blood just like ours. Remember at Christmas we sing, "Today He opens heaven again and gives us His own Son." That's God the Son opening heaven to come into the virgin's womb. Ascension answers David's question from Psalm 24: To whom will heaven's gates be opened, with "the Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle." Today we find out this is Jesus born of Mary. Tap this; touch this; pinch this. This ascended to the realm of angels and archangels, to the place of the 4 living creatures covered with eyes where 6-winged Seraphim cry "Holy, Holy, Holy" eternally.
But you expect this. It's no more surprising to you than Jesus walking on water, multiplying bread and fish, or healing lepers. It was surprising to the ancients. Augustine cites Cicero, saying Hercules' and Romulus' bodies weren't taken to heaven because "'.nature would not permit a body of earth to exist anywhere except upon the earth'" (City of God, NPNF, II, 481). The pagan Plutarch predating Augustine by 4 centuries says: "We must not, therefore, contrary to nature, send the bodies, too, of good men to heaven, but we must really believe that according to their divine nature and law, their virtues and their souls are translated out of men" (Lives, Romans, 24).
Is that why the Western Church has historically snuffed the Christ Candle on Ascension? Because Christ's body and soul is no longer here on earth at all? Nope, it's to show the relationship has changed. The God-Man Jesus is still here; indeed Ephesians not only says He is now "far above all rule and authority", but 4:10 says He ascended to fill all things in the universe. So, it's not that the Man Jesus is now locked in heaven while Jesus' Spirit fills all things. No, the God-Man in one Person with both natures is anywhere you can think of and everywhere you can't. But things have changed. Just as you can no longer look to the Christ Candle every service and see it burning as a visible reminder of the risen Christ among us, so the disciples would no longer have the visible Jesus before their eyes. Yet, this God-Man had promised to be with them to the close of the ages. And He is in the Water, Words, and Bread and Wine He left us.
Jesus ascending into heaven having completed the work of redeeming our body and soul with His Body and Soul creates a world of our own where all our sorrows can be left behind and we find peace of mind. In mythology, Hercules is half-man, half-god, this is to be distinguished from Jesus who is all Man and all God. Hercules has himself burned up so that he would lose the flesh he received from his mother and his divinity would go to heaven. "As he took his place in heaven, Atlas felt the added weight" (Bullfinches', 148-9). Atlas was the Titan who led the Titans against the Olympian gods. He was punished by Zeus with the task of forever bearing the weight of heaven. What I'm telling you is that when the God-Man Jesus took your flesh and blood to heaven the Devil, the World, and your own Sinful Flesh felt the added weight. Things were different; a God who is Man now rules all things for the sake of us men and our salvation.
If you know "The Seekers" song "A World of Our Own", you'll know there's a flaw in that upbeat, peppy lyric. It's "We'll build a world of our own." Everything from AARP, to Bloomberg, to World, to Dr. Oz, to Kelly and Ryan have told me how to do that. This thought is in the spirit of another group that went from being an Airplane in the 60's to being a Starship in the 80's. Their 1985 "We Built This City" is an homage to self-reliance and rock and roll. "We built this city on rock an' roll," they sing. "Good luck with that," as the saying goes. And "good luck" with building a world of your own in this fallen world, pandemic or not. Age, disease, tragedy, disaster, war, or an accident will do no more or less to each of us than Covid-19 can or will. No, unless Jesus builds a world for us, we got at the most 100 years and with them "man has cried a billion tears." But as Jesus is carried up into heaven, He shows us with what He has built a world for all the saints.
Our text says "and lifting up His hands He blessed them. While He blessed them, He was carried up into heaven." This is the only time the NT says Jesus lifted up His hands, and we know what's on those hands, what's in those hands, what's through those hands: nail holes. And we know why those nail holes are there. We know why Jesus showed them to the apostles Easter night and why He had Thomas put his fingers in them to feel their squish. Because these nail holes are proof that the risen Jesus and now the ascended Jesus is the very same Jesus who was nailed to a cross to suffer for our sins, to be damned for our sins, to die for our sins, and to be raised on the third day. These risen nail-pierced hands are proof that God's anger at you for your sins of misbelief, despair, and other greater, shameful sins is quenched. Now these nail-pierced hands go to heaven to be ever-before the throne of the Father. So, He cannot forget what those hands did for us, built for us. We aren't to forget either. Every time we return to our Baptism, to our Absolution, and to the Body and Blood of Jesus, we're returning to those nail-pierced hands.
The Seekers' world of their own know wasn't just one they claimed to have built, but one "no one else can share." Noah ended up with such a world when the Flood drowned all but him and his family of 7. He ended up feeling forgotten by God and turned to drink for comfort. Lot too ended up with a world of his own, and because his daughters thought there was no one else in the world to share the Promised Seed with, they purposely broke numerous commandments. Go home read Genesis 19; then do a word search for Moab and Ammon, and you'll see the misbelief and despair of those 2 young women led to centuries of problems for the OT Church.
The new world built by the hands of Jesus that kept the law in place of all sinful people; the new world built by Jesus' hands bleeding, damning, and dying for all people, is for everyone and anyone. Jesus ascent into heaven did not lead us into a bunker to await His return. The Man Jesus, who has hands just like you, now sits on the throne of God with His hands firmly on the steering wheel. No, more is Jesus just for the lost sheep of the House of Israel. No, more are His pastors only sent to them. Yes, salvation is from the Jews but is it is for all nations. That's the big change that happens once Jesus has paid for the sins of the world and was raised by the Father to show the world that He has accepted the payment. The Good News of salvation is to be preached to all nations. Hear how clearly Jesus spells this out in Acts: "You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth."
The message that brings people to repentance is to be proclaimed in Jesus' name to all nations. We hear this as if Jesus is far away and we are speaking for Him who isn't and can't be present. "Instead of a robust and mighty faith which hangs upon a living Savior, and lives by His life, we have a religion of sentiment, verging away into sentimentality; a religion which lives by its own thoughts about a Savior of bygone times" (Krauth, Conservative Reformation, 653). No, we're like the king's soldiers standing at the door declaring, "In the name of the king" not a dead king, an absent king, and abdicated king, but a living, present, ruling King. Take your pick of any of the acceptable, excusable sins of our age. In the name of King Jesus, we proclaim these to be sins that offend God Almighty, injure the sinner, his fellow man, and will most certainly damn them. "In the name of the King" we want people to share the world He built for us. "In the name of the King" the first step towards this world is not feeling hopeful, good, better about yourself, or being loved or accepted. In the name of the King, the first step is repentance.
But it's not the last step or even the reason we step out in the name of the King. Jesus says it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise so that upon the basis of His name repentance, literally into' forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed into all nations. It's not your job to argue someone into repentance or forgiveness. We are no more than heralds repeating what the King says. We herald what He says in the Law not to leave people in the filth and guilt of their sin and sinfulness, but for the sake of the forgiveness of sins in Jesus' name. In the name of the King, you are to believe your sins, all your sins are forgiven. Luther said, "'The power to do thisis given to every ChristianIt is a power that we have taken from the resurrection and the ascension of Christ'" (Walther, Law & Gospel, 203, Harrison ed.).
There is peace of mind in this world because it's not of our own but of Jesus' making, built by His hands not ours, not for hoarding but for sharing. In Eastern Orthodoxy, Easter was celebrated as "the event that liberated Christ from the boundaries of His human form" (Church from Age to Age, 353). That makes an amorphous Jesus to me one without nail-pierced hands, or blood to fill my Communion Cup or water to fill my Font. No, His Ascension exalts flesh and blood beyond the boundaries of time and space while leaving me the connecting point of His flesh and blood to a world of His own. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Ascension Sunday (20200524); Luke 24: 44-53