Saturday, May 11, 2013
Not an idea or a cause but a person...
Someone once said that it would be good if guests came with an expiration date. The great dowager countess of Downton Abbey put it this way. No guest should arrive without a departure date being previously set. Or, maybe you know that familiar expression that guests, like fish, stink after three days. The departure of guests seems to be as welcome as their arrival. Except Jesus.
No one was ready for Jesus to go. Not the disciples; their faith was not in an idea or a principle or a cause but in a flesh and blood person. They were called to follow a man and not an ideal. They had been with Him for three years. They had seen Him suspend the natural law: calming storms, feeding thousands, healing sick, and raising dead. They had watched as He called out demons and sent them packing and stood up to the religious and political authorities of the day. They had seen His compassion for undeserving folks, His love for those nobody loved, His touch upon the untouchable. They had seen Him suffer and die and then been shocked with His resurrection. They were attached not to an idea or a cause; they were attached to a man.
Their joy was in a real person. Some of them had a dark past which Jesus had overcome. Some of them had personality problems that Jesus had turned into assets for the kingdom. Some of them had betrayed their Lord and been restored from their shame. They did not follow Jesus the idea but Jesus the man. He was their joy and their all. They could not conceive of their life apart from Him.
But after forty days, Jesus takes them out of the city and as He speaks, He disappears from their sight. You might expect panic, tears, anger, upset, turmoil, and despair. But instead, they go home singing for joy. How can it be that a people so attached to Him, would rejoice when He ascends into heaven and they see Him no more?
They knew a few things. They knew He was to come again as they saw Him go. This was the future promise of His return as Lord and Judge of all. Now, to be sure, they envisioned His return soon – a whole lot sooner than the 2000 years it has been. But they had confidence that the Lord who had kept all His other promises, would keep this one, too. He would return as He they saw Him go. If Jesus were to go, they had His promise as the comfort.
Another part of their joy was in their realization that what Jesus had done, He had not done for Himself but for them. He lived to live out the holiness that would count them holy. He suffered to bear their sufferings. He died their death to kill death. He rose that they might rise to life eternal. And now He goes to prepare a place that they might be where He is and He might be with them for all eternity. If Jesus were to go, they had a future waiting for them.
And finally, they took comfort and found joy in the fact that Jesus never says "good bye." It might seem a little thing, but He ascends not to depart from them, but to fill all in all. He had already promised them, "Lo, I am with you always." Not as a memory but Himself. Not as some spiritual presence, but the Christ who gives His gifts to His people still. Not as a principle to follow or an ideal to live for, but as the crucified, risen, and ascended Lord who remains among us, living as He promised.
As people were tempted to believe that Jesus ascension leaves us without the Lord’s real presence. So we turn Christianity into an idea or a principle of love or a cause to right injustice. How easy it is for us to be content with that. But we do not believe in an idea or a cause or a principle. We believe in the flesh and blood person. He has ascended but to be with us.
That is why we are here tonight. We come here not to remember an absent God, not to rekindle a distant memory, but to meet the God of His promise, who has filled all things and especially His Word, His water, and His meal. We come not to honor some aging monarch in some inglorious body that barely hints of the man He was, but the living Lord who holds today and eternity in His hand. He is neither spirit nor ghost but flesh and blood still – the glorious flesh and blood of the victorious Lord who gives us this body and this blood to eat and drink.
Christians take their cue from the disciples. Christ is not absent from His people but present in the places of His promise. We are not a people whose hope is a memory but whose joy is in the ascended Lord who has filled all in all, especially this Word and these Sacraments. He is no guest who has overstayed His welcome but the Lord who has come to take us to Himself, that we might be where He is. He does this through the means of grace now and by giving to us the glorious flesh and blood He wears for all eternity.
We are not the sad or defeated. Our hope is not in a memory nor is our comfort a feeling. Christ has ascended to fill all in all. He is not our guest, but we are His. We have been raised from sin and its death to forgiveness and life, from servants to sons and daughters, from the bondage of the world to freedom to love and serve the Lord in the chosen obedience and submission of faith. Like the disciples, we do not lament an absent Savior but sing for joy all the way home because Christ is here! Amen!