Onward and Upward

Onward and Upward

Grace, mercy, and peace to you this day from God our
Father, and from our ascended Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Back when I was starting my professional career as an industrial
engineer, a significant portion of my work was comprised of developing
processes and procedures. Some of these procedures might tell a person how to
operate a piece of equipment. Other times, they might give safety
instructions, or the proper way to carry out some administrative task.

The most challenging processes and procedures I had to
develop, though, usually were those which described how a product was to be
assembled, tested, and prepared for transportation.

Now, these weren’t simple products like flyswatters or
ball-point pens, mind you. They were very complex electromechanical systems
that sometimes consisted of tens of thousands of parts, miles of wiring, and
very precise tolerances. They were more complicated than your car, and more
expensive than your house.

If every part wasn’t in just the right place; if every
nut and bolt and screw and rivet weren’t fastened properly; if every wire
didn’t run from the correct origin to the correct destination, these machines
wouldn’t work. The steps that were to be followed to make all of these things
happen often ran into the tens of thousands, too. They had to be done in a
certain order, so that all the pieces would fit and nothing would be left out
or not properly completed.

If there was a problem with assembling these devices,
you could usually trace it back to someone not doing something in the right
sequence. I sometimes had to figure that out, too, so the problem could be
corrected. So, although I’ve occasionally mistakenly flip-flopped the creed
and the sermon, or the offering and the prayer of the church, I think you could
say that I usually have at least a certain limited ability to figure out if
things are happening in the right order or not.

So, it always strikes me as a little strange when
we’re in parts of the church year when we read a selection from the book of
Acts as our first scripture lesson, rather than something from the Old
Testament, and then later—following the Epistle lesson—we hear a reading from
one of the four Gospels. It’s probably strange to me because the Gospels and
Acts are historical accounts of the ministries of Jesus and His apostles, and I
always like to hear history in the right order.

If you paid attention during the reading of the
scripture lessons this morning, perhaps this out-of-sequence situation seemed
even more noticeable than usual. That’s because today the first and third
lessons not only are reversed in historical sequence, they actually overlap.
That doesn’t happen very often, does it?

As we observe the Ascension of our Lord this day, we
are confronted with the break point between Luke’s Gospel account and his
record of the early church in Acts. Luke and Acts are a connected record—two
volumes in a series, you might say. Our first lesson this morning begins that
second volume, and our Gospel lesson this morning concludes the first volume.
Have you got that all straight?

What the Holy Spirit is doing through St. Luke’s
writing in these two lessons is forming a “bridge.” These lessons connect the
time when Jesus physically dwelt among humankind during His earthly ministry
and the current era in which we dwell. The pivotal event in this bridge is the
ascension of Jesus, forty days after His resurrection from the dead, and Luke
captures this event in both of his volumes.

Though we might not think of it in such terms, we’re
all quite familiar with this literary technique. The recounting of the
ascension of Jesus at the beginning of Acts sets the stage for the beginnings
of the Christian Church—a Church that is going to have to function without the
physical presence of its leader.

It’s much like what we see from week to week in
ongoing television dramas. Each episode ends with an announcer speaking over
highlights from the following week’s show: “Next time on ‘America’s Most
Then, when the program comes on the following week, we hear: “Previously
on ‘America’s Most Wanted’,”
or whatever show it might be.

A bridge, of course, is intended to allow physical
movement from one place to another, usually between two relatively high spots,
over some sort of obstacle or low spot which lies in between them. So not only
does St. Luke use a literary bridge to connect his two-volume record on the
work of Christ and His Church, but the Ascension of Jesus is itself a bridge of

The Ascension moves Jesus physically from earth to
heaven, of course. But it also takes the Church from the twin high points of
Jesus’ destruction of sin on the cross and His defeat of death in His
resurrection, and begins to move it across the low spot of “what now?” toward
the sublime and eternal glories of heaven. Along with Pentecost, which we will
celebrate next Sunday, the Ascension transitions the Church from the tangible
work done by Christ during His time on earth to the tangible work that the
Church itself is to carry out on earth with the real but spiritual support of
the Holy Spirit.

It’s entirely appropriate that this transition—this
movement or “bridging”—takes place in the ministry of Christ and the ministry
of the Church. Our God is a god of both physicality and movement, right from
the very beginning of time. While God is a spiritual being, He chose not to
connect with just spiritual beings of His own creation.

Instead, he chose to move and to create a physical
world to be populated by flesh-and-blood creatures. His Spirit moved, but it
moved over something very physical—the surface of the waters—at the very
beginning of that creative process. He formed man from physical matter and
woman from man, and gave them physical bodies and a physical way of generating
their own kind, so that they might share in His creative work.

And when the Lord wanted to accomplish something in
His physical world, He caused movement of people and things to carry out that
work: Moving sinners from the garden; floating Noah upon the churning waters;
moving Abraham from Ur to Haran to Canaan to Egypt and back again. He later
moved Israel to Egypt to chasten them, and back to Canaan to bless them. And
when they rebelled again and again, he moved nations against them, again and
again, and sometimes moved Israel and Judah into foreign lands.

But a far greater movement of God was in store—a
physical movement, a movement without equal. The second articles of the
Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds are largely about the physicality and movement of
our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, are they not? The movement of a God, “who
for us and for our salvation came down from heaven,”
as the Holy Spirit
conceived a physical child. The physical movement of that child down the birth
canal, as He was born of the Virgin Mary. The physical movement of His
suffering and dying as He bore the cross from Jerusalem and was raised above
the earth on that cross. His movement to the tomb, a broken body, given for

Finally, then, in accordance with all the Scriptures
had promised, He came forth from that tomb—not just spiritually but
physically—and was bodily taken up into heaven in plain sight of many
witnesses, as we heard read a short time ago.

It’s interesting to note how the entire attitude of
these witnesses about what it meant to have a God who was physical and moving in
their lives had been radically shifted in just a few short weeks.

You will remember that, in the days leading up to His
crucifixion, the disciples were deeply saddened by the news that soon, Jesus
would be going away from them. They knew He had spoken of His death at that
time, so their sadness was understandable. But they were also confused and
concerned by Jesus’ words about leaving them to return to the Father, to
prepare a place for them, and to send them the Comforter, the Holy Spirit.

But note how they respond later in Luke’s two accounts
of the Ascension, one in his Gospel and one in Acts. There is a sense of awe
and amazement, we know. There are questions about the coming of the kingdom.
And there are instructions given by Jesus, too: Orders to trustingly remain in
Jerusalem, in spite of the dangers to their lives. They are to await a great
gift, a great power that Jesus would send them from the Father.

In spite of all these things, Jesus’ departure does
not create panic or fear. Instead, once they are jolted out of their sense of
wonder by the words of the two angels, they returned to Jerusalem with great
joy. Clearly they have already received the gift of faith, so the Holy Spirit
was already at work in their lives. Yet that same Spirit would soon come to
them in an even more powerful way, to provide that great power for the benefit
of others, too.

Jesus’ ascension was not an abandonment of those
apostles and His fledgling Church, but a physical movement that completed His
earthly ministry. It shifted the responsibility for the carrying out of the
Church’s mission to proclaim the Good News from the one divine and human unity
of Jesus to a new unity—once comprised of the human nature of believers and the
divine nature of the Holy Spirit.

Sometimes when our faith is wavering a bit, we may
begin to wonder why Jesus had to ascend to heaven, rather than remaining
physically present in the world in a way He could be seen, heard, and touched.
After all, wouldn’t that be much more effective for convincing people of His
love and His work for their salvation? Isn’t that one of the great criticisms
of the Christian faith by unbelievers: That we believe in a God we cannot see
with physical eyes? That we trust in a witness given to us by individuals who
have long since departed this world, like the Savior we claim was here once,
but is no longer seen?

Yet we do indeed trust that the One who was conceived,
born, suffered, died, was buried, and rose again did also indeed ascend to
heaven, and He did so because just as all His other physical movements did, His
ascension achieves God purposes: It once again demonstrates His power, His
glory, and His divinity. It returns Him once again to His rightful place at
the right hand of the Father, to reign eternally and from which He will one day
move again, returning as judge of all and chief of the heavenly harvest.

In the interim, He has sent to us, His Church—to His
body which remains here on earth—the Comforter. The Holy Spirit who guides,
protects, teaches, and motivates us. At the same time, also, from His throne
of glory on high, Jesus hears our prayers and intercedes with the Father for

By this, too, we are comforted, knowing that in spite
of our weakness and corruption, the unblemished Lamb whose body and blood was
the perfect and acceptable sacrifice for our sins now speaks perfect and
acceptable words to God on our behalf.

For all these reasons, we ought to praise and thank
our Lord and Savior for His ascension—for having completed His work of salvation
here on earth, and for returning to heaven to prepare a place for us. Even as
we do, we carry on His work of spreading the Good News of His work to others.
Proclaim His name to all the nations so that they, too, may inherit a portion
of the kingdom of heaven.

Christ physically ascended to heaven, sitting at the
right hand of the Father, yet He remains continually active in the world
through the Spirit, and constantly sends us His gifts and blessings through His
Church. So don’t be left standing, looking into heaven.

Instead, let heaven wash over your skin, each time you
remember the first time it did at the font. Let heaven flow into your ears and
your heart, each time His Word is proclaimed to you. And let heaven pass over
your lips and be tasted on your tongue as Christ returns to you again and
again, bringing His body and blood and opening to you a glimpse of the eternal
heavenly feast each time you approach His altar.

Jesus moved from earth to heaven in His ascension
because that was the next step of a divinely-appointed journey on which He has
embarked. It is a path on which you also travel—a few steps behind your
Master, as disciples always must. But you are linked to Him forever, and where
He leads, you will surely one day follow.

In the holy name of our Lord and Savior, who was
raised from the dead and now reigns on high, Amen.