Sunday, May 25, 2008

Remembering the Last War

Texts: Revelation 12:7-12; Luke 1:1-3; 17-24

TOMORROW, AMERICA WILL BE CELEBRATING Memorial Day. I remember as a small child going up to a cemetery in a small town in eastern Kansas and decorating the graves of dead relatives with peonies from our yard. Peonies in mayonnaise jars for the departed Zickefooses: that’s what Memorial Day meant to me.

But then I grew older, and I learned that Memorial Day used be called "Decoration Day," and it was the day to honor the soldiers who’d died fighting the Civil War. And that later, after World War I, it was the time to remember the service of any deceased veteran who’d served in any of America’s wars. And that eventually, it was called "Memorial Day." And even though we take time on the last Monday in May to think of all our loved ones who have gone before, the day is fundamentally about remembering those who have served in our armed forces, especially for those who died in combat.

It’s a fine and noble thing to remember our war dead. It’s a grim and difficult thing to think about war. But this Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, I want you to think about and remember war, the last war.

No, I’m not talking about Desert Storm. Or about the conflict in the Balkans, or Viet Nam, or Korea, or World War II. I’m talking about the last war, the final war that will be fought on this earth, the war that’s ongoing now, the war you and I and every human being are all in.

This is the war of wars. Its theater isn’t just the Middle East-- Iraq or Afghanistan-- it’s being fought everywhere believers in Jesus Christ are confronting and being confronted by our old enemy, the Devil. The weapons in this war are not guns and missiles and supersonic jets and tanks, they are the Word of God and the Cross of Christ. And the stakes are not land and resources or even human lives and freedoms in this world; at stake in this war is the everlasting destiny of God’s church and His own divine name and glory.

We get frustrated and angry with our leaders when a war lasts more than a couple of years. But the war we need to remember today has been going on since before the beginning of time and it will not end until sin, death, and Satan are finally defeated and all things are put under Jesus’ feet.

In Isaiah we learn that Satan was once the most beautiful and glorious of the angels, Lucifer, the son of the dawn. But he wasn’t content with that. He said in his heart,

"I will ascend to heaven;
I will raise my throne above the stars [that is, the angels] of God;
I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, . . .
I will make myself like the Most High."

This was Satan's first shot in his war of rebellion against Almighty God.

In Genesis we see his tactics. He attacks God by tempting Eve and Adam to sin against God’s command not to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In Job we see that even though he’s lost his home in heaven, Satan still can appear in the council meetings of the angels of God and accuse God’s people of wrongdoing, wrong speaking, and wrong motives.

In fact, that’s what the word "Satan" means. He’s like a nasty prosecuting attorney who’ll say anything and twist your words any which way to force the judge to declare you guilty and condemn you to death. His accusations are one more weapon he uses in his rebellious war against God and His saints.

We’re in this war, right now. Every human being is on one side or the other. The tragic thing is, ever since our First Parents said Yes to Satan and No to the Lord God, all of us are born into Satan’s army. The Holy Spirit, speaking in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, says that the default nature of man is to

"[Follow] the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient."

Our Lord Jesus Himself, as recorded by the Apostle John, frankly states that those who reject Him as Messiah and King are not children of His Father in heaven. No, they are children of their father, the devil, and they want to carry out their father’s desire. They fight on Satan's side.

The odds in this cosmic war seem awfully stacked against Almighty God! Not only are all of us born in rebellion against Him, not only do we all naturally pledge allegiance to Satan, but as Ephesians says, naturally we’re spiritually dead in trespasses and sins. We couldn’t switch over to God’s side even if we wanted to! And in our natural human nature, we don’t want to!

But don’t forget: Satan’s war against God is a rebellion, not a civil war. Most civil wars involve some sort of rebellion; that is, as brother fights against brother there’s generally a sense in which one side is defending the constituted government and the other side wants to overthrow or change it. But rebellions always involve the subjects of a government fighting against the government’s leaders and authorities with the idea of becoming the leaders and authorities in their place.

That’s what Satan is doing and has been doing from before the start of human history. Satan is not equal with God. He’s only one of God’s created angels, and he’s a fallen, debased angel at that. God is the one who is all-powerful and all-sufficient. Almighty God is the sovereign of the universe; He has the wisdom, strength, and authority to see that His will is done. God can make a way where there is no way, and He can win battles and wars that we think are totally lost.

And He wins them with the strangest of weapons. St. Paul says in First Corinthians that "The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God."

At the cross-- when Jesus the Son of God was hanging there dying and Satan and all the demonic forces thought they’d won, they’d won!-- it’s there that Almighty God was breaking their power forever. At the cross, where perfect Goodness was mocked and humiliated, it’s there that the rebellion of Evil was put down forevermore. At the cross, where our Lord offered up His body to be broken and pierced for the sins of mankind, God was bringing His chosen ones to His side.

The people of that time might have thought, "Oh, just another criminal gone to be crucified." Crucifixion was a common, if horrible, form of execution in the Roman world. But God proved His victory over Satan by raising His Son Jesus Christ from the dead. He poured out His Holy Spirit to bring convict us of our rebellion and sin and to confirm to us the life-giving power of the death our Savior died.

And so, by the preaching of the cross, God raises up in this world soldiers for His holy cause, sealing them for service by the power of His Holy Spirit. God is not alone in His warfare against that old serpent, the Devil. His army includes all the holy angels. And it includes you and me, all those who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ and made holy by His righteousness alone.

We see this in our Scripture readings today. The language of the book of Revelation is metaphor and symbolism, and it’s wise not to be too absolute with how to interpret it. But some things are very clear. If you back up in chapter 12, it describes what led up to the war in heaven in our reading. Verse 5 speaks of the birth of a male child, "who will rule the nations with an iron scepter." This refers back to Psalm 2, and designates Jesus Christ, the Son of Man. After the coming of Christ, everything is different. After Christ’s death and glorious resurrection, the Devil-- called the dragon in this passage-- no longer has any place in heaven. No longer can he stand in the council of the Most High and accuse the saints of God day and night. It doesn’t matter if you were an Old Testament saint looking forward to the coming of the Messiah, or a New Testament saint-- and brothers and sisters, that includes us-- who lives after the cross, God isn’t listening to Satan any more. The devil can chatter all he wants about our shortcomings and our failures to live up to the measure of Christ. But he’s firing blanks. He’s wasting his own time.

For us who believe in Jesus Christ, Satan is a defeated enemy. As the Scripture says, we have overcome him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of our testimony.

But let’s be very clear about what the Scripture means by "testimony." Some folks think it means telling people stories about themselves, where Jesus is the means whereby they got a happier, healthier, more prosperous life. No! The testimony that overcomes Satan is our witness to Jesus Christ and what He did to bring us from death to life. It’s the truth about how the blood of the Lamb washed away our rebellion and replaced it with His perfect obedience. We can’t fight the powers of darkness by showing people our higher bank balance or our perfectly-raised children! We can’t even do it by claiming what nice people we’ve become, now that Jesus is in our hearts. No, the only way to spike the Devil’s guns is to remind him and all his angels of the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ. We fight our part in the great war by constantly saying, "Yes, I am a sinner-- saved by grace. Jesus took the punishment I deserved and made me acceptable to God. There is now no condemnation for me. Satan, you cannot bring any charge against me. Jesus has paid the whole penalty and set me free."

We stand only on our Lord’s total faithfulness and we’re strong only in His strength. The Scripture speaks of the martyrs, who "did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death." Christian martyrs around the world even today are able to give up this earthly life, because they know that Jesus Christ their crucified and risen Lord is able to give them the resurrection life He has promised.

Verse 10 says, "Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom or our God, and the authority of his Christ." Jesus, shortly before He ascended into heaven, told His disciples that "all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me." Satan’s ultimate power is broken.

But the war is not over. The Devil has been cast down to earth, and he’s determined to make life as miserable for God’s people and for humanity in general, as long as he can.

You may remember, or maybe you’ve heard, about the D-Day invasion of Normandy in June of 1944. Historians are agreed that that was when the tide of World War II turned against the Nazis and their power was effectively broken. But it wasn’t the end of the damage they would do. In the Battle of the Bulge, the following December and January, over 19,000 American troops would be killed. And even more would die before Germany finally surrendered in May of 1945.

It is the same way with our enemy Satan, and will be up to the time when death and Satan and hell with be thrown for good and all into the lake of fire. He’s going to keep on fighting against us, because he knows his time is short.

He’ll fight against you by confusing you on what being a Christian is all about. He’ll get you thinking that it’s about having "your best life now" or about being nice to other people. He’ll try to make you embarrassed by talk of sin. He’ll whisper that it’s offensive to believe that we all deserve the wrath of God and the blood of Jesus is the only thing that can turn it away. He’ll make you go through persecution, financial trouble, or emotional and physical pain because you belong to Jesus.

Or he’ll be even more subtle than that. He’ll try to get you to be proud of your spirituality or your good deeds. Or he’ll try to make you into one of those people who goes around "sacrificing" themselves for others, whether the others want to be sacrificed for or not. He’ll even allow you to think you’ve got special power in yourself over him, if by doing that he can corrupt your relationship with God.

In the tenth chapter of the gospel according to St. Luke, seventy-two disciples return from preaching the kingdom and they’re joyful, because "Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name!"

It’s an innocent joy, but Jesus does not want them or us to put our focus there. Rather, He says, "Rejoice because your names are written in heaven." We did not write them there, He did, by the blood of His cross. He has given us power to trample on all the power of the enemy, but the power is not our own, it is His. We are like little children totally dependant on the strength and provision of our wise Father, and for that Jesus thanks the God of heaven and earth.

And we should thank Him, too. For by that we know that whatever Satan may throw against us, he will lose. The Father has given us to Christ the Son, and no one, not even the Devil himself, can snatch us out of His hand.

We are all in a war, of good vs. evil, life vs. death. God our Father has chosen to fight it with an army composed of holy angels, little children, and most of all, a Lamb that was slain. When you remember that war, remember most of all that it is the blood of that Lamb that guarantees us the victory. Trust in Christ’s perfect death. Accept the salvation He has won for you. And rejoice in hope, for by Him, with Him, and in Him alone, Satan is defeated and your name is written in heaven. Alleluia, amen!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Almighty God: His Own Story

Texts: Isaiah 55:6-11; Hebrews 1:1-12; John 1:1-14; 16:5:15

I KNOW A WOMAN who had a stroke last January and lost her ability to speak. She’s come a long way with therapy, and last month she told me how powerless she felt there in the hospital, not being able to say what she wanted to say. I asked her, "Did you have the words in your head but your tongue just wouldn’t form them?"

"No," she answered me. "I didn’t even have the words in my head. I couldn’t even think. I knew I wanted to, but I didn’t have any words to think with."

Maybe you’ve been through a experience like that. Maybe you remember what it was like as a child when the grownups didn’t listen to you because you didn’t have the words to say what you wanted. Or think of our President. People close to George Bush know he’s a very intelligent man who reads history books for fun and thinks deeply on important subjects. But his style of speech doesn’t match up with that, so many people think he’s stupid and won’t pay attention to him.

We’ve all experienced how having an Idea isn’t the same as having the words to put it into. But we also know we have an Idea only because certain words or a certain image does flash into our heads. If it’s an important Idea about something we have to make or do or tell somebody, we’ll think hard to make the Expression of the Idea match the idea itself. And we’ve known the flash of fulfillment and satisfaction that comes to us when the words or images in our heads match the Idea and we feel their Effect and power.

And like my friend with the stroke, like yourself as a child, like the President of the United States, you want to tell your story, to get your Ideas out into the physical world. You want others to hear what you have to say so they can benefit from its power and Effect, too. Or if your Idea has to do with something you’re making-- a set of bookshelves, a dinner, a painting, whatever-- you want to give your Idea and its Expression physical form. Then other people can experience it and say Yes! that’s just right! too.

But which is the real Idea? Is it the unknowable Whatever you had before you had the words to Express it? Yes. Is your Idea the words or head pictures you came up with to Express it? Yes. Is your Idea the form you gave it when you spoke it or manufactured it in the physical world? Yes. Is your Idea the Effect or power the words or images had on you and other people? Yes.

But is your wordless Idea, its Expression, and its Effect all the same thing? No.

Ideas, their Expression, and their Effect. One process in three aspects. It happens in us every day--it’s as natural to us as breathing. Why should I stand here today and ask you to thinking about thinking? Why do I want you to think about the thinking that results in making?

Because it’s Trinity Sunday. I know preachers who’d rather preach on anything besides the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. It seems too distant from everyday life. But I want to suggest that the doctrine of the Trinity isn’t difficult because it’s too far away from us, it’s difficult because it’s too close-- as close as human thought. Every time we think of something that has to be done or made in this world, every time we exercise our creativity, every time, really, we have a thought of any kind at all, we’re acting as little images of Him who is One God in Three Persons, Blessed Trinity.

We can truly say that the doctrine of the Trinity is God’s own story, told in His own words. Even in the deepest mystery of the godhead, the Lord God is One God in three Persons, expressing Himself eternally with Effect and power, telling His story within Himself with everlasting joy. But in His love and mercy, God also tells us that story about Himself, in the world, to us, for our blessing and salvation.

We can start with our reading from Isaiah. "Seek the Lord while he may be found!" the prophet urges us in God’s name. Listen! God is telling his story!

But how can we seek God? He is high and lifted up! We can’t think His thoughts, we can’t even know them! God can’t be comprehended by us humans, not in His essence! He’s like an Idea with no words, no images to express it.

There are some people who say that. They claim that God is so high and spiritual and unknowable that it’s a waste of time for us to worry about seeking him or learning what he wants. The answer, they say, is for us humans just to do the good we find in our own hearts. Or we can make gods out of forces of nature that we can see and feel and understand.

But that’s not necessary. Actually, it’s rude, because God is Trinity. He makes Himself known and commands us to listen. God is not like an Idea with no Expression or an Expression with no Power; no, He sends His word to express who and what He is. And His word never returns to Him empty; it accomplishes what He desires and achieves the purpose for which He sends it.

As far as Isaiah knew, the "word" in this prophecy meant the spoken and written word that the Lord God had put in his mouth. In paradise, though, I’m sure he rejoiced to see the day when the Word of God would be revealed as so much more.

For as the writer to the Hebrews says,

"In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son."

Or as St. John puts it in the beginning of his gospel,

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

John says that Jesus Christ is and always was that Word of God that makes the unknowable God known. He was with God in the beginning, from before time began, before anything was made. The writer to the Hebrews says that the Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of God’s being. Even before His incarnation in this world, the only-begotten Son of God was the perfect Word and Image telling God’s own story, for He is and always was God’s own and only true Word.

And even in heaven before anything physical was made, even before the angels and archangels and all the supernatural powers of heaven were brought forth, God the Holy Spirit was proceeding from the Father and the Son, giving glory to the Father through the Son and glory to the Son in the Father.

But was the Triune God satisfied with that? We get a great idea and we want to give it form in the world. How much more does the ever-living, eternal Creator God feel that way! Did you notice how every one of our readings speaks of the Triune God as the Maker and Sustainer of this world? Isaiah speaks of the snow and the rain that water the earth and make it bud and flourish. The writer to the Hebrews says it was through the Son that God made the universe, that all things are sustained through His powerful word. St. John declares that "Through him"-- that is, the eternal Word of God, Jesus Christ-- "all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made." God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit expresses Himself in His creation. All around us we can see the sort of God He is, a God who doesn’t remain aloof in the heavens, but a God who comes near, a God who tells His own story in what He has made. Especially, He tells His story in us, His human creation, made in His own image, made to be thinkers and creators like him.

But sin has fogged our thoughts and plugged our ears. Fallen humanity doesn’t want to hear God’s story. We want to go around telling our own story, full of the gods and idols we’ve invented as expressions of ourselves. Humans naturally reject the idea of the triune God, and why? Because the Triune God is the only true God that ever was or ever could be. Only a deity who is one God in three Persons could speak and make Himself known. Only a triune God can exercise power and authority in His creation. Only He who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit can come near to us to save us. All other so-called gods are our manmade attempts to stay in control. They’re sinful humanity’s attempt to plug our ears and go "La-la-la, God, I can’t hear You!"

But God insists on telling His own story in this world. For our own sakes we have to listen as He Expresses Himself, then submit to His Effect and power in our lives. And so God chose to tell His story in person. God the eternal Word, the second Person of the Trinity, as St. John says, became "flesh and made his dwelling among us." And He did it effectively, with power, for "We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth."

I wonder: If we had never sinned, would God the eternal Word have become the Word of God Incarnate? I’m daring to say I think so. For how could God create something and not be totally involved in it Himself? In fact, many theologians believe that the Lord God who walked and spoke with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden was the pre-incarnate Christ, appearing to them in the likeness of a Man.

We can’t know this for certain, because we did sin. We did reject God and the story He tells us about Himself. One thing is sure: if we had never sinned, God the Word-Made-Flesh would never have had to hang on a cross to pay the penalty for our sins.

But He did! He did! Jesus Christ who was the perfect Expression of the eternal God offered Himself up to suffer and die for our sakes! Almighty God tells His own story in the most perfect way in the death and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ. He is true Man, so He can be our substitute and make propitiation for us. He is true God, so His shed blood can bring us into the very presence of the Father. On the cross Jesus the second Person of the Trinity expresses the love of almighty God for us in a way nothing else in creation ever could. Even when the world did not recognise Him, even when we His human creation rejected Him, by His death and resurrection Christ the second Person of the Trinity called us as His own and gave us the right to become children of God!

How, exactly? By the power of God the Holy Spirit, God the third Person of the Trinity, working in our hearts to change us, to cleanse us, to make us over into the image of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The Holy Spirit is the effective Power of God who proceeds from the Father and the Son. The Spirit of God opens our ears to hear God telling His own story. He convinces us that the truth we see in Jesus Christ is the truth of Almighty God! As Jesus Himself says in John 16, the Spirit shows up the sin and idolatries of this world as the lies they are. He exhibits the righteousness of God among us, His church, now that Jesus the Son has ascended to the Father. And he condemns the Devil, the false prince of this world, as the lying imposter he is.

Jesus Christ perfectly expresses the Father’s reality because He is God, and all that belongs to the Father is His. The Holy Spirit can take from what is Christ’s and make it known to us, because He is God, working powerfully and effectively in this world. When we receive Christ by the Holy Spirit, we’re not getting some secondhand tale, we’re getting God’s own Self bringing us God’s own gifts. God can offer us light and hope and salvation and life forever more, because He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: eternal, expressive, and effective in this world.

God is Trinity in Himself, and praise Him! He is Trinity for us. He is His own story in His own Word. God the Father is the high and holy One, dwelling in unimaginable light. God the Word eternally expresses the glory of the Father’s being, and now incarnate, has dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. And, children of God, this Jesus Christ by His crucified flesh has made us part of God’s divine story, too! For He has sent us God the Holy Spirit to give us new birth in Him, to minister Him to us in His written word, to make Him present in the sacraments He has ordained for us. And so, day by day God is making us into true words and images on this earth of Himself, the Triune God who rescued us from the power of darkness and brought us into His true light. Hear His story and tell it in His power to everyone you can, for He is the One, the Only, the true and saving God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, ever to be worshipped, honored, glorified, and adored, now and forever, amen.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Who Can Accept It?

Texts: Acts 1:1-14; John 6:53-69

HOW DID YOU CELEBRATE this past Thursday, May 1st?

Oh! Do I mean May Day, when labor unions in other countries and people of a certain political persuasion like to march in parades and celebrate their power and ideology?

Noooo . . . !

Maybe I’m talking about the old-fashioned May Day, when young men and maidens dance around the Maypole and you leave baskets of flowers secretly at your neighbors’ doors?

Noooo . . . !

Well, last Thursday was the National Day of Prayer. Am I asking how you celebrated that?

Closer, but still, no.

I’d like to know how you celebrated this past Thursday, which was Ascension Day.

Or did you miss it altogether? If you did, you’re not alone. A lot of Christians, maybe most of us, especially we Protestants, tend to overlook celebrating the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ.

It’s not just that Ascension Day always comes on a Thursday. It’s also that the Ascension of our Lord itself is a hard idea to grab hold of, hard to get our minds around. We’re like the disciples out there on the Mount of Olives, gaping up into heaven where our Lord has gone, totally unable to understand what has happened and what it all means.

But it’s not God’s will that we should be left wondering what the Ascension of Christ means, or what it means for us. He has given us His Word that it means more for us than we can ever know.

Here again is what the Scripture says in the Acts of the Apostles:

‘So when they met together, they asked him, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?"

‘He said to them: "It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.’

Some skeptics claim the Ascension was just a plot device made up by the early Christians to get Jesus "off the stage," so to speak. I’d like to boldly assert to you today that "getting Jesus off the stage" of this earth in such a manner was entirely necessary. And that it was according to God's plan for our salvation.

For the physical Ascension of Christ shows that Jesus was a real Human Being with real flesh. He wasn’t a ghost, He wasn’t a phantom, He wasn’t an idealized figment of the disciples’ imagination. Even after He rose again, Jesus was a Man you could see and touch and sit down and enjoy a meal of bread and fish with. He wasn’t going to fade away, or peter out, or dematerialize, He physically had to leave.

His ascension also assures us that Jesus remains a human being, and He remains so for us.

A few years ago I was sitting in a college dining hall eating lunch, and we got to talking about theology. A younger student asked me, "What did Jesus do with His human body when He went back to heaven?"

And by the Holy Spirit-- it had to be the Holy Spirit--it hit me like a ton of bricks: He took it with Him! Our Lord Jesus Christ was taken up to His Father the way the disciples saw it happen, because the human body He took on when He was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary, the body that hung on the cross, the body that was raised and glorified on the third day, Jesus keeps forever! What’s more, He keeps that body for our sake, so that He can always be our Mediator with God. Right now there is a glorious Being of human flesh and blood, a deathless Man sitting on the throne of the universe!

What's more, Jesus taking His physical glorified body into heaven means that human flesh is acceptable in the sight, in the presence of almighty God! One day we, too, will be raised with bodies like the glorified body Jesus now has. And we will be able to stand in the presence of God in those resurrected physical bodies, acceptable to Him!

How Jesus took His human body with Him is something we cannot know. But God allowed the disciples to witness enough to know that it was true. God sent His angels, the two men dressed in white Luke speaks of, to confirm to them that just as Jesus went bodily into heaven, He will return bodily as well.

The Ascension of our Lord is a fitting close to His earthly ministry. But it isn’t merely that. It’s also the final sign and miracle of that ministry. It puts the seal on Who He is and His love and grace towards us all.

A man who’d merely been reanimated, like in some TV show, would have to remain on this earth. The Son of God who has been raised from the dead, He has the right and ability to return in the flesh to heaven.

In John’s gospel, we read part of a sermon Jesus preached in the synagogue in Capernaum, shortly after He’d fed the 5,000 on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. The true bread of life, He tells the people, was not the loaves he’d broken for them on the hillside. It wasn’t the manna that God gave the people of Israel in the wilderness centuries before. The true bread of life is Jesus’ own flesh.

"Very truly I tell you," Jesus says to us, "unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day."

St. John records that many of the disciples were offended by this. They said, "This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?" They knew Jesus wasn’t advocating cannibalism-- heaven forbid! What bothered them was His claim that His human flesh was the means, the conduit of eternal life. They rebelled at the idea that this ordinary-looking Man claimed, as He said in verse 57, to have been sent by the Father in heaven. Jesus asserted that He participated in the eternal, undying life of God, and He promised to give that eternal life to anyone who participated in His flesh.

These disciples, the ones who turned back from following Him, couldn’t believe it. They refused to believe it. The Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth? Sent directly from heaven by Almighty God? Preposterous! Him? The Giver and channel of eternal life? Unthinkable!

Jesus didn’t back down. He brought their grumbling into the open and said, "Does this offend you? Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before!"

Jesus promises the sign of His Ascension as proof that He is who He says He is. It’s a guarantee that He can do what He says He can do, when He claims that His flesh will give us eternal life.

Who is He?

He is the eternally-begotten Son of the Father, co-creator of all that is, eternal Wisdom from on high, almighty God. Jesus came from heaven and had every right to go back there.

Jesus Christ the Son of Man returned bodily to His Father in heaven, and by doing that, He proved that all He did was done in the power of God, the power He shared with the Father before anything was made.

What has He promised He can do?

He’s promised to give us eternal life through His flesh, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

We might think Jesus is speaking of Holy Communion in this sixth chapter of John. Not quite. Actually, Holy Communion and Jesus’ words here in John 6 are both speaking about the same reality: the life-giving power of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, broken on the cross for our sins and risen for our restoration. Jesus says that if we want eternal life, we have to feast on Him, even-- as the Greek words say-- munch on Him, chew on Him, take Him into us totally. There’s no other way to have eternal life.

But how can we feed on Christ? Well, St. Augustine was one of the great Church fathers. Centuries and centuries ago he came up with a phrase that’s hard to improve upon. He said, "Believe, and you have eaten."

"Believe, and you have eaten." Believe that Christ’s body was broken for you, to turn aside the wrath of God that you deserved. Believe that His blood was poured out like wine to refresh your soul and make you new and clean in the sight of God. Believe, and feast upon the gift of Himself that He gives.

Jesus ascended into heaven to make these great and precious gifts available to you, right now. On earth, even as a resurrected Man, Jesus could only be local. He could only be with one group of his disciples at a time. But as He tells us later on in John’s gospel, "It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go, the Counselor [that is, the Holy Spirit] will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you."

As long as Jesus remained physically on this earth, the power and presence of the Holy Spirit remained focussed in Him. But we need His Spirit in us, working in our bodies, our minds, our souls! As Jesus says in verse 63 of our text, "The Spirit gives life; the flesh [that is, mere human effort on our part] counts for nothing." Jesus had to ascend to where He was before to make the life-giving power of His crucified and glorified flesh available to all people everywhere.

This is the will of God the Father in heaven. For as Jesus says in verse 65, no one can come to [Him] unless the Father has enabled him. When the Holy Spirit brings us to feast on our Lord Jesus Christ, God the Father is glorified in His Son.

Which for you and me means that God wants you to receive the food that is His Son’s crucified body. He wants you to drink your fill of the wine that is Jesus’ blood. He is eager for you to receive the eternal life that comes from the God-Man Jesus Christ, alone. God wants to lift you up to the throne of grace, where Jesus sits even now interceding for you. God wants you to participate in the community of joy and fulfilment that is the one holy, blessed, and undivided Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God gives you all these gifts and brings you into His love by Jesus Christ, His ascended Son, true God and true Man forever more.

Your ascended Lord is your food and drink, and He will never be taken away from you. Whatever happens in your life, whatever hardship or suffering you may go through; even if you should experience physical hunger, you will never lack what you truly need; you will never be famished or forsaken. Jesus says to you, "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day."

The sad thing is, even today people reject Jesus, the Bread of heaven. They say, "This teaching about Jesus being the only way to eternal life, it’s too hard. It’s narrow and intolerant. Who can accept it?"

The truth is, unless the Father changes our hearts and draws us to Himself, none of us can accept it. In our own sinfulness, acting from our own corrupt flesh, we turn our backs on the Lord who would save us. But Jesus Christ Himself nourishes and revives us by the death and resurrection of His human body. He raises us to heaven by His glorious ascension. He enables us to accept His word and feed on Him in Spirit and truth.

Accept His word of life now, by the power of the Holy Spirit, working in you, giving you life. Accept it by the mercy of God the Father, who calls you to Himself. Accept it in the strength of your Lord Jesus Christ who died, rose, and ascended into heaven for you. Feed on Him with thanksgiving, for He offers you His flesh as real food and His blood as real drink.

Simon Peter said, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life! We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God!"

No other Lord. No other Bread. No other Life. Christ alone is the Son of God and Son of Man who has ascended where He was before! Believe in Him and eat. Be raised up with Him and live. And give Him praise and glory, with God the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.
Preached for Ascension Sunday, 2008