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

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