"I will not leave you as orphans,” says Our Lord. What an odd-seeming thing for the Church to place on our lips on this “in between” Sunday, three days after Jesus has ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, and still seven more days before He pours out His Holy Spirit at the Feast of Pentecost, the Spirit who points us back to Jesus in both joy and sorrow. That’s why our Introit began with that phrase of longing: “Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud. … Hide not Your face from me.” We know that, even though we know the whole story, we know how the disciples felt in this intervening week. They knew the promise, but it had yet to become visible. We live that every day! We know we are citizens of heaven, but we still live on earth. We know that palpable tension of “now, but not yet.” So we know conflicting emotions that come from Jesus’ words, “I will not leave you as orphans.” The disciples believed it, but they were torn because they also knew what they saw, what seemed to be the truth. Today Our Lord reminds us that, despite appearances, He is with us always to forgive us, to guide us, and to give us His eternal joy which no one can take from us.
“I will not leave you as orphans.” What does this mean? As we say back to Him what He has said to us, we repeat what is most certain and true. Jesus will not leave us. He will not forsake us. Neither life nor death, angels nor demons, poverty nor richness, joy nor sorrow, peace nor tribulation can separate us from Him. Jesus is present with us to keep us from all ills in this world and the next. He may have ascended into heaven to reign at the Father’s right hand, but it does not mean He has left us. The Feast of the Ascension teaches us that Jesus did not rocket off to heaven and is now far removed from us. Instead, Jesus is with us just as much as He was with the disciples those three years of His earthly ministry, but now in a far greater way. Unlike during His earthly life, Jesus is not bound to one place because He refrains from always and fully using His divine attributes. Jesus now exercises that divine attribute of omnipresence and is literally with us always. He is on countless Altars in countless places. His living voice is heard in countless churches today and every day as His Word is read and preached. By faith He dwells inside each of us. Jesus said He will not leave us as orphans and He is keeping that promise.
Jesus didn’t speak those words only for the benefit of His disciples. He has spoken those Words of hope and peace to you to keep you from falling away in the moments of your trials and temptations. In your darkest times in life, when you feel alone or abandoned by people and by God, you have these Words to comfort you. Even if all others leave you and forsake you, your Lord Jesus Christ is present with you throughout your journey in the desert of this world. The Promised Land lies ahead of you. And despite your sin and the sins of those around you, the Lord makes His presence known to you in real and tangible ways.
He proves, not only to you, but also to your enemies, that He is God and He is in control when He does not abandon you. Consider those words from the Old Testament reading, when God says through Ezekiel, “It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of My holy Name…I will vindicate the holiness of My great name…and the nations will know that I am the Lord.” God proves His greatness chiefly by showing mercy and pity. He does not reject His people, He does not reject you for sinning against Him. He would be completely justified in doing that! Instead, He shows His greatness by forgiving you! He shows His greatness by restoring you, by taking away your death and giving you life. Did you notice that Baptismal imagery in Ezekiel? “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you…and you shall be My people and I will be your God.”
This is how Jesus fulfills His promise to not leave you as an orphan. He brings you back from sure and certain death. Even when you hated Him, when you were completely turned against Him, He died for you. Jesus took on flesh to die for His own who received Him not. He won you back for the Father, He became your Brother. He restored you to the family. You are not an orphan. You have a Father who loves you, who slays His Son to spare you. Jesus has ascended into heaven in your flesh as a preview of what is to come. His Ascension has made St. Paul’s words truth: “At the last trumpet…the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed” (1 Cor. 15:52), “And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive…will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:16-17). You are not an orphan! The greatest family reunion ever awaits you!
But until that Last Day when you stream through the gates of pearl, part of the countless host, a reunion of sorts happens here. Jesus descends to this Altar, both Host and Meal, and joins earth with heaven. Here your praises blend with the hymn of heaven. The family above and the family here are united at this Altar. Christ is present in this Eucharistic Feast to remind you that you are not an orphan. He is present with you always, present here to feed you, to make His dwelling inside you. He is your Food and your Stay, the Intercessor, the Friend of sinners, your Brother and your Lord. He hears you when you cry to Him, and here He can always be found to forgive you, to feed you, and to reassure you of what lies ahead because of His death, resurrection, and ascension.
So take comfort in those words. “I will not leave you as orphans. I will come to you and your hearts will rejoice.”
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.