The cross means nothing to me unless it is applied to me. This is a phrase I was taught during my Vicarage, when my supervising Pastor talked about the importance of the Sacraments. This summarizes the purpose of Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper. They give to you what Jesus accomplished on the cross and in His resurrection. The cross and Jesus’ death on it don’t do you any good unless the benefit of that death is given to you. Once the Sacraments apply it to you, you can look at the crucifixion with joy because you know that it was done for you and that you are here tonight to receive what Jesus won for you in His death.
I also think it’s a good way to look at so many events in the Church Year and our Christian life. Christmas is pointless without Good Friday. Gabriel told Joseph as much: “[Mary] will bring forth a Son and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” Good Friday is pointless without Easter. Remember Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “If Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith also is empty.” And the Feast we celebrate tonight, the Ascension of Our Lord, is what completes Easter. Jesus does not leave behind His earthly body, but takes His humanity—permanently linked to His divine nature—into heaven. Because Jesus has taken human flesh—your flesh—into heaven, St. Paul can give us this confidence: “The Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” The Ascension of Our Lord is what gives us the boldness to confess in the Creed: “I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”
The Ascension is the Feast that gives us Christians so much comfort. In His earthly life, Jesus refrained from always and fully using His divine attributes. He was limited to one place by virtue of His humanity. He allowed Himself to be restrained in that way. But now that He has risen from the dead and ascended into heaven, He can exercise that attribute of omnipresence. That’s what gives us comfort in the Lord’s Supper. Jesus is present not just in Dorr, but on thousands of Altars around the world at the same time. He is not restrained in any way. He keeps His promise: “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Now He fills all things. We do not see Jesus the same way the disciples did in those three years they knew Him, but Jesus has ascended to be with us always.
That means that heaven—the place where God is—isn’t a place far up in the sky, above the stars, where Jesus is stuck, far away from us. Heaven is where God is. Heaven is as close to us as Christ is. That’s why we can call the Divine Service heaven on earth. We can proclaim with Jacob: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!” Whenever Jesus speaks and we listen; whenever He feeds us with His Body and Blood; whenever the Church is gathered together by the Holy Spirit to be fed by Christ the Good Shepherd, there heaven and earth meet. Christ’s Ascension guarantees His presence with us. By inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we have the Holy Scriptures, in which we hear the living voice of Jesus. Here He speaks to us the same way He spoke during His earthly life. He speaks Words of comfort and life, reassuring us that our sins are forgiven, that He is with us always, that He will draw all to Himself.
That also means His Ascension prefigures our own. When this world comes to its end on the Last Day, our bodies won’t be destroyed with it. Rather, they will be raised incorruptible, this flesh made perfect just like Jesus’ glorious Body. Then we will stand in heaven, face to face with God. Then Job’s words will be fulfilled: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and He shall stand at last on the earth; and after my skin is thus destroyed, this I know, that in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”
Just as the cross means nothing to you unless it is applied to you, we can say the same thing for the Ascension. Jesus’ perfect life, innocent suffering and death, and glorious resurrection and ascension have been made yours at your Baptism. You can rejoice as you stand with the disciples and watch Jesus ascend into heaven. This same Jesus who was taken up into heaven will return in the same manner and will take you with Him. He will give you a perfect body, free from the effects of age and disease and sin. He will give you a perfect world, where peace and harmony are known among all. He will take you with Himself into paradise. So know that tonight, as you behold your mighty Lord’s ascension, by faith you behold your own as well.
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.