Sermon preached at Clam Falls Lutheran Church, Clam Falls, Wisconsin, May 21, 2023
“And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way…”
— Ephesians 1:22-23
Heaven is up, hell is below.
Where does that idea come from? Well, interestingly, the idea of heaven and hell is common throughout the world.
And this idea can definitely gain and hold our attention.
Hence, in his second Epistle to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul – making an effort to exalt His Apostleship among the Corinthians who were not so impressed by him but found those Paul disparagingly called “Super Apostles” more interesting – attempts to regain their attention by “boasting according to the flesh”…
This “foolish” boasting culminates in his describing a man he knows who was “caught up to the third heaven” or Paradise … (2 Cor. 11-12), out of the body or in the body, he doesn’t know. This man – who yes, is almost certainly the Apostle Paul himself – “heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell…”
The third heaven is also known as Paradise and probably also known as the “heaven of heavens” (Genesis 28:12, Deuteronomy 10:14 and 1 Kings 8:27) – it is a distinctly spiritual realm, while the first and second heavens are simply the sky, and the “farther regions of the sun, moon, and stars…” (regarding the sky, think of Satan being called “the Prince of the Air”).
Again, even if more and more in our “Western world” suppress these kinds of thoughts and questions today, trying to be more “secular”, they cannot wholly retreat here.
Generally speaking, throughout world history, there has been a sense that life continues beyond the grave.
And some eventually go to a good place, up above, while others go down and remain in an “underworld”, a realm of the dead and the grave, full of restless spirits or worse.
In the Bible, this picture is sharpened, and there is the definitive sense that the grave, the underworld, sheol is the place to where the dead descend, with hell being the final destination of the damned, and heaven being the destination of the just.
And that heaven is above. Even as heaven – yes, even the Third Heaven! – is also, in some sense, closer than our own breath.
What do I mean? Well, at various times throughout the Scriptures, we get a sense that God’s spiritual realm, Paradise, is indeed among us, just behind the curtain so to speak.
One recalls Moses and the burning bush, Jacob’s ladder, or Elisha’s servant getting a glimpse of the angel armies, the chariots of fire, ready to defend Elisha against the army of an earthly king (2 Kings 6).
Again, it is just behind the curtain, the veil, and this is something to remember as we speak of Ascension Day today. For as Jesus told the inquiring Pharisee Nicodemus, only He can give us certainty about “heavenly things”, for “no one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven” (John 3:13) – Him, the Son of Man.
He has run this course already!
And let us also remember that Jesus ascended into the heavens, but Jesus is not farther away, but in fact closer than ever before – even if we can no longer eat with Him, walk with Him, talk with Him, in the flesh.
For the eyes of faith understand that He is indeed not only on our lips, but in our ears, in our mouths with His body and blood, and in our hearts by His Holy Spirit, who dwells in His people.
And He is going to complete His mission of love – in which He and His Kingdom is revealed – through us.
What is the fundamental message of Ascension Day?
As the book of Hebrews says (4:14), Jesus Christ has run His course, and He has now passed through the heavens or ascended, and is now sitting at the right hand of the Majesty on high (Heb. 1:3) according to His exalted human nature.
For Christ has accomplished His work on Earth and has entered into His Sabbath rest.
But even as His passion, His agony, His suffering is done, when Jesus now rests, imitating His Father after the first creation, He loves.
And, we who are baptized into Him, are also with Him at the very right hand of the Father, behind the veil in a sense, dwelling in His love.
And you see, this is always fresh, or can be!
His mercies are new every morning. His love never rests regarding His people… regarding you.
Jesus Christ, your true high priest, having offered himself as the sacrifice for your sins, still intercedes for you.
He prays for you.
Think about his words to Peter, after he told him that he would betray him: Satan has asked to sift you as wheat Peter, but I have prayed for you that your faith would not fail, and that you would go and strengthen your brethren.
This strength of Jesus, this His strengthening of His people – giving them stout hearts and spines of steel that laugh at sin, death, the devil, and the world – is what the Feast of the Ascension is all about.
Again, Jesus ascends into heaven, and while no longer with us in visible human form, He is as close as our breath.
In fact, He is now with us through the breath of His Spirit, through the Holy Spirit, whom he sent at Pentecost.
You will recall that Jesus said that He needed to go away from His disciples so that He could send them the Holy Spirit, who would be their Advocate or Comforter, and also the One who would help them confront the world in its sin:
“…it is for your benefit that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you.
And when He comes, He will convict the world in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: in regard to sin, because they do not believe in Me; in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will no longer see Me; and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world has been condemned….”
So Jesus prays for us, Jesus gives us His Holy Spirit, and Jesus teaches us how to pray.
And in His spirit, we recall that He also tells us to ask for His Holy Spirit.
Reciting the example of the father who will not fail to give good gifts to his children, Jesus says how much more will God give his Holy Spirit to those who ask him?
Do we pray this way? When we pray and open the word of God, do we expect to truly meet Him, to know He is present with us, that He will always help us and always change us yet again?
Your Father, your Brother, are closer than your breath, just behind the veil:
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.
What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? So if you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!”
All of this also ties in with our text for today from Ephesians…
Let’s look at it again:
“And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way….”
According to a parallel passage in Colossians 2:9-10, Christ fills and governs not only the third heaven, the second heaven, and the first heaven, but the whole universe as true God.
And “fill” in this sense means to “dominate for rule”, and the idea is that God’s rule and omnipresence, or His being in all places, go hand in hand (Franzmann, cssc, 187)
Yet now, through His perfect life and innocent death, through this puzzling and yet magnificent work of the Lord Jesus Christ — again, planned from the very foundation of the world (Rev. 5: 4-6) — the true enemies of mankind, sin, death, and the devil, have been defeated once and for all at the cross.
Again, the Father put all Heavenly and Earthly rule, authority, power, and dominion under Christ’s feet, giving him as Head Over All Things to us, for our good, for our salvation and our victory.
The great 20th Century theologian Martin Franzman put it this way talking about how Christ was the head over all things for the church his body:
“Head signifies dominion, lordship (not the intellect as with us). Christ’s relationship to his church is more than mere power-dominion over it; he is vitally and organically united with his church and functions personally through it. This unique lordship is expressed by the head-body image (cssc, 187)
Not only this, but we are now also told that with the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God, becoming man and accomplishing this work of salvation, the church has now become the fullness of Him, with it being his body, with Him as its head.
In other words, in His plans, God has graciously chosen that the church should “make Him complete”, and likewise “be filled by Him…
Again, to make this clear, why does our passage say that we are Christ’s body, and have been made the fullness of Him?
It means that in some very real and mysterious way, we, God’s church, His Hold-Spirit-filled people, have been not only been forgiven by Him – and not begrudgingly so! – but rather deeply loved by Him, and hence united with Him in the deepest and most intimate way possible…
Not only your spirit, but your body — and not just this or that congregation, but the whole Universal church together as one – those who have gone to be with the Lord and those who are still with us, the Church Triumphant and the Church Militant, we say — is united with God.
We are all filled with the Holy One.
For where He is, Jesus Christ and His Spirit, there His disciples are as well, and where his disciples are, He is truly there…
Again, we who hear the voice of the Lamb are all filled with the Holy One!
And He encourages us to be filled even more with Him, to the brim. To be intoxicated with the Holy.
For as Paul put it, “do not be drunk with wine… but be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
For, again, God has chosen for us to make Him complete, and to fill all the world with His presence with flesh on.
As one man provocatively put it, God’s people, the church, is not an organization with mystery, but a mystery with organization.
Now, let’s be honest. This takes faith.
After all, if one looks at the condition of the church from an Earthly perspective, this might appear to have been a very bad idea.
For the church, as I have heard it said, does not appear to us as a bride dressed in a glorious white dress but rather a bedraggled and beaten woman…
I’m sure it has always been this way without the eyes of faith, but things have almost certainly gotten worse. Yes indeed, the church has always been beset by divisions, scandals, and schisms and heresies…
…but there also was, at least, a time in the world when the church was more or less considered one entity, as strong men of faith held things together.
Then, however, in the year 1054, the split between the eastern parts of the church and the western parts of the church was finalized. Today we see this the split between the Eastern Orthodox churches and everyone else.
Then, almost 500 years later, the Western church split again, this time due in part to the agitations of a professor and Friar of the church, Martin Luther, who insisted – rightly! – that the church had gone off the rails, and, captive to worldly philosophies, had left the Word of God behind.
And while Martin Luther endeavored to have a “conservative Reformation”, where only the errors of the Western, or Roman church, were corrected, other reformers, seizing the opportunity, decided to take steps to actively create new “churches”, letting a thousand flowers, or maybe weeds… bloom.
For their part, the Lutheran reformers insisted that we could have certainly that Christ’s true church, those with true faith in him, was present among those who gathered around the true preaching and teaching of his word, and where the sacraments were rightly administered according to Christ’s command.
Again this is how we could have certainty of being a true church.
So, in spite of all the divisions that we see today among those claiming the name of Christ, in spite of the fact that we might strongly feel this or that weakness in this or that congregation, in spite of the fact that as the great hymn says,
“…Tho’ with a scornful wonder
the world sees her oppressed,
by schisms rent asunder,
by heresies distressed,
yet saints their watch are keeping;
their cry goes up, “How long?”
and soon the night of weeping
shall be the morn of song…”
We can also take comfort in the words that Martin Luther spoke about the true nature of God’s church, when he said:
“Thank God, a seven-year-old child knows what the Church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd. For the children pray, ‘I believe in one holy Christian Church’” (SA III XII 2–3).
Indeed. He is ascended into heaven, and is gathering His faithful people.
So what does it mean to become like a little child, when we think about Ascension Day and what it means for us, Christ’s Church?
I personally think our Lord’s parable about the yeast working through the dough, describing how the kingdom of God gradually spreads, becoming more and more present in more and more places, is helpful and instructive here…
All of this is not so obvious and glorious, but is more subtle, occurring perhaps with some fits and starts.
Also, so often, we forget that our Lord wants us to set our minds on things above, and not to leave the Earth behind, but to put matters into perspective.
This is really what happens in the Ascension Day hymn, Up Through Endless Ranks of Angels.
The hymn attempts to help us understand the meaning of Ascension day, not from taking a view from below, on the earth, but by taking a view From Heaven. Let me share the verses from this short 1974 hymn with you.
“Up through endless ranks of angels,
Cries of triumph in his ears,
To his heav’nly throne ascending,
Having vanquished all their fears,
Christ looks down upon his faithful,
Leaving them in happy tears.
Proven Equal to our need,
Now for us before the Father
As our brother intercede;
Flesh that for our world was wounded,
Living, for the wounded plead!
To our lives of wanton wandering
Send your promised Spirit-Guide;
Through our lives of fear and failure
With your pow’r and love abide:
Welcome us, as you were welcomed,
To an endless Eastertide.
Oh, to breathe the Spirit’s grace!
Oh, to see the Father’s face!
Oh, to feel the Son’s embrace!”
I think this hymn puts matters exceptionally well.
Again, Ascension Day tells us about how Christ ultimately has everything under his feet, even if it does not appear this way now.
This might appear foolish to the world – and particularly when one looks at the shape of the church as a whole – but Jesus really does have all power and authority to continue to say to us, as He did to Peter: “I have prayed that your faith will not fail, and when you are strengthened help your brethren…”
In like fashion, the Apostle Paul says also in our epistle reading,
“I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better…”
And likewise, Jaroslav Vajda’s wonderful hymn can do just this as well.
Our Great High Priest has ascended into heaven, and we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses…
…and so let us with confidence draw near His throne of grace, that we may receive every mercy and find every grace to help us in our time of need.
The Gates of Hell will not overcome his church.
He will preserve his people, feeding them with His word and sacraments, so let us never grow discouraged or despair, but carry on in His hope and strength!
And let us always remember that Christ is not only head of the church, but also over everything that exists!
When we look at the disarray and confusion in the world, when we look at the disarray and confusion and evil in our own hearts, we can certainly become discouraged.
But resting in Him who has entered His Sabbath rest, let Him set your minds on things above, as He certainly will bring us and those we love to those great things above…
I think of the verses from a favorite bedtime hymn, Now the Light Has Gone Away, I always loved to have sung to me by my mother and which I have sung to all my little boys:
“Jesus, Savior, wash away
All that has been wrong today.
Help me ev’ry day to be
Good and gentle, more like Thee.
Let my near and dear ones be
Always near and dear to Thee;
Oh, bring me and all I love
To Thy happy home above.”
Let us ascend above with Him now, knowing we are with Him behind the veil, as we will indeed ascend at our last breath!
Breath on us your Holy Spirit, O God!
And come Lord Jesus!