Posted on June 4th, 2012
Before I really understood the Gospel, I set out to become a perfect Christian. I began to keep a journal for this endeavor, and I wrote on the opening page, “Steps to Complete Sanctification.” I then began to outline all of the things I would need to do. On my list were things like pray so many times per day, memorize Scripture, and overcome certain sins.
The problem was that the harder I tried, the worse it got. I was following the way of the Law – and that way leads to death, for Lex semper accusat.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was doing was a crude and immature form of Methodism, which in Eastern Orthodoxy is known as the “Ladder of Ascent.” In this Ladder of Ascent, there are thirty steps to sanctification, usually undertaken by monastics seeking to find total enlightenment or communion with God. Among these thirty steps are things like renunciation of the world, remembrance of death, freedom from anger, the discipline of silence, with a goal of perfect quietness of the soul, freedom from the passions, and the resurrection of the soul.
The real danger in following a “ladder of ascent” is in the idea that we have any ability to ascend. The problem with my “steps to sanctification” was in the idea that if I performed the things on my checklist, I could become a better Christian. Perhaps I was becoming better externally—I don’t know, you’d have to ask the people who were around me—but whether I was or not, I was dying inside. I could not achieve sanctification. I could not climb the ladder of ascent.
The glory of the ascension is in seeing that what I could not accomplish, my Lord has done for me. Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” I can not unearth myself from a grave, and I cannot find God. I cannot go to the Father. Jesus had become my teacher who showed me the way, but I needed Jesus to be my Lord who would Himself be the way and bring me to the Father.
There is no ladder of ascent for us to climb. That is the point of the Ascension. What is beyond our reach, a distance which no technology could ever overcome, Christ has ascended. And in Christ, human nature has ascended.
The great Swedish bishop Bo Giertz said, “The Lord’s ascension is a milestone in world history.” What has happened? In the incarnation, God dwelt with man. But in the ascension, man dwells with God. This is not to say that the incarnation is complete. Christ Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, assumed the human nature into His person, and now forever is both true God and true man. But now in the Ascension, we see the goal of the incarnation – that man dwells with God. No man comes to the Father, except the Godman, Christ Jesus, and as we are in Christ, so we will in the resurrection dwell perfectly with God.
But even now, there is extraordinary comfort in the Ascension. If Jesus had not ascended, than where would he be? Jerusalem or Rome? Alexandria or Richmond? St. Louis or Minneapolis? If He is in one place, then He is not in the other. But in His ascension, now all disciples of Jesus, whether they are in North America or North Africa, whether they are in a nursing home or in prison, when they are fearing for their life or confronted by an enemy who mistreats them—all disciples in every condition can be certain that the Lord Jesus is present with them.
Listen again to Bishop Giertz: In the Ascension, Christ “sits at the Father’s side and resumes full divine qualities. He is now the omnipresent Savior, who can intervene anywhere with His saving presence. He leads His Church on earth.”
A little boy in our school recently asked me after chapel how it could be that the blood of Jesus could truly be present in the Holy Communion. Since He is a man, and His body is limited and their is only so much blood in a body, wouldn’t it all have been used up by now? But then this student answered his own question. “But if He’s also God, then that wouldn’t be impossible for Him.” The mystery of the ascension and the mystery of the Lord’s Supper are wrapped up together – Jesus, true man, born of the virgin Mary, had and still has a real, true human body; and at the self-same time He is true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and thus this one person, our Lord Jesus Christ, is everywhere present, knows all things, penetrates all things, has power over all things, and transcends everything that we can hear, feel, see, know, and experience.
False teachers in Christianity are multiplying, with many claiming special revelations of Christ, special words from Christ, and special signs and miracles. Some places even claim appearances of the glory cloud. The seeking after signs and wonders, or special revelations, is a diabolical redirection from where Christ wants our focus.
Christ was received by the cloud of glory. This cloud which once appeared in the tabernacle and dwelt with the children of Israel, was manifested on the mount of transfiguration, where Jesus was revealed in the radiance of His majesty. St. John says, “The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” They beheld His glory when the excellent glory appeared. This will not reappear until the return of Christ, which will be in the open, for all to see.
But Christ has not left His Church. Now in these last days, we are to look for Jesus where He has promised to be present. And where is that? It’s a short list:
- We look for Jesus in Holy Baptism, for the Scripture says that in our baptism, “we have been united together [with Christ] in the likeness of His death,” and so “certainly we also shall be [united with Christ] in the likeness of His resurrection” [Rom. 6.5].
- We look for Jesus in Holy Absolution, for right after Jesus instructs the first pastors on forgiving sins, He gives the promise, “Wherever two or three are gathered, there am I in the midst of them.” Jesus is present in the absolution!
- We look for Jesus in Holy Communion, for the disciples made known to us how in His resurrection appearance at Emmaus, Christ was known to them in the breaking of the bread.
- And finally, we look for Jesus in the preaching of the Word, for as we have heard these last few Sundays, this is the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church, to give us Jesus through the preaching of His Word.
So the Ascension is not about Jesus going away. It is for our great comfort, that we might know He is with us through the means of grace. And as He has forever joined the humanity to His person, so He will not abandon your humanity, your human nature, your body to the grave. But just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity, so will He bring your body from the grave, and together with Him we will abide in the Father’s house unto the ages of ages. All glory to Christ Jesus, eternally begotten of the Father, incarnate in the womb of the virgin Mary, crucified, buried, risen, ascended. Now with peace and joy we await His return, the resurrection of the dead, and the life of His redeemed in the New Jerusalem. +INJ+