Revised from 2009.
“Leave us not without consolation but send us the Spirit of Truth.” These words from the Collect ring in our ears as we bask in the glow of the Ascension of our Lord while waiting for the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. It seems strange that we would celebrate our Lord’s departure from our midst as a festival day. Going away parties among us are festive but with a note of sadness. Chances are we may never see that person again this side of heaven.
We will see the Lord Jesus again this side of heaven. Until He comes we see Him in a different way. We see Him in His Holy Word and His Holy Sacraments, delivering forgiveness and salvation. If not for the Helper helping us to see Jesus in Word and Sacraments, we would be left without consolation. We would be alone in a world full of discontent and strife.
Even though the Helper testifies of Jesus, we think we are alone. Christ’s Ascension makes us feel forsaken. If God loves us as much as He says He does, we would ascend with Jesus and live with Him in heaven right now rather than marching through the muck of life.
Jesus tells His disciples just how tough their march will be. They will put you out of the synagogues; yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service. It is as if the Twelve will no longer exist. They will be accused of preaching another god. They will be hounded every step of their ministry. The Acts of the Apostles follows Saint Paul on his missionary journeys. Everywhere Paul and his companions went; there was a crowd that followed Paul that stirred up the people to despise the preaching of the Gospel. It would be as if a group of dedicated people follows a certain pastor everywhere he goes so they can refute everything he says. The more they shout him down, the more they believe they are worshiping God even to the point of his death! No wonder Paul’s epistles are full of encouragement to the churches and individuals he writes. When they thought they were the only ones suffering, Paul reminds them that Christians over the known world suffer in the same way.
When Christians suffer, they never suffer alone. Countless Christians the world over suffer much worse than we suffer. Consider the noble army of martyrs who gave their lives willingly rather than confess a false god or deny the one true God. Some martyrs died singing hymns. Others went to their death with joy. When we think of giving our life for the Gospel, we would probably cringe even though martyrs before us thought nothing of dying.
The word “martyr” means “witness”. A martyr’s death means a witness to the living God Who remembers them when they come into His kingdom. We don’t think of dying as witnessing but it is. Think of a person who suffered a prolonged illness that left them helpless. Their suffering is united with Christ’s suffering. A Christian who suffers, especially when that suffering is at the hands of enemies of Christ, serves as a witness of the death of Jesus Christ. That Christian knows Whom they believe and know exactly where they will spend eternity. Though it looks as if the evil foe has triumphed, God always gets the last laugh.
When the time comes, you may remember that I told you of them. We forget Jesus’ words of suffering and punishment. Our heavenly Father doesn’t forget that Jesus suffered and died the death we deserve. God’s Word remains forever, even in death and especially in the resurrection. The best illustration of Christ’s everlasting presence among us is Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut of the Ascension. We see the disciples on the mountain looking up with amazement. All we see of Jesus is His feet and His footprints. Those footprints aren’t a shadow of what was once ours. Those footprints are a living testimony of Jesus’ Words that end Matthew’s Gospel: lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.
Christ’s Ascension leaves us with a promise and with comfort. The promise is Jesus’ abiding presence among us with His Word. The Spirit of Truth points us back to His Word proclaimed in sermon and song. The Spirit of Truth points us to Christ’s mandate in Holy Baptism, Holy Communion, and Holy Absolution. The Spirit of Truth is present in these Holy Things, bringing to our remembrance Jesus’ Words of forgiveness and life. Yet we do more than remember Jesus. We receive the benefits of Jesus’ death on our behalf.
If we remember what Jesus did as if we remember a birthday or anniversary, there wouldn’t be much comfort in an act of the mind. Instead of thinking about an event, Jesus gives His Church the Ministry of teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments, as through means, to deliver the Gifts of God to the people of God. These gifts deliver the comfort that no matter what happens to us here and now, there is a sure and certain hope of eternal life yet to come.
While we wait for that glorious day of our ascension, we heed the words of Saint Peter: above all things have fervent love for another, for “love will cover a multitude of sins.” As Christ first covered our sins with His blood, so we cover each other’s sins in love for them as we love and are loved by God. Jesus does not leave us without consolation. We do not leave each other without consolation. We comfort one another with the hope that is put in us through Word and water. Though life delivers many hard blows, we build the hope of our ascension on Christ’s ascension. Jesus goes before us to prepare a place for us to live with Him. While He prepares that place, He abides with us where the Spirit of Truth points us to find Him.