This week, we look at the Ascension of Jesus, answer the question “why doesn’t the church panic” (Hint: Jesus is in charge, so there’s no need) and also look at “why it is the church still insists on gathering together two millennia after our Lord returned to heaven, and even with all of the internet church options available today”. It’s a busy time for us. There are a lot of things to consider.
We don’t know a lot about worship in the Old Testament in Israel – or for that matter even in Jesus day. The actual day to day stuff wasn’t recorded until a couple of hundred years after Jesus. By then the temple was long gone. No way to know what was actually happening. We have records of faithlessness and of idolary. We have records of great faithfulness, of those who refused to bow the knee to the Baals even when threatened. We get a hint, a glimpse of something, without any way to know what it looked like. In today’s Old Testament lesson Elijah ascends to heaven. And the sons of the prophets are there. Some sort of disciple group. Was this a school? A congregation of sorts? A trade union sort of thing for those who dealt in the Word of God? After Elijah is gone, they bow down to Elisha. Elisha takes over for Elijah, whatever it was.
The only really recorded worship life in the Old Testament that gives any detail is the rules in Leviticus for how the temple will run. We know a lot about the times Israel failed to live up to them – prophet after prophet brought God’s word of judgment for Israel’s idolatry. But we don’t know a lot about the times it was done right. Why does this matter? Well the only public worship commanded by God was the temple sacrifices. Otherwise, it was all in the home. Even the Passover sacrifice of the lamb was in the home.
By Jesus day there were synagogues. They aren’t commanded. But when we hear – the school of the prophets whatever that was – it seems clear there was some sort of other worship going on in Israel throughout her history. Was the synagogue a totally new thing in Jesus day, or a continuation of earlier customs? We don’t know. We do know that after Jesus ascends to heaven the church immediately begins meeting on a regular basis to celebrate the mysteries. They take the synagogue as a model. Psalms and Hymns, Readings from scripture, an explanation (what we call sermon), Prayers, and then the Breaking of the Bread. The Holy Communion.
And that is basically how we worship today. We actually have a general description of what the church did in about 150 AD, and it is pretty much what we do. The specific details we have scattered here and there – although far from a complete hymnal – are in line with our worship as well. The same basic pattern of worship today is what the church has always done.
Why does this matter? Well for a while now we’ve been in an emergency mode. Not really running fully. Skeleton services. Many of our brothers and sisters around the nation have not even been able to do that. Congregations are re-opening for the first time in a couple of months. Some are not opened yet, and are hoping to do so soon. We’ve got people returning, now that the worst seems to have passed. We pray there is no second wave. But the church continues.
Why are we so insistent on meeting? Can’t we just do things in our homes? When Daniel was in exile in Babylon he prayed in his house. No public worship at all for him. Couldn’t we just do that? Well it isn’t quite that simple. The word church means gathering. We gather together to hear the Word, to receive the gifts of God which he gives through the Word and Sacraments. And that’s the thing that is different from Old Testament times. They had Passover, circumcision, Day of atonement, a variety of sacrifices. And all of those pointed to Jesus and his work. In the New Testament those sacrifices are fulfilled in Jesus Christ and his work. And we are given the benefits of his work through the preaching of the Word, and through the sacraments. When you were baptized, you were brought into Christ’s Holy Church, and joined to his death. His death became your death, his resurrection became your resurrection. And we are fed with the body and blood of Jesus in the Holy Supper. The Lord’s Supper isn’t symbolic. It really is Jesus body and blood that you take eat and take drink. And that’s something that can’t happen at home. The Old Testament sacrifices looked forward to Jesus work. The New Testament Sacraments bring that work forward to today and give us all the benefits of Jesus work. They join us to Christ, and as we are individually joined to Christ we are also joined to each other through Christ in his Holy Church.
That is why the church gathers. In times of war and in times of peace. In times of plenty and in times of want. In times of health and in times of sickness. In times of joy and sorrow. In times of birth and in times of death.
The church gathers to hear and receive the preaching of the Gospel of forgiveness of sins. And to receive the holy meal of Jesus. That’s how he comes to us with forgiveness life and salvation. Through the Eating and drinking as he has promised. And that can not happen in the home. It’s why those who have been confined have become so hungry and thirsty for the righteousness which Christ gives. Because when the church gathers – even two or three – then Christ is there for us in the body and blood.
Today we celebrate the Ascension of our Lord into heaven. Before the Ascension, Jesus was locally present with the disciples. They could hear and see and touch him. They could walk down the road and he would walk down the road with them, explaining to them the scriptures, that the Son of Man would be crucified and on the third day rise again. They could invite him into the house, and see him grab the bread in his hands, bless it, and offer it to them.
In the ascension, Jesus is hidden from the disciples. They no longer see him. But he tells them it is not just a good thing that he is going away, but it is specifically for our good that he does so.
Now, they can not see him or touch him as they once did. But the presence of Christ continues in the church. What was visible in Christ has now passed over into his presence in the sacraments. Through Baptism Jesus is given to little children. Through the Holy Supper the body and the blood are given to strengthen and feed with the forgiveness of sins. We’ve been praying in our homes for a long while now. There is a hunger and thirst for the righteousness given here. And so the church gathers again and again to fill those who hunger and thirst for Christ’s righteousness. This isn’t food that spoils, like when Jesus fed the 5,000, or like when we go home and have lunch. We don’t just come together as a culinary society – although it’s certainly fun when we do that. We come together as the church. The people of God, gathered to hear the Word and respond in prayer, and then to come into the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ, who offers his body and blood for you.
When Jesus goes away from the disciples to die on the cross, they are filled with grief. But then he is raised from the dead and they are filled with a joy that can not be taken from them. His going away was for their good. To earn them salvation. Now we are told he goes to His Father to prepare a place for us. It is for our good. And even though we can not see him, we know that if he goes away for our good then it is truly for our benefit. We must not doubt that promise.
When Jesus ascends, he tells the disciples All authority in heaven and earth is given to me. And he is now seated at the right hand of God the Father. A position of full power and authority. That means that nothing happens that he doesn’t already know about.
We are in his hand. Whether that means good or bad things in this life, Christ is already on it. There can’t be a crisis because Jesus reigns. Health, sickness, life death. None of that really matters to us. The church will endure – the word of God will endure. It will never pass away. We know that even in heaven, when such earthly things as clothing, day, night, marriage all those pass away, that even then the Word of God will remain, and we will stand around the throne singing the praises of God and the lamb.
Until then, we live in this world – not by sight, but by faith. We know Jesus reigns, and he is now hidden. Hidden from our sight, just as the church is hidden from the world’s sight by weakness. We are seen as nothing by the world. And yet we know that we will be given all things by the one who has already been given all things. The one who now sits in glory.
Last week the church looked at prayer. God has promised to hear our prayers. And we pray to our heavenly Father who will give us every good thing. Prayer is the theme of the day in the church year after the death and resurrection of our Lord. Why? Because Jesus is our advocate with the Father. He has all authority, and because of his work for us, because of the adoption of sons we have received through Holy Baptism, we can go directly our Father in heaven with our prayers. And so we pray to Our Father. And we receive the pledge in the supper which our Lord prepares for us, in which he feeds us with himself.
We know that we are never abandoned, never left alone by Jesus who reigns over all the earth. And so we gather again this day, and next Sunday, and until our Lord returns, because that is what the church does. We come together, we receive the promise of life. And then we receive the life itself in the body and the blood.
Thanks be to God who has already given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.