Text: Luke 24:44-53
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There’s a certain power to last words. We make so much of them. Most great thinkers, songwriters, poets, and philosophers often have their last words recorded. I’m sure that if you think back to loved ones that are no longer with us, you can remember your last words with them, and with even greater weight, their last words to you. Maybe you’ve even given a moment’s thought to what you would like your last words to be.
Why is it that last words have such significance? In a sense, they give us a way forward. When someone leaves us, we know that we won’t be able to hear their voice anymore. We won’t be able to ask them questions. So it’s only fitting that we have something from them to offer guidance after they’re gone.
And if we were to look at Jesus’ words before His ascension into heaven in the same way, we would find a treasure trove of wisdom. We would find a wealth of ways to keep going forward, to stay the course, remember what He taught, to shape and direct our lives. “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” He talks about how to go back and read Scripture, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, all the prophets, all the songs of the ancient Church recorded in the book of Psalms. He provides a guiding light for how to interpret the Bible from now on: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations.” He also teaches us the most important thing about His life, death, and resurrection: that it should result in us repenting—turning away from all false gods, from all artificial and self-invented ways of salvation, from all the wrong turns on the way to eternal life. His life, death, and resurrection should also result in us receiving forgiveness. For we do not only repent, as if wallowing in our misery over doing something wrong should last forever; we’re also forgiven and our faith in that reality shapes the way we relate to God and each other. And finally, Jesus’ last words give us a purpose: “You are witnesses of these things.” We’re given a task, to speak truthfully about Jesus and what He has accomplished for us and all people.
And yet, we’re not always so good at holding onto those last words. We struggle with those final teachings of Jesus, teachings that sum up everything He said and did before. We know the importance of these words, and yet we still can’t seem to will ourselves to follow the path they lead.
For we know that we’re not-so-good witnesses, either in sharing the Gospel or in other little ways. We’re timid to speak of what Jesus has done, what He has taught, for fear of offending or sounding strange. Love for each other grows cold, in spite of what Jesus has told us to do, so that our deeds aren’t always the witnesses we know they should be. We get swept up in being witnesses for the world and all its trappings instead, advertising our favorite corporate brands more than we talk about our God. We chase after the newest and shiniest thing that will soon be replaced by something even newer and shinier, rather than chasing after something lasting and eternal that the world could never sell to us. We end up looking and sounding like the world instead of looking and sounding like the unique people of God.
And we’re not so good at that repentance and forgiveness that Jesus tells us to live by in these final words of His. We don’t like thinking that there’s something we have to repent for, that there’s something we should recognize is wrong about us. Instead we’d like to point out what’s wrong with someone else, how someone else is worse than us, what they’ve done to deserve it, how we’re really the innocent and injured party. We don’t want forgiveness, thinking that we don’t need it, at least not for that. And when that happens, we refuse to forgive as we’ve been forgiven, to treat others with the merciless destructive cycles that have consumed the world ever since Cain killed his brother.
Finally, we’re not so good at following that wealth of wisdom in the Law of Moses or the Prophets or the Psalms. We look down on these writings as boring or passe. When they challenge us, we yield right away, saying it can’t mean what it says, or that it’s too difficult, or that it’s simply not true anymore. We so often prefer to follow the so-called wisdom of trends or celebrities or our own ever-changing thoughts of the moment. Jesus have given us His last words before His ascension, but how often we let them slip away from us, drowned out by all the sounds around and within us.
And if Jesus’ last words were like any other person’s, that’s all we would be left with—faltering attempts, forgotten promises, disappointment in ourselves, and disenchantment with the world. But these words of Jesus are different. What He speaks to His Apostles, and to us, at His ascension are, in fact, not last words at all, not in the way we think of them. For there’s a promise attached to them that makes them something more. “I am sending the promise of my Father upon you…And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Jesus has not left us. That’s not what Ascension is about. It’s not about us losing someone or something. Rather, the Ascension of Jesus is about us gaining everything. As St. Paul tells us this morning: “[God the Father] raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in the one that is to come. And he put all things under his feet”—and this is where it becomes good news for us—“and gave him as head over all things to the church.”
Jesus ascends to take up all the authority and power that was His from eternity. He laid those things aside during His earthly walk. But now, at the right hand of the Father, He is again far above all rule and authority and power and dominion. That is to say, He rules over all things. Every single thing is under His reign. And He does all this, He rules over all things, for the benefit of His Church. “He has put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church.” That’s why, after the ascension, Luke tells us that the Apostles returned to Jerusalem with great joy. In fact, they went to the temple, where the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms were being read and chanted and sung every day, every hour.
For the Ascension is not about Jesus leaving us. It’s about Him being found in these new places, everywhere and anywhere they’re located throughout the world. He’s not in one geographic location anymore, like Jerusalem or Bethlehem or the Mount of Olives. Now He’s everywhere that we find His Word, the words of Moses and the Prophets, the Psalms of the Church, both Old and New Testaments. He’s found in His body and blood at altars throughout the world. He’s found in the promises of repentance and forgiveness found in Baptism. And it’s now in these ways that He will remain with His Church until He comes back the same way we saw Him go into heaven. And wherever He is, there is His forgiveness and life found. There is His mercy and love that overflows from us to those around us. There is His peace that passes all understanding.
So when you forget those final words of Jesus, when you worry about how well you’re following them, when your tricky heart or the deceiver whispers to you that He’s left you alone, know that Jesus has not abandoned you. He’s not withdrawn His promises because of our failures. He’s not turned away from us, no matter how gloomy things seem. Rather, He’s clothed you with power from on high in your Baptism. He comes to you again in repentance and forgiveness of sins preached to all nations. He visits you in the words of Scripture: Moses, the Prophets, the Evangelists, and Apostles. He rejoices with you in this temple. Jesus rules over all things for you, for your benefit, so that your faith will always remain in Him and His Word. In the name of Jesus, who sits at the right hand of the Father, Amen.