To the saints at St. Peter’s and are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:1-2). Amen.
There is still often times the question, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” So there are all kinds of programs, books, seminars, and other things about Christian living, creating unity and growing. Yet, hear the Word of the Lord, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” St. Paul proclaims that we are not called to create unity but maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. It is the Lord Himself who creates unity, the Lord Himself who gives us peace.
We spend a lot of time in life trying to unify. We gather together in self-created unity in groups that focus around a particular sporting event, craft group, groups of similar social and economic status. We unite with people with whom we like and feel most in common with. Yet, even with all these groups and activities we struggle with unity.
So we find ourselves avoiding certain groups and individuals. There are those we don’t associate with. Perhaps we find another group to be with, until such time they annoy us or do something to upset our individual sensitivities. We begin to view everything in our life and world as simply individualistic. We chose to join and leave groups on our own whims. We tend to treat the church the same way. Our old Adam desires to do his own thing, strengthened by the individualistic American culture we inhabit.
Someone has offended us. Something was said that we didn’t particularly like. We become bored with the hearing of God’s Word. So we think that we can be absent from God’s house like anything else. We easily let other priorities come over receiving Christ in His gifts. It is precisely because we can expect such disenchantment, hurt and anger – from others and from within ourselves – that we have been called into God’s church.
So we find the Apostle Paul writing: “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (4:1-3).
I don’t think Paul would have urged his listeners to bear with one another if there wasn’t some issue that required such patience, gentleness and humility from them. He didn’t instruct them to cut their losses and find a church more suited to their needs. He reminded them that they had been called into the one body by the one Lord, through the one faith and the one baptism.
This is how unity of God’s people has always occurred. The quotation from Psalm 68:19 highlights this. The Psalm is full of allusions to the Lord’s salvation in the Exodus as well as the building of the temple. Psalm 68 was the appointed Psalm for the celebration of the Pentecost festival, 50 days after Passover. It pictures Moses ascending Mount Sinai as he lead the captives, the people of Israel, and received the gifts to men that is the Word of God itself. It pictures the temple life as the kings and priests ascended to Jerusalem, up the mountain to the temple, to receive the gifts to men, again the Word of God. It is Christ, the Word made flesh, who is the gift to men.
He is the one who first descended, became man, was crucified, died, and was buried for our life and salvation, to lead the host of captives, to free us sinners from sin, death, and hell. Risen from the grave He is now the one who is also ascended and sits at the right hand of the Father. But not to distance Himself from us, but to give gifts to men.
We need to put to rest the notion that Jesus somehow shed His humanity in His ascension, that He is once again free of the confines of the body. That may sit well with the new-agers and all the so-called “spiritualities” of our day, but there is no comfort in a Christ without a body enthroned in heaven.
Jesus is our High Priest, like us in every way yet without sin, sympathetic to our humanity, bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh, showing the wounds of His once forall atoning sacrifice in the heavenly temple, pleading our forgiveness and pardon.
There’s no comfort and no unity in a disembodied God, just as there is no comfort and no unity in an absent Jesus. We need His gifts in body and blood, in a real and physical way, not just “spiritual” and imagined. And while we’re at it, let’s shoot down this misunderstanding of the ascension, namely that Jesus “went” to another place, the way we say when Grandma dies, “She went to a better place.” Jesus disappeared into the cloud of God’s presence; He didn’t shoot off into space like a missle. He’s withdrawn His visible presence, not His actual presence. He departs in one way so that He can be with us in a yet greater way.
He’s not gone to another place, but He has embraced this place – this mixed up world full of sin, human cunning, and deceitfulness to achieve its own ideals. He still embraces it and died to redeem it. He “fills all in all.” Had Jesus not ascended, we would be stuck with Jesus popping in here and there. If He’s here and He can’t be there, and if He’s there He can’t be here. And how is He then going to “be with us always,” as He promised?
It is in the Ascension that Christ fills all things. If He’s not ascended He’s not present with all Christians as they gather in His name. If He’s not ascended, we’d be like to disciples sitting around after Easter waiting for Him to pop in and show us Himself. Yet, risen and ascended He fills all things and is with us now. That the gifts are given to men, His gift is your sins forgiven.
The ascended Lord, true God and true man, is with us. He pledges us His presence as He writes His name on us with the water of Holy Baptism. He comes to us in the words of His Gospel, His Words which are the vehicles of His grace and peace. His body and His blood which ascended far above all the heavens are given us to eat and drink fills all things in bread and wine are with us now in the Lord’s Supper. He has ascended, but He is not absent. The blessing – the giving out of the forgiveness of sins – goes on. This is the unity of the church.
We remain in His Word, with His gifts. We are not tossed to and fro by the waves and carried out by every wind of doctrine, which simply means teaching. You see human cunning, deceit in the world, would have us tossed about. We would be lead to abandon God in His Word for the ways of the world. And don’t for a second think we are not susceptible to this. We live in a culture and world which just spent two days with a lion wrongly killed as the top trending topic on social media while in our country news of aborted, wrongly killed babies’ body parts being sold has hardly made a whisper. We live in a world and culture where what is true is relative, what you make of it, denying the one who is Himself the Truth and Life of the world, and we live in a society where just about the only sin left to actually call as wrong is to point out that there is sin and some things are just wrong.
We tend not to speak the truth to one another. Instead, we exchange pleasantries or we say what we think the other person wants to hear or we just be silent. Rather than speak the truth in love we settle for just being nice. We’re afraid that speaking the truth will cause the other person to reject us. They might even leave the church. Some probably will. Some already have. We fear the truth for the horror of all horrors, someone may find out that you’re a sinner in need of God’s grace. Only then are we ready to receive Him who is the Truth and the Life, who brings the bread of life in His body and blood to free us captives from sin and death.
The gifts given to men is the unity of Christ. Oneness once again with God. Jesus in Word and Sacrament is Himself what unifies us as well as grows us. Remaining in unity means we are able to speak the truth in love. Consider your hand, the nails, each finger, the lines, the joints; now consider your other joints, your knee, your hips, your ankle. They are all part of the body. They all have a function. When they are not used properly or when they break down they must be fixed, corrected, and brought to healing and restoration with the body.
Look around now at the body of Christ gathered here today. Look at all the last names of the church membership forming the one baptismal shell on the bulletin cover. We are not afraid to correct those who have broken the unity by teaching or living apart from the word of God. We are able to speak to them because we are bound by the love of God. We love them too much to see them separate themselves from the unity of peace that God gives. Remove even one smaller print name and it not complete. We pray for all and speak to all that repentance and forgiveness of sins may be proclaimed. All are needed and all are essential as the body of Christ. “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” There, that is true growth! The unity Christ wants is the unity of the faith in Him. The growth he seeks is growth in the stature of the fullness of Christ, the building up of the body of Christ.
These things will happen, true unity and growth, in receiving Him who descended and fills all things and is here to grant us forgiveness, life, and salvation. Jesus unites us in the way that he attends to our needs. Uniting us to Himself, He forgives your sin, and brings you together in communion with Him. May we be lead to to respond, “Sir, give us this bread always.” That is what it means to belong to the body of Christ. May we live a life worthy of the calling we have received – the calling to enjoy our life together with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
In the name of the Father and of + the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.