Overcoming Absence

Last Sunday I found myself back in the state of Michigan to preach at the ordination service of a former intern. I had been there previously in January and it was then that I learned firsthand why people leave that state. However, coming back this time in early June, I came to realize why people stay. When the snow melts it is a remarkably beautiful place.

The text I preached on was Ephesians 4:1-16 – a text which emphasizes the ascension of Jesus into heaven – and I chose it because of the ordination’s close proximity to Ascension Day, just three days prior. I pointed out how Jesus’ ascension into heaven manifests his cosmic authority — that’s what “seated at the right hand of God” means — and how Paul highlights this by quoting Psalm 68, a psalm about God’s utter ruination of his enemies and how that is fulfilled in Jesus and punctuated by his ascension.

I also noted that the ascension confronts us with that uncomfortable reality of Jesus’ absence. The reality is so uncomfortable that many contemporary Christians have actually fallen into the heresy of Nestorianism by trying to overcome it.  Nestorianism is the heresy of unnecessarily separating the natures of Christ from one another. Jesus is one person who possesses two natures that cannot be mingled or separated. Many people unwittingly fall into this error because they are not interested in Jesus’ humanity. They are not interested in having fellowship with the whole Jesus — with his divine and human nature. Rather they are content to have a sort of mystical, esoteric relationship with part of Jesus. The problem is that this is not the way the Bible instructs us and church tradition warns strongly against this.

Thoughtful Christians have been wrestling through Jesus’ absence and how it is overcome from the beginning. I don’t have time to go into everything here. Suffice

the ascension confronts us with that uncomfortable reality of Jesus’ absence.

it to say, what we have been seeing in Romans 8 and learn about in portions of Scripture like John 14-16 is that Jesus overcomes his absence from us by his Holy Spirit. This is why the time between Jesus’ two comings is the age of the Spirit. The Spirit mediates Christ to us — the whole Christ — so that we are lifted into the heavenly places and have fellowship with our risen Savior who is seated at God’s right hand. This is very important. We don’t bring Jesus down — as if we could — and we are not left alone either. Rather we are lifted to meet with him. This is a good reminder for us on this Pentecost Sunday.

The other way Jesus’ absence is overcome during this interim age is by the gift of ministers who stand in the place of Christ for his church. Paul highlights this in Eph. 4:1-16 as well. When he ascended he then dispensed gifts to his church (4:8). What were those gifts? 4:11 tells us that they come in the form of prophets and apostles and evangelists and pastors and teachers.

And if we tease this out a little further, we can see how important corporate worship is in this context because the leading of corporate worship is the principle job of the ministers who stand in Christ’s place and offer to the church the word and sacrament and prayers — the places where Christ has promised to meet us.

Taken together then, Paul in Ephesians 4 reminds us that Jesus’ absence is indeed overcome. It is overcome by the person of the Holy Spirit and it is overcome by the Spirit’s work through ministers and the means of grace they extend in corporate worship. This is why our corporate gatherings of worship are so crucial to our spiritual growth and development, a point Paul also highlights in this text. Yes, we commune with Christ individually through the Spirit in God’s word and prayer. But there is something offered to us in corporate worship that we just can’t get anywhere else. You know this. But hopefully this will remind you of why we do what we do when we gather for worship.