Just a few brief words about both texts this week, since I am not sure whether preachers will be using one or both. If you are not having a separate Ascension celebration on Thursday, and plan instead to transplant it to Sunday, you may want to start planning for a separate Ascension Day service in the future. Perhaps you could partner up with sister congregations. It is important we teach the saints of God the significance of this high festival in the Church year. But how best to do it? I know pastors struggle with this question. They want their people to hear the entire life of Christ, including His Epiphany to the Gentiles and His Ascension to the right hand of power. But if you have separate services for these great festivals, it often happens many people do not attend, and these central events of salvation pass by unnoticed in our churches. Whichever way you do it, our people need catechesis to understand why gathering on a Thursday in late spring is a marvelous confession of Christ and great blessing to the Church of God.
It almost looks as if St. Paul had Matthew 28 laid out before him as he wrote this section of his letter to the Ephesians. Two reasons stand out. First, Paul’s lofty language in these verses is clearly grounded in God’s triune work of Holy Baptism. Paul prays the Father would give the Spirit who reveals the Father in the Son. The language of revelation and enlightenment recalls Jesus’ own baptism. The Father gives the Holy Spirit to remain on Jesus, and as He remains on Jesus the Father reveals from Heaven: “This is My beloved Son.” And now we, as dear children of God in Christ, are given the Spirit who makes us wise in Christ and reveals to us the Father. Our baptism reveals to us the Father and He gives His dear children His rich inheritance. Inheritance in the New Testament is intrinsically baptismal.
Another reason Matthew 28 seems to stand in the background is the language of giving (δίδωμι) and authority (ἐξουσία) are used in conjunction with Jesus’ resurrection and colored with baptismal references. Paul’s description of the Ascension in the final verses centers on Christ’s authority—a word tied to the institution of baptism and the preaching office. It is the authority by which Christ rules His eternal Church. The term power (δύναμις) also appears here, which points us to the power from on high and the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost.
When preaching this text, you will want to highlight the genre of the passage, namely, prayer. Paul is praying for the Ephesians who are in need of baptismal catechesis. They need to know what their Baptism has done for them and how it has knit them together into the body of Christ. Increasingly we and our people are aimless and living lives which tend to ignore authority. This is what the world is selling us. We find it difficult, as they say, “to find center,” because there is no one to tell us what center is. Like children we need authority. And now Christ is risen and ascended. We have it. Christ instituted baptism to lay hold of us, to make us His own (disciples). And so, we are His. The Father has given all things to His Son and put all things under His feet, including our aimless self. The Father has given us His Spirit and made us His children. We are now the Father’s because we are Christ’s and have been given the Spirit. Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension, in a marvelous way, draw us back to the First Commandment by way of Holy Baptism. We are His and He is ours and nothing can separate us. Do not be distracted by all the people who are not attending Ascension service and who, at least today, are living without acknowledging the authority of Christ. Preach repentance to those who are present and who walk through life still forgetting whose they are. Then, preach forgiveness to them with the authority of the resurrected Christ. Teach them what it means to say, “I am baptized!” Paul gives you enough here to unpack the joyful proclamation.
If you are continuing our little sermon series through Revelation, we have come to our last reading. Again, the background for this vision of the Church in all her splendor is Ezekiel 40-47. The setting is both liturgical and eschatological. We are seeing both how things are in Christ now and how they will be when we see His face. This cannot be only a picture of the way things will be, since the leaves of the trees were for the “healing of the nations” (22:2). The healing continues. The image of the river, the city, and the tree of life point to the ongoing ministry of Christ in His Church. From the throne of God’s grace comes the river of Holy Baptism to purify us. The river flows, however, not in a garden, as in the first creation, but in the Holy City, the heavenly Jerusalem. In the midst of the city is a tree, planted by the stream of living water (Psalm 1). His leaves do not wither but heal the nations. Christ is the tree of life. He offers us the fruits of His suffering: “Take, eat; take drink.”
Our life in the Holy Church on earth is not an end in itself. Do not think our people will be content at being baptized, if baptism is only about them living their best life here. And however wonderful the Lord’s Supper is, it would be rather tragic to find out it did not lead to the Promised Land. Our belts are fastened, and our sandals are strapped for a reason. We must with all sincerity assert with them how these are the gifts to lead us to His face and bring us into Paradise, into the Holy City where there is nothing accursed and no more night (a curious thought if you consider this as a recapitulation of the first creation in which light and darkness were distinguished). The faith we have in these gifts leads to the hope of seeing Him and ruling with Him, as if we were ascended to the right hand of power with Him.
This text authorizes us to preach on the effects of the curse over all creation. You know what sorrows we face as sinners, and these are not necessarily the ones we have brought on ourselves. There are plenty of those to go around, but the healing which must take place is due to the curse (see Romans 8 for a commentary). God has subjected the whole creation to futility. We are dealing with communal shame, and not just individual guilt.
God will undo the curse and release His creation through the Resurrection. In Christ, it has already taken place. We are next. But until then, we find healing in the fruits of His cross. By faith in Christ, the curse is lifted now. In hope, we wait for the curse to be lifted forever.
Concordia Theology: Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Revelation 22:1-6 (7-11) 12-20.
Text Week: A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Revelation 22:12-21