The Seventh Sunday of Easter May 8, 2016
335, 32, 400, 390
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Having celebrated our Savior’s return to Heaven at his Ascension, we pray that that same Savior would continue to shower each of us with his grace and peace, as we trust His promise to continue to be with us always. Amen.
Dear Fellow Christians:
One of the hard, cold facts of life that we may as well get used to is the fact that there will always be more to do. Maybe even worse than that, there is hardly ever anything that we do that couldn’t have been done a little bit better—maybe a whole lot better. I don’t know of a woodworker, for example, who has ever built a piece of furniture in which he could identify no mistakes, no imperfections. It’s the curse of doing something yourself. Someone else might look at it and see perfection, but the builder tends to see mostly only mistakes.
That’s just the way it is in this world. True perfection is almost non-existent…almost.
Today, we look both backward and forward—at two very different events: The Ascension of Jesus and confirmation of youth in our congregation. Both are indications of “a job well done,” and both remind us that perfection is almost non-existent.
The text that will guide and instruct us today is found in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, the first chapter:
Therefore I also, after I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, do not cease to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers: that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, the eyes of your understandingbeing enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power which He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come.And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.
Here ends the very Word of God—of God, not of man. That is why we can with full confidence base all that we think, say, and do—indeed, our entire eternal future—upon these words alone. They are, in fact, one of the few things in this life that truly is perfect. With such confidence in these holy words, we pray, “Sanctify us by Your truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth. Amen.”
The term “perfectionist” is deceptive, isn’t it? It seems to imply not only the possibility of perfection, but that someone actually achieves it on a regular basis. In reality, perfectionists are just those folks who are frustrated more by life than are others. They push themselves harder to get where pretty much no one can go.
Don’t get me wrong. I love perfectionists. Their houses are typically immaculate and well ordered, their yards enhance property values, their dishes are spotless, and their handiwork is usually awe-inspiring. Yet, perfectionists never really achieve perfection, they just tend to get closer than those who aren’t.
But then there was this one guy…
The first event we commemorate today is the Ascension of Jesus which occurred 40 days after His resurrection from the dead. Since the date of Easter varies from year to year, I’m not sure anyone claims to know the actual date of the Ascension. We do know that since Easter is always on a Sunday, and since Ascension is always 40 days after Easter, Ascension always falls on a Thursday. What we also know about the Ascension is that it represents one of the few examples of perfection in this profoundly imperfect world—the perfect end to the perfect mission. It is the ultimate “Job well done.”
Have you ever plopped down on your favorite chair after a long, hard day and thought to yourself, “A job well done!”? It’s interesting to hear how many folks never have that feeling. To many, the end of the day just represents a break, a resting period, before “the job” starts again in the morning. It is harder still for fallible human beings to look back at the day and think in terms of perfection, even near perfection. What on earth is ever really done? What in life doesn’t grow back, break down, get dirty again? What has anyone done during his entire life that couldn’t have been done better?
Only one thing comes to mind: the perfection that Jesus Christ came to earth to accomplish, the work He came to do. For human beings, death brings an end to our work, but that end represents an unbroken chain of imperfections. God tells us that even “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). There is really nothing that we do that is just right. That’s why it is so hard to comprehend not only the life of Jesus Christ, but exactly what the Ascension represents.
Christ’s Ascension was the perfect end to the perfect life. It was Jesus, returning to Heaven, knowing that He had completed His work perfectly, sinlessly, flawlessly. He had fulfilled both the positive and negative of every commandment, that is, He had avoided what the commandments prohibited and He had carried out what they commanded. It is one thing, for example, to avoid the act of adultery. It is quite another to be consistently pure in every thought, word, and action. It is one thing never to murder someone, it is another thing to “help and be of service to your neighbor in every earthly need” (Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, 5th Commandment).
Jesus returned to Heaven knowing that He had flawlessly completed absolutely everything that needed to be done for you and me. What He offered on the cross as our sin payment was—and could only have been—nothing less than absolute perfection in every conceivable way. It is just astounding when you stop to think of what Jesus accomplished, and just how ridiculously impossible it would have been for us to supply such perfection for ourselves.
Ascension is the day Jesus went back to His Father’s side in Heaven and returned to the perfect peace, harmony, joy, and contentment that He had before He left to enter this sick, broken world and to earn our salvation. What a great day for our Lord. His work was not only done, it was done absolutely perfectly. It could not have been done any better. That is exactly why God the Father did for Him what He did upon His return to His side in Heaven. Our text describes it: “[God the Father] raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come. And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (vv. 20-23).
So then first on this day, as we look back at Christ’s ascension, we stand in humble awe of what our Lord accomplished, thank Him for it, and rejoice in the fact that He got to go home—His perfect work on earth accomplished.
But then, just as the disciples who stood gazing into the sky had to shift their attention back to earth, so we too must now lower our eyes and see that we are still here, still trapped in this sin-broken world, still forced to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12), knowing that the roaring lion still prowls about, seeking whom he may devour (cf. 1 Peter 5:8). One of the first things that we will invariably notice is that “perfect” is indeed a rare commodity.
Paul recognized this, didn’t he? He knew that perfection—especially in the area of Christian conduct—just wasn’t going to happen, no matter how hard sinful human beings tried. Paul’s words from Philippians 3:12-16 : “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me His own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (ESV).
Confirmation is one example of how sinful, fallible, imperfect human beings try to “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” More to the point, we seek to “press on” through the instruction in God’s Word that leads up to Confirmation.
Although it is often tragically misunderstood, Confirmation isn’t really a goal so much as it is a young person taking ownership of the ongoing process that is life for a child of God living in a sinful world. I doubt there has ever been a serious confirmand —no matter how faithful they have been about their studies—who wouldn’t laugh at the idea that there was anything like “perfection” in the process of their instruction . One of the key truths that they learn, in fact, is the universal imperfection of humanity. Jesus didn’t do what He did because man was good but because man was fatally flawed. “…all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:9-12 ESV).
Jesus Christ came to earth to do what man could not do, to offer what man could not produce: perfection. What a terrifying ordeal Confirmation would be if the message learned by young Christians was how they needed to make themselves worthy and lovable in God’s eyes—how to make themselves perfect, knowing that a holy God could accept no less. From our confirmands you will hear good intentions, but no claim to perfection apart from Jesus Christ. During examination you witness the fruits of their hard work and sincerity, but even a “job well done” by any human being could never measure up to the divine standards of God’s holy Law. Human effort, no matter how exemplary, could never begin to compare to what our Savior once accomplished and then credited to us by grace through faith.
That is, in fact, the hope of the church’s youth as they prepare for Confirmation. That is the hope of every communicant member. What we learn from any and every study of God’s Word is not the perfection of man but the perfection of God. It is only because of the perfection of Jesus Christ, credited to sinners by God’s grace through faith, that we are saved, rescued, redeemed.
But then we find one other example of perfection in all of this. We see it in every single Christian who trusts that Jesus Christ provided the full payment for his sins. Every single Christian is, in fact, absolutely perfect in God’s eyes.
How could such a thing possibly be true, when everything we do, say or think is ruined by sin? Perfection is ours in the eyes of our God because God credits faith in Jesus Christ as equal to perfect righteousness. This is the amazing beating heart of the Christian faith. This is the confirmands trusting in the power of God the Holy Spirit that they not only believe this to be true, but declare their willingness to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from or deny this saving truth.
The incredible message of the Christian faith is that no matter how much sin we see in our lives, God the Father has punished His Son for every last one of them, every last sin—all of it. God the Father “has laid on [His Son] the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). Therefore, when God looks at us, sees into our hearts and there finds faith in Jesus Christ, He credits Jesus’ perfection to us, having placed our sins on Jesus. He looks at us, in other words, as he once looked at His Son. Concerning His Son He once declared to the world, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). Now, through faith in that very Son of God, you and I have inherited the perfection, the sinlessness, of Jesus Christ. That means that to all who trust Jesus Christ to have supplied all the goodness necessary to cancel our debt of sin, to every single human being who so believes, God says exactly the same thing that He once declared to His own Son: “You are my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased.” God is well-pleased with us, not because of any “job well done” that we could have supplied, but because of the perfection earned by Jesus Christ and credited to every single human being that places his trust in the goodness supplied by that Savior alone.
The next time you see confirmands step forward in their white robes, recognize those garments as symbols, not of their own natural or earned goodness but of the perfection, the sinlessness, that has been credited to them through faith in Jesus Christ. Be reminded by this sight. Remember that that is not just how God sees those young people, it is—because of what Jesus did for us—how He sees every single sinner who trusts in Him. It is, therefore, how He sees you: perfect, holy, sinless, washed clean by the blood of the Lamb.
Comfort your hearts with this truth as you wait for your Savior who has gone ahead to prepare Heaven for you, to return in His good time to take you to Himself. Amen.
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.