30 April 2008

Restless Hearts Rest in Peace in the Ascension of Our Lord

It is the Eve of the Ascension of Our Lord here in Siberia, which means, liturgically speaking, that the day of the feast has already begun. That shall not be the case for another ten or twelve hours back home in the United States, which strikes me as rather intriguing at the moment. No one knows the day or the hour when the Son of Man will return upon the clouds with power and great glory, but it will be a different day, or at least a different hour, in each part of the world. How very odd, and yet, how very appropriate, since the name of the Lord is greatly to be praised from the rising to the setting of the sun; not only round the world but round the clock. As there will be that one final moment when He comes to judge the living and the dead around the world all at once, there is no moment when He is not now coming to His Church in grace, mercy and peace, by the Ministry of His Gospel to the end of the age.

We are always making plans for the future. In itself, such planning ahead is not sinful, yet our plans are always tainted and hindered by our sinfulness and sin. The fact is that we do not know what tomorrow holds; it is entirely contingent upon the grace of God. Still, what do we do? We do not simply plan, but we worry about tomorrow. And all the while, we continue to fret about the past. Though today has sufficent obligations and troubles of its own, we spend far too much of our time living in the past with regrets, and wishing away our present moments in pointless anxiety for the future, which may or may not even come to pass. Only as God so wills, shall we do this or that. Or perhaps, this very night, He shall call us from this temporal world to Himself.

We all make plans for the future, both for the near and distant future, as best we can on the basis of what we know. As Christians we do so in faith, in accordance with the Word of God. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of true wisdom, which does not judge by what the eye sees in the world, but by the hearing of the Word of Christ. As such, it is often the case that our wisdom appears foolish in the eyes of the world, though it is really only our sin that is foolish and false. The goal of our life, the aim of our decisions, is simply that of faithfulness and love.

Because the Holy Triune God, who is Love, is faithful above all others — and because He is the Creator and Preserver of all things — our life on earth (even under the Cross) is actually more stable and predictable than not, most of the time; certainly, it is more so than our sins deserve. Thus, being the sinners that we are, we can be lulled into a false sense of complacency and pride, as though we were the masters of our own destiny, calling the shots and running the show. It is not so, no matter how much we may think it or act as though it were.

There are, however, those times in life when we are made much more aware of the uncertainties and vacillations of our finite, mortal life in this fallen world. There are such times of sickness and death, for example, when we are forced to admit that we can neither heal nor sustain life by any power of our own. Changes in the weather, in world politics or the economy, are likewise out of our control. Natural disasters, wars and rumors of war, and so forth, shake our false sense of security to its very core (and so serve as special signs of the end). Less dramatically, but closer to our own heart and home, life can become very confusing, downright stressful, and even quite daunting, when we are faced with making plans for college and career, marriage and family.

There is a restlessness within us, St. Augustine famously confesses, which does not rest until it rests in God. It is exacerbated by our sinfulness, because we look for peace and rest, for love and hope, in all the wrong places, in things and people instead of the one true God. But even apart from our sin, we were not created to be self-sufficient, independent creatures, as though we could make our own way and find our place in the world apart from God. Attempting to do that very thing is the original sin! By contrast, we are granted peace and rest for both body and soul when we live by faith in the Lord our God, who created us for such life in and with Himself.

The promises of God throughout the Old Testament centered especially in that peace and rest which He would grant to His people. He bequeated the good land of Canaan to Abraham and his descendants. He promised, then, to bring the sons of Israel out of Egyptian slavery into that very land again. And in that promised land, He would cause His name and His glory to dwell; He would live and abide among His people, and they would live and abide with Him in His presence. Then they would have peace and rest.

It was Joshua the son of Nun (the Old Testament Jesus) who lead the Israelites into Canaan. It is the new and better Jesus of Nazareth who leads us into the promised land of heaven. There He is our God, and we are His people. His own Body is the Temple and Glory of God, whereby He abides with us, and we in Him forever. By the Atonement of His sacrifice for us upon the Cross, He has reconciled us to God the Father in Himself, and He has become our perfect Peace. Thus, Christ Jesus Himself is our eternal Sabbath Rest, which remains for the people of God.

What does this mean for us? The Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ establishes the place that God the Father has prepared for each of us, His people, in the Person of His beloved Son. Where He is, there shall you be also. Indeed, you have already died with Him in your Baptism, and your life is now safely hidden with Christ in God. It doesn't get any safer than that! By His Cross, in His Resurrection and Ascension, He has prepared a place for you — He has become your true Home! — and He shall bring you there in peace, to be and abide with Him forever where He is.

That accomplished fact and established reality does not render meaningless or futile the life that you now live in the flesh. Rather, it is the very thing that frees you to live, even here and now, because it bestows real meaning and genuine significance upon your life in the body. For this very body in which you now live on earth, even subject as it is to sickness and death, shall be resurrected to life everlasting, renewed, perfected and glorified, immortal and imperishable, like unto the glorious body of your risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ. Consequently, what you do in and with that body of yours here on earth really matters.

It matters alright, but not in the sense that you must somehow obtain a righteousness of your own by the works of the Law. You are not able to do that, but neither is it necessary. It is not as though you must hit upon just the right combination of choices and decisions in order to find your own way to heaven. You would never know the way to go; except that Christ Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life, who has come to bring you to the Father in and with Himself.

So, then, your life in the body matters, because the life that you live, already here and now on earth, you live no longer for yourself but for Him, who for your sake died and was raised and has ascended to the right hand of the Father. Your life right now is not only a case of anticipation. It is true that you do wait upon the Lord, and you hope for that which is not yet seen, and you long for the final revelation of the sons of God; you groan with all of creation for the consummation of all things, for the resurrection of all flesh, when Christ Jesus shall be all in all. But all of this for which you wait has already been fulfilled and established in the Person of Christ, in His Cross and Resurrection. And again, because you are united with Him by your Baptism into His death, so do you also share His Resurrection, His Ascension, and His Life. For that reason, even while yet in this vale of tears, you are already living before God in righteousness, innocence and blessedness; you're already living with Christ in His Kingdom, as you live by grace through faith in His Gospel, within His one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, on earth as it is in heaven.

This life in Christ is your perfect peace and rest (through the forgiveness of all your sins). It is still by faith, not yet by sight. But it is no less real, sure and certain than Christ Himself is True.

Of course, that doesn't give you all the answers to the questions in your heart and on your mind. There is no one "right answer" as to whether or where you must go to college, or what you must be and do when you grow up, or whom you should marry, or when. You live by faith in the Gospel, not by the works of the Law. To be sure, your faith is guided by the Law of God, which is His good and acceptable will. So are you guided by your parents and other authorities, who love you and serve you by God's grace. But in all of this, His Law does not guide you in the way of self-righteousness, nor in selfish self-achievement, but in the way of faith toward God and love for your neighbor. In this way of faith and love, there is great freedom.

A young person who knows the stability of his earthly home and family, who has the certainty and confidence of parents who love him, has a tremendous advantage in growing up and finding his way in the world. His foundations give him a solid footing, even when he's far from home. I have much the same experience, even on the opposite side of the world, knowing that my wife and children, our home and family, are established and safe and waiting for me in South Bend. My identity as a husband and father gives me a sense of myself and helps me keep my bearings in the world, no matter where in the world I may be, whether on my own or in a crowd.

So much more is that the case for us, who belong to the Lord our God, the Maker of the heavens and the earth. For we are children of the heavenly Father; and we are members of the Bride of Christ. That is our security, our identity, our place, our permanent home. And it is from within that certainty that we are free to make our choices and decisions about the future without fear. Our restless hearts have found their peace and rest in Christ.

4 comments:

Zachary said...

It took me a while to get to read it, but this is yet another excellent blog post! I especially liked your concluding paragraphs, which rang especially true for me ;-).

Christopher Esget said...

Brilliant. Comforting.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Thanks, Christopher.

Christopher Esget said...

I ended up borrowing a lot of it for my Ascension homily last night.

Hope you are well.