Among the early church fathers — especially the eastern fathers of the fourth century — it was understood, as basic to the Christian faith and life, that “God became Man, so that man might become divine.” It sounds provocative at first, perhaps even shocking to your modern ears and sensibilities. Or maybe you imagine the sort of new age mysticism that has twisted and perverted spirituality and detached it from Christ in exchange for personal self-realization. But none of that. The fathers were confessing what St. Peter has written concerning Christ in his Second Epistle:
“His divine power has given us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who has called us by His own glory and excellence, by which He has given us His precious and magnificent promises, that through these you might be partakers of the divine nature.”
So let us also consider this ancient confession of the faith, that God became Man, so that man might become divine. The almighty and eternal Son of God became true Man, so that frail human beings — mortal men and women such as you — might become partakers of His divine nature.
Throughout Christmas and Epiphany, the Church focuses especially on the first point, that “God became Man.” For the Son of God, our dear Lord Jesus Christ, has become one with us and with our children, taking human flesh and blood to be His own from the womb of the Virgin Mary; and in that flesh and blood He has lived your life and suffered all that you must suffer in your place.
But this festival day, one of the most important occasions of the Church Year, focuses attention on the second point, “that man might become divine.” For on this day, in the Ascension of our Lord, the Church confesses and proclaims from the Holy Scriptures that our human nature has been raised from death to life and ushered into paradise, elevated to the heights of divine life, and seated at the right hand of God in the heavenly places. The One who became like you has raised you up to be like Him. For He is your own Brother in the flesh, who ascends to the Father in His Glory. And as He was crucified and is raised for your salvation, His Ascension is your life with God.
Right now, I am well aware, that can really sound like nothing more than “pie in the sky.” It is easy enough to feel trapped and confined by your mortal life here on earth. And when you try to escape it, with drugs or alcohol or sex, you’ll only end up crashing all the harder on the other side. When people speak of “heaven on earth,” surely you know that is not actually so. More often than not, your life on earth can seem like a “living hell.” So desperate have people become, that too many look for a tragic solution — which is no solution at all — in taking steps to end their lives.
Thank God, that isn’t the whole story, nor the real story. In the waters of Holy Baptism, God has become your Father, and He has cleansed and restored your human nature in Christ Jesus. In the flesh and blood of the incarnate Son, you partake of the divine nature; you live with Him in God.
It is from within your Baptism into Christ that you participate in the divine nature and eternal life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In those life-giving waters, sanctified by the Word and Spirit of Christ, you have been crucified, put to death, and buried with Him. So are you also raised with Him in His Resurrection from the dead. And today, in particular, we also confess with great joy and thanksgiving, that by your Baptism into Christ you ascend with Him into the heavenly places.
No matter how bogged down you may be in the muck and the mire of this mortal life, in Christ you find that you are destined for higher things. It’s not just pie in the sky. It is the true reality, just as real, and just as much yours, as the waters of your Baptism. In Christ you find that your entire life as a Christian is a heavenly life, which Christ lives in you, and you in Him, even here on earth.
As this heavenly life is yours in Christ, not only someday, but here and now by faith in His Gospel, so do you actually live the life of Christ in your dealings with those whom God has positioned around you and placed in relationship to you. As the incarnate God, your Savior, Jesus Christ, lives forever in His own Body of flesh and blood, so do you live the divine life that you share with Him in and with your body, and not only in your heart or in your head.
In Christ, by His grace, through faith in Him, by the Spirit of His Father, you are like Him, and you live like Him. You sacrifice your time, your treasures, and your talents for the sake of others. Not that you squander these good gifts of God, but that you exercise a faithful stewardship of His gifts in the service of His Church and for the benefit of your neighbors, instead of serving yourself.
You likewise demonstrate mercy and compassion for your neighbors. Your forgive those who sin against you, and you pray for those who set themselves against you. You love your own family and friends, to be sure, but so also those who deal unkindly with you, speak ill of you, or think nothing of you at all. To live the divine life is to live as Christ Jesus has lived for you in the flesh, taking up the Cross and bearing it in love, in the confidence of the Father’s Word and promises.
The simple fact of the matter is, that the life of Christ Jesus — His active faith and love, His Cross and Passion, His Resurrection and Ascension — His life in the flesh is the Life of God in Man.
At all times and in all place, then, follow the example of your Lord Jesus Christ. But of course, He is far more than just a good example. He gives you Himself. He gives you His life. He pours out His Spirit upon you with His forgiveness of your sins. And He makes you a partaker of the divine nature, as He has named you with the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in your Baptism. So are you a member of His family, a divine child of His own God and Father forever.
It’s certainly not as though you now live the divine life by your own power or initiative. It’s not a matter of trying hard, of girding up your loins, or of pulling yourself up by your own boot straps. Left to yourself, you remain down here on earth, with your chin and your heels dragging in the dirt. But the divine life that you do now live is ever and only in Christ, as He lives in you, and with you, and through you, by His grace. Indeed, you live as a Christian only as Christ Jesus lives in you.
That is why, when Christ appears to His Apostles, He includes along with His suffering, death, and Resurrection, the necessity that repentance and forgiveness be preached in His Name. For you need the preaching of His Gospel as much as you needed His Cross and Resurrection. The one would do you no good without the other. You live by His Word and the preaching of it, and not at all apart from it. It is by His Word that He takes your flesh and blood, your body and life, to be His own, to live with Him in His Kingdom, with His Father and His Holy Spirit, now and forever.
And as the Word of Christ brings you into His Cross and Resurrection and Ascension by the washing of water with His Word in Holy Baptism, so does the preaching of His Word also bring you to His Holy Supper, whereby He feeds your life in the flesh with His own divine flesh.
It is in the holy Body and precious Blood of Christ Jesus that you live and abide with God in both body and soul, both here and hereafter. It may be that we have sometimes focused too narrowly on the Sacrament as a means of forgiveness. And to be sure, let us rejoice and give thanks that the Body and Blood of Christ are given and poured out for you and for the many, for the forgiveness of sins, without which you would have no life with God but only death and damnation.
But let us also revel in the divine life and salvation that are yours in the Holy Communion. For in this Holy Sacrament, you eat and drink the Body and Blood of the true and only God. And as you thus partake of God in the flesh, so do you also partake of the divine nature in Him, not only in your head or in your heart, but with your mouth, and with your body, unto the life everlasting.
God knows that you need forgiveness on a daily basis — as He has taught you to pray — for you sin every day and surely deserve nothing but punishment. But in saving you from your sins, which would otherwise bring you death, He saves you for life with Himself in both body and soul. It is to that end that He became true Man, and bore your sins in His own Body to the Cross, and died in your place; that in His Resurrection and Ascension you might become divine and live in Him.
Friend of God, “you are what you eat.” And as you eat the divine Body and Blood of Christ, the Son of God, your own flesh and blood are raised to new heights, to partake of the divine nature in Him. Thus are you prepared for your own Ascension into heaven. And even now, the holy Body and precious Blood of Christ, in your hands and on your lips, sanctify your hands and lips, your body and life, for service to others; that you should live the divine life in faith and love on earth.
“God became Man, so that man might become divine.” Not only has the Son of God become in every way like you, but He has also raised your human flesh and blood to be divine through Him. By your Holy Baptism, He has shared His Cross and Resurrection with you. In His Holy Supper, He feeds you with Himself, so that His Body and His Blood become a part of you, enlivening your flesh with His. And on the Last Day, He will raise you up to be like Him forever. Indeed, He will transform your lowly body of humiliation to be like unto His own glorious body forevermore
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.