In our verse of the day Jesus speaks one of his last promises before ascending into heaven: “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
That isn’t to say Jesus spoke these words and then ascended into heaven. Matthew doesn’t say that Jesus ascended after speaking these words. Luke actually says Jesus ascended in the region of Bethany, which is in Judea. Jesus speaks our words today in Galilee, miles north of Bethany.
So where and when are we? We find ourselves in the pre-ascension forty days. Perhaps early. After all, on Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday, Jesus and the angels tell the disciples and the women, “I will go ahead of you into Galilee,” “He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee,” “Tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
It’s clear: when Jesus rises, meet him in Galilee, perhaps a politically “cooler” place with less chief priests breathing down their throats. But when he ascends, he’ll do it near Jerusalem, where he tells the disciples to wait for the Spirit and where preaching repentance and forgiveness begins.
But even if Jesus didn’t speak these words and make this promise as he lifted off from the ground and the clouds hid him from their sight, still it fits Ascension.
Remember, the days after the resurrection were distinctly not normal. They weren’t seeing Jesus as they normally had for the last three years. He’s been bipping and bopping in and out: here today, gone tomorrow. Wowing them by walking through locked doors. Unknown, then revealing himself with a word (Think, “Mary.”) or making himself known by a gesture (Think, “He took bread, broke it, gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened.”)
Even in Matthew 28 things feel different. The eleven go to Galilee, as Jesus told them. Matthew says they saw him, then worshipped him. That wasn’t the pre-death and resurrection status quo. But this is new and different. They’ve never dealt with a resurrected Lord before. Maybe that explains how while they worshipped, “some doubted.” Doubted? Thomas again? Maybe some were wary, wondering what’s different about this guy back from the dead compared to Lazarus or Jairus’ daughter. Maybe they intuited what comes next, sensed an ascension in the offing and didn’t want to get too excited. Who knows?
The point is, in the days just before the ascension, and even at the ascension itself, as Luke points out in Acts 1, the disciples still had questions, doubts, fears, and concerns. “What about the kingdom of God? How will we do all this preaching? What are we supposed to do, actually? Where will we go?” And in a moment, Jesus will hit them with the a-bomb, “I am actually going back to my Father’s house to sit at the right hand of God. Seriously.”
To be fair, Jesus hinted at this, “In my Father’s house are many rooms, I am going there to prepare a place for you.” Understandably, the disciples probably didn’t recollect every word Jesus spoke that evening. Yet John makes it clear that that word bothered them. “Going? Where? Can we go? How do we get there? Father? Show us the Father, then we’ll be fine!”
The ascension of our Lord is a tricky thing. We don’t always get why he had to go. Things were just about to sky-rocket. Imagine pointing, literally pointing, to the wounds in Jesus hands and sides, those open, but uninfected wounds, open, yet not bleedings wounds, and say, “Look, here’s Jesus, risen from the dead! He is the Son of God! The Father accepted his life and death as a payment for your sins! He’s the first of many more resurrections to come!” What an easy ministry, eh? But instead, Jesus leaves.
Except he didn’t. That’s the promise: “Surely I am with you always to the very end of the age.” That’s easy to say. “I’m with you in spirit,” we tell people when we can’t make a meeting or an event. With Skype and Facetime and Hangouts we can be almost anywhere, anytime to see and talk to people. But Jesus meant more.
This is one of those “I AM” statements. “I am with you always.” These words follow close on the heels of the so-called great commission: “Go to the nations, baptize, teach!” But Jesus bookends that with divine pronouncements: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” “Surely I am with you always to the very end of the age.” “I have all the divine power you can imagine, since I’m God, so I can tell you what to do and how to do it. And I, being God, am with you as you do it, right to the bitter end.” Because Jesus is I AM, the LORD, Yahweh. Only the LORD can say what Jesus says here, and the LORD says it.
To whom? “You.” This isn’t just the eleven, because Jesus gives us a time frame that exceeds the apostles: “to the very end of the age.” In his divine omnipresence and eternity Jesus says, “I am with you.” You. You. You he is with. And he desires to be with you, to care for you, to look out for you, his church, his body, as Paul calls you in Ephesians, and then in an even more startling phrase, “the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” That’s you, who you are by the grace of God through faith in Christ: you are the fullness of Christ, filling Christ!
And you are always this by faith. “I am with you always,” Jesus says. Literally “all the days.” Not some of the days. Not for a little while. Not the even numbered days. Not the odd numbered days. Just the days that end in “y.” That kind of always.
Until the end. Here comes the greatest comfort Jesus can give. He stays with his church, walks with his church, until the end, the close, the completion, the consummation “of the age.”
That phrase “the end of the age” occurs frequently in Matthew. It’s when the angels come to gather the elect and to burn up the weeds, the unbelievers, in fire The disciples parallel it with that time when Jesus comes again. And now here, Jesus says, “I am with you, even when I am not visibly with you, until that time when I visibly come again as the Rider on the White Horse, the King of kings, the Lord of lords, to judge the world in my justice!”
No wonder some manuscripts of Matthew’s gospel added the word “Amen” here. We long to cry out, “Yes! Truly! It is so! This is most certainly true!” Yet our heart holds back. “He’s left. He’s gone. Surely he can’t be with us always to the very end of the age. Human bodies don’t do that and Jesus clearly has a human body.” Wrestling with God’s omniscience and omnipresence – his knowledge of everything, his ability to be everywhere – takes us to theological and philosophical places we can’t handle.
That’s not new to us or our time. For centuries people have wondered at words like this from Jesus. They stand at the center of a great debate about the Lord’s Supper. Is it really the body and blood of our Lord? And if so, according to his human nature or his divine nature? Both? None? At the time of the Reformation, groups began to say that the Lord’s Supper is only symbolic. The bread and wine only represent Jesus’ body and blood. We still have that today in most of the churches labeled “Protestant”.
Related to that debate is one about Jesus himself: how do his true God-ness and true man-ness relate? How can a flesh and blood human being have the properties of an all-present, all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful God? In fact, a human body can’t be in many places at once, else it’s not a human body, right?
In the end that denies Jesus’ words here in Matthew: “I am with you always to the very end of the age.” “I”, Jesus says. Me, this flesh and blood, body and soul person who is also, at the very same time the Word made flesh, the Son of God who went into heaven and came from heaven. To take any divineness from Christ leaves you with no Christ, or, in Luther’s words, “a poor sort of Christ.” Likewise, to take any humanity from Christ leaves you with no surety that in Jesus your sins were nailed to the cross. In the ancient maxim, “What he did not assume, he did not save.” If he is not me, than I am not saved. If he is not God, neither am I saved either. He must be both. Today, as he prepares to ascend, he says, “I AM.”
That I AM who ascends into heaven to rule over all things for the church, first became the I AM who sat in the balance scales of God’s justice for me as true man, born of Mary, under the law, observing the law of God perfectly. The I AM who ascends into heaven descended into death and the grave, there satisfying God’s wrath. Then that I AM descended once more, into hell, showing the devil that he can be everywhere, always, even in that terrible place, victorious over all things, “far above all rule and authority, power and dominion,” as Paul writes.
That same I AM promises to be, of all the places he could be, with us. For our salvation. Where we gather in his name, he promises to be. Where we gather around Word and water and meal, he promises to be, there distributing through his Spirit the precious treasure that he won for us: forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. The same forgiveness he commissioned the church to go out with baptizing and teaching. He ascended into heaven to oversee the distribution, the giving, the handing out of that, of life, life to the full! Because he’s with us. Always. To the end of the age. When he comes again. To take his church where he promised: to his Father’s house. Amen.