By Karl Strenge –
The language we used in the proper preface for the Ascension reminded us that Jesus “was taken up into heaven that He might make us partakers of His divine life.” We partake of his divine life. That is to say we have been joined in a mystical union to the life of Jesus as well as his divinity.
When we speak about the life of Jesus, we speak not only of His life of his earthly ministry, his perfect keeping of the law, and his perfect sacrifice on his cross, but also the eternally resurrected Jesus Christ at the right hand of the Father who lives and dies no more. We are then partakers of his “eternalness.” We are partakers of and share in his conquering of death. But we are also partakers of his divinity. We are made divine through Jesus.
In the first couple of years after I had left the seminary, there was what seemed like a rush of LCMS pastors, especially newly ordained pastors, who were running to the Orthodox communion. And maybe at first glance it would seem like this writer is just one more who missed the boat heading East and embracing Theosis, the Orthodox theology of achieving divinity through acts of holiness.
The “partaking of the divine life” of Jesus the proper preface prays for is not a road we travel in which we make ourselves divine. Instead, it is paradoxically the destination from where we begin our journey. It is what he has done for us and to us. As the proper preface states, “He might make us partakers.” He, Christ Jesus, is the actor and not you or me. It is Jesus doing the making of us partakers. As Jesus describes in the parable of the vine and branches in John 15, we are grafted into him and receive the life that flows through himself that we may receive his life and his divinity. This mystical union with the divine life of Jesus begins in Baptism. We see this in the language Paul used in Romans 6, “All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death…if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (vs. 3 & 5). We are not dealing with symbolic language but a literal union to the crucified Jesus, the buried Jesus, and the resurrected Jesus. Our old self is crucified with him and dies with him and is resurrected with him. We have his life within ourselves. A divine life of Christ. We are joined to his cross; we are partakers of his life and death and resurrection. We partake of his divine life.
If Baptism does such great things, how much more so is it true in the Sacrament of the Altar. There we receive the same body and blood that was born of the Virgin, hung on the cross, laid in the grave, and rose from death. We are what we eat, and we eat Jesus. We partake of the body and blood of Jesus, and by partaking we partake of his divine life.
This mystical union begins for us even before the creation of man. The nature of the Trinity is one of union. Three distinct persons yet perfectly one God. Each united to one another, each loving the other, and each desiring and doing what is true and good in union with one another. This is what we were created to share. “Let us make man in our own image and after our likeness” (Genesis 2:24). We were created to be in a divine union with our Creator.
The union we had with our creator having been created in the image of God extended even to the union between man and woman. As we read in Genesis 2, “the two shall become one flesh.” A paradise union of man and woman completely and fully joining them together as one flesh. But all of this was lost.
For this reason, Jesus “was taken up into heaven that He might make us partakers of His divine life.” The union between Creator and creature was lost in sin, and the union between man and woman was lost in sin. Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father so that through the Holy Spirit and his church, the gifts of Baptism, the gift of the body and blood of Jesus, the gift the word of absolution, and the proclamation of the Gospel, he joins us to the cross, joins us to the empty tomb. He ascended so that what was lost in the fall and in our sin would be overcome by his divine life, so that we would become the branches joined to the vine and be made partakers of his divine life.