[The audio for this sermon can be found here.]
A reading from the Book of Acts 1:1-11:
1 In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach 2 until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. 3 After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. 4 On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5 For John baptized with[a] water, but in a few days you will be baptized with[b] the Holy Spirit.”
6 Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
9 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
Today we are taking a little break from the sermon series to celebrate and recognize the event of Jesus’s Ascension, which we just read about.
And at the same time that this sermon series on work and vocation has been going on, a smaller group of us in the church have been meeting in the classroom building before worship to talk about “The Politics of Jesus.” And we just finished up our last session this morning. So I thought it would good if I took some of what we’ve been discussing and going over together in that time this past month or so and tried to weave it to into the text and sermon for today, and it happens to actually fit pretty well — so that’ what I’m going to try to do!
Last week, we had three baptisms, and we recited the Apostle’s Creed together. One of the lines from that Creed is that Christ “ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father.” This statement comes from several places in Scripture, two of which we just read. And this past week in the Church calendar, on Thursday, though we don’t typically observe it as a church, was something called The Feast of the Ascension, which commemorates this very confession in the Creed that 40 Days after Easter, Jesus ascended to heaven and sits on the right hand of the Father.
Honestly, even for people are very comfortable with the Christian tradition and used to being in Church, this account in the gospels, this story, is probably a bit strange-sounding and maybe even hard to believe?! Is Jesus levitating? Is he flying? What’s going on? I mean, if you go up into the clouds, that way, for a long time, I don’t know that it leads to heaven, eventually. Maybe another galaxy, something like that. So what’s really happening? Surely there’s a deeper meaning to this story than the mere description of the physical events.
And might there be some connection between the Ascension of Jesus and our political hopes today? What is this telling us about who really reigns in the world today? What are we trusting in for our well-being and our safety? For our Way of life? It seems like this would be an appropriate to ask this questions, given the state of things, politically, in our country right now!
There’s a movie that came out in 2011 that some of you might have seen, but it wasn’t a big blockbuster really — even though it did get nominated for a number of academy awards. It’s called The Tree of Life [Slide]. But it probably remains fairly unappreciated because it was so unique — in terms of its cinematography and entertainment value. It was simple film.
It’s about a young family in Waco, Texas, in 1956. Whitney and I lived in Waco for about 7 years during and after college while I was in seminary. The oldest son in the family, who’s only about, oh, 10 years old or so, lives in this place of great tension, between the teachings of his dad, and the example and the care of his mother.
And then it like flashes forward to this moment several times throughout the movie when the oldest son, Jack, is all grown up. It shows him in like downtown Dallas in a high rise as a working professional in the business world. But he’s remembering during this time and thinking back to the parenting of his dad and the parenting of his mom, and you can just tell in the movie — what it’s trying to show you, is — this son, his name is Jack — and his parents are Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien — Jack is trying to figure out, ok, whose voice, and which parent do I listen to as I’m living my life today and making these decisions.
Ok, now let me give you a glimpse into each of their worldviews, starting with the dad. Here’s a quote from Mr. O’Brien, talking to Jack. He says:
“It takes a fierce will to get ahead in this world.” – Mr. O’Brien, Tree of Life
This is what the narrator voice in the movie — which is the mother’s voice — calls, “The Way of Nature.” And the thing about the Way of Nature, is that, it’s true to a significant extent! You know? It’s the original way that human beings have been related to the natural order of things from very early – pre-historic civilization. It does take a fierce will to “get ahead” in this world — whatever that means. It takes some ruthlessness to oppose things that stand in your way. Some force and power. We live in a dangerous and competitive world.
And Jack’s dad loves him! He wants him to be safe, strong and not get taken advantage of! Dads I know you can relate to this. I don’t even have a son yet, though I’m supposed to soon, and I feel like I can already relate to this myself.
And the Way of Nature is also about, not just how do I achieve security and prosperity for myself or my family, but for my tribe or my religion — my nation.
Does this sound familiar? Does it describe any if the national, political rhetoric of the day? It’s the way of the kingdoms of this world. It’s the default. It’s what people tend to trust in.
The Bible talks about this Way as well in many places. And calls it by the name sin. It’s condition of self-centeredness and self-reliance. And actually, you don’t have to be a Christian to recognize that this is the way human beings naturally live.
When I was in college, I was an assistant instructor a class called “History of Economics.” I was an economics major. And I had lead review sessions for tests for large groups of students taking this class, and we would a book called The Worldly Philosophers, to learn about some of the greatest thinkers who helped to shape modern European society, particularly in politics and economics. And maybe the biggest name you could think of on the economic side of things as far as the time period of the Enlightenment goes, is Adam Smith — The Father of neo-classical economic theory and of the capitalist mode of production Here’s what Smith said about human nature:
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.”
— Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations
It’s difficult to overstate the influence of this idea on the history of this nation. When was the Wealth of Nations written? 1776.
Human beings are self-centered. Smith knew this, and so did most of other modern European political philosophers. Ok, and what’s the strategy for survival in a world like this? Look no further than the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche:
“The higher man is distinguished from the lower by his fearlessness and his readiness to challenge misfortune.”
This is the same advice that Jack’s dad, Mr. O’Brien, gives to his son in the movie — trust in your own might and willpower to be strong and fight hard against the odds to succeed in life!
Ok, now, at the same time, there is also growing tendency this day in age to think that human beings are somehow inherently good natured! Oh that this were true! I wish it was. It’s funny, it seems like I think the only times and places when people are able to think that, is when they’re very far removed from the violence and the brutality that’s going on all the time in the world. And usually these cultures that elevate the human being to a naive level of goodness are very sheltered from poverty and war.
It’s this idea too that human beings are capable of pretty much taking care of themselves through science, technology, or the free market. It’s a fairly new idea in human history, but it’s still a very popular one. But then the 20th Century happened… in which more people were killed in war than all the other wars in human history combined, that we know of.
So maybe Mr. O’Brien is right? Maybe we just need a fierce will to get ahead and survive in this world…
But what does Mrs. O’Brien say, the mother of Jack, in the movie? She says:
“Unless you love, your life will flash by.” – Mrs. O’Brien, The Tree of Life
This is what the narrator in the movie calls, The Way of Grace. Let’s watch and listen to how the movie itself depicts these two different perspectives.
“There are two ways through life, the way of Nature and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.”
“Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.”
“Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.”
“No one who loves the way of grace… ever comes to a bad end.”
And in fact, there is tragic moment at the climactic point in the story of the movie, when someone dies, and it totally shifts the perspective of the dad, all of the sudden. It’s a brutal lesson for him. Because when you come to the end of someone else’s life that you love, which way are you going to wish you had been living by? The Way of Nature, or the Way of Grace?
It says at the beginning of Acts that,
After his suffering, [Jesus] presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.
So this was Jesus’s main teaching — the Kingdom of God. And he talked about the Kingdom of God before his death and resurrection as well. And what’s the Kingdom of God all about? It short, it turns the natural values of this world upside down. And in particular, ok, the kingdom is God a different way of wielding power — not the natural Way, but by the Way of Grace.
When Jesus is tempted in the desert by Satan after 40 days, Satan makes an offer to him. I’ll give all of the kingdoms of the world, if you would just bow down to me. In other words, Satan is saying, you don’t have establish a kingdom based on the Way of Grace. You can have the kingdoms of the Way of Nature now! But Jesus refuses.
And toward the end of the gospel of Luke, right as he’s being arrested, look at what happens:
49 When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” 50 And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear.
51 But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And he touched the man’s ear and healed him. 52 Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the elders, who had come for him, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs? 53 Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour—when darkness reigns.”
The Kingdom of God, we learn, from basically Jesus’s whole publically, does advance by force or violence, but by sacrificial love. It’s The Way of Grace. And this Kingdom, friends, at the moment of the Ascension, is being declared the real and true Kingdom. Look at what Paul says about this at the beginning of his letter to the Ephesians:
18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.
– Ephesians 1:18-21
So the Ascension of Christ, ok, is like the Coronation Ceremony for the Kingdom of God and the Way of Grace. It’s the declaration, the announcement! That the world is now being ruled under this different Way — the Way of grace rather than the Way of Nature.
But even after the resurrection, the disciples don’t seem to totally get what Jesus was up to though, do they? We know they didn’t get it before, but even after they’re still a little hazy. In the first chapter of Acts, which we read, they ask:
6 Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
They’re probably like, so Jesus, now that you’re all resurrected and apparently more powerful than death, maybe you should lead the revolution! You can be our secret weapon…
Or, it’s also like they’re saying: “Jesus, when are you going to make things like they used to be? With King David, or King Solomon? When are you going to restore the glory days?
As Americans, some of us might say, when are you going to put someone back in the Oval Office like Ronald Reagan, or JFK, or FDR?! Y’all know we do the same thing…
And what’s Jesus’s answer in the next couple of verses? Basically, he says, don’t worry about that. Your job is to be a witness to the things that I’ve taught you about the Kingdom of God. And you’ll be able to do this by the power of the Holy Spirit, which is coming.
Now, I’m not saying God doesn’t care about politics, or that politics don’t matter. Quite the opposite, in fact. God does care, and it does matter. But I think what Jesus is essentially saying to the disciples, and to us, is: Stop trying to make me the King of the Way of Nature! I’m not going to be a king in the worldly kingdom! That kingdom is passing away anyway. I’m calling you to a live a different kingdom, the kingdom of Grace. And your job is to be like the yeast in the dough that infects the rest of the world with that kingdom. With my kingdom!
Satan tried to do the same thing with Jesus, basically, and so did Peter. Put Jesus on the worldly throne so we can feel like we’re on the winning team. Friends, when the church does this, it’s not pretty. Sometimes it’s even downright demonic.
That’s also why we need to be careful with this phrase, “seated at the right hand of the Father.” Jesus isn’t far away in some distant throne room. Because if we think Jesus is far away, just somewhere where we’re going to join him after we die, then we might just be able to get away with thinking that we can live by the Way of Nature in our politics. But that’s not how the kingdom of God works.
No, Jesus isn’t far away in heaven. He’s right here, present through the Spirit! And this Spirit is empowering you with a different kind of power. It’s the power of the cross – of sacrificial love! It’s the Way of Grace. The Way of God’s kingdom.
That’s why the Angel says, in v. 11, “Why do you stand here, looking into the sky?” after Jesus ascends. It’s as if the angel is saying, God will take care of what ultimately happens. You, though, have other work to do. You get to witness to this Kingdom, this Way of grace. Where power is exercised benevolently rather than selfishly. This is our mission. This is our politics.
And you know another way that Jesus makes himself present and visible to us is through the Communion Table. We believe in the real spiritual presence of Jesus in the bread and the wine, and it’s a sign to us of the kind of lives we’re to lead together when we leave here. Reconciled lives, that share the Way of Grace with others, because God has shared the Way of Grace with us. So let’s pray.