The Ascension and the Politics of Today – A Sermon for May 16

Texts: Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23

Sometimes the life of faith can be confusing. We can feel overwhelmed by changing ideas and different points of view. This is one of the reasons I find value in the Christian Creeds. The Creeds don’t say everything about God that needs to be said, but they do have a way of pointing us toward the central things.

We think that the oldest Christian creed was just one line—talk about simplifying things —it’s this: “Jesus is Lord.” The line we see in Greek is this: κύριος Ἰησοῦς. The word κύριος, or Lord, was used in the Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible as a substitute for the holy name of God. Greek-speaking followers of Jesus were extending that tradition when they summed up their commitments with the simple phrase, “Jesus is Lord” (e.g. Rom. 10; I Cor. 12).

Today I want to suggest that the ascension of Jesus is the bridge from Easter to that early creedal statement. Put differently, I want to suggest to you that the ascension of Jesus, which we read about here in Acts 1, is a political event. Far from being a cute story about the naivety of unscientific, first-century gullibles, the story of Jesus’ ascension is one that searches us. It asks hard questions about our own commitments and sense of allegiance.

Before we look further into the biblical text, let me tell you a short story.

On September 18 of 1961 a DC-6 crashed to the ground in the northern part of what was known as Rhodesia, now Zambia. Aboard the airplane were 16 passengers. All but one died in the crash. One of those who died was a Swedish diplomat, an economist by training, named Dag Hammarskjöld. Hammarskjöld was the Secretary General of the United Nations. He had been elected to that role partly because the world’s superpowers believed he was a technocrat and wouldn’t get overly involved in larger political issues. Yet, when he died, Hammarskjöld was in Africa to negotiate a cease-fire. Clearly he had gotten involved in political issues.  

The question of whether the crash was due to pilot error or violence has not yet been conclusively answered. One theory is that Belgian mining interests had the airplane shot down in order to protect their access to lucrative mineral deposits.

Two years after his death, Hammarskjöld’s journals were published under the title Markings. Hammarskjöld’s friend W.H. Auden did some of the translation and wrote an introduction. The title of the book comes from Jeremiah 31:12, which says this: “Set up road markers for yourself, make yourself signposts; consider well the highway, the road by which you went.”

What Hammarskjöld’s writings reveal was that he was a deeply spiritual person. He drew heavily on the writings of Christian mystics and his own Lutheran heritage. In 1953, the same year that he was elected to the top UN post, Hammarskjöld gave a short talk on the radio. He described the relevance of his faith, even though he worked to forge agreements between parties with very different views. He said that his political experience confirmed what he had been taught as a child, which was that a life of service to others was the most fulfilling way to live. He said that self-surrender was the way to truly understand yourself and become who you were intended to be.

In that same talk the UN Secretary General said that his political work was driven by what he called the “radical sense of the Gospels” that all people are equals as children of God. Hammarskjöld found strength in the Christian spiritual tradition, in inwardness and mystical prayer. How necessary this would have been in when pulled in diverging directions by some of the most powerful people in the world.

I offer Hammarskjöld’s story to show how a modern person in a position of significant political responsibility found strength and direction from the Christian faith. As we’ll see, the ascension of Jesus is key to the political edge of Christianity.

In our reading from Acts, the ascension serves as the hinge point, the point of overlap and change, between the scrolls of Luke’s Gospel and Acts. So Acts begins this way: “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven.” Then in verse 6 Luke reviews the event, saying, “So when they [the disciples] had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?”

Notice that, even after Easter, the disciples thought of Jesus is a political figure. And Jesus doesn’t deny this, but says that his impact will be powered by the Spirit (not by force) and spread by witnesses (not by military or economic conquest). Then, Luke tells us, Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.

Then, in the first post-Pentecost sermon (this is Acts 2) Peter looks back on the event, saying that God raised Jesus up, and exalted him “at the right hand of God.” He links the resurrection and the ascension.

To say that Jesus was exulted is to say that he was honored or promoted. Today we would say that sitting at God’s right hand is the equivalent of riding “shotgun.” The one on the right hand speaks with the driver face-to-face, gets to control the heat and the radio. More biblically, we say that the ascension of Jesus to that place of authority and honor is the completion of the resurrection.

Paul gives us more in Ephesians 1. He says, “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body . . . .” The ascension is about the one who sets the rules. It is about influence and setting out what really matters.  

A little later in the book of Ephesians, in chapter 4, Paul writes this: “When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth.” In I Peter 4 we read that the good news was shared even with the dead. And so the Apostle’s Creed, which comes from the second century, describes Jesus this way:

[He] was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried;
he descended into hell;
on the third day he rose again from the dead;
he ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty;
from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

So, we can think of the life of Christ as having a parabolic shape. It begins, high, the Word dwelling with God, it descends to the incarnation and on down through suffering, crucifixion, and death. Then it curves up with the resurrection, and the arc is completed with the ascension of Christ to the throne at the right hand of God. The ascension is the climax of the Jesus’ story.

When the early church said “Jesus is Lord” it meant that he had ascended to the throne. When they said that “Jesus is Lord” it meant that Caesar was not. That’s what was meant by the idea that the name of Jesus was “above every other name that is named.” When the early church said “Jesus is Lord” it meant that Rome would eventually fail, but God’s order would not. When they said “Jesus is Lord” it meant that they would care for the sick and the vulnerable, even when others would not. When they said “Jesus is Lord” it meant that when others would grant privileges based on class or wealth, they would not. When they said “Jesus is Lord” it meant that they believed that every person was created equally in God’s image, even when others believed no such thing.

With Jesus having ascended to the throne, they saw the world differently. Every other ruler, or authority, or philosophy was nothing more than an assistant to the real manager.

There’s a pastor from Missouri named Brian Zahnd who likes to remind people of an interesting feature of Jesus’ group of disciples. He points out that the group included Matthew, a tax collector who collaborated with the Romans, and Simon the Zealot, who was committed to violently opposing Roman occupation. Is this a bit like a small group that includes both a Black Lives Matter leader and a member of Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party or maybe members of Ford Nation and the NDP? I’m not sure about the modern corollary, but this simple fact shows us something of Jesus’ politics.

Our politics today is dominated by division and ideology. Too often our political exchanges are more concerned with doing right by our ideological tribe than with doing right by an entire community. However, the ascension of Jesus to the throne, far above any other name that is named, means that all our ideological precommitments must be reconsidered and subordinated. The politics of God, expressed in the life of Jesus, supersedes all ideologies. It calls us toward a horizon beyond that of any political party or movement.  

In the last few decades a number of New Testament scholars have begun arguing that we should think less about “belief in Jesus” and more about “allegiance to Jesus.” Less about “faith in” and more about “faithfulness to” or “fidelity to.” These scholars argue that this is a more biblical way of describing what it means to be a Christian. It means allegiance to the Servant King.

There is much to chew on here, but let me make one thing clear. Giving our allegiance to the Prince of Peace does not mean ceasing to care about our communities or our ecosystems. It does not mean ignoring the difficult political realities of our day. We might think of it this way: our allegiance determines our alliance.

  • For instance, when we give our allegiance to the One who demonstrates covenant faithfulness, we will find ourselves compelled to be allies of those who demand that our own nation honor it’s covenants—it’s treaties with First Nations.
  • When we give our allegiance to the Good Shepherd we will find ourselves compelled to be allies of the vulnerable.
  • When we give our allegiance to the Prince of Peace, we will find ourselves compelled to be allies of those who work for peace.
  • When we give our allegiance to the One who freely and liberally gives gifts and talents to all, we will find ourselves alliance of those who value work and creativity.
  • When we give our allegiance to the Creator, the One who declared the earth to be very good, we will find ourselves compelled to be allies of those who seek to honor and preserve the earth’s integrity.  

I’ll sum things up like this: For the early church the ascension was not about the disappearance of Jesus, but about the deep conviction that they knew where Jesus was. The ascension was about the knowledge that Jesus was seated at the right hand of God, promoted above every law, authority, structure, ideology or economic impulse, not only in their own age, but also in every age to come.

Oh God, may our faithfulness, our allegiance to Jesus, and our love for our neighbours be evident and overflowing. Amen.

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