Ascending with Christ

A sermon based on Acts 1:1-11
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on May 24, 2020*
by Rev. Scott Elliott

In the Gospels accounts of Jesus it is recorded that he taught– even came back from death to teach– his followers about the Reign of God, what the reading today calls “The Kingdom of God.” Jesus taught that The Reign of God is about shalom, peace for all. It’s a way of being on earth that helps God’s Reign breaks in as we get nearer and nearer to a Way of being where all are loved; where all are honored; where all are provided basic necessities. In the Reign of God earthly reigns’ constructs that oppress and marginalize are torn down. The poor are fed. The sick are tended to. The stranger is welcome. The imprisoned cared about. The least among us matters much. In God’s Realm earthly realms’ oppressive ways of doing things come to an end. Jesus taught his followers this Reign of God stuff, AND the Way to bring it about, to make it break in.
My favorite sermon ever preached has to be Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plain.” New Testament scholar, Professor Stephen Patterson, describes Jesus’ words in the “Sermon on the Plain” as evidencing that
The wisdom of Jesus is first and foremost about the reversal of common values. The Empire of God calls for a reordering of human life and relationships that places those who are valued least in the world at the very center.” 1
Dr. Patterson is right. “The Sermon on the Plain” is about a new world order where the violence and viscousness and imbalanced ways of earthly realms are extinguished. In God’s Realm things are drastically changed.
Listen to that Good News from Jesus himself in the Sermon on the Plain:
[Jesus] looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.
But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. (Luk 6:20-38 NRS)
That’s Jesus talking to his followers in the Book of Luke, a story continued by the same author in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. In our Lectionary lesson from Acts, we learn that Jesus in human form is about to leave earth. But oddly we also learn that Jesus’ teachings are not on his disciples’ minds. They are thinking of earthly kingdoms, not the kingdom of God. Maybe because Jesus was there to guide them and tell them and remind them, they just did not seem to store his teachings about God’s Reign in their heads. Or maybe because Jesus conquered death they think the tide’s turned and they have a super power in their corner – The Messiah who was expected only beefed up with everlasting life– a Superman from God, if you will.
At the end of Luke, just before the scene in today’s reading, the resurrected Jesus appears and gives a salutation that can also be heard as a command “Peace be with you.” As Jesus is about to go he adds
it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luk 24:46-47 NRS)
And then, as we heard in our reading from Acts, the moment he is about to ascend, Jesus tells the disciples that they will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. Their response is what’s odd. They ask “Lord is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?” Rev. Sean White in the Feasting on the Word commentary notes:
[the disciples] loyalty drifts back to the world they knew before the rabbi appeared. As for the Lukan account in Acts, the sociopolitical lens shaping messianic hopes remains firm “Lord” they ask, “is this the time when you restore the kingdom to Israel?” 2
Others agree. The Texts for Preaching commentator writes:
[The disciples’] question about the restoration of the kingdom to Israel betrays that not even the events of Easter and succeeding forty days had disabused them of a comfortable stereotype, that is, that God’s Messiah would reinstate the political fortunes of the old Davidic monarchy.” 3
Jesus’ amazing teachings and doings in life, his sacrificial death for the cause of love for all the world– even his miraculous resurrection on Easter– do not get the message (the Good News) across. With Jesus still around the disciples keep hoping he’ll provide earthly power. They want Jesus’ resurrection to have occurred so Jesus could do the grunt work and carry them– AND give them earthly power! It takes Jesus physically leaving for them to understand that what the world needs is for them to step up and do as Jesus did; to walk as Jesus walked, to act like Jesus in order to save the world. There’s no Superman, there is only the super power of love given on Jesus’ Way– that is the power that breaks in God’s Realm and reigns in heaven!
As 1 John 3:6 puts it “whoever says I abide in [Jesus Christ] ought to walk just as he walked.” We need to walk that walk so much so that we become Christ on earth in our actions. We must become the teachers, doers, leaders, and even if needed, the martyrs. Once Jesus ascends he becomes both absent from us and every present to us . . . and in each of us. 4
And it is that transformation of experiencing Jesus as no longer one man guiding us, but stepping onto the path he set out to follow, that Christ becomes in us. Jesus’ Way leads to Christ being in our words and deeds. Jesus’ followers are the ones who must now teach and act and live out the Sermon on the Plain. We must walk hand in hand with Jesus . . . not behind him . . . with him. We must love others. We must elevate the least among us. We must strive to make the world God’s Empire, not man’s empire. We are to bring in the Realm of God by seeking peace, proclaiming a change of ways and the forgiveness of sins.
Jesus ascends to heaven in our lesson with the promise that in ten days the Holy Spirit is going to baptize those left behind. And sure enough given a little bit of time with Jesus-the-man gone, the disciples finally get it. The result is Pentecost. The day we celebrate next week when the Holy Spirit comes down (in the same way Jesus went up). The descension of the Spirit ten days after Jesus’ ascension fills Jesus’ followers with an amazing power to go forward and begin transforming the world, by being the Body of Christ in the here and now.
We are the legacy of all of this. We are not to bring in a new earthly realm, but the Realm of God. God’s Realm breaks in with us inch by inch, moment by moment, person by person, community by community. In learning this lesson from the story of Jesus’ ascension; in doing as Jesus did the world will ascend from the depths of earthly powers’ way of doing things; to the Realm of God where the oppression and injustice is ended. Where all are fed, where all are respected and have their needs met. Where each person’s is loved and matters much, not just to God and Jesus but to community and culture, to each other. It’s a real place. It’s a possible place. It’s the world where Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plain” plays out. Where “love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return” is the motto of the realm. Where doing unto others as you would have done to you is the ethos of nations. Where daily living is about being merciful. Where we do not judge, and do not condemn. It’s a world where we forgive, and are forgiven. It is God’s desired realm. It is the end result of Jesus’ Way followed and played out so God’s realm has fully broken in. Where through human action, love, love, love prevails. When it does, God’s realm will fully be here. AMEN

* Based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2011
1. Patterson. Stephen, The God of Jesus, 97
2. White, Sean, Feasting on the Word commentary for year A at p 498
3. Texts for Preaching, p. 310-311
4. White at p 500