Ascension Leads to Descension Leads to Ascension *
A sermon based on Acts 1:1-11
given at Mount Vernon, OH on June 1, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
I recently read that the great silent film star Charlie Chaplin stopped in a town one day and discovered a “Walk-Like-Charlie-Chaplin” contest was going on. On a whim Mr. Chaplin decided to enter the contest under a false name. A most interesting thing happened, at the end of the competition the judges placed the real Charlie Chaplin walk in the “Walk-Like-Charlie-Chaplin” contest not in first or second or even third place, but – get this– in twentieth place. 1
I am pretty sure that if Jesus who ascended into heaven in our reading today were to return and enter a “Who’s-Walking-the-Walk-the- Most-Like-Jesus” contest in most of our towns he probably wouldn’t even place at all. Our culture tends to picture the returning Jesus as a warrior who will take out and destroy our enemies, especially those the religious and political elite consider evil or sinners.
In fairness to those in our culture who picture and dream and long for such a returning warrior Jesus, the disciples in the story today pretty much thought the same sort of Jesus was coming back. After all that Jesus had done and taught about peace and love the disciples still expected a returning warrior Messiah who would give them the earthly kingdom they longed for.
“Lord, is this time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” the disciples ask. It’s like they have not been listening or watching or paying attention. The Jesus of peace and love walked with them and taught them to walk that walk, but even they indicate they might not recognize the walk of Jesus when he returns. Even after all they have witnessed, they want Jesus’ walk to be like a legendary Davidic warrior king of old.
Sadly the imagined returning Jesus has to this day often been expected to come back with an earthly kingdom walk using earthly ways of violence to gain temporary human coerced peace through domination of their opponents. Their imagined returning Jesus does not have the heavenly kingdom walk he had before he ascended. His steady walk of non-violence to bring permanent Divine peace is missing.
Charlie Chaplin is supposed to have said to a reporter after he lost the Walk-Like-Charlie Chaplin contest “that he was ‘tempted to give lessons in the Chaplin walk, out of pity as well as in the desire to see the thing done correctly.’”2
Jesus, of course, gives lessons to us, and gave lessons to the disciples, about how to walk the walk not just talk the talk of non-violent Divine peace. In the story today Jesus tries again to set his followers straight. He tells them – and by extension us– to quit worrying about when an earthly kingdom will be restored, and instead to get ready to “receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” and to be His, Jesus,’ witnesses “to the ends of the earth.”
The Book of Acts witnessing to the Apostles’ acts was written by the same author who wrote the Gospel of Luke which witnesses to Jesus’ acts. The witness in the Book of Luke is about Jesus acting and living to bring in the Reign of God, a Heavenly Reign using non-violence to bring permanent Divine peace– where all are loved and have enough to live.
Think about it, the Gospel of Luke – like the other Gospels– is a written witnesses to a Jesus who teaches, advocates and acts in ways that the poor and the sick and the alien and the imprisoned are actually taken care of as if they are Christ. It’s a witness to Jesus’ lessons about a Holy Way where those on the margins, where all who are cultural outcasts are affirmatively welcomed, embraced, respected and loved–and everyone else too.
Luke witnesses a Jesus for whom every human matters much. So much so, even violence is met with love, even criminals are met with love, even enemies are met with love. The author of Luke’s written witness is of a Jesus who walked the walk of love as the norm.
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 Jesus tells his followers, “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 the lesson today from Acts in the moment he is about to ascend, Jesus tells the disciples that they will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. And they respond by asking an almost comical question about bringing about restoration of an earthly kingdom. It’s as if Jesus never preached and lived toward bringing about the heavenly kingdom of radical love and compassion for all. It’s as if Jesus never commanded peace be with them or to proclaim forgiveness of sins and repentance.
See, the disciples left on their own don’t ask about love or peace or forgiveness, instead they ask about the restoration of their favorite earthly kingdom: “Lord is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?” Jesus had lived and died and even been resurrected to bring in the Reign of God, and they are stuck on the old way of a dreamed for macho Messiah who reestablish an earthly reign of a kingdom. While they may not like Rome’s earthly kingdom, the disciples desire an earthly kingdom of their own!
Rev. Sean White in the Feasting on the Word commentary on the Ascension text puts it like this:
[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?” 3
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.” 4
Jesus’ amazing lessons and doings in life, his sacrificial death for the cause of love for all the world, even his miraculous resurrection on Easter, all these things, do not get the message (the Good News) straight in the disciples’ heads.
You’d think by this point the message would be clear and very memorable– sticking in their heads– but, it isn’t. With Jesus still around the disciples keep hoping he’ll be what they want, what they dream about. That is, someone who will bring about their ideal earthly ways of earthly kingdoms; power through traditional means. Of course, many of Jesus’ followers ever since have been just like that. There’s a saying that “There are many in the church who can be described as like a farm mule that is awfully backward about going forward.” 5 We can trace that type of backwardness to today’s lesson.
Conserving what is – the avoidance of change– is a part of human nature. Jesus’ Way flies in the face of that nature. Jesus’ since the start – and ever since– calls us to Heaven’s Way not an earthly one. When we on Heaven’s Way, Jesus’ Way, what we are to see and act and hope for is not a way to get another kingdom of earthly power where our side gets to be in charge of stuff and dominate so that human ways are flipped to our advantage.
If the Gospel is about anything it is that the God of Jesus does not want for us – and that Jesus did not teach us to try and achieve– a new earthly warrior led empire to replace the Roman Empire. What God wants and what Jesus teaches is that a heavenly empire needs to replace earthly ones. To do this Jesus’ disciples way back when and today, must be willing to follow the Way Jesus set out. As 1 John (3:6) puts it “whoever says I abide in [Jesus Christ] ought to walk just as he walked.”
Up to this point in the Lukean accounts, what goes on before Jesus’ ascension is that he does most of the walking, people let the human physical being Jesus carry them to what needs to be done and walk them down the way. They are so busy being carried that they don’t understand or don’t want to walk the walk at all.
To the disciples the Way at this point in the story seems to be about thinking Jesus’ resurrection alone is all that’s needed for the salvation of the world; that it’s still about Jesus doing the grunt work and carrying them. But they are wrong! And it seems to take Jesus physical body leaving the earth for them to get that “The Way” is about Jesus’ followers’ themselves teaching and doing as Jesus did; walking as he walked– to get on the Way of Love, Jesus’ Way. Followers of Jesus must act like Jesus did in the world in order to bring about the Reign of God . . . in order to save the world.
Jesus followers must be the ones who replace Jesus as the teachers, doers, leaders, and even if needed, outcasts and martyrs for love. We must get on, be on, Jesus Way and walk as he walked. Jesus’ Followers must love others. We must elevate the least among us. We must work toward a world where all are loved and have enough. We must strive to make the world God’s Reign. We must do so using non-violence to bring about permanent Divine peace.
Jesus leaves in the story with the promise that in ten days the Holy Spirit is going to baptize those he leaves behind. And sure enough given a little bit of time with Jesus-the-man gone, the disciples finally get it. The result is what we now call “Pentecost, ” the day we celebrate next week commemorating when the Holy Spirit came down (in the same way Jesus went up) and filled Jesus’ followers with an amazing power to go forward and begin transforming the world. We are the legacy of all of this.
We are not to bring in a new earthly kingdom, but the Kingdom of God. God’s Realm breaks in with us inch by inch, moment by moment, person by person, community by community.
God’s realm is a real place that we can – with God– bring about. It’s a possible place. It’s the world where Heaven’s Way, God’s Way, Jesus’ Way plays out. A transformed world 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 all peoples and states; where daily living is about being merciful and loving; where we do not judge, and do not condemn. It’s a world where we forgive, and are forgiven.
On Jesus’ Way through human action – walking as Jesus walked– love is to prevail . . . and when it does God’s realm will fully be here. It’s not about the restoration of Israel. It’s not about the restoration of any earthly realm. It’s about transforming the world into the Realm of God and having the peace of Eden, the peace God has always intended for us and has made possible through Jesus showing us The Way – Jesus ascended so the Holy Spirit could descend, and so we in turn would ascend to The Way of Love.
* This sermon is based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2011.
1. See, #16 on this web page for this antidote: http://skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/9423/did-charlie-chaplin-lose-a-charlie-chaplin-look-alike-contest
3. White, Sean, Feasting on the Word commentary for year A at p 498
4. Texts for Preaching, p. 310-311
5. White at p 500
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED