Jesus’ Ascension Lifts Us Up

A sermon based on Acts 1:1-11
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on May 13, 2018 * 2011
by Rev. Scott Elliott

According to the Gospels Jesus lived and taught– and even came back from death to teach– his followers about the Reign of God, what the reading today calls “The Kingdom of God.”

The Reign of God is about shalom, peace for all. It’s a way of being on earth that completely flips things around and in so doing God’s Reign breaks in more and more so that we get nearer and nearer to a Way of being where all are loved; all are honored; all are given what they need. Peace reigns. God’s reigns.

As a consequence, earthly kingdoms’ constructs that oppressed those considered lowly are torn down. The poor are fed. The sick are tended to. The stranger is welcome. The imprisoned cared for. In short, earthly powers’ way of doing things comes to an end.
Jesus taught his followers this Reign of God stuff, and the Way to bring it about.

The author of today’s reading from Acts also authored the Book of Luke. One of my favorite passages in all the Bible is Jesus’s “Sermon on the Plain” in Luke 6. Dr. 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. Jesus’ teaching in the “Sermon on the Plain” is about a new world order. An order The God of Jesus wants, longs for, and calls us toward. It’s an order where the violence and viscousness of earthly power’s way of doing things is eliminated. In God’s Realm everything is different.

I am going to read Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain this morning. What better way to hear the Word of God than one of Jesus’ sermons?

I’ve chosen a version from The Message a modern paraphrase of the Bible. We hear texts so often it is sometimes good to hear different wording so we hear it anew.
Jesus’ words from Luke 6:20-38:

Looking at his disciples, [Jesus] said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.
“Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.

But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.

If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also.

If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them.

Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.

Do to others as you would have them do to you.

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that.

And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full.
But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and 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. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

That’s Jesus talking to his followers in Luke. Talking to us. It is God still speaking.

The Book of Acts is a continuation of Luke. At the end of Luke just before the scene in today’s reading the resurrected Jesus appears and his salutation can be heard as a command “Peace be with you” Jesus says.

Then as he is about to go he states in Luke

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)

Our lesson today from Acts continues the Lukan narrative and records that just before Jesus ascends he also tells the disciples that they will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.

And they respond by asking a question as if Jesus had never preached the Sermon on the Plain, never commanded that peace be with them or told them to proclaim the forgiveness of sins and repentance.

The disciples don’t ask about love or peace or forgiveness, instead they ask about the restoration of their people’s earthly kingdom. Jesus had lived and died and even been resurrected to bring in the Reign of God, and yet his followers are stuck on the old ways longing for earthly power.
The Feasting on the Word commentary 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?” 2

Others agree. The Texts for Preaching commentator notes:

[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 the miraculous resurrection on Easter– all these things do not get the message straight in the disciples’ head.

With Jesus still around it appears they keep hoping he’ll be what they want, what they dream about; earthly ways of earthly kingdoms; power through traditional means.

Conserving what is, the avoidance of change, is a part of human nature.

God’s and Jesus’ Way fly in the face of that nature. They call us to a new Way of not just seeing and acting, but hoping . . . dreaming.

What we are to see and act and hope and dream for to come about is not supposed to be a way to get another kingdom of earthly power where our side gets to be in charge of stuff and dominate with human ways flipped to our advantage.

What God wants, and what Jesus taught, is that a Heavenly Empire needs to replace the earthly ones.

To do this Jesus’ disciples, way back when and today, have to 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 Gospel 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.

Jesus’ following before the Ascension seems to be more about applauding Jesus from the sidelines, than emulating him on the playing field of life.
The disciples aren’t thinking things through, they are not acting from the heart, and in response to the Christ within, as much as they are through the Christ without, Jesus who leads their small band everywhere and does everything for them.

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; it seems to be about Jesus doing the grunt work and carrying them.

But they are wrong! And it takes the person of Jesus physically leaving the earth for them to get that The Way is about Jesus’ followers’ teaching and doing as Jesus did; walking as he walked. Christians must act like Jesus did in the world, in order to save the world.

Jesus’ Way is about moving forward as individuals and community, thinking things through and acting in response to Christ within us, so much so that we become the Christ outside of ourselves.

Jesus’ followers must be the ones who replace Jesus as the teachers, doers, leaders, and even – if need be– martyrs.
Once Jesus ascends he becomes both absent and yet ever present– most especially in our love. 4.

And it is that transformation of experiencing Jesus as having made a path that we must get on and walk as he walked where Christianity finally becomes The Way that allows Jesus’ followers to begin working as community toward transforming the world with love.

Jesus’ followers –people like us– are the ones who must now teach and act and live out the Sermon on the Plain. We must walk hand in hand side-by-side with Jesus. We must love others. We must elevate the least among us. We must strive to make the world God’s Kingdom.

We are to bring in the Realm of God by seeking peace, proclaiming a change of ways and the forgiveness of sins trying as best we can to act toward all of that all the time.

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 that little bit of time after Jesus-the-man ascends and is 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) and fills 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.

In learning THIS lesson from the story of Jesus’ Ascension – in doing as Jesus did– the world will ascend from the depths of earthly realm’s ways of doing things; to the soaring heights of God Realm’s way.

God;s realm is a world where power and wealth as the primary concerns of leaders will be over. The world will be a place where all are fed, all have their needs met because that will be the primary concern. Because it is Jesus’ primary concern. It is God’s primary concern.

That is the world when Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plain” plays out. It’s a real place. It’s a possible place.

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.

See, it is through human action– OUR ACTION– that love is to prevail; and when it does God’s realm will fully be here.

AMEN

ENDNOTES
* based 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

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