Note: I did not preach this sermon. I wrote it, and had it ready, but I ended up preaching something else, ex tempore, which was recorded and eventually will be posted on the Old First Church website. Let me also say that I agree with N T Wright that Ascension Day is a much better Feast of Christ the King than this reactionary holiday invented by Pius XI in 1925. So many sacrifices do we make for both ecumenism and tradition (which, on the whole, I believe are worth it.)
Daniel 7:9-10, Psalm 93, Revelation 1:4b-8, John 18:33-37
The Epistle lesson which we just read, from the Book of the Revelation, is usually interpreted as referring to the Second Coming of Christ. You know, what we confess in the Apostles Creed, that "He shall come again to judge the living and the dead," and what we sing in the Mystery of the Faith, "Christ shall come again." Yes, you can believe that, but that’s not what the Revelation lesson is not about. It’s about the Ascension of Jesus, which has already happened.
The imagery comes from our Old Testament lesson, Daniel 7, the vision of "one like a son of man" coming up on the clouds into the presence of God, and this man being given dominion and glory and kingship. This prophecy was believed by the apostles to have been fulfilled when Jesus "ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of God, the Father." Forty days after Easter.
The Ascension is reported in Acts 1. It’s reported historically—how the disciples saw it from the ground, on a Thursday of a given week, in real time, within the sequence of history, as it could be reported in a newspaper. The Ascension is reported in a very different way in the prophecies of Daniel and the Revelation—as from the viewpoint of heaven, on no day, in no week, outside of time, outside the sequence of history, as it could be reported in a vision. So we have it reported as a fact and we have it reported as a mystery, which makes sense, because it is both a fact and a mystery. As a fact it happened on a specific day in a specific week in a specific year, and as a mystery it happens in the eternal now, in the eternal present of the presence of God. It was and is and is to be. And if God is eternal, and outside of time (just as the author of a book lives outside the time-sequence within the book), then the past and the present and the future are all one moment in the sight of God.
We are invited to believe this. We are invited to believe that Jesus of Nazareth, a "son of man," i.e., the representative child of humanity, was killed, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and is seated on the right hand of God the Father. We are invited to believe that this one special human being has been placed in the exalted position of the rulership of the world, and that all peoples and nations and languages and cultures serve him, and not as slaves, but as loyal subjects and as citizens advancing his causes and designs. We are invited to believe this as both a fact and a mystery.
It’s easier to take as a mystery than as a fact, considering the other facts around us. By any standard of effective government, Jesus must be a very weak ruler. What he says he wants, he doesn’t get. Many peoples and nations and languages do not serve him, and those peoples and nations who do claim to serve him, serve him poorly. The powers which are under his authority do not honor his authority. His enemies do what they want and his opponents take what they please. By normal standards, he has not consolidated his government. The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber said that he liked Jesus very much but he couldn’t accept him as the Messiah because he had failed to accomplish the universal peace and justice the Messiah was supposed to bring.
I suspect this is partly why so many Christians have applied our morning’s prophecies to the Second Coming instead of the Ascension. The prophecies seem unfulfilled, the facts don’t support the mystery, they can’t be about the present, they must be about the future. And that interpretation affects their Christian behavior, especially on the Religious Right. As if the Lord is supposed to be in charge, but is not in charge, so we have to put him back in charge in every way we can. As if the Lord Jesus needs our protection, like a quarterback before his throw, as if his kingdom is like an egg in a carton and needs defending from his enemies who might destroy it. And the best defense is a good offense. This Christian behavior is defensive and aggressive and it’s based on fear.
We are invited not to behave that way. We may rather live our lives in terms of grace and peace, and that’s not just from sloth or laziness. It is from hearing what Jesus says to us, and he says, "Grace and peace." We are to live as gracefully and peacefully as he does. Those are to be the facts of our lives, the facts of our lives which should be bearing witness to the mystery of his sovereignty. This grace and peace should be the facts of our lives which we hold up against the other facts of turmoil and injustice and rebellion and warfare around us.
We are invited to believe the vision. We are invited to be human beings, and human beings are the creatures who, for better or worse, have evolved to live our lives in terms of visions. So we try to believe the vision of Jesus’ sovereignty. And if our ordinary perception of the world could show us final evidence of Jesus’ sovereignty, then we wouldn’t need the vision. I know that’s circular, and no proof, but I make it as an appeal to your conscience. We live our lives in terms of visions, to some extent at least, because we are spiritual. We agree to find our reference point in what we cannot see, we gather our bearings from what we cannot learn by ordinary means, it has to be revealed to us, and we have to believe it. This doesn’t mean to deny the importance of what we can see, and it’s not that we deny the facts. We live by the interplay of facts and mysteries, and we are invited to let the mysteries tell us the meaning of our facts.
Does his kingdom look ineffective? Don’t employ the usual standards of accomplishment. It wins its victories not by violence but by sacrifice. That’s why Pontius Pilate couldn’t believe it. He knew from his facts that the Roman Empire was built on massively effective violence and that it was maintained by a monopoly on violence, and that no matter what the truth might be of Jesus’ innocence, he would condemn him anyway in order to keep control of the violence, which was the only truth he knew. But Jesus offers a different kind of power. Not the power of domination or defensiveness but the power of reconciliation. He does not ask his followers to be soldiers but to be priests. He regards you as a kingdom of priests. Which means you have no opponents and no enemies. This strategy requires of course a greater strength, a tougher tenacity, a greater force of will, and a deeper kind of leadership. You wouldn’t choose this strategy if you hadn’t been given the very long range view, if you hadn’t been offered the mystery of the universe, too big for understanding, but full of light and of the heat of love and all the colors of God’s joy.
Why does the Christian faith invite us to believe in such an antiquated and even discredited concept as kingship? We believe in democracy. Canadians maintain the status of the status of Queen Elizabeth only because she has no real power. So let us remember that to say that Jesus is a king is but a metaphor. In ways, he’s like a king. He’s not actually a king, he is God, and if he’s truly God, then he certainly doesn’t need to be a king. And it’s only a relative metaphor, in neither one of the Creeds is Jesus called a king. So why do we keep on saying it?
We all understand that the church is a place for cultivating our beliefs. We repeat them and rehearse them and test them and even question them in order to strengthen and refine them. But it’s also a place for cultivating our desires. It’s not a natural desire to love your enemies. It’s not a natural desire to forgive your debtors. These desires have to be learned and reinforced. We learn to desire reconciliation instead of retaliation, we learn to desire sacrifice instead of domination.
We learn to desire a power higher than ourselves, whose power does not derive from us, we learn to desire a higher power whose authority does not arise from us. We cultivate a desire for a higher power which is not just a "What" in the world, but the "Who" of the world. A higher power with intentions and visions and desires and plans and purposes, a higher power with who can love, a higher power who loves mercy and has made it so, a higher power who loves justice and will make it so. We use this antiquated language to say that the central power of the universe is a Who whom we can serve, before whom we should kneel, to whom we can be loyal, and the only power in existence which is worthy of our honor and the only power which is worthy of our love. The mystery of this power is love. Only by the vision could you know this. You are invited to be believe it as a fact that this central power of the universe knows you and loves you. And invites you to live your own life by the vision of this love.
Copyright © 2012, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.