Sunday of the Ascension, Easter 7A, 2014 – Acts 1:6-14, Psalm 68: 1-10, 33-36, 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11; John 17:1-11
Let me begin this Ascension Sunday sermon by noting that our first reading from the book of Acts says that between Easter day and Ascension Day Jesus spent forty days with the apostles speaking about the kingdom. To be sure he may have also emphasized that his death and resurrection confirmed his identity as the Son of God. He may even have gone over the details of some of the many miracles and explained their significance. All of this must have been part of the curriculum of an amazing forty-day seminar. I have foolishly longed for a copy of such a curriculum, but I soon realized that the curriculum, if such a description is appropriate, is likely embedded in the very text of the gospels. The eye-witnesses who shaped the gospels were very likely in that group, that Jesus met with after his resurrection and before his ascension.
Of all the things Jesus must have taught his disciples in those forty days, Luke mentions just one – the kingdom.
That seems reasonable since a great deal of his teaching recorded in the four gospels is about the kingdom – about entering the kingdom, seeking the kingdom, figuring out the secret of the kingdom. It’s the place where God reigns and the place that the prophets had once reminded Israel that God intended all people to dwell in peace. If Jesus was speaking about the kingdom to the apostles for forty days he may have recalled many of the metaphors of the kingdom he used in his earlier ministry – the king who goes on a long journey and suddenly returns; the difficulties of being rich and trying to enter the kingdom; the kingdom as the place into which sinners and the poor enter ahead of the righteous and the rich; the place of topsy-turvy-ness; the place of reversals and of unearned favour. The kingdom is the dwelling place of God — it is the place where eternal life is to be found and it has come near to you, said Jesus at the very start of his ministry. Now before his ascension he reminds them of all this.
Despite all the new teaching about the kingdom, when it was time for Jesus to depart, we are told that the question posed by the disciples was this, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” This is an odd question to ask if they had been listening to Jesus. He was not talking about the kingdom in terms of an Israelite restoration. The disciples appeared to want the Roman powers ousted. They want the glory days of King David to be restored. It’s a narrow view of what the kingdom meant.
Had they not grasped what the point was of Jesus reaching out to people outside Israel? The despised Samaritans, the lepers, the gentiles, and even the Romans all knew that when Jesus turned to help them he was also bringing the kingdom of God to them and including them in it. But the disciples had not yet seen that.
So Jesus, in his farewell discourse, changes the focus slightly and speaks to them about receiving a different power to bring in a new kingdom, and not a military power to restore the old kingdom: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth.”
Jesus completely reverses the direction of their thinking. It’s not about turning inwards and protecting your communal interests. It’ about turning in another direction, to those beyond Israel’s borders, to those who could never have hoped for membership in God’s kingdom.
The message, as we know from Jesus’ teaching is about a very different kingdom. It’s about a royal territory where there is forgiveness of sins, the ending of old hatreds and revenge wars, the setting aside of territorial conquest. This kingdom is a land of honour and justice and compassion. Wouldn’t everyone on the planet want to live in such a place? Of course they would, and it is to them, all those both inside and outside the little enclave of Israel that the Lord wants to send his disciples once he has ascended to the Father. For this larger purpose and not the narrow idea of the restoration of Israel, Jesus prepares them to receive the power of the Holy Spirit.
Some of you may have seen in Thursday’s paper the story of a thousand African immigrants trying to climb over a ten meter tall fence in the tiny Spanish enclave on the North African coast. This little bit of Spain, called Melilla sits on a peninsula jutting into the Mediterranean and surrounded on all sides by the country of Morocco. Thousands of desperate immigrants, mainly from Eritrea and Somalia, fleeing the horrors of their homeland, had trekked across North Africa and were now rushing onto this fence in a desperate attempt to get to a better country, Spain, in this case. They want what all people want – a place to live in peace, to find employment to establish family life, to find food and the opportunity for their children and to make something of their lives. The newspaper had a grainy night–time photograph of this fence. All over it, sprawled out with hands and feet trying to get a foothold on the wire links, were hundreds of people some in suits, others in t-shirts and jeans wanting to get over the top. About 500 were successful and rushed with joy down the street on the Spanish side to the accommodation centres where they will face many years of uncertainty. Most will be sent back.
I thought that the photograph of the desperate people struggling and holding on to the 30-foot fences was a picture of the human struggle. It’s a picture that is a stand-in everywhere for people yearning without knowing it for the kingdom of God and trying ways of their own devising to enter into it.
God sends the church to such people and still calls his disciples to witness to something. The Lord, having ascended, is not in the business of restoring old kingdoms. He chooses you and me as witnesses to a new kingdom. The longing for a new life drives people to do desperate things. We as the Church, to be true to our Lord, must be able to see this kingdom all around us and tell others as Jesus did, about it.
What we know of the kingdom of God is evident from beginning to end in the Bible. Take Psalm 68, the psalm appointed for this Sunday. It’s not hard to see the kingdom of God shining through. It’s presented as the place where God’s enemies and our enemies are scattered. It’s the place where the faithful are filled with jubilant joy, even if they face trials. Where there is singing to God – ‘Lift up a song’, says the psalmist, ‘to him who rides upon the clouds’. This place where God dwells is a place where orphans and widows are protected, where the desolate have a home to live in and where former prisoners are led out to prosperity. Most of all, the kingdom is the place for the awesome presence of God. The earth quakes and the heavens pour down restoring showers at the presence of God. Our psalm even picks up a shepherding image for the kingdom, a favourite of Jesus’: “Your flock found a dwelling in it; in your goodness, O God, you provided for the needy.”
Let’s be clear about one thing on Ascension Sunday. This Kingdom hasn’t come in its fullness, and it won’t come in its fullness until Jesus returns. That was what the angels said to the disciples as Jesus was lifted up out of their sight: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” But of several things we may be certain: that the kingdom has been inaugurated; that is breaking in all around us; and that Jesus himself is the way into the Father’s kingdom.
Let’s return to our contemporary image of human struggle – desperate people with a hope of something better clinging to the wire fence. There are, of course lots of people on other fences, on barriers that prevent them from entering into a life God promised them when he sent his Son Jesus. They may be longing for forgiveness but are climbing a fence of substance abuse. They may be really angry with those who hold power and are determined to climb a barrier of revenge. They may be unable to forgive someone and are clinging to the barrier of bitterness. Someone needs to come along and bear witness to another way. Someone may even have to jump up onto that fence of suffering and struggle. Those who have lost their way are too high up and cannot hear the nice fireside chat you want to have with them. That’s the sort of thing God did in sending his Son into this world. The deepest thing we can imagine happened in that process. God entered the struggle and took upon himself that pain and then transformed it for our sake when he came through the tomb on Easter morning. He now asks his disciples to go to the ends of the earth even if that is two streets down, and to follow that pattern with Jesus living in us. Because if the living God dwells in you and you have stepped into that kingdom, even tentatively, you will taste God’s overpowering love for the world and you will find yourself at that fence.
All around you are people scrambling to get into a place like God’s kingdom. But they are scrambling up the wrong way. Will we go to them wherever they are? In a couple of weeks we will hear from someone who has begun a ministry two blocks from St. Matthew’s where the dispossessed will find help in applying for jobs, interviewing for a job and keeping a job. On the other side of the world I have a niece who has chosen to live in an urban slum. Her room has a few rats and a lot of cockroaches. But she is there to tell young women that trying to escape rural poverty by selling yourself on the streets won’t take you to a place that looks anything like the kingdom Jesus has for them. Right here in Toronto you may find a colleague whose live-in partner has left her after seven years together. Is that colleague even on the fence when overcome with despair? Will someone tell her the way to the kingdom?
There is so much for us as disciples of the risen Lord. As we look up, on this special Sunday, to praise the One, now seated at the right hand of God, let us listen and hear the promise of Jesus: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth”. Amen