Rev. Dr. Scott Herr
PLEASE READ: Revelation 22:12-21 and John 17:20-26
One of the delightful idiosyncrasies of life in France is how such an earnestly secular society enjoys so many religious holidays. Ascension Day is a big holiday, even if it’s not celebrated in the US… Do you know why we celebrate it?
Perhaps you remember we affirm in the Apostle’s Creed that Jesus “…ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty…”
He ascended into heaven… This simple fact affirmed in the creed is recorded in the gospel according to Mark, the gospel according to Luke, and the Acts of the Apostles. It is celebrated exactly 40 days after Easter (hence the Ascension always fall on a Thursday!) because in Acts chapter one we read that Jesus “after his suffering…presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” Then, we read, “as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”
Jesus, with eleven of his disciples as witnesses, was lifted up to heaven. You can read more about that on your own, but today I’d like to talk about the significance of this amazing miracle recorded in the gospels and what it might mean for us today. As we reflect on the other lectionary texts for today, it is clear that Jesus meant for his followers to be distinct, uniquely identifiable as a loving community. As Jesus was praying to his heavenly Father in our gospel text today, he asks that “the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
This love of Christ is the glory of Christ, and Christ prays that his glory may be seen in us and that we “may become completely one so that the world may know” that God sent Jesus and that God loves us in the same way that he loved Jesus…
This love is agape love in the Greek, and I think Jesus is trying to distinguish from eros love (which is sexual love) or phileo love (which is friendship love), or storge love (which is more like parental affection or love within a family)… Those are all fine, but agape love is different. Agape is sacrificial love. Agape is self-giving love.
I would like you to note that John goes to great length to describe the wounds of the resurrected Christ. In all of the famous depictions of the ascended Christ the wounds are there. So here in our windows... It is the Crucified-Risen Lord who is lifted up. This is important. God is exalting self-giving love, sacrificial love.
C.S. Lewis wrote famously, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket--safe, dark, motionless, airless--it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable...The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers...of love is Hell.”
It is this vulnerable, suffering love that is being given ultimate power in the universe by the Creator of the universe. That’s what it means that God lifted up Jesus to sit at his right hand. For most of us anyway, the right hand is the strongest.
Such love is powerfully transforming, both for others, and for ourselves… C.S. Lewis also wrote about this in his book, Mere Christianity. His advice to Christians is simple: "Do not waste your time bothering whether you 'love' your neighbor: act as if you did. As soon as we do this, we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less." Agape love may involve feelings, but it is primarily an act of the will. It is a choice we make…
Our Revelation text continues our lesson from last week with John’s vision of heaven, the new Jerusalem, that city on a hill. Today we continue that vision with the final invitations and warnings… The warnings here are strong, but I think we best take these warnings seriously as they are coming from Jesus himself, the one who sits upon the throne, the One who is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end… His first statement is that all who wash their robes are blessed. What does that mean? I take this to mean all those who put their faith in the blood of the Lamb, the crucified Christ. This washing is by the blood of Christ. This paradox is at the heart of the Christian faith. Christ’s sacrifice is for our salvation. It’s a simple exchange: His wages, our gift. His death, our life. His love, our freedom to enter into his glory. His suffering, our forgiveness… It’s pure grace… This is why we might love Christ and his way, because “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” “We love because he first loved us.”
But note that there are those who love something else: there are those who love and practice falsehood. This is a serious charge. Dogs, sorcerers, fornicators and murderers and idolaters… These will not have the right to enter into the city gates and have the right to the tree of life… We live in a world that is increasingly given over to other gods and tolerant of choices that degrade and dehumanize: There is incredible injustice in the world, incredible violence and deception, and more and more I wonder if anybody really cares at all. Leo Tolsoy once said, “Men of our time believe that all the insanity and cruelty of our lives, the enormous wealth of few, the envious poverty of the majority, the wars and every form of violence, are perceived by nobody, and that nothing prevents us from continuing to live thus…”
Mind you, I’m not a scare monger, nor do I want people to live in fear, but I think more and more we need to consider how then shall we live? Are the choices we are making giving life or taking life? Would anybody accuse us of being Christians because we are so radically loving others around us? Is our church known for the radical love that we have as a community for one another and for this city?
In A History of Future Cities, Daniel Brook makes the argument that Peter the Great had a great idea for building the city of Saint Petersburg. He brought in architects from Switzerland and Germany, and engineers from England, Germany and Italy. He established the empire’s first secular coed university and the world’s first public museum. Brook argues that cities are “metaphors in steel and stone.” And he goes on to talk about how cities like St. Petersburg, Shanghai and Mumbai were all cities designed to “modernize” their populations. But of course any city is a living organism and ultimately will draw its shape and energy from the people who live and work in them…
I wonder what inspired Haussmann to plan what many claim to be the most beautiful city in the world? Clearly, Napoleon III who commissioned him to do his great work wanted to modernize and address social issues of the urban poor of Paris. I find it interesting, poetic at least, that Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, or Napoleon III as he became known, was also the emperor who gave the American Church its charter in 1857. In other words, Napoleon III wanted Protestants, even foreigners, to be a part of the life of this great new city.
You see on this Ascension day weekend, we must remember that for Jesus’ Ascension was not an evacuation, it was not a resignation. Rather, it was a delegation, the implementation of Plan A. And guess what: We’re Plan A for the Kingdom of God. We are the ones whom the ascended Christ has called to be the Body of Christ in this city and the world. We are to fulfill the Kingdom work he began. We are to be the people of the city on a hill, the new Jerusalem!
And so, I ask you to consider: Are you playing your part in this cosmic vision for the new heaven and new earth? Are you here to simply take from this city, to take in all of its undeniable beauty and architecture and art, its wonderful cuisine and culture... or do you realize God has invited, indeed called you to be here to give something back to this city, to be a part of its ongoing renewal and redemption?
The invitation which we have is clear: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”
You and I are invited to come and live into the new heaven and the new earth. We are invited to drink from the water of life as a gift. And we are invited to be the water of life as a gift for this city, to live into God’s future here and now in this great city or wherever God calls us in the world.
Of course we can’t do it alone. We need one another. We need to be a part of loving relationships and a loving community, to have a vision that goes beyond ourselves… But we also know that we need God’s help. We need the gift of God’s love to fill and empower us to be God’s unified, gloriously self-giving agape-loving people in this city.
And so our final prayer, our final hope is the final word of the Revelation: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.”