The deck is stacked against this sermon. For one thing, isn’t ascension all about Jesus abandoning earthly things for heavenly? For another: religion & politics are best kept separate, and in any case both are inappropriate subjects for polite conversation. Ah! but the gospel is not about polite conversation, it is about the truth; & we who gather to hear the preaching of the gospel are not a polite society, but a real church of real sinners redeemed by the real grace of Jesus Christ. When we hear the truth of his gospel & receive it in repentance & faith, it changes everything about life in this world, including our politics: perhaps especially our politics. Of all the doctrines of our faith, probably none is more political than the bodily ascension of Jesus the Messiah.
1. On the enthronement of the Son of Man
(a) Jesus’ bodily ascension 40 days after Easter stands between his past bodily resurrection & his future bodily return to raise the dead, judge, & make all things new. Ascension is not about the glorification of Christ in his divinity—for the glory of the Son of God, the glory he had with the Father before the world began (John 17.5), is infinite, and can never be increased—but in his humanity. At last, a Son of Adam—the Son of Adam—reigns on high. This is the meaning of the Ascension.
(b) What is he up to in the meantime? He is our Priest, Prophet, and King.
(i.) Dan 7.13f = the enthronement of the Last Adam: “Behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a Son of Man, and he came to the Ancient of days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.”
(c) The now-and-not-yet of the Kingdom. On the last Day, the ascended King will return in glory, vanquish every opponent – including Death – and establish his kingdom in all the earth (1 Cor 15.21-8). Now, Jesus reigns in two ways:
(i.) He reigns in his Church, through preaching & sacrament. This kingdom of grace is both revealed & hidden. John 3.3: “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” We catch glimpses of it every time we see redemption happen: every time grace transforms life. When we baptize a child, forgive an enemy, listen to the Bible, pray as a family, Jesus the King invades the realm of darkness and establishes his kingdom of grace and life.
(ii.) He also rules over the nations, though this is deeply hidden …
2. On Revelation 1.5
(a) Jesus Christ, the faithful martyr, the firstborn of the dead, is “the Ruler of kings on earth” (Rev 1.5). Caesar, Charlemagne, Henry VIII, Hitler, Reagan, Bush, Obama, & whoever might be US President #45: the Jewish peasant executed under Pontius Pilate c. AD 30 rules over them all. Eph 1.20-22: God “raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule & authority & power & dominion, & above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet.”
(i.) This is and remains true, above all when we cannot see how it can possibly be true. Heb 2.8, explaining Ps 8.6’s prophecy of the rule of the exalted Son of Man, might be the greatest understatement in the Bible: “In putting everything under subjection to the Christ, God left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him.” When the bodily eye sees nothing but injustice & death, the eye of faith see the lordship of Jesus the crucified Christ. Maximilian Kolbe, 15 June 1941: “Dear Mama, At the end of the month of May I was transferred to the camp of Auschwitz. Everything is well in my regard. Be tranquil about me and about my health, because the good God is everywhere and provides for everything with love.” After sacrificing his life for a husband & father of three, he died 14 Aug 1941.
(b) Jesus Christ is the Man appointed to judge the rulers of the earth. He will do this finally & fully at the end of time, but he also does this in the midst of history. With sovereign power, Mary’s Son raises up men & nations to serve his purpose, but scatters the proud in their conceit and casts down the mighty from their thrones in justice and judgment (cf. the prophecies against the nations in Isa, Jer, Ezek, etc.). He has a long, sharp sword protruding from his mouth, and when the time is ripe, he wields it to strike down evil nations and rule wicked rulers with a rod of iron (Rev 19.14). Kolbe’s emaciated body was incinerated in 1941, but his soul was safe with Christ and his ashes will be raised to immortal glory on the last day. By 1945, Hitler’s fat body, together with his pathetic Reich, had perished—to say nothing of the eternal wrath that engulfed his evil soul. Jesus Christ, who was judged for us on the cross, will judge for us on the last Day. For he is the King of kings. He will see to it that all is put to rights.
(c) Use: St John wrote to a persecuted church, to assure them that despite all appearances to the contrary, the ascended Jesus is in fact Lord. Amidst political chaos, the Christian has every reason to be calm. Isa 33.5-6: “The LORD is exalted, for he dwells on high”—ascension!—“he will fill Zion with justice & righteousness, and he will be the stability of your times.” John 16.33: “In the world you will have trouble, but take heart! I have conquered the world.”
3. The politics of the kingdom
(a) The first political imperative for the Church: be the Church. We are a royal nation, a holy people, a kingdom (1 Pet 2, Rev 1.6) of monarchist exiles scattered amongst the nations & fiercely loyal to Jesus the King (Phil 3.20-1).
(i.) With creativity, courage, and joy, we must resist our culture’s privatization of Christianity into a purely “spiritual” affair. If our hope were disembodied bliss, the Church could afford to be a private, personal, religious club. But because we hope for bodily resurrection in the kingdom of God, we the Church are a public and embodied people. Politics has to do with ordering the common life of a people. We are the people of God. The Spirit has gathered us together to share a common life in Jesus Christ. We Jesus people (!) are a counter-politics, the kingdom of Jesus taking shape here-and-now through the saving power of his gospel. For this reason—
(ii.) The biggest political act of resistance you can make: keep the Sabbath holy, in order to worship God. Refuse anything that tugs you or your kids away from being the Church, i.e. from being the holy people who know, fear, and love the holy & true God, and who therefore ascribe ultimate worth (worth-ship) to him, and to him alone. Refuse to let TV, social media, or soccer coaches catechize your family. When we pray together, listen to the Word of God, talk to each other instead of texting, we perform revolutionary acts that subvert the values of our culture and bear witness to the truth of the kingdom of God.
(b) If the Church is a political reality – an exile people – it begs the question: how does this holy nation of exiles relate to the earthly nations in which it sojourns? There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to the church/state problem.
(i.) Error #1: Fuse church and state into one: the nationalistic captivity of Christianity.
(ii.) Error #2: Separate them so that your public politics has nothing to do with your personal faith (JFK: Don't worry, Catholicism will have nothing to do with my presidency).
(iii.) Truthful Christian politics. America is not, never was, and never will be the Church—& we the people of the kingdom must navigate how to engage politics as faithful servants of Jesus the King while we sojourn in the democracy named America.
(c) What does that look like? Christians always hold dual citizenship – this never changes prior to the resurrection of the dead – but the circumstances of the earthly cities we sojourn in is always in flux.
(i.) If the host nation welcomes God’s exile people, we work together with it for its welfare. Jer 29.7: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” We do this in “quiet” ways: strengthening families, neighborhoods, etc. Doing good work with skill, nobility, and generosity, not just to serve our appetites but to serve Christ (1 Thess 4.11). Col 3.23: “Whatever you do, work heartily as for the Lord, and not for men.” Engaging the political life of the cities we dwell in, not just to secure our interests but to minister justice and peace.
*Above all, for as long as it lets us, we serve the earthly city well when we live & speak the truth about what it means to be human, defending the vulnerable and speaking up for people who can’t speak for themselves. Prov 31.8-9: “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and the needy.”
-Past examples: Wilberforce; George Bell; Oscar Romero; Mother Theresa.
-Today: unborn people are people; so are old, economically useless, dying people; so are immigrants. “Man," Man and Woman, Marriage! – which is our segue …
(ii.) If the host nation tells lies about its ultimacy and demands unconditional allegiance, we suffer martyrdom: for we must obey God rather than men (Acts 5.29). The three young men did well to serve in the Babylonian bureaucracy. But when push came to shove, Dan 3.17f: “Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”
(iii.) In USA at present, we’re living the transition from kindly host nation to hostility & persecution. This calls for discernment and courage. Like the Jews inBabylon, engage culture, politics, etc. wherever it is good and right to do so as a citizen of the kingdom of Christ. But bow the knee to Christ alone. Do not doubt that our nation is under judgment. Do not expect liberation to come from any son of Adam or from either political party. Do not be afraid. Put your trust in Jesus Christ, the Ruler of kings on earth. We don’t need America to be a Christian nation, for we are the Christian nation, the holy catholic Church of Jesus Christ.
(iv.) In short, make the Eucharist the center of your politics. In the Supper, we gather publicly as the people of the King of kings. We proclaim our allegiance to Messiah Jesus and to his kingdom, and the King of glory fills us up with the food & drink of our homeland. The martyred body and blood of the risen King gladden our weary souls and strengthen us even to the point of giving up our bodies into death for his name. He who will have no communion with Christ in his death will not come to share in the glory of his resurrection. But whoever feeds on his flesh and drinks his blood has eternal life, and Christ will raise him up on the last Day (John 6.54). To him be glory forever, Amen.
And now, let us pledge allegiance to the true God in the words of the Nicene Creed.