Seward United Methodist Church
Friday, September 21, 2018
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Our Heroes

John 17:1-11 and Acts 1:1-14

 Sometimes worlds collide.  Today, I think, is one of those days. 

 Tomorrow is Memorial Day, an American holiday, a patriotic day.  It’s the day of the year when we remember our national heroes who gave their lives in service to their nation. 

 But today is also Ascension Sunday, the Sunday immediately after Ascension Day, which was this past Thursday, the 40th day after Easter, the day of the resurrection.  

 These two days are at odds with each other, because they point to competing loyalties. Where do our loyalties lie?  Which kingdom do we serve:  The Kingdom of God or the “kingdom” of nation? 

 The Book of Acts tells us about the Ascension at the beginning of chapter one.  Acts is a continuation of the Gospel of Luke, and both begin with an address to Theophilus.  Theophilus was the patron, the sponsor of Luke’s writings, and so the book begins with a dedication to him.  We don’t really know who he was, except that he was a wealthy member of the early Church.

 Luke then briefly recounts the content of the Gospel, Jesus’ ministry and his resurrection from the dead.  He appeared for 40 days and continued to teach his disciples until his ascension.

 Jesus tells them, “Stay in Jerusalem until you are anointed with the Holy Spirit,” which would be their source of power for the work ahead.  The Old Testament prophecies about this outpouring of the Holy Spirit, such as the writings of Ezekiel and Joel, were connected with the idea of Israel’s restoration.  And in the last days, it was said, Israel would be a witness to all the nations of the world.  

 What is that going to look like?  Will the disciples be a “New Israel?”  Or a “faithful remnant” to come out of Israel?  Or will there be a national restoration of the state of Israel, as many hoped Messiah would do when he came?  

From verse 6, it looks like the disciples are still thinking in terms of a political restoration.  “Are you going to free Israel now and restore our kingdom?”  We should beware of mixing politics with messianic ideas.  We should beware of “messiah figures” with political aspirations.  And we should certainly beware of the “messianic

aspirations” that WE attach to political figures.  I know that sort of thing never happens in American politics, right?  We would never think that a politician is going to “save our nation,” would we?  

Jesus redirects them.  He says, “It’s up to the Father to determine those dates, and they are not for you to know.”  In other words, “You’re on a need-to-know basis, and you don’t need to know.”  I would add to that, “So stop trying to guess!”  Not that anyone has ever tried to guess about God’s timing either!  

“But you will receive power, and you are to be my witnesses everywhere, even to the very ends of the earth.”  

In Acts 17, Paul’s opponents in Thessalonica accused Paul and his co-workers of “turning the world upside down.”  And it was true.  The early Church did turn the world upside down.  The dominant cultures of the day were all radically changed by the coming of the gospel.  In less than three centuries, the early Christians carried the gospel message all throughout the Roman world and beyond.  The gospel spread so quickly and thoroughly that by the time Christianity was recognized as a legal religion in 313 AD, over half the Roman Empire were already Christians.  That kind of radical change was only possible in so far as the early Christians were committed to the lordship of Christ and dependent on the Holy Spirit’s power.  

And with that, Jesus was taken up into heaven.  

What does the Ascension mean?  First, it is Jesus’ coronation.  It is his ascent to his throne.  The one who was humiliated in death, even death on a cross, has been restored to his throne over all creation.  He is far above all rulers, powers, kings, and authorities.  Jesus is Lord.  Not the government.  Not your boss.  Not your family.  Not your spouse.  And not even you.  Jesus is Lord.  That’s what the ascension means.  

And as he went, so he will one day come again.  Luke tells us this happened on the Mount of Olives, which is the hill about a half mile east of Jerusalem, and about 200 feet higher than the city.  Many Christians believe that’s the place to which Jesus will return.  But we’ll have to wait and see.  

After getting a little prod from the angels, the disciples returned to the upper room in Jerusalem, where they continued to meet in prayer until the Day of Pentecost.  At this point, there were 11 apostles, soon to be 12 again.  The number 12, of course,

was significant because it was the connection to the 12 tribes of Israel, and so the 12 Apostles represent the leadership of the New Israel.  And they were joined by Jesus’ mother, his brothers, who had come around in their opinions about him, and the rest of the first disciples, a group of 120 in the first days.  

These 120 had been commissioned to carry on Jesus’ work, and they would soon receive the power to do so.  That was the other meaning of the Ascension:  It was a commissioning.  When Jesus ascended back into heaven, it should remind us of the other great story from Scripture about a man being taken up, the story of Elijah.  

The prophet Elijah “ascended” at the end of his ministry.  When he did, his apprentice, Elisha, received a double portion of his spirit to continue his ministry.  In the same way, Jesus ascends and sends his Spirit on his followers to continue his ministry.  The Apostles and the rest of his followers, including us, are commissioned to carry on the work of the Kingdom of God.  

In John 17, which we heard earlier, Jesus talks about how the Son has been given authority over all the earth.  He has brought glory to the Father through his obedience, even his obedience to death.  He gave his word to his disciples, and now we are to keep his word.  And in keeping his word, we bring glory to Jesus.  There is an down and up progression in John 17.  The word comes from the Father to the Son to the disciples, and by obedience, the disciples bring glory to the Son, and the Son to the Father.  

We glorify Jesus when we obey his word and do his will, regardless of the cost.  I started out by talking about how Memorial Day is a day when we commemorate our national heroes.  Well, in like fashion, Ascension Day can be a time when we commemorate our faith heroes, those who loved Jesus and kept his word above all else, even to the point of death.

A few Sundays ago we heard from the Book of Acts about the death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr.  He testified boldly about Jesus, and so many were persuaded by his testimony that his enemies brought false charges against him.  He was martyred by stoning.

In the second century AD, there was a bishop of the church in Smyrna named Polycarp.  He may have been the very last Christian who personally knew one of the 12 Apostles.  He was brought to faith by John near the end of the first century.  He was arrested during a time of persecution and threatened with death.  The governor, feeling

bad for him that he was such an old and frail man, almost 100 years old by that time, gave him the chance to recant his faith.  He famously responded, “For 86 years I have served Christ, and he has never denied me.  How could I deny him?”  For his refusal to renounce Christ he was burned at the stake.

Not all martyrs are ancient history either.  In the 1930s, German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw the evils of the Nazi regime for what they were at a time when most German Christians were going along with the nationalistic fervor.  He became a leader in the “Confessing Church,” an anti-Nazi movement.  Twice he left Germany, once to pastor in London and once to teach in New York.  Both times he returned to Germany, having been convicted that he needed to oppose the government in his own nation.  For his connections to the German resistance, he was forbidden to preach or teach.  He continued to do both.  He was arrested and executed in the Flossenburg concentration camp in April 1945, only weeks before the war ended.

In the 1950s, a young college student named Jim Elliot and his group of friends became convinced of the need to take the gospel to the ends of the earth, to the places where it had never been heard.  In 1956, they began to share the gospel with the Huaroni people of Ecuador, a tribe known for their violent behavior.  After a promising start, Elliot and his four fellow missionaries were attacked and killed by Huaroni warriors.  But through their testimony, the gospel message took hold in the tribe.  Even some of the men who murdered them became followers of Christ.  

I certainly don’t have a problem memorializing those who gave their lives for their country.  But that belongs to tomorrow.  Today we should remember those who gave all they had in the service to Christ, the one who is seated on the throne far above all other rulers and authorities, and who has commissioned his followers to complete his work.  

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