Seward United Methodist Church
Friday, September 25, 2020
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Who's On the Throne?

Ephesians 1:15-23 and Acts 1:1-14

Luke and Acts are really a two-volume work. They’re separate in our Bibles, but they’re really parts one and two of Luke telling of the story of Jesus and the beginnings of the Church. And it was typical in such a case to start the second volume by recapping the first. Luke mentions the Ascension at the end of his Gospel, but he goes into greater detail here in Acts.

Jesus ascended after 40 days of resurrection appearances. He gave convincing evidence he had risen, such as eating with the disciples. And there was a “plan of succession” in place. Jesus is leaving, but the Church will be “baptized with the Holy Spirit.” As long as Jesus is present with them in the Incarnation, he is limited in time and space. If he ascends, he sends the Holy Spirit, who brings his spiritual presence to all believers at all times.

They will receive the power they need to carry out their mission in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth; a global mission. By the way in first century Jewish thought, two of the places that were thought of as “the ends of the earth” were Ethiopia and Tarshish. We’re not sure, but we think Tarshish was in modern Spain. Acts tells of the gospel going to Ethiopia, and of Paul intending to go on to Spain after visiting Rome.

But look at the question the disciples ask: “Are you going to restore the Kingdom?” How did they mean that? I have to think that there was at least some hint of a worldly kingdom here. What better time to gather a following than after you’ve risen from the dead, right? Think about the expectations most first century Jews had of a Messiah: He would be a great conqueror, he would defeat the Romans, he would restore the ancient glories of Israel. Many scholars think the reason the crowds turned against Jesus after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday is because he did not fulfill those expectations of a Messiah.

The disciples had a hard time letting go of that idea of the Messiah. And the Church has continued to struggle to let go of worldly ideas of power. It was easy for the first 300 years, when Christianity was an illegal religion and the Church was always on the outside of world affairs. But then the Roman Emperor became a Christian and used Christianity to unite the Empire. Then came the Dark Ages, when the Empire fell to the barbarians and Europe was a mess for a few centuries. But in 800 AD, Charlemagne rose to power and he was crowned the emperor of a new “Holy” Roman Empire by the pope. The pope became a powerful political figure. He called for the crusades, an attempt to restore Christianity in the “Holy Land” by military force. For centuries, we had the idea of “Christendom,” a manifestation of Christ’s Kingdom on earth in Europe and then later in the Americas. The Church has always struggled with the temptation of worldly power, and it’s still a temptation today.

Our King is not in a president’s office or a prime minister’s office. Our King ascended into heaven. He will come again. Until then, he is on the highest throne.

Ephesians chapter one relates Paul’s prayer for the church: “I pray that you will understand the greatness of his power for us. It is the same power that raised Christ from the dead.” In Jewish thought, the highest expression of God’s power was his ability to raise the dead. And Paul reminds us that the resurrection of the dead has already begun in Christ.

And he is now seated on the highest throne, at the right hand of God the Father. We also understand the importance attached to physical space. We know the guy in the corner office on the top floor of the building is more important than the guy in cubicle 12 on the bottom floor, right? Or at least, that’s what the guy in the corner office wants us to think. Christ is in the place of highest honor.

He is far above any ruler, power, authority, or leader. The four Greek words used in that sentence were kind of a standard formula to describe the four types of spiritual powers at work in the world. People believed that there were spiritual powers at work behind the earthly powers we see. Behind the king is a spiritual power, maybe good or maybe bad. But Christ is above them all. A world divided by spiritual powers can only find unity in Christ.

He has the “name above all names.” In the ancient world, most everyone believed in the power of magic. The way magic worked was that you would call on the name of a higher power to bind a lower power that was afflicting you. We are reminded that Christ has the name above all names. No one has power over him, but he has power over all else.

These things might not mean much to us because we probably don’t see the world in the same way that your average first century Christian who was raised with a pagan worldview would see the world. But these things were meant to be great encouragement to new believers who were raised in this worldview filled with fear of spiritual powers.

Christ has this power and authority for the benefit of the Church, which is his Body, the manifestation of his presence in the world. Christ is all powerful, and Christ is for us. That is the good news of the Ascension.

But the Ascension is more than just a comfort. It is also a challenge. The challenge of the Ascension is that we must each ask ourselves, “Is Christ on the highest throne in my life? Does Christ have rule in my heart?”

Today is an interesting convergence of days. It’s Ascension Sunday. It’s also Aldersgate Day, so named because on May 24 of 1738, John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, went to a Bible study on Aldersgate Street in London. For years, he had struggled with the thought that all his efforts to please God were in vain. But that evening, he heard the word of God and he “felt his heart strangely warmed.” There are many interpretations of that

event, but I understand it that Wesley finally stopped relying on his own strength and put his whole trust in Christ as Lord and Savior.

Today is also Memorial Sunday, a day when we remember those who have sacrificed themselves for the safety and security of our nation. It’s a patriotic day. And patriotic days can be difficult for us to approach as the Church.

Fifteen years ago, I went to Annual Conference to begin my three year ordination process, along with a dozen others. Some of them were going into the pulpit for the first time as a pastor on July 3rd of that year. We were talking about this, and one of these folks who had not served as a pastor yet, started talking about his plans for his first sermon. He was going to preach on Zechariah 9, which speaks of an end to war. And he was planning to preach about how Independence Day shouldn’t be celebrated in the Church and he wanted to talk about how unjust the war in Iraq and Afghanistan was. Someone older and wiser advised him, “Well, maybe you don’t want to make that your first sermon, before people really know you and trust you.” But he wasn’t interested in listening. By the way, he only made it about four years as a pastor.

But you know what, he did have a point! We are citizens of heaven, the Bible tells us. That’s our true identity. That’s the identity that means a lot more than being an American. As Christians, we have a more fundamental unity with Christian believers in China, or Cuba, or Iran, than we do with a non-believer who lives next door to us. Because we serve the same King. And that kind of thinking is at odds with what many regard as “American values.”

I was reading a book a couple years ago by Philip Yancey. At one point he talked about how we have “religionized politics.” We have attached religious levels of significance to political matters. And he’s right. In the 17th century, millions of people in Europe died during the Thirty Year’s War, as Protestants and Roman Catholics fought over religious differences. Today, for the most part, Protestants and Catholics get along. It’s the Republicans and Democrats who want to kill each other!

Christ is Lord and Christ alone is seated on the highest throne. In the grand scheme of things, it really doesn’t make much difference who’s sitting in what office. What truly matters is, “Who is sitting on the throne of your life?”

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