A sermon delivered by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, Farmville Baptist Church, Farmville, Va., on May 6, 2011.
This Sunday is Ascension Sunday on our church calendar, and it commemorates Christ ascending into heaven, forty days after his resurrection. Now I must confess, sometimes, I’m not sure what to make of the ascension of Christ. I have an image of Jesus elevating up into the sky and disappearing before the very eyes of the disciples, but I’m not sure how that related to the world of the disciples. What’s more, sometimes it is hard to see how the ascension of Christ has anything to do with our world today, because it just seems so…well, other-worldly.
In our Epistle lesson this morning, the lectionary editors chose Ephesians 1:15-23 to complement Luke’s account of Jesus’ ascension. In the opening prayer of his letter, Paul reminded the church in Ephesus about how God raised Jesus from the dead and ascended him into the heavenly realms. In this passage, Paul used the word “power” three times as well as other words that imply power – words like “authority” and “dominion,” and power-laden images like “God’s right hand,” and “placing everything under Jesus’ feet” while “appointing Jesus to be head of everything for the church.” Paul believed that the ascension of Christ was not some irrelevant, other-worldly event. For Paul, the ascension of Christ had important and on-going implications regarding the power of the church in the world.
Power is defined as the ability of a person, group or nation to exert control and influence over others, especially in the political, social and economic realms. While we often think of power in human terms, the Bible has a much broader and deeper view. Later in the book of Ephesians, Paul writes in Ephesians 6:12, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” The principalities and powers that Paul talks about have their roots in the spiritual realm, and they manifest themselves in the physical world to the extent that groups, institutions, systems and governments serve themselves rather than God. And so, when Paul proclaimed that the resurrected and ascended Christ is “far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come,” Paul basically served notice to all the principalities and powers of the world that 1) the ascended Christ is Lord over all of them, and 2) the church, which is Christ’s body, is where the lordship of the ascended Christ is now fully revealed.
The ascendency of Christ is a message that challenges the principalities and powers in the political realm, because the ascended Christ who sits at the right hand of God the Father judges all human systems and finds them wanting. In the Roman Empire, the emperors saw themselves as “sons of god” and demanded their citizens to worship them. Therefore, a popular greeting among Roman citizens was the phrase “Caesar is Lord.” However, Christians in the empire at that time refused to swear allegiance to the emperor, and instead used the phrase, “Jesus is Lord,” or “the Lord Jesus Christ” just like Paul did in verse 7. This phrase challenged the power and insulted the honor of the emperor, and during this time, the Christians who dared to proclaim “Jesus is Lord” were seen as unpatriotic, and many were persecuted and killed.
Throughout history, ruling regimes and government administrations have resisted the ascendency of Christ. They have resisted by actively persecuting the church, but history has shown that while oppressive regimes come and go, the church of Jesus Christ continues to survive and thrive. In my mind, a more notorious way that ruling powers have resisted the ascendency of Christ is by their attempts at seducing the church with earthly status and governing authority. The devil used a similar strategy with Jesus when in Luke 4:5-7, he took Jesus up on a high mountain, showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to Him, “All this authority I will give You, and their glory . . . if You will worship before me, all will be Yours.” Jesus rebuked that temptation with His reply: “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.” But if a local congregation only has praise and support for the policies of the Democratic Party and criticism for the Republican Party, chances are high that that congregation and its pastor have been co-opted to worship and serve the ideology of Democratic Party. Of course the same is true for congregations who align themselves with the Republican Party or any other ideology. Let me tell you two other ways I think principalities and powers are trying to co-opt the ascendency of Christ. Christ taught us that we cannot serve both God and mammon, and He commanded us to love our enemies. But the powers of this earth think that if we just put “In God We Trust” on our currencies and scribble Bible verses on our bombs, then we can do whatever we want with both. Christians who uncritically accept both practices have been co-opted by the power of the state.
History has shown that no human principalities and powers can be equated with the rule of Christ. From this perspective, there can be no “Christian nations,” for all countries are made up of sinful individuals, and we have all, individually and collectively, fallen short of the glory of God. This does not mean that Christians should retreat from political involvement, but it does mean that we need to have a spirit of wisdom and humility to acknowledge that our use of political power will always be judged and found wanting under the ascendency of Christ.
In addition to the political realm, the ascendency of Christ is a message that also challenges the principalities and powers in the social and economic realm. According to Christian sociologist James Davison Hunter, in our social life, there is no more important source of power than status and the good opinion of others. The things that we buy, the activities that we do, the people with whom we become friends, the favors we impart, all of these things affect our status and reputation and the privilege that accompanies them. Status and reputation and other people’s opinions of us have power over us. Paul in that beautiful hymn recorded in Philippians 2:5-11 challenges us to have Christ’s attitude toward status and prestige. Paul writes, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!” Jesus was able to detach himself from the need for status and prestige, and he not only became a man, but he humbled himself to become a servant and be obedient even to death on a cross. Jesus’ power did not come with wealth or status or prestige. His power came by his ability to let go of those things and instead, embrace humility, servanthood and even death. And because of Jesus’ humility, God “ascended” Christ up: “Therefore, God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
This passage radically redefines what it means for Christians and the Church to have power in the world. Earthly power is defined by our ability to coerce others into doing what we want. Christ’s power that is above all powers is defined by our God-given ability to freely serve the needs of others. Earthly power is defined by whether people look up to us because of our status and authority. Christ’s power that is above all powers is defined by how willing we are to submit ourselves humbly to the headship of Christ. Earthly power is defined by how much we can accumulate. Christ’s power that is above all powers is defined how much we can give away.
History has shown that the most powerful and influential Christians have not necessarily been those who hobnobbed with the rich or the rulers of this world, but those who poured out their lives in the service to the poorest and the least of these, people like Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and thousands of others who labored in obscurity and are unknown by us, but are honored by those whom they touched and exalted by the ascended Christ. Their lives were lived in a humble self-giving attitude that was the same as that of Jesus. And we are called to do the same. But if we are unable to detach ourselves from worldly power as defined by coercive control, status, wealth and prestige, we will be unable to attach ourselves to Christ’s power that is above all powers to radically influence the world.
So how do we as a church attain the power of the ascended Christ that is above all powers? The good news is that this power is freely available to us, because Paul prayed to God for us to receive it. In verses 17-19 of Ephesians chapter one, Paul prayed: “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.” Because of this prayer, there’s nothing we need to do but to believe and receive God’s Spirit of wisdom and revelation, and to open the eyes of our hearts so that we may be enlightened to know God’s hope, God’s riches and God’s power.
There once was a man who was walking out of his village, and he sees a monk, a wandering mendicant who, having attained enlightenment, understands that the whole world is his home, the sky is his roof, and God is his Father who looks after him. With only the clothes on his back and a knapsack, this monk moves from place to place the way you and I would move from one room to another in our houses.
When the villager meets the monk, he tells him, “I can’t believe it!”
And the monk replied, “What is this you cannot believe?”
The villager said, “I had a dream about you last night. I dreamed that the Lord said to me, ‘Tomorrow morning, you leave the village around 11 o’clock, you’ll run into a wandering monk.’ And here I’ve met you!”
“What else did the Lord say to you?” asked the monk.
The villager replied, “He said to me, if the man gives you a precious stone he has, you will be the richest man in the whole world. Will you give me the stone?”
The monk said, “Wait a minute,” as he rummaged his knapsack. After a minute, he pulls out a stone and asked, “Would this be the stone that you’re talking about?”
The man gazed at the stone in wonder. It was a diamond, probably the largest diamond in the whole world, for it was as large as a person’s head. He held it in his hands and said, “Can I have this?”
The monk answered, “Of course! I found it in the forest. You’re welcome to it!” And the monk went on and sat under a tree on the outskirts of the village.
The villager took the diamond and walked away. How great was his joy! But then, instead of going home, he sits under a tree himself, totally immersed in thought. Toward evening, he went back to the monk, whom he found still sitting under a tree.
The villager returned the diamond and asked the monk, “Could you do me a favor?”
“What is it?” said the monk.
The man replied, “Could you give me the riches that make it possible for you to give this thing away so easily?”
Will you ask God for the riches to make it possible for you to give this thing away so easily? Only you and God know what “this thing” is in your life. It may be the power of a political ideology. It could be social power in the form of status and prestige. It could be economic power in the form of material possessions and wealth. Or it could be any other power that continues to bind you – the power of security from dangers, the power of certainty about the future, the power of needing love and approval from others, for example.
May the eyes of your heart be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power that is above all powers. Amen.
 James Davison Hunter, To Change the World, p. 190.
 Originally told by Anthony de Mello, http://anthony-de-mello.blogspot.com/2007/11/diamond.html.