June 2, 2019
Jesus the CEO – June 2, 2019
Sermon for the Feast of the Ascension, transferred
June 2, 2019
Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53
Today, we’re celebrating the feast of the ascension, which may just be the most baffling celebration of the entire church year. Ascension Day actually was Thursday, 40 days after Easter, because, as the reading from Acts tells us, it was 40 days after the resurrection when Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of [the disciples’] sight” (1:9).
There’s so much that’s weird about the ascension that it’s hard to know where to start. The story comes from a world view in which heaven is up, and earth is down, and hell is really, really down. But, of course, we understand now that the earth is round, and that space is infinite, and that if Jesus rose “up” to heaven in Palestine, he would have been dropping “down” to heaven relative to the folks in South America.
But more than getting hung up on God’s geography, we might struggle a lot with the fundamental claim that the ascension makes: that Jesus – the resurrected, embodied Jesus who is just as much human as he is divine – that Jesus took off and went to rejoin the other two persons of the Trinity, leaving us hanging as we wait for his return. And along with that, we might wonder what it really means when we say, in the Nicene Creed, that Jesus now “is seated at the right hand of the Father” and that “his kingdom will have no end” (BCP 358-359). What the ascension claims is that Jesus is nothing less than the supreme Lord of the universe – as the reading from Ephesians says, he is “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come” (1:21).
Well, here on this Sunday morning – as we dive into summer and worry how many tornado warnings we’ll have this week – what difference does any of this make for you and me?
I mean, most of the time, we’re standing right there with the disciples. As they were enjoying their moment of connection with their risen Lord, they wanted answers to practical questions: OK, Jesus, “is this time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). You defeated sin and death; surely toppling Caesar must be next on the list, right? But Jesus says what must have been the last thing they expected to hear: Nope. The next act is yours, he says, not mine. You will receive power from the Holy Spirit that will equip you to be my witnesses, to change people’s hearts and lives everywhere from here “to the ends of the earth” (1:8).
And then, he was gone. If we’d been there, I think we’d have been looking around like fools, too, wanting to know where the heck he went and why he hadn’t solved the problems that still made their lives so hard.
How can we stand here, now, and proclaim that Jesus is in charge? I mean, if he is, he kind of seems to be making a mess of it, right? It’s tempting to downplay Jesus’ sovereignty over creation and over our lives because, not only is there a lot wrong on any given day, but it only seems to get worse as time goes on. You can fill in the blank here with your favorite example of how the world is going to hell in a handbasket: mass shootings, politics, the environment, personal responsibility, ethics and morals – the list goes on. If Jesus is the king, much of the realm seems to be under somebody else’s not-so-benevolent control.
You know, there are lots of models for understanding the exercise of sovereignty or authority. Our English translations of scripture come out of a social context of monarchy, so we read a lot about the “kingdom” of heaven or the “kingdom” of God. That might make us imagine a monarch on a throne – and, more specifically, a male monarch, given the gender implied by the word “king.” But the word in Greek that we translate as “kingdom” doesn’t mean a geographic location governed by a man wearing a crown. That Greek word, basileia, means “reign,” or “rule,” or “realm” of God – the state of being in which God’s sovereignty is supreme.1 That’s what Jesus is promising when he invites us to look for the kingdom of God among us or within us (Luke 17:21). That’s what we’re actually asking for, in the Lord’s Prayer, when we say, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” It’s our eternal hope, too, at the end of the story, when we look for Jesus to “come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end” (BCP 359). What we’re looking for is life as we know it transformed and lived under the sovereignty of the God who is love.
If the image of kings and queens in castles doesn’t really work to capture the basileia of God, here’s another model of Jesus’ sovereign authority. It comes from the English bishop and theologian N.T. Wright. He explains that what we call heaven and earth aren’t two separate physical locations but “two different dimensions of God’s good creation.” In this event we call the ascension, the embodied, risen Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, returned to that heavenly dimension of God’s creation. Now, the really amazing thing about this isn’t the transport mechanism, or finding the door to the heavenly elevator, or figuring out which way is “up” on a sphere. What’s really amazing about the ascended Jesus is this: From the heavenly realm, he can also be present to anyone, anywhere in earthly time and space, returning into the mix from a dimension different from ours but still connected to it.2
Now, if that sounds more like The Matrix than real life, you’re beginning to see what I’m talking about. We have trouble wrapping our minds around this, in much the same way that a two-dimensional cartoon character, living in a flat world, would have trouble with one of us trying to explain the concept of “up.” But in that heavenly dimension tangential to earthly time and space, N.T. Wright sees Jesus functioning not as a king sitting on a throne but as a chief executive officer sitting in a corner suite. Heaven is earth’s “control room,” Wright argues. “It is the CEO’s office, the place from which instructions are given.”2
I like that model. Not only can we imagine a CEO’s office better than we can imagine an ancient throne room, but maybe we can also imagine how Jesus exercises power a little more clearly this way. Ancient kings ruled by fiat, promoting their own self-interest first and foremost; and when people disobeyed, the king simply had them killed. I don’t know about you, but to me that seems a little out of character for the Prince of Peace – the one whose mission statement was “love God, love neighbor, love one another”; the one who cast a vision of servanthood, asking all who worked for him to take up their crosses and follow in his footsteps.
Here’s another reason I like that model of heaven as the earth’s control room and Jesus as the CEO. It helps make sense of judgment from a God who is love. Hang with me for a minute: In my years here at St. Andrew’s, I’ve had several savvy businesspeople try to help me with the hard work of terminating employees. It won’t surprise you to know that I’m not really wired to be good at that, given how much I love confrontation and conflict. Well, these folks – HR people and executives alike – suggested that I look at termination differently. The advice went like this: When someone’s being terminated, nine times out of ten it’s a direct result of choices that person made. So, when you have the hard conversation, the bad news you’re breaking isn’t that you’re firing that staff member. You say to the staff member, “You’ve fired yourself, and here’s why.” To me, that’s Jesus at the Last Judgment, in a nutshell.
Theology is mystery, but our CEO’s directions are pretty clear. He equips us with the power of the Holy Spirit, the power of God, to turn, and transform, and grow our hearts to follow his agenda. He sends us on a mission to love, across every aspect of our lives. He casts a vision of servant leadership, taking up the cross for us and asking us to do the same. And he deploys us precisely where he needs us: “Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed … to all…,” he says (Luke 24:47); and “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria,” and in crazy places like Kansas City, and Mission Hills, and Prairie Village, and Leawood, “and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Jesus isn’t asking you to do anything for which you aren’t already equipped and deployed. In your workplace, in your home, in your club, in your civic group, in your giving of time and talent and treasure, you are duly qualified and empowered to represent your CEO and to execute his mission. You’ve got your assignment, and you’ve got what it takes.
So, when he calls you “up” to the executive suite someday, just a little advice: Be ready for the performance review.
- Reid, Barbara E. “Excursus: The Kingdom of God.” The New Interpreter’s Study Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 203. 1955.
- Wright, N.T.Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. New York: HarperCollins, 2008. 111.