As I was thinking of the words from Jesus in the Gospel lesson (John 17:11-19) and how they relate to the event of his life we are remembering today (The Ascension – Acts 1:1-11) I thought of a common phrase people use. In fact I chose this phrase for the sermon theme. Perhaps you’ve heard it. It’s the phrase: “out of this world.” I’m sure you can tell why I thought of it. Jesus’ prayer in the Gospel lesson notes that he and his followers are not of the world. And, his Ascension is literally a journey out of this world.
The phrase “out of this world” is used when we want to express how impressive we find something to be, as in “this cake is out of this world” or “that performance was out of this world.” The phrase captures the idea of finding something better than what we would normally find on earth.
And yet, there are other phrases people use which imply that being out of this world is not so great. For instance, a person who is unfocused or impractical might be said to “have his head in the clouds.” Likewise, it’s generally an insult to say that someone is “not very worldly.” And then there’s that saying which is sometimes targeted at those who are deemed overly-religious: “He’s so heavenly minded that he’s no earthly good.”
These phrases suggest that some people are not as attuned to this world as they should be. Christians are often accused of this. In today’s Gospel reading Jesus even predicted we would be hated because of this. He said in prayer to the Father: “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.”
We don’t have to look hard to see evidence of this hatred. For instance, certain folks hate us because we are not as concerned about conserving the earth as they are. Christians do indeed feel it is our responsibility, given by God, to be good stewards of the earth. Many of us make this a very high priority. However, we do not make it our highest priority, as some do. Because of this difference, sometimes we are hated.
Also, certain folks hate us because we are not as concerned about justice in this world as they are. Christians do indeed believe that it is important to work for justice. We want people to be treated fairly and have equal opportunity. Many of us make this a very high priority. However, we do not make it as a high a priority as those who believe this world is all there is. We do not feel the same urgency to make everything right in this world because we know that God will someday bring true justice. Because our priorities are different as Christians, sometimes we are hated.
In the same way, I think it can be said that certain folks hate us because we are not as concerned about science as they are. Christians do indeed believe that scientific inquiry and discovery are very good things. Many of us make science a very high priority. However, we do not believe that science holds all the answers to our human problems. Nor do we believe all the scientific theories of this world just because they seem logical or probable. There are times when the revealed Word of God trumps a theory or a conclusion of science. Because of this priority of ours, sometimes we are hated.
Yes, there are many people who believe Christians should be more focused on the world. They question our focus on God and the heavenly life to come. We believe, however, that people benefit from such a focus. Being heavenly-minded, we say, allows us all to do more earthly good than we would do otherwise.
The ascension of Jesus focuses our minds on heaven. Jesus knows that we have plenty of concerns in this world. We live under the curse of Adam, where we must contend with the thorns and thistles of the earth and bring forth our food by the sweat of our brows. We need our hearts lifted up in order to inspire us and keep us going. We need to be reminded, as Paul writes in our second lesson today (Ephesians 1:15-23), of the “immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe.”
I realize that the angels who appeared to the disciples after Jesus’ ascension seem to chastise them for “standing there, looking up into heaven.” Certainly the disciples were not to stand around and do nothing. But these words from the angels might just as well be words of comfort. Jesus may be gone from their sight, but he had promised to be with them always, and he said he would send his Spirit in fulfillment of that promise. More than that, he would return again to them some day. They did not need to worry or despair. God had not forgotten them.
There are many benefits which come from an increased focus on heaven and the life to come. Our texts today point out a few of these. For instance, in the Gospel reading we hear Jesus praying for us, his disciples. He prays that we would be“sanctified in the truth.” The second reading echoes this thought, as Paul prays that we would be given “the spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Jesus, having the eyes of our hearts enlightened.”
A heavenward focus bring us a true wisdom—one that we cannot find on our own by looking at the things of this world. Human reason and experience can certainly bring much wisdom, but the wisdom that is revealed by God is much greater.
Jesus Christ himself gives the fullest revelation about God—his mercy, his care for us and his plan for the world. Jesus has revealed that God forgives our sins when we live in repentance and faith, and that God’s Holy Spirit will be with us to sustain us and help us bear good fruit until that day when we are taken by God into our perfect, heavenly home. Such revealed knowledge allows us to live with a joy and peace not possible without it—a “hope” as Paul calls it in our second reading – “to which he has called you– the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints.”
Likewise, a heavenly focus allows us to live in hope for a true unity among people. While the wisdom of the world teaches us that people will always be in conflict and only the strong survive, Jesus teaches us to live in peace and unity. Today’s Gospel reading shows Jesus praying that his followers would be one. It is not a prayer of wishful thinking but rather a prayer which sets the tone for those who hear him.
Indeed, Jesus has not only prayed for us but also given us the tools to live in unity, chief among these being the practice of forgiveness. We are not only commanded but also empowered to forgive one another because God has forgiven us in Jesus Christ. When the followers of Christ achieve the unity Jesus desires, then we are able to encourage the world in this same way of life. We have no illusions that our sinful world will ever achieve this true unity, although certainly with God all things are possible, but we can be sure that our example will have an impact on many, bringing good to the world every day.
Finally, a heavenly focus allows us to live under a true authority. We all live under some kind of authority, whether we admit this or not. Even the most outwardly rebellious towards authority can be said to live under obedience to their whims or desires. Others make obedience to their country or a certain leader their focus of living under authority. Christians promote living under earthly authority as long as the authority is deemed a representative of God. We believe that all true authority comes from the One who knows all and sees all, whose ways are good and holy and whose Law is perfect and just.
The Ascension of Jesus reminds us to see God our Father and His Son Jesus Christ as our one true authority. Again, we see Paul emphasizing this in his words to the Ephesians, saying: “[God] raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 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 one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
Some people may hate us for our “out of this world” focus. But we maintain that such focus gives a wisdom, a unity and an authority which this world badly needs. We may sometimes struggle with our focus, since our worldly concerns can seem so daunting. But God is there to lift our spirits and keep us moving toward our heavenly goal. Our next hymn voices God’s encouragement well, urging us to “crown” Jesus as the Lord of our lives. When we do this, we can be sure that the eyes of our hearts will be continually enlightened and we will always know the eternal hope to which He has called us. Amen.