Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.
May 21, 2017
Text: John 14:15
O.T.: Psalm 66:8-20
N.T.: John 14:8-21
This is Ascension Sunday, when we remember Jesus’ ascension into the Kingdom of Heaven. His ascension occurred 40 days after the resurrection day – which would have been Thursday. It marks the close of the appearances of Jesus after the resurrection. It begins the exaltation of Christ to the heavenly life about which He had spoken to the Apostles.
In a practical sense, the ascension meant Christ’s humanity was no longer visible. Ascension Day marked the end of being able to see Jesus as we see each other – fully human, accessible to each other by sight, sound, touch, hearing, taste, or smell. He was lifted into Heaven where He now exercises power over Heaven and earth.
Most Christians don’t give Christ’s ascension much thought. We assume He’s in Heaven, with the Father, and the Holy Spirit. It’s a forgone conclusion, except when we’re looking for signs of Jesus being with us.
There lies the challenge of faith – to believe Jesus is alive and with us when we can’t physically see Him. It’s easy to give up on Him because He’s hidden from our sight. That has consequences that extend beyond whether or not we see Him. It has consequences for how we live with each other – whether it’s in our families, our church, or our interaction with the culture around us.
His hiddenness challenges faith in the promise he left us.
Jesus was preparing His disciples for the Ascension as much as He was for Good Friday when He met with them in the Upper Room before He was betrayed. He knew He would not be long with them in a way they could see. They would think He was gone forever when He died.
They would have no clue He would return. But His return wouldn’t be for long – at least so they could see Him. He would leave His disciples again for the Kingdom of Heaven to be with His Father who raised Him.
This posed a problem He saw in advance. His hiddenness would bring problems among His disciples. He wouldn’t be visible to help them through their disagreements, their different viewpoints, their different experiences as men and women, their differences of opinion about who He was, what He wanted, and what He expected them to do.
They would feel abandoned and lost, living by their own resources, their own skills, their own strengths, and their own weaknesses. He knew social pressure would threaten what they stood for. He knew that pressure would affect them, their wives, and families.
Jesus could foresee that His little movement could fall apart once He was gone. Either they would be tempted to violence to retaliate against the injustice of His death. Or they would turn against each other for failing to defend Him well enough that He would have escaped the trap Judas and the Sanhedrin had set for Him.
And so Jesus talked about the future without Him in the Upper Room when He gave His last supper. Or at least they would think they would be without Him. He gave them a promise, a promise they didn’t understand.
Jesus promised to ask His Father to give them another helper – an advocate – the Advocate. This helper would be with them forever, “If you love me,” and “keep my commandments.”
Loving Jesus. It is a simple concept. But it’s oh so hard.
Now may ask, what’s so hard about loving Jesus. He loves us. He offers us blessings. He’s there for us. Of course, we love Him.
Of course, we love Him . . . until He’s not visible to us.
When you can’t see Him, it’s harder to love Jesus.
How many times have I heard Christians say about someone who claims they’ve seen Jesus, “Well, I haven’t. I never had the experience of seeing Him.” One even added, “He’s in Heaven. How can I see Him?”
They’re talking about the challenge the Ascension poses for us to love Jesus.
Some still cling to hope that Jesus is with them. But their love for Jesus is more of an intellectual doctrine they repeat than a heart-felt thing. We all have trouble feeling the love we have for Jesus. Stating the Apostles Creed isn’t the same thing as feeling love for Jesus.
Then there is the cultural problem with the meaning of love. Love in our culture is dominated by what the Greeks called “eros” or what Christendom later called “romance.” Both are extremely emotional, not intellectual, and are related to sexual attraction. Neither is what Jesus is talking about.
The love Jesus is talking about is sacrificial love. He said, “What greater love does a man have than this, that he would give up his life for his friends.” This is the love Jesus is talking about.
Sacrificing your ego for your friends. Sacrificing your opinion for your friends. Sacrificing your desires for your friends. Sacrificing your needs for your friends. Sacrificing your plans, your future, your hopes and dreams for your friends.
But not only your friends. Love your enemies – the people you don’t like, the people who have done you harm, the people who are planning to do you harm.
This is the challenge of fulfilling Jesus’ commandments if you love Jesus.
Remember Matthew 5:43-45. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.’”
Here is the critical component that separates Christianity from other religions and philosophies of justice. Old Testament justice, pagan justice from the Greek philosophical tradition from which Western Civilization has been built, permits retaliation in equal measure against the unjust. Jesus raises the bar beyond “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”
He says if you love Him, you what is culturally acceptable. You must refrain from retribution and pray for those who would do you harm.
This is not an option, it is an imperative.
How many Christians have failed this commandment of Jesus? Every Christian burning a cross has failed to love Jesus. Every Christian who is resentful of critics of Christianity faces the same problem. Every Christian who struggles with the internal animosity among family members with which families’ struggle faces this challenge. Every Christian whose heart is hardened against other Christians with whom they disagree is challenged to love Jesus.
We as Protestants have a legacy of disagreement. But it’s not our problem to own alone in the Christian world. Disagreement has led to anger and animosity splintering Christ’s Church into a thousand denominations. Frankly, most Christians have difficulty finding communion together in the love of Jesus Christ. We can’t find Christ’s love in other sanctuaries and focus more on what we don’t like about the worship service than experiencing Christ’s presence in worship.
From arguments over liturgy and music, to whether we should confess to another human being, to whether we need bishops, or whether infants should or should not be baptized, to who is ordained on what grounds, we have difficulty sacrificing our position in love to embrace other Christians – who Christ has made our friends in His body, the Church.
Jesus poses this challenge to us from His Sermon on the Mount, “If you love those who love you, what reward do you have?”
And so, He invites us again into His Upper Room on Ascension Sunday and says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” We will keep His commandment to love our neighbors and those who aren’t. We will love the lovable, those who love us, and the unlovable who don’t love us. We will be an example of how God’s love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
We will not be like the world’s culture that’s always looking for someone to blame. We will not present ourselves as victims in a world that’s against Christians. We will not retreat into seclusion to avoid the conflicts that others bring upon us because we believe Jesus Christ is God’s Son. Nor will we engage in the demonization that the world loves.
We will be Christ’s people, living in the world, but not being of the world. We will not see ourselves orphaned by Jesus because He ascended into heaven and left us along to fend for ourselves in this sin-sick world. We will be His children, His holy community who will transform the world by the power of His love.
We will challenge powers and principalities to rise above the demonization that characterizes political rhetoric both in democracy, and outside it. We will call the religions of the world to practice the highest virtues of their faith by the loving name of Jesus Christ.
We will live with the power of the Advocate Christ has sent us – the power of God’s love that saves the world. And we will live in peace because Jesus is our peace, who has made us one.
When we live like this, we will be blessed through the promise we kept in our confirmation and baptismal vows to love Jesus, with all of our heart, all of our mind, and all of our spirit. We will live by the gift in the Spirit of Truth that bring God’s love to this world. Amen.