Eph. 1: 20b…God raised Jesus from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 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 that which is to come; 22 and he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church,23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
In a scene that happened in thousands of homes in the Ancient Roman Empire, the Pater Familias, or the male head of the family, called his wife and children, the relatives living with them, plus all their slaves together around the family shrine, where they regularly lit candles and burned incense to their ancestors and to their patron gods and goddesses. Caesar had just decreed that all households should offer prayers and incense to himself and to Mars, the God of war, because a military campaign was soon to be launched against the Barbarians. The prayers included words like “Lord Caesar” and “Caesar is Lord.”
“Now that it’s time for prayer, where is Lucius Severus?” the head of the household asked.
“He’s in the kitchen, washing the dishes,” one of the slaves replied.
“Odd. He always comes when called,” the matron replied. “He’s our most trustworthy worker.”
“But he won’t come for something like this,” another slave replied. “He’s a Christian now.”
“Well,” the householder added, “as long as he gets his work done, doesn’t steal anything, and obeys orders, that’s no business of mine. Someone go bring him here.”
A moment later, Lucius Severus was standing at the family shrine, all eyes upon him while he dried the soap suds from his hands on his apron.
“Didn’t you hear the call to come join us in prayer to Mars, and to Lord Caesar?” his master asked.
“I did, Sir.”
“Then why didn’t you come?”
“Because of all the dishes, Master.”
“That’s not the only reason,” another slave said.
“Oh? What other reason might that be? Lucius, does your Christian faith forbid you from praying to Caesar?”
Lucius replied, rather nervously. “I pray for Caesar every day. And for you too, Master and for the Mistress and the entire household, all the time.”
The Master frowned, then said, “Look Lucius, your fellow slaves have their different gods, like Isis and Cybele and Mithra, and that doesn’t keep them from praying to Caesar and calling him Lord. Call this crucified Jew of yours, ‘Lord,’ if you like, but what keeps you from addressing Caesar as ‘Lord,’ too?”
Lucius Severus replied, “All other people I love, respect, honor and serve. But none can I ever call ‘Lord’ in the way that I call Jesus, ‘Lord.’”
“Lucius, I’m trying to be reasonable here. But there’s no tolerating such independence and divided loyalties when we’re at war, and everything we hold sacred in our Empire is threatened,” the Master replied.
“Did you ever consider, Sir,” Lucius replied, “that Caesar’s claim to be Lord might have something to do with why we’re always at war?”
And that is how Lucius Severus ended up in the Coliseum, unarmed, facing hungry lions for the entertainment of the crowds. And so have millions of other Christians suffered, and some have died, throughout the centuries, all the way to now, and the Christian martyrs in Syria, Iraq and Libya, for those three simple words: “Jesus is Lord.”
Despite all the differences in history, tradition, structure and practice among all the different Christian communions across the world and 2,000 years of church history, what unites us is the confession, “Jesus is Lord.” That confession can be so costly, however, because of all the others who claim that title, “Lord.” In 1990, an American soldier was struggling with his conscience and his beliefs, debating whether or not to seek a discharge for reasons of faith. As his unit got ready to ship out to Saudi Arabia, for the First Gulf War, he decided then was not the time. His buddies needed him. But just before leaving the States, his commanding officer called his unit together and said to them, “Remember, when you follow me into combat, I am Jesus Christ to you.” That’s what pushed the soldier into the Conscientious Objector column.
That Jesus is Lord over all the powers of hell and of earth he demonstrated powerfully, convincingly, when he brought peace to stormy seas and demonized souls. That Jesus is Lord over all earthly kings and kingdoms he demonstrated by his resurrection from the dead, for without the ability to stop his life, no king can stop his kingdom. That he is Lord over the church he purchased and proved by the life he gave, and the blood he shed, on the cross of Mt. Calvary. That Jesus is Lord over the eternal realm of heaven he proved by the event we celebrate today, his Ascension.
But don’t think of his Ascension as his going away and up into outer space. It’s not that Jesus ascended to a throne somewhere in a galaxy far, far away, where someday soon the Hubble Space Telescope may spot him. Think of heaven as the ancients did, as a realm and a reality above our visible one in its superior power, importance and permanence over and (as we heard in Eph. 1) “above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come.” Jesus’ Ascension then is about the throne he ascends, and the supremacy he has, in inner space. I mean the inner space of our minds and our hearts, the space within us and among us of love, loyalty, fear and desire, the inner space of our thought patterns, our attitudes, our relationships, values and identities. Jesus has ascended in power, importance and sacred worth to us, far above all worldly loves and loyalties, to a throne that he earned in our heads, our hearts and our homes, this church, and this world, by his loving life, his sacrificial death, and his resurrection victory over the grave.
That also makes the throne of the Ascended Jesus something that is intimately close to us, no further away than the breath in our lungs, or each beat of our hearts, as close to us as an act of mercy, a word of love, a prayer, or a song of praise, for “God dwells in the praises of Israel,” says the 22nd Psalm. Every human soul, then, has a hidden, intimate doorway into the throne room of God’s grace. It opens freely from our side, as well as heaven’s. Such intimate, personal availability and attention to us no human lords, kings, kingdoms or corporations can match, nor even pretend to offer.
But whenever we confess that “Jesus Is Lord,” we must be careful that we don’t try to make him a Lord, with a Lordship, that fits our conventional wisdom. Despite all our efforts to make Jesus into our image, rather than letting him make us into his, Jesus will not be for us just a common imperial monarch, nor a celebrity, nor a CEO after the latest fads and fashions of leadership. Nor will he be the chaplain and cheerleader of our human identities and ideologies. We must understand his Lordship in terms of the very same Bible that tells us about his Ascension.
Which brings me to the first point in the sermon outline, if you’re following that: (point 1) That Jesus is….. Lord, according to the Scriptures. He is Lord because he is the fulfillment of God’s promises for a just Lord and a righteous ruler over all Creation. He is Lord because of God’s purposes, God’s vision of Lordship, promised by the prophets, prayed for in the Psalms, revealed in the Gospels. That’s why we began worship today with the words from one of Israel’s psalms for the enthronement of a king, Psalm 47. It’s one of many such Psalms of enthronement and coronation in the Bible. Some are for the enthronement of a human king, from the lineage of David. Others are for the enthronement of Israel’s one God over all the kings, kingdoms, idols and deities of her neighbors. Some seem to be for both, the enthronement of God and of his earthly king.
Which surely would have struck the Pharaohs and the Caesars and the divine emperors of Persia, Babylon and Assyria as ludicrous and laughable, had ever they heard such words as, “God has ascended amid shouts of joy, the Lord amid the sounding of trumpets,” or “the Lord Most High is awesome, the great King over all the earth; He subdued nations under us, peoples under our feet..” Except for a few years under King Solomon, Israel was a third-rate power, a seemingly powerless, pitiful plaything between vastly mightier empires, a vassal state that was conflicted and increasingly corrupted.
But today we celebrate the day that any such laughter should have stopped. Ever since the Ascension of Jesus, an Israelite king, a Son of David, the man who is the meeting place of God and humanity, does indeed rule the nations now, as promised, beginning with the worldwide church. And he is putting all things under his feet through the message and the ministry of his church. Through the Ascended Jesus, dwelling and working through the church, God is fulfilling his promises and vindicating his claim to kingship over all the kings and kingdoms of the world, and to supremacy over all that mortals call “gods” and “divine.”
Which brings us to the second point in the outline: That all authority…..and power, responsibility, leaders and leadership in this world are answerable to Jesus, accountable to him, as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Under the line that says “All Authority,” number 2 in the sermon outline, I’ll say two things: First of all, all people who exercise any power, authority, leadership or responsibility, like yours truly, must never forget that all power, authority, leadership and responsibility are only borrowed from the Lord to whom it all belongs. This is as true in the worlds of business, government, institutions, education, as in the church. For we would not have the wisdom nor the wherewithal to start and run businesses, practice healing arts in medicine, do research, teach children and adults, administer our cities, counties and countries, unless God had shared such wisdom and wherewithal with us. The same is true for our human gifts and powers of sex, procreation, bonding and love. At their best, all authority, power, responsibility and leadership act in accordance with Christ, according to his values, as he is the owner of all such things. At their best, all leaders and leadership faithfully represent him and replicate his pattern of servant leadership.
For such authority and power are only on loan to us, on borrowed time, first of all, because of our mortality. But they are borrowed as well because the one to whom all authority on heaven and earth belong has lent these things to us for a reason and a season. And we must answer to him for how we exercise our heaven-lent powers.
If we exercise such wisdom and wherewithal in the spirit and manner of Christ, we have nothing to fear, everything to gain, and so much to contribute. If we forget, however, and think that such powers spring from our own wisdom and virtue, or that they are inalienable rights to which we are entitled, then beware. My second point about authority and responsibility kicks in: At their worst, all authority, powers, leadership, and responsibility among us become idols, and idolatrous, bogus, even blasphemous….and therefore, doomed to failure. Doomed because, whenever we presume to be self-sufficient and entitled to authority, we become blind to our need for help, blind to our faults and failures, blind because we fear constructive criticism, and so miss chances to make necessary course corrections. Then we go from being self-contradictory to being self-defeating to being self-destructive, to potentially destroying others.
One way or another, willingly or not, we will learn and relearn the next point, Point 3, that Jesus rules. Under point 3, Jesus Rules….first of all, Jesus rules…..over all that dominates, distinguishes and divides us from each other, those “rulers, authorities, powers, dominions, and “every name that is named,” in Ephesians 1. For Jesus ascended to his throne of glory not by dominating nor destroying anyone, nor by distinguishing himself over and above us. His road to Ascension Glory led downward, on the road of solidarity with us, of identification with us, even through suffering with others and for others, so that we too can be joint heirs with Christ and share his throne.
That’s another reason any laughter over Israel’s hope of a world-ruling Son of David should stop with Christ’s Ascension, because of the way he gained his throne and exercises his power. Who would have thought of a king whose route to the throne took him through the hovels of poverty, among the homeless, to sleep under the stars, touch the unclean, and share bread with sinners? A king who marched forth to conquer the nations, with a crown of thorns, carrying a cross for a scepter? A king who wages war against all enmity, rather than his enemies? Who, instead of killing his enemies, is putting enemies like death under his feet?
That makes this king Lord over everything that defines, distinguishes and divides these kingdoms and their subjects from each other. All the differences and distinctions which different tribes and groups of people take so seriously, which they parade as their proof of superiority over and against each other, pale and lose importance to Christ. That doesn’t make them bad, necessarily. Paul himself spoke of his Jewish identity and heritage with honor and gratitude. Ours, he told the Roman Christians, “is the adoption to sonship… the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises…the patriarchs, and… the human ancestry of the Messiah.” So, being in Christ doesn’t mean that we are to hate ourselves, nor the tribes, nations or ethnic groups from which we come, and their heritages of art, wisdom and beauty.
But Paul could also say about his heritage that, “I count it all rubbish, compared to the surpassing excellence of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have lost all things.” That’s an important word in our day and age of rabid and runaway identity politics, and the ways that people so often divide themselves over and against each other as liberal or traditional, conservative or progressive, Democrat or Republican, citizen-born or immigrant, by their sexual desires and behavior, turning those identities into ideologies, and then those ideologies into idolatries, laying claim to superiority over and against each other, either as victors or as victims. More concerning to me than any of those identities and ideologies, are the ways we then so often try to make Jesus into a chaplain and cheerleader for these identities and ideologies, when the Ascension of Jesus tells me that he is Lord over all these things, with the well-earned right to put them all under his feet, so that they serve him, and not vice versa.
Which brings us to the second thing that Christ’s Ascension means: that Jesus Rules…..by Bridging Cultures, in love, and respect for each other, so making one new humanity out of our estranged and divided tribes, nations and communities. I use that phrase “Bridging Cultures” intentionally, although I suspect that it might have been copyrighted in some articles of incorporation filed with the State of Oregon by the organization whose partnership we are celebrating today (Is that right? Will I soon be hearing from a lawyer? You can never be too careful anymore).
When I say that Christ reigns by “bridging cultures,” I’m thinking of that wonderful image in John’s Revelation, chapter 7, of that throng around the throne of the Lamb, a symbol for Jesus, a throng of people from every tribe, tongue and nation, too many to count, all gathered in worship. That tells me that when Christ rules our identities, communities and cultures, he does not destroy them as much as he transforms and fulfills them, bringing out the best, the most godly in each of them. Then he puts people of these different backgrounds and identities together in friendship, service and worship, to demonstrate the new creation he is making of the world.
Those of us here, then, who also labor to bridge cultures, such as with our English as a Second Language classes, or planning trips to the beach or picnics at Locust Park with our neighbors, or who share gardening and food with neighbors of different cultures, are not only doing good things. You are. But you’re also living as firstfruits of that same throng around the throne in Revelation 7, as the Ascended Lord puts everything that divides and estranges us from each other under his feet, beginning with the church.
Becky and I saw this in the years we lived in Burkina Faso, where many people still have distinctive scars carved onto their cheeks or foreheads, scars which identify them as members of one tribe or another. Not so long ago, people killed each other on sight, based on which scars they bore. Today, they might still discriminate against each other in a government office or in business, depending on those scars.
But in the church where we lived in Burkina Faso, we worshiped with Christians with different tribal markings, whose tribes had once been at war with each other. Being mostly poorer farmers, with very little cash, the offerings they brought to church might include a sack of grain or of dried okra powder, to share with anyone else in the church in need, regardless of their tribal identity.
It went beyond sharing stuff. Once, at an inter-tribal Christian men’s conference in Burkina Faso, new Christians of the Bwamu tribe sang for us some Christian hymns that they had recently composed in their distinctive tribal style, characterized by hauntingly beautiful angular melodies, and lively, syncopated rhythms. Christians from other tribes couldn’t understand the words, but they were so taken by Bwamu music that they began composing new songs in the trade language of Dioula, which they all spoke, to the Bwamu melodies that they had just heard. Cultural exchanges like that had not happened before, until these different people encountered each other peacefully, under the Lordship of Christ.
Similar things are happening among us, through our engagement with Bridging Cultures, our ESL programs, Canby Center and Jubilee Food Shelf. No one is being asked to despise nor sacrifice their culture or identity. But we are all being enriched by each other’s cultures and identities. If you don’t believe that, just wait till you taste the pollo con crema we’re having for lunch. To sum up point three, first of all, Jesus Rules….over all the entities and identities that divide us from each other, by which we try to distinguish ourselves from each other, which so easily go from being identities into becoming idolatries….not by destroying our identities and cultures, but, secondly, by Bridging Cultures, in love, respect, and exchanges of all that is good and godly. And so he brings out the best in them.
Therefore, my 4th and last point, let us remember and do two things: A) to gain and use our God-given powers, authority and responsibility in this world as did Jesus; and B) use them not to divide and dominate each other, but to reconcile and empower each other. For that is how Christ is exercising his lordship over Creation, through the church: to reconcile and to empower us. That’s what our spiritual gifts, our God-lent authority, power and responsibilities are for.
For we are called not only to worship forever the Lamb upon the throne which he Ascended, but also to share that throne with him, as joint heirs of “the riches of his glorious inheritance” (v. 19), in this life, as well as the next. We have every right to laugh now, not in derision nor contempt, but in relief and release, because the Ascension of Christ tells us that our struggles and our service are leading us to the throne we share with Christ. We can laugh with the assurance of God’s unshakeable, unchangeable love for us, and in the gift of our royal powers, of gifts and talents for service, and for words and works of love. Let any laughter now be because Christ’s Ascension tells us that love wins even over death, and that “Jesus is Lord,” is God’s last word over history, and over our personal histories.
That’s what we mean when we say that, “Jesus is Lord.”