Saturday Night Theologian
1 June 2003

Luke 24:44-53; Acts 1:1-11, 15-17, 21-26; Ephesians 1:15-23

During the Napoleonic Wars, European navies took to the sea in large ships with crews of as many as 875 men. From the deck of the ship, on a clear day, the captain could survey a radius of maybe six nautical miles. However, by climbing aloft to the highest yard on of one of the masts, he was able to double the linear distance he could see and quadruple the area of the sea he could take in. Armies fighting on land have similarly always taken advantage of the high ground whenever possible, since it put them in a superior position vis-à-vis their enemy. On this Sunday of the Ascension, when we remember Jesus' ascent into heaven, we might ask ourselves, what meaning does the Ascension have for us today? We don't have the same cosmology today as the ancients did, so we probably don't think of heaven as being "up there" somewhere, except in a figurative sense. Nevertheless, the picture of Jesus ascending can offer us both guidance and hope in our lives as Christians. The disciples who had spent time with the resurrected Christ asked, "Is this the time that you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" They read the Hebrew prophets, and they looked for a physical restoration of the kingdom. Their problem was that they were thinking too small. Jesus wasn't about to establish an earthly kingdom for his fellow Jews. Instead, he was about to set up a worldwide kingdom that would transcend national, racial, and gender boundaries. Christians who seek the dominance of any single country--be it the United States, Israel, or some other nation--haven't understood the message of the Ascension. By leaving the surface of the earth and ascending to God's right hand, Jesus is in a position to rule over all the world, not favoring one country or ethnic group over another, but seeing all as equally important. After Jesus had departed from them, the early followers of Jesus showed that they understood his mandate by getting organized to transform the world. They selected a replacement for Judas, and they awaited further instruction, or rather "inspiration" from Jesus, which would come ten days later at Pentecost.

Psalm 1

When President Bush spoke of the forces of evil in the world today, he (or his speech-writer) was hearkening back to Ronald Reagan, who labeled the Soviet Union as the Evil Empire. In a similar way, Ayatollah Khomeini called the United States the Great Satan, because of the evil that he believed the U.S. did in the world. The problem with labeling particular countries, or even particular socio-political movements--even today's terrorists--as evil is that if we call someone else evil, we're implying that we are good. However, being a citizen of one country or another doesn't make someone evil, nor does belonging to a particular religion, nor does believing in a political cause. Good and evil are much more applicable to specific deeds than to individuals, who tend to do both good and evil over the course of their lives, and it's certainly difficult to make a valid case for labeling a whole country, or even a government, as either good or evil. Furthermore, the criteria used to measure good and evil are rarely based on the standard laid out in the first psalm, namely, the "Law of the Lord." The law of God, particularly as interpreted by Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere, calls believers to forego violence and hatred, seeking to turn enemies into friends. Nations that act belligerently toward other nations are violating the law of the Lord and are thus displaying evil, not good. Rhetoric that divides nations rather than unites them is evil, not good. National policies that focus on the greed of the few rather than the needs of the many are evil, not good. Individuals who believe in a sort of group righteousness, relying on the "goodness" of their political or religious group or on their nationality, have grossly misunderstood the message of Psalm 1. The good, the psalmist says, are those who ignore the call to abandon the path of righteousness to follow the popular path. They stand firm, steadfastly believing that God will honor their faithfulness, even when they feel like they're standing alone. They rest in confidence in their faith, humbly asking God to reveal his way to them. The wicked, on the other hand, who rely on hyperbole rather than the truth, or who are willing to sacrifice others to advance their favored cause, or who commit heinous acts of evil in the irrational belief that good will come about, will not be able to stand God's judgment. The wise individual, says the psalmist, knows the difference between good and evil.

For another discussion of this passage, click here.

John 17:6-19; 1 John 5:9-13

What does Jesus mean in John 17:14 when he says that his followers do not belong to the world? Simeon Stylites, in an effort to separate himself from the world, sat on a pillar outside Constantinople for thirty-nine years; his disciple Daniel sat on another pillar for thirty-six years. Other Christians have sought refuge in the desert, monasteries, or distinctive Christian communities. Many other Christians have lived alongside others in the world, striving to transform the world without being unduly influenced by it. All of these Christians have taken seriously the call to separate themselves from the world, and in doing so they have not taken the easy road of complete assimilation to the prevailing culture. Not all have been equally attentive to Jesus' other comment in John 17:18 that he has sent his followers into the world. Whatever else separation from the world implies, it does not mandate actual isolation from all others. On the contrary, Jesus suggests that separation from the world can take place while in the midst of the world. Jesus' followers are called, then, to participate to some extent in the normal activities of our fellow inhabitants of the planet. Following the example of Jesus himself (who said that he, too, was not part of the world), we should interact with others, show compassion, meet needs, and set an example by our lives. At the same time, we must be careful not to surrender to the temptations of the world that we know will be detrimental to us and to our witness. As the passage in 1 John reminds us, we achieve eternal life only by living out a life of faith in God's Son. As we look at other Christians' attempts to separate themselves from the world while still remaining relevant, we find that we have many models to choose from. Probably no one nowadays will choose to sit on a pillar for years as a witness against the temptations of the world, but before we criticize those who did that, we first need to ask ourselves what comforts and freedoms we would be willing to sacrifice in order to follow God's call in our lives. Second, we need to learn a little more about Simeon and Daniel, the pillar-sitters. Far from being irrelevant, they were among the most influential spiritual leaders of their day. Pilgrims came from miles around to consult them, and they even influenced the policies of emperors by their counsel. Is our influence in the world just as great?

Psalm 93

In J. R. R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion, the author tells a creation myth in which the high god Ilúvatar creates a group of Holy Ones, the Ainur, and gives them the gift of music. After first singing only a series of melodies, the Ainur gradually learn to harmonize with one another. Eventually, however, Melkor, one of the Ainur, decides to sing his own song, which is not in accordance with the music given by Ilúvatar, and the result is dissonance, bordering on chaos. In Psalm 93 the psalmist alludes to an ancient Near Eastern creation myth in which the personified flood, representing chaos, was defeated by the creator god and set inside the boundaries of the oceans and rivers. Blending the common ancient Near Eastern creation story with the Israelite conception of God, he paints a picture of the waters of chaos rising up not to confront God but to praise him. By ascending to his throne, Yahweh is the God who brings order to chaos. The world we live in often seems chaotic. On an individual level, we can get so busy that life itself passes us by. Our children are involved in so many activities that we hardly ever spend time just talking to them, our spouse feels neglected, our job takes more and more of our time. When we begin to notice chaos increasing in our lives, it's time to remember that where God reigns, there is order, not chaos. Which of our activities can we give up in order to return some sanity to our lives? How can we organize ourselves so that chaos is kept at a distance? Chaos also operates on the world stage. Wars are perhaps the ultimate example of chaos, and they are always a sign of failure to allow God to reign, usually by people on both sides of the conflict. Respectful disagreements among nations can be healthy, but malicious rhetoric hurled by one nation at another is a symptom of chaos. Wanton destruction of the environment is another sign God has been set aside in favor of chaos (sometimes called profit). Failure to address the needs of the poor and sick, when solutions are readily at hand, likewise leads to chaos. Followers of God need to learn to recognize the symptoms of chaos and confront the root causes, wherever they lie. When things look bleak, however, we can take heart in the words of the psalmist: "The Lord is king!" On this Ascension Sunday, as we celebrate Jesus ascending to his throne, we can affirm that his rule today likewise brings order out of chaos.