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The Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe

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Looking in the Wrong Direction

Category: Bishop's Sermons

Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington

Tags: community, compassion, power, disciples, welcome, ascension

May 21, 2023    The Sunday in Ascensiontide

The Mission Church of Saint Nino    Tbilisi, Georgia

Text: Acts 1:6: “So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ ”

Whenever I come here, I am excited to be in Tbilisi—but nervous about preaching to Saint Nino’s. That is because you are a very theologically sophisticated congregation. And whatever I say has to be translated into Georgian, because I have not learned much Georgian yet. So that means I have to be twice as good, but preach for half as long. 

We just heard a reading from the Acts of the Apostles. If you listen closely to it, you might think that the disciples around Jesus still didn’t really understand anything about what his message had been. 

Jesus had come to preach the good news of God’s offer of salvation to all people, and God’s desire to reconcile all people to each other and to God. But the first question the disciples ask here is not about any of that. Instead what the disciples ask Jesus, what they most want to know about, is worldly power. 

Is now the moment when you are going restore the kingdom to Israel? Yes, Jesus, it’s pretty impressive that you were killed by the Romans and buried in a grave, and rose to life again—very impressive—but now do we get our revenge? Now do we get to take power back for ourselves?

Just a little bit later in this story, the disciples are watching as Jesus disappears from their sight up on the mountain, on Mount Olivet. You can imagine how confused they must have felt. But what those angels say to them as they stand there looking up into heaven trying to see where Jesus has gone might be just as well about their desire for earthly power: “Why are you looking in the wrong direction?”

The Resurrection of Jesus, the victory of God over the power of sin and death, is the greatest source of hope for us. It is a victory that God wins because of the power of God’s love for us. That hope has drawn people to the Christian faith since the first Easter morning. But too often what we seek from God’s victory in it is a hope for power in this world. 

We long to turn Jesus’s victory into our own victory. We want to claim the glory and the power of the risen Christ for our own battles and our own agendas. We want our faith not just to save us, but to vindicate us. We want a Christianity that will prove us right. We feel powerless; we want a faith that will right the balance of power, not least so that we have more of it.

Men of Galilee, women and men of Tbilisi, why are we looking in the wrong direction?

On this one Sunday between Ascension and Pentecost, our readings come a little bit out of order. We first see the Ascension of the resurrected Jesus from the mountain, and then we are taken back to the upper room and the Last Supper before the events of Good Friday. But even though it may be hard to see at first, these two stories are linked.

The reading from John’s gospel is known as the “great priestly prayer” of Jesus. What Jesus is recorded as saying here is not so much a teaching as a prayer for the disciples, said in their presence. And we can learn something about the church we are called to be, we can learn something about the direction in which we should be looking, from what Jesus says in this prayer.

Jesus says that God has given him authority. But he makes it clear that this is not the authority of palaces and presidents; it is a spiritual authority. It is the authority of a way to eternal life. It is the authority of life reconciled with God. 

Jesus says that the disciples, and all those of us who have been baptized, have received everything from him that he received from God. But of course that doesn’t mean power in this world, because Jesus didn’t have power in this world. It doesn’t mean influence or wealth or approval from the authorities or the society—because Jesus didn’t have any of that, either.

The power, the glory, all belong to God—and not to us. The time will come when God’s glory is more fully revealed; one day Jesus will return as he left. But until then, as disciples of Christ we are not meant to claim God’s glory or God’s power for ourselves. 

We are simply supposed to study what he taught us, and behave toward each other as he treated us—rejecting no one, yet calling everyone to account; remembering always that when Jesus described the kingdom of heaven, he never talked about what people believed or how much power they had, but how they treated others.

So we should not be looking toward power for ourselves. We should not be looking for a restored kingdom in which we get to be the rulers. No, we should be looking in the direction Jesus looked, toward the outcast, the rejected, the people on the margins, the people who are hated. And we should be treating them with love, and sharing with them what we have been taught about the possibilty of salvation and the gift of eternal life.

We here are a church that gathers together some of those people. And it is good that we do; but that is the minimum standard of what disciples do. We must always be on the lookout for people who live now as we once did, outcast, alone, without any community, without any hope.

Who are those people around us here? Refugees? Russian refugees? Muslims?

Whoever they are, our task as disciples of Jesus is to look in their direction, look with eyes of compassion and mercy in the same way Christ has looked on us. Our task is to look for them, invite them, serve them, and in all things show them through the life of our community what it means to walk the Way of Love. Amen.