Some of you may be familiar with the by now classic movie, The Man Who Would Be King. Filmed in 1975, it was based on a story by Rudyard Kipling. It starred Sean Connery and Michael Caine as Daniel Dravot and Peachy Carnehan, two British rogues and con men who operated in nineteenth century colonial India. Early on in the story, things have become a bit too hot for our heros in India, and so they have decided to test their luck outside India proper. After a long and harrowing trip through the mountains, they find themselves in Kafiristan, a province in northeastern Afghanistan. It is a country still in the middle ages, and no European in living memory has seen it. It is a country that has constant tribal warfare between the various walled cities that dot its plains and mountains. Through a combination of their own skills as soldiers and the simple fact that they are the only ones for hundreds of miles around who possess guns, of which the locals stand in terrified awe, Daniel and Peachy soon find themselves at the head of an army that is able to conquer city after city.
When they finally reach the capital, a holy city, their luck nearly runs out. They are about to be killed, when by chance one of the priests spies a medallion with a Masonic symbol that hangs around Daniel’s neck. It is the same symbol used by the great king who once conquered and ruled the country over two thousand years before. This king, as it turns out, was none other than Alexander the Great. Not only had Alexander’s military prowess won him fame in that country, he had reached mythic proportions of grandeur by the time he left the country, promising to return. For over two thousand years, this people had awaited his return and held his treasure in trust for him. When Daniel then shows up wearing Alexander’s symbol, or what they think is Alexander’s symbol, they assume that he is the returning king. They thus proclaim him God and king, and let him rule over them.
Daniel and Peachy decide to take advantage of the situation. They rule. They also intend to take Alexander’s treasure with them when they leave. That might have worked out had not Daniel foolishly tried to seduce a young maiden, who, being frightened that she would perish in fire if she consorted with a god, scratched him, drawing blood. It was obvious then that he was not a god, for gods do not bleed; the people duly took their revenge. Only Peachy escaped to tell the tale, a man broken and blind.
The story is a fascinating one, but the plot of an exotic foreigner being mistaken for a god for whom a community waits in not an unusual one. It is found in any number of science fiction novels and movies. Indeed, I believe that Captains Kirk, Picard, and Janeway and even other members of the crews of the various Starship Enterprises in the Star Trek series were all mistaken for awaited gods at one time or another in their careers; all were mistaken for once and future kings.
Now, this plot involves a situation that would not have been unfamiliar to the very earliest church. The promised redeemer, the Messiah of Israel, had come. He had overcome sin on the cross and reconciled men and women to God. He had overcome death in his glorious resurrection. He had left with the promise of the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom and his own return. So, the community of saints awaited his return, the return of their once-and-future king.
But the king did not soon return. St. Paul expected him at any time, and preached that across the Mediterranean world; late in his ministry when he was a prisoner in Ephesus it began to dawn on him that perhaps he would not live to see the return of Christ in glory and the fullness of the kingdom on earth. Not only did the king not return then, he has still not yet returned.
What did the church make of that? What do we make of it? Was it all a lie? Perhaps, as some biblical scholars suggested a century ago, it was simply a matter of the early church confusing the apostles’ apocalyptic expectations with what Jesus really had been telling them, and that the talk of the kingdom was just the church’s talk, not Jesus’. Maybe. Yet, now there are very few biblical scholars who would say that this talk wasn’t Jesus’. From everything that we can tell, in his ministry, Jesus talked about the kingdom more than he talked about anything else. So, what are we to make of this delay? Where is the kingdom and where is the king? Are we like the people who simply remember the once-upon-a-time king, and forlornly wait for a future king and God? Are we like the two characters in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, absurdly waiting for someone and something who never comes?
But this sort of waiting for a once-and-future king was not really the early church’s experience at all. If, indeed, they remembered Christ as the one who had laid down his glory when he became a man, and took it up again with the Father after the Resurrection, and if indeed they awaited his coming again, confessing at communion, “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again,” still they did not feel deserted or abandoned, nor did they feel alone. Their experience on a daily basis was that in their own lives and their community that the power of sin had been overcome; their present, continual experience was that of new life. They had been given the Spirit, and, indeed, the promise of the prophet that the Spirit would be poured over the whole world was being fulfilled in front of their very eyes. Christ would come again in glory, that they did not doubt. But Christ and the gifts he had promised were not simply future things. They were also present realities. Even if he was absent, they felt his presence intensely. They did not feel abandoned, just as we, even though a waiting people, should not feel abandoned.
This last Thursday was the church Feast of the Ascension, that day when forty days after the Resurrection and ten days before Pentecost, we commemorate and celebrate Jesus’ return to the Father. We do not usually make much of the Ascension. We ought to make more of it than we do, for it is the vital link that holds together all that Christ did in his earthly ministry and our own present-day experience of Christ in our community and lives. It is because of what the Ascension means, namely, that Christ has returned to reign in glory and to intercede for us with the Father in heaven that Christ is no once-and-future king, but a present king and high priest, who even now lives and reigns in our lives, even if we happen to live in a world that is filled with violence, disappointment, and hostility to truth.
It is important to make something positive of the Ascension, because Christ is sometimes thought of as if he were spaceman Jesus – he comes from another world, he does strange and wonderful things while here, and then he returns to outer space, to some other world from whence he came. He was a great benefactor when on earth, but one who essentially remains untouched by this world. This is a terrible way to think about what Jesus is and does. The ascended Christ is not somewhere out there in space, hovering above the earth. He still remains present and active. Matthew in his version of the Ascension gives Jesus’ last words to the disciples. They are simply, “Lo, remember that I am with you always even to the end of the age.” He is present to us, even now, even though we do not see him.
It is also important to remember that the Christ who has ascended to the Father to pick up the glory he once laid down has taken with him everything that he was and did among us. The ascended Christ is the crucified and risen Christ. The Book of Revelation tells us that Christ in glory still retains the marks of the nails in his hands. The Letter to the Hebrews describes things this way: “Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, is now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death.” That is important for this reason, namely, that because he did become like his brothers and sisters, that he who now reigns in heaven can be a merciful and high priest. “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested,” Hebrews tells us. He is the perfect high priest, the perfect pastor, because he who intercedes for us in front of the Father and is like us in every way. He has been tempted as we are, he has suffered as we suffer, he has felt our every weakness. Or, as St. Paul says, “Who is in a position to condemn? Only Christ, and Christ died for us, Christ rose for us, Christ reigns in power for us, Christ prays for us.”
The ascended Christ who reigns in power is the one who also sends the Spirit, the same Spirit who gives Christ’s people the spiritual gifts of wisdom, piety, courage, understanding, counsel, knowledge, and fear of the Lord, gifts that we enjoy now. He ascends precisely so that he can send that Spirit which is how he stays with us. That Spirit is also the one who, when in our weakness we do not know what to say, intercedes with sighs too deep for words.
The difference between spaceman Jesus and the ascended reigning Lord is this: spaceman Jesus zooms in on the planet and leaves. Those who believe in this Jesus include those who are simply waiting around for him to return. It also includes those who think he is no longer present and active and that there is no return. Their skepticism is actually no more religiously sophisticated than the naivete of those with who are looking for Christ to return on clouds. Why? In both cases, the Jesus who is professed is a spaceman whose work is already done. One side just thinks there is a return trip; the other side doesn’t.
The ascended reigning Lord, on the other hand, has not finished his work. In fact, he has ascended to heaven to reign in heaven precisely so that he may continue working: working in sending the Spirit, working in interceding, for us, and working in drawing us closer to him. Those who believe in this Jesus trust that he loves them and have confidence in his promises. They are not just hanging around and waiting, nor are they too sophisticated to think that there is nothing left to do. They are waiting to see him face to face, but they are not just biding their time. They are spending it in letting themselves be God’s work, until he has refashioned them entirely. They are spending it in doing Christ’s work. They are willing to suffer and to take up their cross daily. They suffer not because he is gone, but because they are like him, and he, the one who suffers for others, dwells within them. So, they also suffer for others. But they also endure and they will prevail because he is king, not once, not just in the future, but even now.
For those who believe in the ascended and reigning Lord, time, the time of our lives, therefore has a very particular quality. It is a time of waiting, to be sure. It is a time when we sense both God’s presence, and God’s absence. It is a time of hope, but also a time that desperately needs hope, for the world in which we live loves truth and light and peace no more than it did when Christ was present among us.
The words we read from the Gospel of St. John this morning are taken from a chapter known as Christ’s high priestly prayer, for in this prayer Christ intercedes for his people. He prays for those he will leave behind in a world he knows will be hostile to them. He does not ask that they be taken out of the world, or even that they not suffer. He knows that they will suffer just as he did. What he does ask is that they be protected from evil. He above all asks that they be sanctified, that they be made holy in the truth as they are sent out into the world, not away from it. The time of the Christian life, and the time of Christian experience, is a time of waiting. But it is not a time of just waiting around. It is a time of sanctification, when as we go out into the world, we grow in truth, sometimes through suffering. It is a time when Christ has ascended and left his brothers and sisters in the world precisely so that he can send the Spirit of truth that will give them growth.
The reigning Christ intercedes for us with his Father in heaven. What does he pray for us? He prays for the same things that he prays for in this prayer recorded in John’s Gospel. He prays that, in this time, we now have that we might be made holy in truth in this world. He prays that we will grow in truth. He prays that we will endure. Not only does he pray for these things for us, in the Spirit he himself comes to us, so that in this time of waiting we might be made holy and truthful and thus be made one with him and with the Father, with whom he is one.
In a time of ambiguity, in a time of untruth, in a time of suffering, this counts a lot. So, on this day, as we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord, let us look to him to come to us that we might be made holy in this world, that we might persevere, that we might tell the truth. Let us then come to him in this Holy Supper for it is here that he has promised to meet us and to strengthen us and give us his very self.