“There’s no justice!” This has been the anguished cry of countless people who’ve been wronged, a cry repeated everywhere in every generation. At some point in our lives, to a greater or lesser degree, each of us has been affected personally by injustice. The world is unfair. Might makes right. The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.
How do we respond? How will we choose to live in the world as it is? Will we choose to believe that in the end justice will prevail, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, and suffer the consequences in the meanwhile? Or will we choose to believe instead that there is no justice, that to succeed in the world as it is, we have to make compromises, and violate conscience?
These alternatives are inescapable. And they will test each Christian. And the fact that they will test each Christian reveal them to be ultimately theological in character. Put otherwise, they test what we believe to be true about God.
Is God just? Of course God is just, we say. But in those moments of anguish, it is not so clear, if we are honest.
If God is just, then why doesn’t he do something about the injustice everywhere? Closer to home, why doesn’t he do something about the injustice that you or I have to endure? “Will not the judge of all the earth do what is right? (Gen. 18:25). Will not God bring about justice for his own, who cry out to him day and night? (Luke 18:8). In those moments of anguish, we are not so sure.
Nevertheless, the affirmation that God is just is integral to our faith. “The Lord loves justice. He will not forsake his own (Ps. 37:28). The Lord loves justice and hates wickedness (Psalm 45:7). The Lord comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in justice, and the peoples with equity (Psalm 98:9).
Israel affirms that God is just, which she celebrates in her worship. For Christians this affirmation is made even more certain in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We are all familiar with the account. A kangaroo court convicted an innocent man of a capital crime and handed him over to the authorities, who had him flogged and lynched.
That is just one more miscarriage of justice in a cruel and unjust world. It happens with sickening regularity. There’s nothing out of the ordinary here.
But then God overturned this verdict by raising him from the dead. Jesus Christ, risen from the dead! This has been our theme during Eastertide. And, if, as we often say, the cross and resurrection of Jesus is the place where we must look to find God, then there we see that God is nothing if not just.
That God is just–this is good news. It was certainly good news for Jesus. He entrusted himself to the One who judges justly, continued to do good in the face of violent opposition, and was vindicated. God proved himself both just and faithful to his own by raising Jesus from the dead.
But is it good news for the rest of us, who continue to live in an unjust world, and even today may be suffering as victims of wrongdoing? And if so, how?
The key to the answer to this question lies in what we celebrate today. For today we celebrate the ascension of the Lord.
Ascension Day reminds us that our faith affirms not only the resurrection of Jesus but also his ascension and exaltation.
Easter is the message of the resurrection of Jesus. The Ascension is the message of the going up of Jesus into heaven, where he takes his place at the right hand of the God the Father.
Now we need to be clear here. When we say that Jesus has ascended into heaven, we are not saying that he has gone on some space journey, up, up and away into the wild blue yonder. We are saying that he went to the realm of God, which transcends time and space.
Similarly, when we say that he sat down at the right hand of God the Father, we are not saying that there is a big chair somewhere up in the sky. We are saying that he has assumed all power and authority, of which the “right hand of God” is a symbol. The ascended Jesus is ruling over all things in heaven and on earth in the Father’s name.
Author Brian Donne puts it succinctly: “The resurrection means Jesus lives, the ascension asserts that Jesus reigns.”
This shouldn’t be new to us. Indeed, we confess it each Sunday when we recite the Apostles’ Creed. “The third day he rose from the dead. He ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty…”
Luke is the only author who narrates the ascension. It is found at the end of his Gospel, which coincides with our Gospel lesson today, as well as at the beginning of his Acts of the Apostles, forming a spine that binds the two books together.
Jesus has been preparing his disciples for his departure, as we have been seeing over the past two Sundays. Today he gives them final instructions.
He wants them to be clear: He is the one to whom the Scriptures point. The law and the prophets and the Psalms speak about him. Most importantly, they speak about his suffering and his rising from the dead on the third day.
He wants to be sure that they have this straight, because he is going to send them out to preach this very thing. It is infinitely important that they do have this straight, because attached to this message is repentance and the forgiveness of sins.
Remember the Apostle Paul last Sunday? He preached Christ to the Athenians assembled at the Areopagus. He preached Christ as the one appointed by God to be judge of all nations. God confirmed this appointment by raising him from the dead.
Jesus Christ, raised from the dead. This is the message. The response is to repent and to acknowledge and accept this message as true. That is what Paul wanted for the Athenians.
But the disciples today are not yet prepared to do what Paul did later. Jesus instructs them to go to Jerusalem and wait there until they are clothed with power from on high.
“I go to the Father,” we heard Jesus tell the disciples in the Gospel of John two Sundays ago. To go to the Father, in fact, refers to the ascension. “It is for your good that I go away. Unless I go away, the Spirit will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7).
Note in our gospel lesson today Jesus refers to the Spirit as the “power from on high.” With this power the disciples will be clothed. It’s the ascension of Jesus that is the enabling condition of the reception of this power, which is nothing less than the Holy Spirit.
We will be saying more about this on Pentecost Sunday.
Before he departs, Jesus leads his disciples out to Bethany. He then raises his arms to bless them. And while he was blessing them, it happened. “He withdrew from them, and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:51).
The disciples worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy (Luke 24:52).
Let us pause here to remark on just how odd this seems. Earlier, as we have already seen, the disciples were troubled and distressed at the prospect of Jesus’ departure. This is understandable. When we are separated from our loved ones, there is usually a natural sadness in us, since we will no longer see their face, no longer hear their voice, or enjoy their presence. But here the disciples respond with joyful worship. Why?
Because Luke means to portray this event as an enthronement festival. Consider our opening call to worship:
God has ascended amid shouts of joy,
the Lord amid the sounding of trumpets.
Sing praises to God, sing praises;
sing praises to our King, sing praises.
For God is the King of all the earth;
sing to him a psalm of praise (Ps. 47:5-7).
The enthronement festival called Israel and the struggling nations to cease momentarily from their strife and to acknowledge God as king. Be still and know that I am God (Psalm 46:10).
This is the deeper significance of the event that we celebrate today. With the ascension Jesus assumes his reign over the nations. He accedes to his holy throne to rule and to judge.
How can the disciples not respond with joy? How can they fail to bless God?
Here is one in whom Israel hoped. Here is the one about whom the Psalms spoke, the one who will judge God’s people with righteousness, and the poor with justice. Here is the one to whom God promised life for as long as the sun endures, and a dominion from sea to sea (Psalm 72).
The ascension triumphantly proclaims: Christ reigns. He is king of kings and Lord of Lords, 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 the age to come.
And God has put everything under him and has made him the head over all things for the church (as we heard in our epistle lesson).
A professor who renounced his faith told me several years ago that as a Christian I was on the wrong side of history, that the church is a relic of the past, and that it would soon be swept into the dustbins of history.
Justice in the abstract, ascribed to an imaginary ascended Christ, who comes to judge the earth in righteousness, is a distraction at best. Focus instead on real world problems, and work for justice here and now. That was his advice to me.
But work for justice, if it is truly more than mere virtual signaling from behind your laptop, achieves only partial victories in this world if it isn’t crushed altogether. And many activists become disillusioned, lose heart, and even give up and become cynics.
But the Christian can always rejoice the Lord is king. His kingdom cannot fail. He rules over earth and heaven, in the words of the classic hymn.
Should not this conviction give Christians the strength and courage to continue to stand on the side of justice? It can and should, because Christians believe that, because of the ascended Christ who reigns at the Father’s right hand, justice will ultimately prevail.
We cannot arrive at this conviction on our own. That is why the author of the Epistle to the Ephesians in our first lesson prayed for the Christians to whom he was writing. He prayed that God would give to them a spirit of revelation and wisdom so that they might know what is the hope to which God called them and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for those who believe, according to the working of God’s great power.
The twentieth-century American theologian and social critic Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that there must always be a faith element in the hope for a just society. According to Niebuhr, without the passion of faith, no society will ever have the courage to conquer despair and attempt the impossible.
With this passion of faith, the Christian can sing the words of the classic hymn (This is My Father’s World).
This is my Father’s world:
O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the Ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world:
Why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is King: let the heavens ring!
God reigns; let earth be glad!
Let your hearts be glad. The Ascension does not point to Jesus’ absence, but to his presence among us in a new and powerful way. He is no longer in a specific place in the world as he was before the Ascension. He is at the right hand of the Father, the place of the greatest power and highest authority, present to all times and places, and therefore close to each one of us.
How then can we be discouraged, how then can we be afraid, when injustice threatens? We have a powerful king on our side who defends us, a judge who has ruled in our favor. And he is the one who will have the last say.
A little girl was once a passenger on the ship of which her father was captain. On the voyage, a raging storm came up. The captain ordered all on board to put on life jackets. The steward woke the little girl in her cabin and told her of the order. She asked, “Who is at the helm of the ship?” “Your father,” he replied. “Well, then, if Daddy is at the helm, everything will be all right.”
This is the faith that you need in an unjust world always in turmoil. Jesus Christ, the righteous judge of all the earth, has all power and authority. He is at the helm of this world, and certainly our lives. Amen.