“To the Ends of the Earth: Christ Against Nationalism”
By Fr. Guillermo A. Arboleda
Ascension Day - May 10, 2018
Delivered at The Collegiate Church of St. Paul the Apostle, Savannah, GA
In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. "This," he said, "is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now."
So when they had come together, they asked him, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" He replied, "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven."
We begin the book of Acts on Ascension Day. We’ve heard the stories of Jesus’ birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection. Forty days have passed since Easter morning. Jesus has walked among us in Jerusalem and Judea and Galilee for all this time. And the disciples meet Jesus in Jerusalem for what will be their final conversation with Lord Jesus in the flesh.
And they have one question that comes to mind as they stand outside the City of David, the ancestral capital of the kingdom of Israel, “Mount Zion, which [God] loves” (Psalm 78:68). They turn to Jesus and ask, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6a). We might paraphrase it, “Lord, is it time to make Israel great again?”
Does this question sound familiar? Have you heard it on TV, or in movies? On the news? From politicians? In churches? It is a question wrapped in the ideology of nationalism. The Rev. Dr. Willie Jennings calls nationalism “the first idolatry, because it places another god over God. It places a god-bound-to-our-nation over the God of all nations” (Jennings, 22).
Referring to this passage, he continues, “The disciples ask the nationalist question: When will we rule our land, and become self-determining, and if need be impose our will on others? All this would, of course, be for the good of the world, they suppose. … The nationalism suggested here is not a historical nationalism bound to … Israel, but the deeply human desire of every people to control their destiny and shape the world into their hoped-for eternal image. … [The nationalist fantasy] drives the creation of walled communities, border patrols, and checkpoints and turns violence and segregation into the proper exercise of the state’s right to life” (Jennings, 17).
“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6a). This is tempting, especially for those deprived of power, oppressed by foreign rulers, afflicted by great pain and suffering. But the power of Jesus, power of the Kingdom of God is not the power of humanity.
The Kingdom of God is not a kingdom that can be restored to any one nation-state. No nation-state has ever resisted the temptation to use violence for its own benefit, to make themselves richer, more prosperous, or more secure (Jennings, 17). And the Kingdom of God, the way of Jesus, is not to inflict violence and death, but to endure it. The way of Jesus is the way of overcoming death with new life. The way of Jesus is the way of resurrection. It’s power over death not so you can keep causing death. It’s power to end the threat of death, power to heal, reconcile, and make peace.
And so Jesus ascends. He knows our nationalist fantasies. He knew them in the eleven apostles, he has known them in Christians of every age, and he knows them in us. Jesus sees our deepest, darkest desires, right at the core of who we are. And Jesus responds to our nationalism with Ascension.
Jesus ascends to transform place and space. Jesus was not born in a vacuum. He was born into Israel, in a long line of people chosen by God to be a holy priesthood to the world, beginning with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jesus was born a descendant of David, the greatest king of Israel. And he communed with Moses the lawgiver and Elijah the great Prophet on the mount of Transfiguration. Jesus was not just a perfect man, but a perfect Israelite man. Jesus’ place and space and people were important.
God’s promises to Israel are eternal. Israel has and will play an important role in the salvation of the world. So Jesus speaks to his Jewish disciples and tells them to wait for him in Jerusalem. The nationalism of Israel is therefore an understandable mistake. God does have a plan for them, but it’s not a plan for domination. It’s a plan for love.
So instead, Jesus ascends into heaven. Now he is no longer bound to one place and one people. He will not restore Israel as a geopolitical force anymore than he intends to make America into one. Jesus ascends so he can know each of our places and spaces more intimately. No longer bound to a finite (albeit resurrected) body, Jesus allows the people of the Church to become his Body through the coming Holy Spirit. Jesus can be present with us (right here and now in Savannah) in the Bread and Wine while also being present with our sisters and brothers in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
Jesus is present everywhere because he ascended. And because he is ever-present, no nation or tribe has any corner on Jesus. He can’t be so easily controlled or exploited. Jesus ascends to show his love and presence to all people everywhere. God shows no partiality. God does not endorse our endless greed for money, power, or privilege. Jesus does not endorse our violent nationalist, colonialist, or even denominationalist fantasies. I love the Episcopal Church and I love living in the USA, but God’s Kingdom and God’s Dream for the universe is much bigger than these institutions we have constructed.
So Jesus gives his Body to the whole Church. He ascends for our benefit so that we can be a people who look outward to the next beloved child of God. Inside the nationalist fantasy, “we” have to protect the in-group from “them.” But because we are witnesses to the resurrected and ascended Jesus, there is no “them.” “Them” are “us.” Even if we travel “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8), to the least desirable place and people we can imagine, God loves them too.
Jesus Christ ascends out of love for the whole world. May we be witnesses to that kind of love here and everywhere. Amen.
Jennings, Willie James. Acts. Edited by Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017.
Image Credit: Ethiopian Orthodox icon of the Ascension of Christ, http://sacredartpilgrim.com/schools/view/8