Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53
I think it’s wonderfully ironic that for us – a bunch of rational, analytical people – our faith is full of paradox. I love paradox; one of the reasons I embrace our Anglican tradition is that we can hold apparently conflicting truths in tension without letting them drive us completely crazy. Try these on for size: The path to eternal life is to take up our cross daily and follow Jesus to self-sacrifice. The God we worship is a “Trinity of Persons in Unity of Being,” three in one and one in three (BCP 380). Christianity is one paradox after another.
We get a healthy dose of paradox in the feast we honor today, too. The feast of the Ascension was this Thursday, 40 days after Jesus’ resurrection; and we’re marking it in our worship this morning. I think the Ascension is one of the least-understood concepts in our faith, right up there with the Trinity itself. Listen again to the prayer we offered earlier: “Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, [Jesus] abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages” (BCP 226). Chew on that for a minute. Plus, this is no asterisk in the catechism; it’s a core element of Christian doctrine. We profess every week, in the Nicene Creed, that Jesus “ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father” (BCP 358). And yet, at this altar we also proclaim that he is really present with us.
We heard the Ascension narrated in our readings this morning. In Acts, the disciples are having an amazing time hanging out with Jesus in those 40 days after his resurrection. And I think they’re figuring that since he’s defeated the power of death itself, surely it’s time to defeat the power of Rome, too. Time to be the Messiah we all hoped you’d be, Jesus – God’s own warrior king. So they ask him flat out, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Come on, Jesus, this has got to be the climax of the story. But instead, paradoxically, Jesus leaves God’s work in their hands. It’s not about political victory, no matter how badly that’s what the disciples want. Instead, Jesus says, it’s about witness: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). And with that, he’s taken from their sight. We’re told the disciples will be “clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49) a few days later, on Pentecost. But for now, they’re standing there with their mouths hanging open, trying to wrap their minds around “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20) even as he returns to divine majesty on high.
So what does the Ascension mean in terms of how we understand God? For me, it’s about uniting what seem to be opposites: immanence and transcendence, vulnerability and sovereignty, relationship and majesty – all at once. Hang with me for a minute: The fact that Jesus has ascended to the right hand of the Father means that all sovereignty over heaven and earth has been given to him. And, at the same time, the fact that Jesus has ascended, returning to the dance of relationship that is the life of the Trinity, that means God has experienced vulnerability God hadn’t quite experienced before, the brilliant joys and crushing sorrows of being human. All that life Jesus lived didn’t just evaporate with resurrection and ascension. It was taken back up into heaven, into the life of the God who is One in Three. Jesus brings humanity into God’s heart in a deeply personal and intimate way. So the sovereign of our world and of our lives is also our greatest advocate, the one who pours out on us “grace upon grace” (John 1:16) despite our constant failures and faithlessness. Transcendence and immanence; sovereignty and vulnerability; majesty and relationship: Welcome to the life of our ascended Lord.
So what earthly difference does all this make – literally, what difference for us here on earth, in the midst of the messiness of our lives? It’s kind of fun, intellectually, to revel in the poetry of God’s paradoxes. But it would be helpful if all this actually mattered in daily life.
So, hang with me again. I’ve got two more paradoxes for you. The first is the paradox of the two things we’re celebrating this weekend. Sometimes the Church calendar and the secular calendar crash into each other spectacularly, and this weekend is one of them. As we remember the Ascension of our Lord into sovereign majesty, we also mark Memorial Day, when we honor those who’ve given their lives in service and honor the nation that they served. For people with the peculiar job of planning worship, days like this present some cognitive dissonance: Here we are, proclaiming Jesus as the cosmic ruler who transcends all boundaries of tribe and language and nation, “far above all [human] rule and authority and power and dominion” (Ephesians 1:21). Yet at the same time, we’ve posted the flag of our own nation as we pray for those who’ve fallen in its service; and we’ll soon raise our voices in song asking God to protect and guide our nation particularly – by implication, at least, saying, protect us, Lord, from those other people in other countries who don’t follow you as well as we do. There are times when following the flag and following the cross don’t pair so easily, despite these flags standing beside each other here today.
Now, you can take this to one extreme of the argument and say we should have no national emblems in church and sing no national songs because no nation equates with the kingdom of God. Or you can take it to the other extreme of the argument and see the United States as the new Israel, God’s elect nation, uniquely the shining city on a hill. Or, option 3, following our Christian and Anglican traditions, you can honor the paradox and find a middle way. There are times when allegiance to the nation and allegiance to the sovereignty of Christ will present us with conflicts. In those times, at our best, we can find ways to live in the blessed paradox of “both/and” – and bless the world around us in the process.
Here’s an example, the last paradox of the day. On this Memorial Day and Ascension weekend, I want to commend a movie for your viewing pleasure. Actually, “pleasure” isn’t the right word because much of this film is not very pleasurable to watch. It’s Hacksaw Ridge, one of last year’s Oscar nominees for best picture. As you may know, it’s the story of Desmond Doss, a young man from Virginia who comes of age in the Depression and the early years of World War II. Like so many millions of the Greatest Generation, he signed up to serve in our armed forces and fight against Hitler and Imperial Japan. But unlike nearly all of his comrades in arms, Doss refused to take up arms. He was a conscientious objector, refusing even to hold a weapon, much less fire one; but he was also a patriot, insisting he had service to offer his nation. Ironically, he had to fight to convince the Army that he could serve – and, more to the point, be trusted to serve – as a medic, fighting for his country by saving people’s lives instead of taking people’s lives. If you haven’t seen the film, I won’t spoil the story for you, other than to say Doss was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor without ever firing a shot.
Desmond Doss lived in the tension of paradox, keeping one foot in the world and one foot in the kingdom of heaven, with each foot firmly planted. He knew exactly where he stood. Few of us will know the kind of tension Doss faced, and (thank God) few of us will find ourselves in a situation where the stakes of our decisions are so high. But you know, we all will find ourselves in situations where we have to ask: “Where does my allegiance lie? What is my sovereign power? Is my sovereign my bank account? Or my professional success? Or my family? Or my country? Or my risen and ascended Lord?” For those who travel the middle way, there is room for authority of several kinds. St. Paul himself urged the Christians living in Rome, of all places, to “be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1) despite the fact those governing authorities had nailed Jesus to the cross as a rebel king. And, at the same time, St. Paul could proclaim with complete certainty that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend … and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,” or kyrios, which was the emperor’s title (Philippians 2:10-11).
So, where is that tension operative for you? Day by day, in decisions great and small, how are you pulled to honor one sovereign or another? And where, for you, is that path of Desmond Doss, the decorated soldier who never fired a shot?