May 24, 2020 - The Ascension
I cringed when I heard that the governor’s order lifting some of the restrictions we’ve been living under would include “reopening” churches. I did not cringe because I’m not anxious to resume public worship — I am.
I cringed in part because the Church never closes; even when we can’t gather for worship, we are very much practicing our faith through worship, prayer, study, giving, and works of mercy. And emails, phone calls, social media, and Zoom meetings. So many Zoom meetings.
I cringed in part because when someone gives permission to someone or something, that gives the impression that the person giving permission has authority over that person or thing, and no civil authority has any role in the governance of the Church.
For a while I considered preaching a whole sermon against the subservience of the Church to the State, and perhaps someday I will. But first I reminded myself that I answer to the bishop, not the governor, and our bishop has decided that it is not yet safe for us to resume public worship in person — and I wholeheartedly agree with the bishop’s assessment.
The main reason I cringed, though, is that I knew that I would have to disappoint some of our parishioners who heard an authority figure saying what they wanted to hear and quite understandably began to hope we might be back in church this Sunday. I would rather sit through a hundred Zoom meetings and reply to a thousand e-mails than tell people I love, people whose faithfulness and graciousness have moved and inspired me, that they still can’t have what they want, and so richly deserve, all through no fault of their own. But if running a church were all fun and games, St. John’s would be charging me admission rather than paying me a salary.
Speaking of running a church, today’s readings introduce the fascinating but often overlooked transition between Jesus giving his closest followers personal direction and those followers becoming leaders in their own right — while still deriving their leadership from their obedience to Jesus.
From his Resurrection, which of course is celebrated on Easter, to his Ascension, which was properly celebrated last Thursday, Jesus was physically holding his followers together, not in the sense of a group hug — though they were friends, so who knows — but in the sense that his followers were physically congregating around his physical body. Which was perfectly natural, since they had followed him around from the beginning, but was not the way the Good News was going to reach the ends of the earth, and all nations become disciples. So one way or another, Jesus had to leave.
In a very limited sense, I get this. No one will ever confuse me with Jesus, but I do try to cultivate leadership among our parishioners, and while giving direction, staying available, and offering support and guidance are part of that, one also has to set boundaries, stay out of the way, and give people space to make their own decisions. Conversely, micromanagement and authoritarianism are failures of leadership. Not only does cultivating leadership head off the burnout of any one leader, it also helps the new leaders continue growing in their faith and helps the parish be more capable, effective, and consequential.
But back to Jesus. His Ascension was more than cutting the apron strings. As a priest friend of mine put it, it was more than Jesus deciding he’d rather work from home. If that were all, the disciples would not have been filled with such great joy. At first blush, their joy seems strange. Would they not have felt abandoned and afraid?
No, because Jesus did not merely vanish. That would have been confusing at best. The way Jesus departed spoke volumes, for the disciples saw him ascend, to heaven. On a superficial, but still legitimate, level, they would have been happy that Jesus was returning to his place of rightful glory; it’s always nice to see a true friend get a well-deserved promotion. Digging a bit deeper, Jesus’s Ascension was further proof of his divinity, an additional boost to their faith. They might have also remembered Jesus’s promise that he would bring them to himself, and if they did, they would have been overjoyed to see that heaven was the place he would be bringing them.
But there is a further cause for joy in the Ascension, one which today’s reading from Ephesians makes plain, and I believe that cause is the greatest of them all. For the consequences of the Ascension are not limited to a happy memory or the hope of heaven. Or to borrow from the reading, the Ascension is more than enlightenment for the eyes of our hearts, more than the hope to which Jesus has called us, and more than “the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints.”
The great glory and joy in the Ascension are first, that God has seated Jesus “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” — in other words, put Jesus in the only position of power that ultimately matters. God had exalted Jesus before, but now “he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things.” So we have the profound comfort of knowing that all of heaven and earth will ultimately be ruled not by the vagaries of public sentiment, nor bloodlines, nor conquests, nor the laws of men, but by the perfect grace and mercy which are the full expression of the love of God.
Now, I did talk about staying available, and once again, Jesus does this better than we can understand. His Ascension was the end of his physical presence on Earth, but also the beginning of Jesus’s existence as the One who “fills all in all.” This is more profound than we can imagine, so rather than try to explain, let me draw out a few implications. Jesus fills the cosmos and every corner of the Earth, including the ones we have corrupted. Jesus fills every facet of our beings, including the ones we would prefer to keep separate from him. Jesus fills our enemies.
We could easily cringe at these things, and perhaps sometimes we should. But only insofar as it gets us back on track, for it is more important to remember that Jesus fills a world that is passing away, not so the world can vanish into oblivion, but rather so the world will reach the perfection which God has always intended. Despite our sins, or rather, because of our sins, God has done these awesome things. Like the eyewitnesses of the Ascension, we too should rejoice and devote ourselves to prayer and the praise of God, for God has chosen the likes of us to be servant-leaders in the movement toward heaven which has already begun.