ALICE LAUGHED: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
The Queen, in this passage from Alice in Wonderland, might well be speaking of Morning Prayer: it takes half an hour or less each day to read; it is often read before breakfast; and it’s filled with impossible things that we are expected to believe. Why, the Creed alone proclaims more than six impossible things, though these six are particularly noteworthy and impossible:
• that God, whom we call Father, created all things in heaven and on earth;
• that God the Father had a Son, conceived by God the Holy Spirit and born of a human woman — a virgin, of all things;
• that this Son, Jesus the Christ, God the Son, was crucified, died, and was buried;
• that he rose again from the dead three days later;
• that he ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of his Father, at the place of power and glory;
• that he will come again to judge us all — those living at his return and those dead whom he shall raise to life.
And all this before breakfast: for Anglicans, as for the Queen, believing impossible things just takes a little practice.
When confronted with an impossible thing — and you know I say “impossible” with tongue firmly in cheek — when confronted with an impossible thing, I find it helpful to ask three questions:
1. Do I understand it? In other words, do I really know what I am expected to believe?
2. Can I believe it? Is there sufficient evidence for the impossible thing or else insufficient evidence to refute it? There is a corollary to this: do I already believe something that commends this new impossible thing or which compels me to accept it also?
3. What must I do about the impossible thing if I were to believe it?
Take the impossible thing of the Resurrection of Jesus, for example, and apply these questions.
Do I understand it? Do I really know what I am expected to believe? Well, yes, I think I do: that a man, brutally beaten and executed by Roman soldiers — merchants of death who verified that he was truly good and dead — came to life again three days later, body and all. Not a ghost, not a figment of imagination, not a religious longing turned delusion, not the continuation of an ideal by faithful disciples, but a flesh and blood, scar-bearing, fish eating body. Granted, it was a glorified human body capable of appearing behind locked doors and disappearing at will: more than an ordinary human body or perhaps a human body as it was created to be, but, either way, still a human body continuous with the one laid in the tomb. This is what I’m expected to believe.
Can I believe it? Is there sufficient evidence for this impossible thing? Well, frankly, it runs contrary to everything we know, to the whole of human experience. Our dead stay dead. We do not attend funerals with the expectation that the deceased will return home with us or appear just a bit later. Dead is dead. And that understanding, that knowledge, was true for the small band of Jesus’ disciples, as well. He was dead. That ended the story. And now they had to deal with that, to figure out how to re-establish their lives without him. They didn’t expect what happened next. They didn’t expect to encounter a living Jesus in the Garden or on the road to Emmaus or in the Upper Room or on the shore at the Sea of Galilee. And yet, that is precisely what they say happened; we have their startled eyewitness testimonies. And more than just their tales, we have the evidence of the lives they lived after seeing the resurrected Christ — lives sacrificially devoted to telling the world the good news of a risen Savior. They died proclaiming that news; they died precisely for proclaiming that news. Everything about the disciples’ behavior — about their lives and their deaths — suggests to me a people unafraid of death because they had seen death conquered by their friend and Master Jesus, who was crucified, died, buried, and who rose again on the third day. So, yes, as impossible as this thing is, there is credible evidence for it, and I find that I can and do believe it.
What must I do about this impossible thing now that I believe it? Well, that’s another sermon for another time. More than that, it is a life-long engagement with the living Lord through the grace of the indwelling Holy Spirit: the renewal of our minds, the purifying of our hearts, the surrender of our wills, the service of our hands, the praise of our lips. I must die with Jesus. I must be buried with him in baptism. I must rise again with him — new creation! — so that he might live in me.
So, you see how these questions work, how they respond to and how they interrogate impossible things.
Today, the Church confronts us with the impossible thing it calls the Ascension. It is a dogma of the Church, believed, as St. Vincent of Lérins would say, “everywhere, always, and by all.” It is enshrined in the Nicene Creed that we will profess in a matter of moments, and is thus a touchstone of orthodoxy:
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
Deny this, and whatever else you might be, you are not Christian in any meaningful, orthodox sense of the word; you have wandered outside the boundaries of the consensual faith. Still, even as interwoven as this tenet is in the fabric of our faith, I think it is important to address our three questions to this impossible thing:
1. Do I understand it?
2. Can I believe it?
3. What must I do if I believe it?
Do I understand it? I’m convinced that some don’t at all, that many do in part, and that none does fully. The caricature of the Ascension is that Jesus went up from a place called earth into a far distant place called heaven, ankles and feet disappearing up into the clouds. For a time — and God only knows how long that will be — Jesus will do “God stuff” up there and leave us to do “human stuff” down here. When we have gotten it as right as we can or else messed it up as badly as we can, Jesus will come back to earth to judge our work. The good ones among us will go back to heaven to live with him and the bad ones will go to another distant place, hell, where they will be punished forever. Not quite. Not really at all.
First, heaven isn’t a place distant from earth. Heaven is the realm, the dimension of God’s being. N. T. Wright describes heaven this way:
Heaven is God’s space, which intersects with our space but transcends it. It is, if you like, a further dimension of our world, not a place far removed at one extreme of our world. It is all around us, glimpsed in a mystery in every Eucharist and every act of generous human love (N. T. Wright, Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship).
This is important, because it means that Jesus, in his ascension, is not removed from us, not simply watching us now from a distance. Heaven and earth intersect in myriads of ways and times and places. Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, is not a passive observer, but an active participant in the affairs of earth, an authoritative participant in the commission he has given his followers:
Matthew 28:18–20 (ESV): And Jesus came and said to them [his disciples], “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
“All authority,” and “I am with you always”: these are the truths of the Ascension.
Part of the problem in understanding the Ascension is that we get the earth’s-eye view of it in Luke and Acts, but we often forget the heaven’s-eye view of it in Daniel:
Daniel 7:13–14 (ESV): I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
14 And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed.
This is the Ascension seen from the perspective of heaven, from the throne room of God, not a leaving but an arrival. Jesus has returned to God’s realm. He has been presented victorious before the Father. And the Father has bestowed upon him all authority in heaven and on earth and has made him Lord of all. All kingdoms and peoples and nations and languages are subject to him; all are his servants. The Ascension is the enthronement of Jesus Christ as King of kings and Lord of lords: not his going away to a distant place to disengage with the earth, but the accession of Jesus to Lordship over the earth; not his absence, but his presence to the end of the ages; not his disinterested observation, but his active engagement to implement his rule. When we begin to understand this, we have just begun to understand the Ascension.
Can I believe it? Can I believe that even now, Jesus is enthroned as Lord of all creation, as Ruler of all things in heaven and on earth? Can I believe it when all the “facts on the ground” strongly suggest otherwise? Can I, in all honesty, look around at the state of the world — war and greed and sexual confusion and xenophobia and racism and genocide and religious persecution and political dysfunction and fires and floods and epidemics, and school shootings, and well, all of it — can I look around at the state of the world and honestly believe that this is what it looks like when God is in charge, when Jesus is reigning as King of kings and Lord of lords? Can I believe it?
Well, if I ask the question a different way, I can get there; I can believe. Not, “Is this what it looks like when God is in charge?” but, “Is this what it looks like when Jesus has begun his reign over a fallen creation and a rebellious people and their rebellious rulers?” Is this what it looks like when the Lord reigns in the midst of his enemies? Is this what it looks like given the present reality of Psalm 2?
Psalm 2:1–3 (ESV): Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
2 The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
3 “Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”
Yes, this is exactly what I might expect it to look like when a dark power — the dragon, the beast, the great Prostitute, Babylon — successfully urges the people of the earth to ignore the sovereignty of the Lord, to pursue their own twisted desires, and to rebel against the rightful authority of the ascended and ruling Lord Jesus Christ. This is the mystery of inaugurated eschatology — the beginning of the end. Jesus reigns now; he has been given all rule and authority. But this is just the beginning; though the war has been won and the rightful king enthroned, there are many battles still to be fought: battles with loss, and casualty, and damage. So, then, this is our hope, a hope that makes it possible to believe the Ascension — that this is not the end, but the beginning of the end. In the end, all shall be well; if all is not yet well, it is not yet the end. Saint Paul writes in the middle time between Ascension and Return, looking forward to the end:
1 Corinthians 15:24–26 (ESV): 24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
Can I believe it? Probably not — not alone, not with my own power. That is precisely why Paul prayed as he did for the Ephesians; and it is a prayer not for them only, but for all who long to believe in the Ascension, a prayer:
Ephesians 1:17–23 (ESV): that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, 18 having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might 20 that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 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 one to come. 22 And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
The Spirit of wisdom and revelation and knowledge, a heart enlightened, a hope renewed, a promise of inheritance, a glimpse of immeasurable greatness, the working of God’s resurrection power in us — the power by which he raised Christ from the dead, seated him at his right hand in glory, elevated him above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and gave him to the church as head over all things: this is what we need if we are to believe the Ascension, this answer to Paul’s prayer. Can I believe it? Yes, God being my helper.
What must I do, if I believe it? Well, that’s another sermon for another time. More than that, it is a life-long engagement with the risen and ascended Lord through the grace of the indwelling Holy Spirit: the renewal of our minds, the purifying of our hearts, the surrender of our wills, the service of our hands, the praise of our lips. While I cannot preach that sermon now, I can perhaps point the way forward.
What must we do? We must do justice, tell truth, and make beauty.
First, justice. I know that the minute I even mention justice — wherever and with whomever I happen to be — some hackles will rise, some walls will go up, and conversely some will breathe a sigh of relief, some arms will open to embrace me as an ally. And both of those responses miss the point. I am not talking about justice as our culture defines it. A Christian has not said justice until he/she says God’s justice, kingdom justice. It has nothing — nothing — to do with wokeness or critical theory, nothing to do with Republican or Democrat, nothing to do with liberal or conservative. But it has everything to do with loving your neighbor as yourself, everything to do with seeing Christ in the hungry and thirsty, in the naked and sick and imprisoned, in the stranger and widow and orphan. It has everything to do with taking the Law and the Prophets seriously: the Law that addresses the requirement for systemic justice — God’s mandate for systems and structures to feed the poor and the sojourner, to release brothers and sisters from slavery and to remit debt every seventh year, to return family property sold in times of want every year of Jubilee; and the Prophets that address failure to satisfy systemic justice — God’s mandate for kings to rule justly, for courts to decide impartially, for society to live righteously. Justice is about restoration, about the return to God’s ideal of order and relationship and functionality and holiness, both individually and collectively.
Ascension calls us to do justice, because God’s kingdom is a kingdom of justice, because the one who now exercises all sovereignty and dominion is the Lord of justice.
Second, truth. The one who now rules over all things identified himself as the way, the truth, and the life. And that means that we must be his truth-telling image-bearers in a world that is bound up in delusion and falsehood, enticed and enslaved by the father of lies. Do not be complicit in their lies. Know the truth. Steep yourself in the truth through prayer and worship, in the Scriptures and the great Tradition of the Church until you are saturated in and formed indelibly by that truth. And then live and speak that truth in love: not with vitriol and anger, not with polemic and rancor, not to win an argument but to woo a soul lost in darkness back to the light of Christ.
Ascension calls us to know and tell the truth, because God’s kingdom is a kingdom of truth, and because the one who now exercises all sovereignty and dominion is himself the living Truth.
Last, beauty. Beauty is the Lord’s subtle and creative presence in the human heart and imagination manifesting itself in sight and sound and touch and taste and smell, in words spoken and songs sung, in gardens cultivated and homes built, in the glories of nature and in the works of man, in the joy and longing that fill the human heart. Bring forth beauty into God’s kingdom on earth: order from chaos, reconciliation from brokenness, laughter from tears, hope from fear. Bake a loaf of bread and share it with a neighbor. Dance like you know what you’re doing and revel in the wonder and grace of the human form. Paint a picture — a happy little tree — even if Bob Ross might laugh at the result; laugher is good for the soul, too, and makes a most beautiful sound. Sit in silence in the quiet of a church and watch how the light streaming in the windows plays across the pews. Hug a child — or your wife or husband — and delight in the beauty of love. Fill your mind, heart, and spirit with the fair beauty of the Lord.
Ascension calls us to revel in beauty, to make beauty, because God’s kingdom is a kingdom of beauty, and because the one who now exercises all sovereignty and dominion is himself most beautiful.
What must I do if I believe it? All of this and so much more. Not least, this: I must trust that one day, just as Christ ascended, he will come again in power and glory to put all things to rights, to make all things new, to free his righteous ones from all that weighs them down, to dry every tear, to heal every wound, to unite heaven and earth, and to take the church as his bride forever.
Some may laugh: “There’s no use trying,” they say; “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” we reply. “Sometimes we believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Alleluia. Christ the Lord has ascended into heaven.
O come, let us adore him. Alleluia.