APOSTLES ANGLICAN CHURCH
Fr. John A. Roop
Feast of the Ascension, 18 May 2023
(Acts 1:1-11 / Ps 110:1-5 / Eph 1:15-23 / Lk 24:44-53)
Alleluia. Christ the Lord has ascended into heaven:
O come, let us adore him. Alleluia.
This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise;
This fortress, built by nature for herself
Against infection, and the hand of war;
This happy breed of men, this little world;
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear’d by their breed, and famous by their birth (Richard II, Act II, scene i).
It was only twelve days ago that the world’s attention turned to “this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England” as John of Gaunt described it with his dying breath in Shakespear’s Richard II. From the “teeming womb of royal kings,” one arose to receive the crown that day, Charles III. Whether he will be fear’d by his breed and famous by his birth is yet to be seen; but surely no king was longer prepared to reign than this new sovereign.
My family enjoyed tea as we watched the Coronation a few hours after the fact: sandwiches, scones, cheese, an assortment of dessert delicacies, and, of course English Teatime Tea, which, in England, is simply called “tea,” I suppose. The event was a regal affair by any definition: relating to a monarch, befitting royalty, magnificent and splendid — England and the English Church on display in all its pomp and finery. The affair was replete with symbolism: robes, scepters, orb, crowns, thrones, and something called the “stone of destiny.” Dignitaries from across the globe were in attendance, some awkwardly still trying to determine whether to bow or curtsy as the royals processed by them. The music was glorious and the liturgy was — thanks be to God — orthodox and straight from the Book of Common Prayer. It was all quite grand.
And yet…as we listened to the vows required of the king, to the ancient responsibilities laid upon his shoulders, to his obligations to be a protector of the realm and a defender of the empire, to his commitment to rule justly and in accordance with the Law of God, I could not help but recognize that all those obligations are relics of history, remnants of the time when the sun never set on the British Empire. Whatever one thinks of monarchy in general or the English monarchy specifically, it is a monarchy diminished in scope and power. Charles III took vows that he cannot, and dare not, attempt to fulfill. He does not rule in any meaningful sense of the word; he represents certainly, he persuades perhaps, he reassures some but not others, but he does not reign as did the kings of old, with power and authority. It may well be that the commoner on the streets of London has greater power to speak and act freely than does King Charles III.
But, there were times when rulers ruled, when kings were sovereign, when peoples and nations trembled at the emperor’s word spoken and bowed the knee before him in fearful, if not loving, obedience. It was in such times that Jesus lived, that Paul wrote, that the Church was born. When the people in Westminster Abbey recently proclaimed “Long live the King,” it was more wistful ceremony than oath of fealty. But, when the Roman “good news” was proclaimed, “Caesar is Lord!” that meant something, that demanded something — acquiescence to the power and dominion and authority of the state vested in this one person, this emperor, this Caesar, this king of kings and lord of lords. Caesar is Lord — bow or die — to which the people replied one way or another, “Hail, Caesar!”
Now, imagine that on the day of King Charles’ coronation, Philip up in Thirsk, North Yorkshire had gathered a group of friends around him and had proclaimed, “I am the rightful King of ‘this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.’ And not of England only, but of the full British Empire. And not of the Empire only, but of all the world. Now you go down throughout the dells, down into London, over into France and finally into all the world in my name announcing my sovereignty and calling all people to submit to me.” We might just laugh and think Philip is harmless but rather off his trolley. Certainly, he presents no real threat to Charles’ reign.
Matthew 28:16–20 (ESV): 16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “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.”
And what of this Jesus: as off his trolley as Philip? Harmless? No real threat to Caesar’s reign?
Some thirty years after Jesus spoke those words on a mountain in Galilee, St. Paul, while in prison, wrote of “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory” and 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 (Eph 1:19b-23, ESV unless otherwise noted).
St. Paul is still insisting, three decades later, that what Jesus said on that mountain was true in spite of all visible evidence to the contrary: that he was not off his trolley but was/is the very wisdom of God; that he is not harmless but good, and that he will come again in power and great glory to judge the quick and the dead and the world by fire; that Caesar — that all Caesars throughout all places and in all times who would stand athwart the will of God — have been brought down from their thrones as the true King of kings and Lord of lords ascended into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of the Father. All earthly authority is derivative of Christ’s authority, is subject to Christ’s authority, is to be exercised under Christ’s authority. So, hear that, Washington. Take heed, London. Pay attention, Moscow. Listen up, Beijing. Think again, Sudan. Your authority is subject to Christ or it will be judged by Christ. You presidents and kings, you prime ministers and chairmen, you despots and strong men, all of you are accountable to your Sovereign Lord Jesus Christ. One day you must give account of your stewardship of that delegated authority.
That is St. Paul’s message for the powers-that-think-they-be. But, it is also his message for those of us who live at the whims of those powers. We are sometimes blessed by them, and we sometimes suffer under them. They occasionally exercise wisdom, and they often flounder in folly. They may from time to time — in their best moments — try to implement a form of justice and mercy, but they always fall short of the kingdom of God; they rarely, it seems, even consider the kingdom of God. And yet, St. Paul assures us that all of these earthly powers, all of these fallen powers, are even now subject to the dominion and authority of the Lord Jesus Christ. Their power to do good is given by God. Their power to do evil is limited by God. And in some way beyond our comprehension, all of this is subject to the providential will of God and will redound to his glory and to the welfare of his people. The world is not out of control. It is under the control of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Brothers and sisters, I look at the state of the world and at the insufficiency of its leaders, and I grow nervous. But, Jesus is not nervous. I hear of wars and rumors of wars, of plague and pestilence and famine, and I grow afraid. But, Jesus is not afraid. I rack my brain for solutions to violence, racism, sexual disorientation, cultural and political divisions and a host of seemingly intractable problems, and I grow confused. But, Jesus is not confused. Jesus’ ascension bears no resemblance to Pilate’s hand washing: “I take no responsibility. See to it yourselves.” No! Jesus’ ascension is his assumption of full responsibility for the sake of the world, because Jesus is the only one who is fully able to respond, the only one who is fully able to save, the only one who is fully able to rule. And he is, even now, doing so. And if I don’t understand it, if I don’t perceive it, well, thanks be to God. Because any plan that I could fully understand, any providence that I could perfectly perceive would be inadequate for the salvation of the world. What I do know, what we do know, is Jesus: ascended to glory, seated at the right of God the Father in the heavenly places, 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. And that is enough and more than enough.
While it is enough, it is not all. Why has Jesus ascended into heaven? Why has God given him all rule and authority and power and dominion? Why have all things been put under his feet? For you. For me. For the church.
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 (Eph 1:22-23).
Christ’s authority, his rule over all things, is God’s gift to the church. It is that which constitutes the life of the church and which empowers the mission of the church.
18b “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:18b-19a).
Did you get that? Because all authority has been given to me you can go and make disciples. Because all authority has been given to me you must go and make disciples. It is this authority that sustains the life of the church. It is this authority that compels and empowers the mission of the church. It is this authority that guarantees that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church. It is this authority that allows us to say confidently with Dame Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
And we must not miss what St. Paul says about the church: the church is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. When Jesus ascended into heaven, he did not absent himself from his people or from the world. Rather, he filled his people with his presence in the Person of the Holy Spirit, and he formed them into his body, the church. And he sent that church, his body, into the world for its salvation. It is in the church that we should most clearly see the rule and authority and power and dominion of our Lord Jesus Christ manifest. In the church all striving after human power, all abuse of authority, all coercive rule must finally and fully be relinquished and banished. In the church, any rule that does not wash the dirty feet of another, any authority that does not take up its cross and follow Jesus, any dominion that does not say to God, “Not my will but yours be done,” must be repudiated, must be subjected to the Lordship of Jesus.
Then the rule and authority of Jesus must move outward from the church into the world — to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, to West Hills, Knoxville, Tennessee and all the world — in the persons of his image bearing sons and daughters, the church. As Henry Morton Robinson wrote in his novel, The Cardinal:
It’s not the mission of the Church to work out practical methods by which the just state is brought into being. The function of the Church is to form public men who will. Men of Christian conscience and moral purpose, who believe that human beings have a right to live on the plane of morality, dignity, and security intended by God.
Only poets can write poetry; only women can bear children. Only the Church (adapted from the original, “a priest”) can remind men that God forever was, is now, and — come hell, high water, or technology — always will be” (Henry Morton Robinson, The Cardinal: A Novel).
It is the place of the Church to insist that God, through the rule of Jesus Christ, is in charge in the Church and in the world. It is the mission of the Church to form men and women into the image of Christ and to send them out into the world to exercise the dominion of Christ, in their areas of expertise and influence, to bring wisdom and love and mercy and justice to bear. It is the vocation of these men and women — in whatever context they find themselves — to ask the question, “What would it look like if God were in charge here?” and then to act as if He is, because he truly is.
In St. Luke’s two volume account of the ministry of Jesus and the ministry of the Apostles (Luke and Acts), we get only an earth’s eye view of the ascension, a leaving as it were.
Luke 24:50–53 (ESV): 50 And [Jesus] led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. 51 While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, 53 and were continually in the temple blessing God.
It is perhaps difficult to see that as an enthronement, as Jesus receiving all authority and power in this age and in the age to come. But, Daniel was given a heaven’s eye view, a glimpse of the “arrival” of Jesus, the Son of Man, a vision of his enthronement that causes the coronation of Charles III, grand as it was, to pale by comparison.
Daniel 7:13–14 (ESV): 13 “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.
That is the truth of the ascension. And even that, glorious as it is, just begins to reveal the full meaning of the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ and the
Ephesians 1:15–23 (ESV): 19b …immeasurable greatness of [God’s] 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.
Alleluia. Christ the Lord has ascended into heaven:
O come, let us adore him. Alleluia.