The Impossible Possibility

Sermon preached at FBCWoo

May 28, 2017

Ascension Sunday

Acts 1:1-11

Cover Art: Resurrection by Melissia Elisa


Another week, another week full of devastating terrorist attacks. First the tragedy in Manchester.

 

Then a less reported but equally gruesome attack on Coptic Christians on their way to a monastery in Egypt.

 

Then another terrorist attack in Portland. This time a white supremacist shouting racial and religious bigotry before ending two lives.

 

All of this against the constant backdrop of violence in Syria. Stories we hear less often because we’ve become numb to their plight.

 

With our text this morning, of Jesus’ ascension, it sometimes makes sense when we look at all the violence in the world.

 

Oftentimes it feels like Jesus is really gone. Like he left that day and everything went to Hell.

 

In Matthew’s version of the ascension, Jesus says, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

 

It’s hard to believe that sometimes, after weeks like this.

 

Of course, it was just as violent when Jesus was physically alive on this earth.

 

Subjugation, oppression, Roman occupation, beatings and crucifixions and state-sponsored executions.

Even when Jesus was here, it was already too much to bear.

 

 

 

The theologian and pastor, Reinhold Niebuhr, had a way of describing this. Both transcendent and cynical he referred to love as the impossible possibility. Because God is supremely “other” as Karl Barth would say, humanity can never achieve the hard work of selflessness that God’s love requires. In the absence of it, he believed that justice was all the more important for a society to embrace.

 

That has echoes of Dr. Martin Luther King’s later belief that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

 

Karl Barth, another 20th century theologian, believed that God and the power of faith to save us, was the impossible possibility over and against the possible possibility of the Law.[1]

 

The news today, the news two thousand years ago, it seems impossible to realize any of those: love, justice, peace, faith, hope.

 

Humanity may try on its own. Even great nations have tried.

 

Our own here in the US has tried to do well by humanity. Our military heroes give evidence of this—examples of people who have sacrificed their lives and livelihoods to protect our freedoms and the notion of justice and peace. Even when they are sent to wars or conflicts we might not personally support, we recognize the depth of love they have for country and one another.

 

We’ve negotiated armistices and peace treaties among warring nations, or for ourselves. Nuclear disarmament treaties, and ratified amendments that seek to humanize rather than dehumanize.

 

Of course, the US, like every nation before and after it, is by no means perfect, not with the original sin of slavery or the continued incarceration and mistreatment of black and brown bodies, or the treatment of the first Americans’ land—even still today—or the internment of Japanese Americans or campaign rhetoric turned to executive orders to prohibit certain ethnic or religious minorities from finding refuge. We haven’t been perfect, and we aren’t perfect.

 

And even when our military heroes fight in our defense, the possible possibility of peace through war, the Pax Americana[2] as a colleague has put it, isn’t true peace.

 

True shalom is an impossible possibility that eludes even the strongest military in the history of the world. Even the wealthiest nation and most robust political discourse in history.

 

It strikes me as we think of what Jesus taught, how he lived, and died, and was raised, how that speaks to our day and his day much the same. It speaks to this impossible possibility of peace, of love, of justice, of hope, of faith.

 

Jesus’ life, his teaching, subverted the status quo, the powers that were. The gospel writers make it clear in calling him Lord, in announcing the good news like heralds were known to do of Caesar, only this time the writers announced not that Caesar was Lord but that Jesus was.

 

That a new kingdom, a new reality was inbreaking, a new Way, God’s Way, that didn’t use the force of a military or economic might or brute intimidation or violent coercion. That didn’t rely on philosophical proofs or scientific theories. This new kingdom of nonviolence and peace, the peaceable kingdom, God’s Shalom, is found not in striving to win or achieve or succeed on the backs of others, but in trying to care for the welfare of others. By being our neighbor’s keeper. By determining that even our enemies are loved and cared for.

 

And this is where the ascension comes into play. It can be easy to look at the state of the world, the violence and upheaval and grow weary and disheartened and disillusioned with it all. Especially when we see the accounts of Jesus leaving, his ascension, as if he’s peacing out and leaving us to figure peace out.

 

But Jesus’ ascension isn’t about his leaving. The risen Christ is everywhere. For he reminds us that he is with us always, even to the ends of the earth.

 

No, his ascension is another thumb in the eye of the political powers and earthly empires. As Brian Zahnd puts it, Jesus’ ascension doesn’t mean he is absent; it means he is ascendant.

 

Jesus is elevated above all earthly rulers and nations and systems of government and political parties. Above dictatorships and democracy, socialism and capitalism and a nationalism that Yale professor Willie Jennings calls “weakness and fear masquerading as strength and courage because it beckons the world’s peoples to postures of protectionism and leans toward xenophobia…” As he sees it, thinking toward nationalism is “already to be thinking toward captivity and fear.”[3]

 

The God of resurrection transcends it all. Jesus is ascendant.

 

The followers of Jesus get it, in their context of Roman occupation, when their messiah didn’t overthrow the government like they hoped, but instead instituted a new way of life that is impossibly possible, not by their strength alone, but by the strength of the God who raised Jesus from the dead in the first place.

 

This seems hard to grasp sometimes for us who live comfortably in the US. For many of us, we don’t live under constant threat. But to the people of Israel under Roman occupation, whose temple and city would be destroyed a few decades after Jesus’ ascension, think maybe instead of those Syrian Christians today. Bombarded daily, under threat of execution, uncertain which nation is fighting for them, which government leader will be better to them. They are a bit closer to recognizing the impossibility of true peace, and yet, their faith calls them to believe that the God of resurrection can bring life amidst so much death and violence and pain.

 

I would never want to speak for them, but when I feel hopeless at the thought of the endless and senseless violence, I somehow take heart at the thought of their relentless faith. That even in the face of death they believe in this other way of living, the way of Jesus.

 

In some ways it feels foolish for me to preach from this lofty and safe pulpit that Love, hope, peace, justice, are all impossible possibilities for the God of resurrection.

 

But just because we haven’t all experienced the depths of violence and inhumanity like others have, doesn’t mean the power of the resurrection doesn’t reach us too.

 

It might mean we have to look for it more vigilantly, so that we never become numb or without need for it.

 

So that when a bomb goes off during a concert in Manchester, beyond the carnage, we learn to see the taxi drivers—many of whom were Muslim—offering free rides to those trying to leave the arena safely. And Sikh temples offering beds and clothing. People coming out onto the streets offering a room for those stranded from their hotels. Taxi drivers from Liverpool, over an hour away, driving over to Manchester to help give free rides to those who were stranded.

 

So that after the horrific slaughter of Coptic Christians on buses on the way to a monastery, we see the primary Imam of the region, even while out of country, strongly rebuking the attack against his fellow citizens and calling for government protection for the Coptic Christian minority in Egypt.

 

So that in your own deep difficulties, debt or fractured relationships, death of a loved one or a diagnosis, uncertain futures or haunting pasts, you can begin to look for glimpses of God in the midst of your challenges.

 

So that when a terrorist in Portland screams racist and religious epithets on a train, we see the two men who gave up their own lives in protecting the person who was the object of his hatred. We hear the final words of one of those heroes, saying, “Tell everyone on this train I love them.”[4]

 

Maybe love is impossible.

Or maybe the resurrection plays out even in the worst of situations, daring us to believe, to live into the notion that the impossible is truly possible.

 

Because the God who raised Christ from the dead is the same God who is alive and active in us, and in our world. Because Jesus didn’t ascend into absence, but is ascendant and omnipresent, even in—especially in— your own difficult trials.

 

So don’t lose heart.

Don’t be afraid.

 

Don’t give up.

 

Christ is everywhere.

And within you.

 

So go and love your neighbors and your enemies.

And then do it again.

And again.

 

And bring others along with you that they too may come to know the power of the resurrection,

 

that the impossible is truly possible,

 

for we can do all things through the Resurrected Christ who gives us strength.

 

Amen.

 

[1] Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 138.

[2] Rev. Cody Sanders in a recent sermon titled, Pax Americana.

[3] Willie James Jennings, Acts: from Belief a Theological Commentary on the Bible, 21.

[4] http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2017/05/max_heros_last_words_tell_ever.html

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