The Ascension – May 25 and May 28, 2017
Pope Francis’ favorite novel, which he says he has read four times, is “The Lord of the World,” written in 1907 by Robert Hugh Benson, a British priest of the early 19th century and a convert from the Church of England. Indeed, he was the youngest son of an Archbishop of Canterbury.
Written a decade before the Russian Revolution it envisions a world suffocating under a form of communism and rigid suppression of the Church. Things go from bad to worse, when a messianic pretender, a true Antichrist, by the name of Julian Felsenburgh, formerly an obscure senator from Vermont – I’m not making this up – arrives on the world scene promising universal brotherhood and peace, and kicks off a series of events that lead to the attempted total destruction of the Church and to the end of the world. The novel ends with a sentence strongly hinting that Jesus, the true Lord of the World, has returned.
The novel anticipates many of the evils of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, right down to the euthanasia clinic into which the wife of one of the main characters checks herself after losing faith in mandatory atheism. It is the definition of dystopian – and, though not great literature, it does a brilliant job of skewering all fantasies of utopias created by human power. But like great literature it helps us to see what we already should know: human beings with too much power are dangerous.
The good news today, the good news of the Ascension, is that the real Lord of the World is a crucified Jew. Dethroned are the Pilates, the Caesars, the Felsenburghs, the dictators, the manipulators of ideas, the haters and fanatics, and those who imagine that the right mix of science and compulsion will make all things well.
None of them can deliver the ultimate peace and security they promise. We cannot put our hope and trust in them. We can make responsible decisions about whom to trust with political leadership or with our investments, but no human power or skill can deliver the abundance of life and joy promised by the Gospel.
That’s because none of them is willing to die for us. Human potentates are good at making people die for them, but they do not sacrifice. Jesus’ claim to Lordship rests in his sacrifice, the complete self-giving that not only teaches us the truth about God but that also invites us to share in the very nature of God himself. On the cross we see that God is defined by the gift of himself – of being, of life, and of eternal communion with him.
It is because of the cross that we can recognize Jesus’ resurrection and ascension as the Father’s affirmation that he is who he said he was. He is Lord of all. And if Jesus is Lord no one else is. He is either Lord of all or he is lord of nothing at all.
The pope’s favorite novel places the danger at the pinnacles of power, and there are great dangers there. I think he likes it so much because he is acutely aware of the dangers of concentrations of human power. His analysis of economic and political matters is not always as sophisticated as I might like, but his prophetic zeal is genuine and necessary.
But the enemies of the only trustworthy Lord are not just to be found at the pinnacles of power. Competitors for the Kingdom, the power and the glory can be found also in small things: materialism, pleasure, habit or in what we call the seven deadly sins: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. You don’t need great power and position to practice them. You can do it right at home.
There are also ideas that can be Antichrists -- two dominant ones in our culture that can eat away at our faithfulness and that make it harder in some ways to proclaim the Gospel.
The two are emotivism and utilitarianism – they are deeply ingrained and very dangerous. In some measure they tempt us all. I also need to define them.
Emotivism is the belief that my feelings are what make something true. It denies any real moral law and makes moral decisions dependent on what I feel. Millions of people just take this idea for granted, and it is highly dangerous because it eliminates any real possibility of telling right from wrong. It provides no tools for serious moral endeavor. If I feel it, especially if I really, really feel it, it must be ok. It may often lead to good or harmless results; but it can also justify great evils. And if everything rests on feelings, no society can make clear, rational decisions about what is to be done or what laws are good and just.
Utilitarianism has a better pedigree because it stems from the reflections of 19th century philosophers who thought right and wrong could be determined by whatever does the greatest good for the greatest number of people. But as Robert Benson foresaw in “The Lord of the World,” that idea can lead to enormous evils. Dictators have killed vast numbers of our brothers and sisters because they thought they needed to do so to make a better world and achieve the greatest good for the greatest number. Just wipe out those who get in the way. Napoleon famously said, “you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.” When that line appeared again as a defense of the excesses and atrocities of Stalin, George Orwell famously retorted, “Where’s the omelet?”
Utilitarianism, which will sacrifice the individual for the greater good, and Emotivism, which gives you the right to whatever you desire, give us the fervor for unlimited abortion and euthanasia, both of which are being proposed in the Delaware legislature right now. Please pick up one of the white sheets from the Knights of Columbus at the back of the church and write and call your representatives in Dover.
If there is no true Lord, who sacrificed himself for us, who calls us to obey his commandments, and who invites us to the risks involved in authentic love and sacrifice, then people are tempted to do whatever works (utilitarianism) or whatever feels right (emotivism.) From the crisis of marriage and the family to the disregard for the poor to the belief that there’s enough of other people’s money out there for the government to provide what I want – these two ideas distort and destroy.
We have a risen and ascended Lord to free us from such slavery. There was no apparent utility in Jesus’ death on the cross. Of what good was it? And he was not feeling good about it. But it was the ultimate good – for there God met our sin, our death, and the deep despair that leads people to seek their good in all the wrong places – from false messiahs to their own emotions.
So the absolute good news of this day is that the world has a Lord you can trust. His commandments bring life and hope. Sin and death lie prostrate at the foot of the cross. And we don’t have to make sense of the world for ourselves, for there is a God who made the world and us and who is determined to lead us to our final home.
“On Christ’s ascension I now build the hope of my ascension,” began an old Lutheran hymn. To build our hopes of rising on anything else is to be certain to fall, but in the crucified, ascended, and risen Jesus, the true Lord of the world, we rise.