Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Out of Control
Today is Ascension Day, a feast day always falling on Thursday thus ensuring that it will be observed by only the most liturgically disciplined churches. Most of us will probably survive the omission. I have generally found the Biblical imagery rather uninspiring anyway. It’s hard not to imagine a group of befuddled disciples staring up into space, brows furrowed, muttering, “Where did he go?” Poof.
On the other hand, Ascension Day does teach us an important truth, namely, that Jesus is out of control. Not out of control like an untrained puppy or a hyperactive child. But out of control as in not in our control. To be sure, the incarnation is at the heart of the Gospel story. God takes on human flesh in a particular time and place, becoming submissive to the finitude of the creation and available to its touch. Among other things, this has nurtured a piety of intimacy, the Jesus who is the friend who bears all our sin and grief, the precious Lord who holds our hand, the One who walks with me, and talks with me, and tells me that I am his own. While all of this has Biblical warrant and, more importantly, experiential validation, it can obscure the sovereign character of a God who always eludes the grasp of our own parochial plans, programs, and priorities.
“Noli me tangere” Jesus famously says to Mary. “Do not hold me.” History is littered with the debris of catastrophes caused by those who attempted to harness God to the distorted project of their nation, their race, their class, or their clan. It is, of course, always easier to see this in retrospect. Reinhold Niebuhr applied this to the role of nations, and in particular to the United States in his book The Irony of American History written at a time when the perils of Communism were very real but the danger of our own responding hubris was not quite so obvious:
“The ironic elements in American history can be overcome, in short, only if American idealism comes to terms with the limits of all human striving, the fragmentariness of all human wisdom, the precariousness of all historic configurations of power, and the mixture of good and evil in all human virtue. America’s moral and spiritual success in relating itself creatively to a world community requires, not so much a guard against the gross vices, about which the idealists warn us, as a reorientation of the whole structure of our idealism. That idealism is too oblivious of the ironic perils to which human virtue, wisdom and power are subject. It is too certain that there is a straight path toward the goal of human happiness; too confident of the wisdom and idealism which prompt men and nations toward that goal; and too blind to the curious compounds of good and evil in which the actions of the best men and nations abound,” (Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History, 1952).
“It is not for you to know” Jesus warned the disciples, eager to ensnare God in their own national narrative of redemption. Out of control.
This week began with solemn ceremonies at military cemeteries, hospitals, and shrines throughout the country and around the world. Few are unmoved by these haunting scenes or left unaffected by the bravery and selflessness to which they bear somber and sad witness. Yet I doubt that God will truly bless this, at least in the way the politicians and generals imply. Instead God might point to brave lives wasted and noble visions debased by those whose certainty of divine accompaniment rendered the demonic invisible to them.
Ascension Day almost never shares the same week with Memorial Day. But perhaps the lateness of Easter this year can answer our proud civic ceremonies with a cautionary theological note. Going to war may sometimes be the gamble we must make in order to avert a greater tragedy. At least that’s what we try to persuade ourselves, I suppose. Sadly, those who make the wager rarely assume the risk. What we must deny them, however, is the conviction that God is in their pockets, a talisman ready to bless. Ascension Day teaches us about an out of control God. That is – or should be – a frightening thought. Some days the fear of God just might do us more good than the friendship of God.
John H. Thomas
Ascension Day, 2011