Sunday, June 1, 2014

what we gained from the Ascension

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

In our reading from Acts today we have the account of the Ascension. Jesus and the disciples gather together on Mount Olivet, about 'a sabbath's day journey from Jerusalem' or about a mile or so; he speaks to them; and then he is carried upwards until he is hidden by a cloud. Very dramatic – but why? Why ascend into heaven, why leave at all, as opposed to staying?

Well, first let us be clear that this was God's plan from the beginning. Jesus was going to stay with us for a short time, found his Church, die for our sins, and rise from the dead, thereby destroying the power of death. Once he had done all that, he had accomplished what he intended to do and all that remained was for him to return to heaven – just as he always said he would do in the Gospels. But why – wouldn't his Church have been stronger with him physically present here to guide it? Wouldn't his presence been an endless proof positive that he was indeed the Way, the Truth, and the Life?

Oddly enough, I think not. As we know from the Gospels, there were many who looked him in the eye when he walked this earth who refused to believe in him; many who witnessed the empty tomb who could not accept that he had risen from the dead. Why believe things would have been any different had he remained? The same kind of people who refused to believe in him during his earthly ministry would simply claim he was some kind of impostor, not the Jesus who died, but someone else pretending to be him. And those who refused to believe he rose from the dead, saying that kind of thing simply does not happen, would refuse also to believe in his immortal continuing physical presence among us, saying again that that sort of thing doesn't happen, that the whole thing was some kind of fake.

So no real advantage to his staying. But was something gained by his leaving? Yes indeed. First, consider his words in the garden to Mary on the morning of the Resurrection: noli me tangere – touch me not; or as it is sometimes otherwise translated – do not cling to me. If Jesus had stayed, the natural impulse of his followers would have been to gather around him, to stay with him, to cling to the physical, resurrected Jesus. And that would have been no bad thing, if Christ had come into the world for them and them alone. But he did not. He came that all the world might be saved. The word might have become flesh at a particular time and in a particular place; but he did so so that people everywhere until the end of time might hear his Good News and be saved. As he said at the end of Matthew's Gospel, not long before he ascended - 'Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.' And that couldn't happen if they were huddled around him in Jerusalem.

Our Lord wanted his Church to reach out to others - to be, as he said just before he Ascended, his witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ And to help them – to help us – he promised to send the Holy Spirit. 'You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you' he told them. And we know how dramatic, how truly powerful that was from the account of Pentecost, when those frightened people hiding away in a room in Jerusalem suddenly became eloquent, confident, and courageous – powerful enough to take on the Jewish authorities, the Roman empire, and all the world. Why Jesus couldn't stay as well as the Spirit coming we can not say. But that was how he planned it, and we trust him as we trust him in so many other things. And that it was a plan worth trusting is is evidenced by his Church that has lasted almost 2000 years and spread to all corners of the globe. Jesus ascended because that part of his work was done, and it was now the work of his Church, of us, to take his word to the world – to make disciples of all people – to engage in mission – and filled with his Holy Spirit it is work that we must continue until he comes again.

To him who is 'the shepherd and guardian of our souls,' 'by whose wounds we are healed', and who is with us always until the end of the ages, be glory now and forever. Amen. 

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