Thursday, May 25, 2017

the Ascension: 'Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven?'

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

Angels, if our reading from the Acts of the Apostles today is anything to go by, can be quite scathing. The disciples are standing there, still quite stunned by our Lord's Ascending into heaven before their eyes; and before he has even fully gone – 'while he was going' St Luke tells us - two men in white, whom the Church Fathers have always assured us were angels, appear and say to them almost scoldingly : Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.

It is almost as if they are saying to the disciples: 'What are you doing standing around here? You have better things to be doing. Get on with it!' And what are those better things? The first is that they are to go back to Jerusalem and wait there, as we heard the Lord Jesus command them earlier in this passage, and wait for what he calls 'the promise of the Father', when they will be baptised by the Holy Spirit. And after that they have other work to do, work also entrusted to them by Christ just before his Ascension, which was recorded for by St Matthew at the end of his Gospel. He tells his disciples that 'all authority in heaven and on earth' has been given to him; And that therefore they must go '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.'

These words of our Lord are, of course, very familiar to us. We even have a special name for them – the Great Commission. And there is much about it, I would suggest, that the modern world would find objectionable. The idea that we must go out and make disciples of all nations gives the impression that the Christian way of life is better than all others; not a popular notion in a world that likes to think all ways are equally good. Teaching them what the Lord has commanded sounds very like indoctrination; something that the modern world frowns upon. And telling people they have to be obedient to those commandments seems like a challenge to personal autonomy; people in our age are entitled to live as they please and make their own choices and all that really matters is whether they are comfortable with those choices – and, it would seem to me, whether those choices are in conformity with secular liberal values.

But the fact that the Christian message is not in lock-step with the world around us is not something that should trouble us. Christianity from the beginning was a challenge to the culture rather than being a cheer-leader for whatever happened to be popular. Our Lord and Saviour Christ was crucified for challenging the accepted norms of his day. And the early Church was persecuted first in Israel and then throughout the Roman Empire for just the same reasons. For a time – a very long time – the values of Church and Society seemed to merge and so perhaps people forgot just how counter-cultural the Church could be. But those values have again diverged; and it is the mission of the Church to stay true to the Lord's commands, rather than trying to fit in with the culture of the day.


We have, we must remember, a commission from the Lord to do so. And a commission, we should note, is when someone in authority gives someone else a duty to perform and delegates to them the authority to carry it out. And there can be, of course, no higher authority than God. So we must take heed of the words the angels spoke on the morning of the Ascension. We must not stand around, looking up at the sky, as if we are confused and don't know what to do, waiting to be told what to do. We know what we must do - fulfil the commission that Christ gave us, baptising all nations, and teaching them to obey his commands. And this is something we, his Church, must continue to do so until the day he comes again as he promised us he would. Amen. 

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