12 May 2013. The Ascension of the Lord
Acts 1:1-11. Before going, Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit. It is up to his apostles – and us – to share his message with the world.
Eph 1:17-23. The ascension was God raising Jesus to the heavens, making him Head of the Church and Lord of all creation.
Lk 24:46-53. Jesus promises the Holy Spirit to his followers and commissions them.
First Reading: Acts 1:1-11
In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.
After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.
While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward 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.”
Second Reading: Letter to the Ephesians 1:17-23
I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
Gospel: Luke 24:46-53
He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
Mission statements are produced by many organisations nowadays. This is a good exercise, both in its purpose and even more in the process of consultation to produce the end result. I believe many of us are constantly considering our personal vision and mission, even without writing it down. We reflect on who we really are, on the changes taking place in us and on what we want from life. Our unwritten mission statements are constantly being revised and refined.
The Ascension puts before us a message about mission, offering us a mission statement about being a Christian. It is contained in one word in our first reading today. St Luke addresses his story to Theophilus, a Greek name made up of two words meaning “Friend of God.” What a vision that is for our life journey! What a great thing it will be for me to experience friendship with God! Sometimes we use the term “friend” loosely. Some people say, “I have heaps of friends,” when they mean something quite different. In the Book of Proverbs we read about friendship, “May your acquaintances be many but let your friend be one, and test him as gold is tested in the furnace.”
A life’s vision of being a friend of God is a wonderful vision indeed. What is required is our response. It is possible for us also because in spite of all sinfulness and weakness we can still resolve to remain friends with God. In my striving to be a Theophilus I am comforted by the answer Peter gave after the resurrection. Aware that he had betrayed Jesus and being pressed for an answer to the question “Peter do you love me?” he answers, “Lord you know all things, you know that I love you.” Accepting my sinful humanity I can still have a friendship with God as my Christian vision of life.
Why He Had to Go
In his account of Our Lord’s Ascension, Luke tries to put into words what is beyond words, to describe an event which defies description. The Ascension, or Exaltation of Christ, will always remain a mystery to us. This is confirmed in the response it of his closest followers. The final separation of the risen Christ from his disciples must surely have caused them sadness, as he had warned during the Last Supper, “You are sad at heart because I have told you this.” (Jn 16). However, when the Ascension actually happened we read how the disciples retured to Jerusalem “with great joy” (Lk 24:52).
What made that final separation an occasion not of sorrow but of joy and spiritual enrichment? Of course it was inevitable that the time would come when Jesus’ life on earth would cease. St Luke sets this time not at the crucifixion or even the resurrection of Christ, but at his Ascension. The time when their faith depended on the flesh and blood presence of Jesus was now over. Indeed because of of the risen Christ’s appearances, that faith was raised up to a new plane. Gradually they became convinced that Jesus was living in a new and wonderful manner beyond the gates of death. They felt that they had entered into an entirely new union with the One who in his Ascension had passed beyond the limits of time and space, and was confirmed in glory in the presence of God the Father, for ever. The disciples rejoiced for the sake of Jesus, the suffering Servant, rejected by his own people, but now finally vindicated by God.
The Ascension was the victorious ending to his mission and his self-sacrifice. But it was also the beginning of a new era, marked by the presence of “God’s Spirit,” referred to also as the “Spirit of Jesus.” The Holy Spirit will now inspire the Church and each individual Church member. So would be fulfilled the Last Supper promise of Jesus, “I will not leave you orphans, I will come back to you” (Jn 14:18). We find Peter declaring this in his first great Pentecostal sermon, “God raised this man Jesus to life, and all of us are witnesses to that. . . He has received from the Father the Holy Spirit and what you see and hear is the outpouring of that Spirit” (Acts 2:32+).
The disciples returned to Jerusalem after the Ascension, trusting that nothing in life or in death could ever come between them and the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:39). As it was while he lived on earth, so now that he is exalted in heaven, Jesus remains the comforting friend of all who call upon him, whether in life or in death. Our prayer today is that we and all who believe in Christ may be found worthy to follow him into the new creation. His Ascension is our glory and our hope, guiding us as we make our pilgrim way to the place that he has gone to prepare for us. Like them we trust in that final promise of Our Lord, “Soon, I shall be with you again, bringing to each and every one the reward they deserve” (Rev 22:12).
Back to the Father
In today’s gospel Jesus gives his final message, his final instructions, and his final blessing to his apostles. Luke makes it clear that they believed they would see him again, because they were filled with great joy. One of the special blessings in my life was working with the terminally ill, the aged, and the dying. There is nothing more edifying that to sit with someone who knows where she or he is going, to hear her speak with assurance, peace, and calm, about the fact that she is moving on to the end of her life. To her family members it is Au Revoir and not Goodbye. The person is simply going on ahead, into the arms of God.
Jesus lived to do the Father’s will. That was what kept him going, and what he kept his mind on. He had a mission to accomplish, “and how can I be at peace until it is accomplished?” That mission was now complete. At the end he prayed “Father, I have finished the work you gave me to do.” He could now return to the Father, and the final part of God’s creative plan of love could begin. The first part was creation itself, the great expression of God’s love. When human sin had messed that up, Jesus came on a mission of mercy and salvation. When he completed that mission he handed over his Spirit to us, and like the breath of God entering the clay at the first creation, we would be renewed, reborn, recreated, and God’s plan would be completed.
Jesus knew his apostles only too well, as ordinary weak human beings. Before leaving them, he blessed them, and they were truly blessed. Their hearts were filled with prayer and praise. They seemed to have crossed the bridge from fear and a lack of faith into a conviction that the Lord would fulfil his promises to them. When the Spirit would come their mission would begin.
We are told that while the apostles stood looking up to the heavens, angels appeared to them, telling them not to be looking at the clouds. Jesus had ascended into heaven, yes, but he is also to be found all around us, especially in the poor, the suffering, the marginalised, and the downtrodden. The apostles were to look around them, concentrate on life right here and now. The Christian task is not to work to get to heaven, but to do everything possible to bring about heaven here and now. There are people around me living in hell. Make me a channel of your peace. It is more difficult to get heaven into people than to get people into heaven!