Frances writes on this coming weekend’s readings :- It is only in the tradition of Luke, in his gospel and here, (Acts 1:1-11) and a small part of Mark that we actually have accounts of the ascension of the Lord; for Matthew and John it is simply taken for granted as we see in our gospel (Matthew 28:16-20), so it is worth while looking at all the post resurrection traditions to try to appreciate what the writers were aiming at. When we do this, what stands out as the most prominent and unitive feature is the missionary life of the Church which is ‘made’ during these last days when the risen Jesus was physically alive on earth. So our reading from Acts has the promise of Jesus that when the Holy Spirit comes on you…you will be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem but throughout Judaea and Samaria, and indeed to the ends of the earth. Our gospel records Jesus’ giving all authority in heaven and on earth, something which he holds and through which he commissions his disciples to go out to convert ‘all the nations.’ Mark has a similar and amalgamated version of these scenes whilst John personalises it with the dialogue between Jesus and Peter and his commission to ‘feed my sheep’ and a promise, wrapped up in the longevity of the Beloved Disciple of the continuing of the Church. Tidiness and authenticity apart, why does the Church celebrate the feast of the Ascension?
I suspect that Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians (here Eph 1:17-23) helps us to understand this better. The province of Asia had been Roman since 133BC, the gift of its last king.Ephesuswas probably the most important city of the eastern Mediterranean, with its port just below the city and its massive trading outreach all over the known world. Its trading links would have reached as far as China andIndia and goods from such far-flung areas would have made its commercial ‘agora’ an Aladdin’s cave of treasures. It had a large Roman administrative complex, a huge theatre and gymnasium and numerous temples to the Roman gods. Trading centre; centre of legal and financial administration for the province; place of culture in the theatre and libraries which would shortly be built : it was truly ‘queen’ of the east. Everything about it spoke of the power and authority of Rome. By contrast, the Christian communities of theMediterraneanwere so tiny that they were not amenable to statistical recording, amounting to groups of 25 or so in some of the cities. If it was Paul that wrote this letter sometime shortly before his death in 64 AD we know that Nero was the emperor, a crazed and bloodthirsty tyrant who had recently killed his own mother and numerous members of the senate whom he saw as a threat. If the writer was later, then Domitian would have been occupying the throne, an equally unpleasant person whose motto on his coin was Lord and Saviour. What Rome represented at this time was the unbridled power of the state over all its people.
How extraordinary then that the Letter to the Christian of Ephesus, that negligible number should speak, in the language that it does, of Christ, risen from the dead by the power of God; raised to the Father’s right hand – the very seat of power in heaven and reigning far above every Sovereignty, Authority, Power, or Domination…..not only in this age, but also in the age to come. Luke’s gospel would echo this in the message of the angels to the shepherds in Luke 2:11, proclaiming Christ as Saviour. A gauntlet had been thrown down, a challenge issued in the name of Christian Ephesus which struck at the very heart of massive Roman imperial dominance as we see also in our gospel from Matthew. It is a message which would be echoed in all the gospels when they were written down, that nothing, absolutely no earthly power, despite its apparent dominance could ultimately defeat the Christian message when its followers faithfully carried out the Lord’s command to spread the Good news to the nations. Paul prays that God the Father will give you a spirit of wisdom and perception of what is revealed, to bring you to full knowledge of him; it is a prayer for insight into the divine will, confident that once the believer is so enlightened he will respond with vigour – as indeed, we know they did in spreading the gospel. Smallness of numbers opposing colossal brute force did not deter them, as we know, for Christian Ephesus would become a major bishopric some 250 years later when Christianity would spell the end of paganism, a colossal and quite unexpected victory when seen from worldly terms. I suspect we Christians of today, especially in the West are not far removed from our forebears in Ephesus, faced with enormous odds threatening the very survival of the faith, and yet it was their enthusiasm and dogged persistence which won the victory for God’s way of redemption in the end. The import of the Feast of the Ascension must surely be about our faith, preparedness and courage against the odds. For God is always faithful and his victory assured.