No longer faceless nobodies

Frances writes on the Ascension :- It seems to me that these readings for the Ascension provide the real antidote to the rubbish of the Da Vinci Code. There, if you remember the important thing is finding the ‘blood-line’ of Christ. But what the Church knows and knew from Jesus’ first resurrection appearances and in his ascension is that we are all his blood-line, made in his death and resurrection. Christ leaves no personal family line with his genetic trait precisely because we are all his family, his heirs, and his holy people. It is about our baptism, the bestowal of his grace, his Holy Spirit upon us all, as we see in our reading from Acts 1:1-11. Quite clearly even in those fresh and early days it was possible for disciples of the Lord to misunderstand what he was talking about. “Lord, has the time come? Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” They were still earthbound, looking for power and the overthrow of the Romans, rather like the writer of the Da Vinci Code, whereas Jesus had and has, a more demanding and altogether more exciting understanding of his Kingdom. “You will be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem but throughout Judea and Samaria, and indeed to the ends of the earth.” With the ascension, our faith in Jesus has become universal. It, and we, are not stuck in some time warp based in Jerusalem or indeed any other individual city; Christ has gone out to the world and we must needs follow.

This message is reiterated in our gospel from Mark 16:15-20 with Jesus’ commission: “Go out to the whole world; proclaim the Good News to all creation. He who believes and is baptised will be saved.” Jesus speaks to a group who have now gone beyond fear in their utter conviction of his identity and their acceptance of the task he has given them; hence all that strange stuff about imbibing deadly poisons and snake bites without coming to harm. We have to remember that after Jesus’ death the disciples were thoroughly dispirited, hiding in fear of the Jews and convinced it had all been a colossal mistake. It was the resurrection which turned them from total losers’ into a fighting force for the truth. The ascension marks the point at which they are no longer reliant on the bodily presence of the fleshly Jesus, but are rather empowered by his bodily departure and fitted by the gift of the Holy Spirit for evangelisation. It was what took the gospel out to the world, rather than making it a small local affair rooted in the body of someone who survived crucifixion, which is not what the resurrection and ascension are about at all.

In our reading from Ephesians 4:1-13 we begin to appreciate what this meant to one very early Christian community about 1,000 miles from Palestine. This would have been a mixed Jewish and convert pagan Christian community; a tiny fraction of the large population of this bustling imperial capital, with its port and many gods and multiplicity of beliefs. In a way it is a pity that we have not had included in this reading an earlier part of the letter, that from 1:3-14, which affirms what the Christian is; namely a being destined for ‘adoption as children of God’; heirs to the mysteries of God himself; sharing the Father’s will for humanity; given in the Holy Spirit a participation in his glory. God, Paul says “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.” Now no longer the pawns of malevolent deities, we are now intimates of the one true God. In this truly electrifying opening of this letter, we see the impact of the resurrection and ascension on new believers in Christ. Whereas formerly they believed in gods for the well being of the state and hoped for divine assistance for specific things: childbirth, voyaging, and cereal crops, but always acknowledged the fickleness of pagan divinities, here, suddenly in Christianity a wholly new vision of man’s relationship to God opened up for them, something they could never even have dreamed possible.

Because of this great vision, the Church made clear what was expected in terms of human behaviour from its adherents. “Bear with one another charitably, in complete selflessness, gentleness and patience.” The Church was set on building a wholly new community, with different work for its various members; ways of being quite alien to former pagans; a collaborative ministry based in the selfless giving to others as imaged in the life of Christ. In the end, its promise was immense: “In this way we are all to come to unity in our faith and in our knowledge of the Son of God, until we become the perfect Man, fully mature with the fullness of Christ himself.” If this is a tall order for us, imagine what those words meant to the first believers in Ephesus, the riff-raff, poverty ridden and ignorant of ancient cities, those obsessed with fears of demons, illness, famine and early death who were now promised equality with God himself! If this were not enough, every Christian was told that they had a part to play, an essential part in the coming of God’s kingdom, in the life of the Christian community. No longer faceless nobodies’, everyone now had a new identity, belonging and purpose and was essential to the proper functioning and well being of the whole. What we can be quite sure of is that in Paul’s churches as in the wider Christian community no one was insignificant, just a popper-in-to mass and a quick-exitter thereafter; belonging meant doing your bit.

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