Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- Why does St Luke have the scene of the Ascension of Our Lord into heaven? (Luke 24:46-53). St John ends his great gospel with the Lord and the disciples on the lake shore in Galilee; St Matthew with the story of the resurrection in Jerusalem; the lies of the bribed soldiers and the commissioning of the eleven in Galilee; whilst the short and probably more authentic ending of the Gospel of Mark has Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene. Only the secondary and later ending speaks briefly of the ascension. Just what is going on?
Well, as is ever the case, different gospels recount the story of Jesus differently, and it speaks something of their authenticity that the Church records these different accounts; though all have some promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit. What is significant is the sense of ‘moving-on’, captured by all the writers. This is usually associated with the gift of the Holy Spirit, and I am sure this emphasises that the faithful are now in a different relationship with the Lord. After all, wouldn’t we all just be hopelessly stuck if Jesus were still with us in the flesh, continually performing miracles and directing operations? We would be deprived of our freedom to choose, to act and to work with, in and for His Kingdom; we would all be puppets.
St Luke demonstrates this ‘moving-on’ right at the start of his gospel, with his dedication to His Excellency, Theophilus, possibly a Roman governor and convert, and we see this again in Acts, (1:1-11). Luke shows how significant the absence of the physical Jesus was as the angels reinforce Jesus’ command that the disciples, “Be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem but throughout Judea and Samaria, and indeed to the ends of the earth.” That this tiny group of men and their helpers managed this amazing task and did indeed take the faith out under the guidance of the Holy Spirit speaks volumes both of God’s trust in his people and the faith which they had even in those very early days. We think of Christianity as a big world-wide organization, but at first it was infinitesimally small, and until the third century hardly featured statistically at all. Yet by the end of the first century Roman Provincial Governors like Pliny were already writing to their Emperors worried about the impact of these radical groups.
When we look at the Letter to the Hebrews, possibly the work of St Paul but more likely a little later, we begin to realise the challenge that Christianity was to Judaism. Now the Jews were a minority group scattered all over the Roman Empire, and they were respected and given special privileges by Rome because of their antiquity. In the early days Christianity was simply a sect within Judaism, but gradually emerged as distinct and different whilst owing much to their parent faith. Christianity claimed, as we see in Hebrews (9:24-28; 10:19-23), to supersede the Jewish Law and, not unlike the Letter to the Romans, to show in what way Christ has done for humanity that which the Law was never intended to achieve. Hebrews is an attack on the Jewish temple sacrificial system. Jews believed that daily sacrifices had to be offered in the Temple to put sinners into the right relationship with God. Christians held that the life and death of Jesus -God with us – has wiped out that age old division between God and man for which Jewish practices were unable to offer any permanent solution.
Christianity’s claim is that uniquely in the sacrifice of Christ man is now united to God in an irrevocable bond and that “Through the blood of Jesus we have the right to enter the sanctuary, by a new way which he has opened for us, a living opening through the curtain, that is to say, his body.” Jews would rely on the power of the law to put them in a right relationship with God. For Christians, more, much more has now been achieved and guaranteed by the bodily life of God with us, and his death which wiped the slate clean. From now on, every believer is assured of his place with God through Jesus. For followers of Christ coming from Judaism this must have demanded a huge leap in understanding, just as for pagan converts it offered the previously unimaginable promise of divinity never before offered by the pagan gods. We too have to recognise what we are actually offered and called to in the life of Jesus, for there is a tendency for us all to underestimate both Jesus’ gift to us, and our own potential in Him.