Frances writes on the Ascension :- It is about our time, the time of the Church, as we see the disciples adjusting to the post resurrection experience, and being pushed to develop their understanding of the meaning of the whole ‘Jesus event’. Our reading from Acts (1:1-11) points to just how necessary that was and still is, as we find the close followers of Jesus still stuck with the contemporary Jewish mind-set: “Lord, has the time come? Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” It appears that they, like so many in Judaism, still thought in worldly terms, hoping that the resurrection would confer enormous military power on Jesus who would lead a huge army to wipe the Roman occupiers of Palestine off the map and secure Israel for the Jews. Jesus’ response told them of a quite different mission, one under the power of the Holy Spirit, one in which they would indeed have power – but of a very different kind – one in which they would “Be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem, but throughout Judaea and Samaria, and indeed to the ends of the earth”. They would conquer the world with the truth of the gospel, drawing millions of men and women to Christ, not with brute force, but with the message of hope and love and expectation of life with God, which is the Christian message. The Holy Spirit would give them the understanding to make them witnesses – in Greek martyrs – those who will stand for the truth; and gradually the disciples came to realise the meaning of this word in its fullness as many of them were persecuted for the faith, like Jesus.
Our reading from Ephesians (1:17-23) makes clear that this growth in understanding is a continual process, ongoing in the lives of believers. Paul prays: “May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give you the spirit of wisdom and perception of what is revealed, to bring you to full knowledge of him” ‘Wisdom, perception and full knowledge’ is what is both offered and received from the Spirit for the witnessing believer, so that he can fulfil his task for the Lord. St Paul was concerned to demonstrate that God’s power, working through Christ, was of a quite different kind and a different order. He goes on to demonstrate that God’s conquering power has been made visible in the resurrection of Christ from the dead, indicating by this the Lord’s power over the entire creation: “Every Sovereignty, Authority and Power, or Domination” ; something greater even than the apparently invincible Roman Empire under whose authority they all lived at the time. Whereas the disciples were often overawed by the power of Rome, Paul does a remarkable thing saying that God has made Christ the “Ruler of everything, the head of the Church; which is his body, the fullness of him who fills the whole creation.” In Greek it seems to say even more, that “Christ is head over all things for the Church”, for you and me! It is a quite remarkable statement and one whose significance we can easily pass over:
Christ is the ruler of everything; he is the head of the Church;
the Church is his body; the Church, (you and me) are the fullness of (Christ) who fills the whole creation.
We are ‘the fullness of Christ’, so close as to be irrevocably united to him, as body to head, Christ and therefore we as his body ‘fill the whole creation!’
We Christians are his body, utterly one with the head and without this unity neither head nor body can operate!
What an extraordinary statement about the Church, about us believers? It is one which must have shocked the tiny struggling Christian community of Ephesus in the bustling imperial capital of Asia, with its powerful Greco-Roman settlement, with huge temples; its theatre and international markets; its vast army presence and its wealth. The Church, however insignificant it appeared to its members and to the world, is the body of which Christ the Lord of creation is the head. We and he are totally united; we share one being and identity, one member working in unison.
It’s worth while exploring just how the Church became that body, how it developed. It was not through any very dramatic actions on the part of some corporate group, but quite simply through the quiet work and commitment of the disciples. Paul, as we know worked as an itinerant leather worker, mending belts, shoes and tents in places where people were, and communicated the faith to his ‘captive’ audiences whilst they awaited their repairs. Others, like Peter and Mark, (whose Liturgy still survives in Egypt) most likely got to Rome via Alexandria and took ship on the great grain ships that went between the two. St Thomas went even further afield and reached India, again via the commercial ships which traded for spices in the Orient. We know from the amount of Roman coin discovered in India that this trade was flourishing; he may even have worked his passage as a sailor. Others stayed in Palestine, as we know from the literal martyrdoms (witness) of the two James’. What stands out is their witness to the Christian message under the power of the Spirit, which enabled them to understand more of what they were doing and gave them the faith and ability to testify to the truth and suffer for their convictions. In this way they truly fulfilled the gospel commission (Matthew 28:16-20) to go and make disciples of all the nations, to baptise them in the name of the Trinity and to teach them the faith. It is a task we share with the earliest disciples and has gone on throughout the history of the Church. It is not an option for the special few; it is a commission for us all, for the whole Church.