God has placed his trust in us

Frances writes :-  There is often a tendency to wonder precisely why Jesus left us at the Ascension, why at the moment of his resurrected triumph over death he did not stay put. It is only when we really spend time with the implications, both of what his remaining would have meant, and what his departure implies, that we can begin to experience the enormity of his ascension gift to humanity.

This is an issue explored by our reading from Acts (1:1-11). It appears that the disciples, so like us, want to cling onto the risen Jesus and, despite all his talk to the contrary, are still thinking in earthly and very Jewish terms. “Lord, has the time come? Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Despite all his teaching on the nature of the kingdom of God they, like their fellow Jews who rejected Jesus’ teaching and understanding of the Father, are still stuck with him as a Roman basher; someone who would gather a huge army and come in power once and for all to throw any would be conquerors out of Israel. In their thinking, the reign of God on earth would still be a very worldly thing, about power and control, and making sure that Israel finally came out on top. The disciples, like us, cling to familiar concepts, and what they think they know, and they cast God in this image too.

This is precisely why the risen, glorified Jesus must leave them. It was time to move on – their time to move out into the great adventure which was to be Christianity. Had Jesus remained they and we would be incurably handicapped, forever overshadowed by the risen Lord, trapped in a world in which his power would have become absolute. There would be no need for any to search for God, for there he was, no need for us to think for we would be trapped; infantilized by his very presence. Instead, we notice that Jesus is looking forward to their baptism in the Holy Spirit, the coming of age of the disciples, and all that that will mean.

In Luke’s gospel (Lk 24:46-53) we get a rather clearer picture of all this, as Jesus instructs the disciples to remain in Jerusalem until they had been “Clothed with the power from on high.” Significantly, he reminds them of his death and resurrection, and their task, “That, in his name, repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Our, and I suspect the disciples’, problem was and is that few of us really take on board the gift of the Father to us. Sure, we have that wonderful promise of eternal life, of even sharing divinity with him in heaven, but in general, we fail to discern the real meaning of the ascension of Jesus.

The whole purpose of the incarnation, of the sending of God the Son in flesh and blood like ours, was to reveal to the world the true relationship between Father and Son and their intention for us. This is made clearer precisely by the ‘loss’ of the physically present Jesus. For in that we experience the full extent of the divine trust in us, in the human creatures God has made. Jesus’ mission is completed by his saving death and resurrection; the divine invitation to believers is that they trust us to make it known, shared and lived out in the world. Had Jesus remained, such a trust, any such call, would have been superfluous, void of meaning; humanity would have remained at best willing and obedient followers, at worst, puppets. But by his ascension, Christ gives this supreme honour to the disciples. That it is our task, our mission, our great act of willing and freely given collaboration with him, to make it known and available to the whole of humanity. God, it appears, is supremely optimistic about humanity. We may not be so, and from our perspective on the world, things can look pretty bleak, but we must remember that God has placed his trust in us, and knows that we will not fail.

The writer of The Letter to the Hebrews (Heb 9:24-28.10:19-23), written for what was obviously a predominantly Jewish convert audience, was at pains to take his readers beyond their commitment to God through Jewish temple worship. He may have deliberately seized the opportunity of the Roman destruction of the temple at the end of the great revolt in AD 70, when the void this created gave him an invitation to show how belief in Jesus could transcend the Jewish faith. He points out how the Jewish priests had to offer atonement sacrifices continually, because the sins of the people were constantly reoccurring, and shows how Jesus’ sacrificial death occurred only once and reconciled the entire creation to God for all time. In a spectacular piece of imagery he speaks of Jesus’ sacrificed body as the curtain of the temple, which has now been symbolically torn down, as God and humanity are now inexorably joined. Under the old and now defunct temple system, a huge embroidered curtain hid the people from the presence of God in the Holy of Holies. In the synoptic gospels this curtain is ripped apart at the death of Jesus; God and man are now no longer veiled, cut off from each other, but open, redeemed and accessible to each other. The writer of Hebrews picks this up, insisting that every Christian has the free access to God formerly only accorded the High Priests, that our access to God is open, and only limited by our own bad conscience. In principle, he says we are at home with God, familiar with him and he to us, that is the gift of the ascension.

 

Going out of oneself

Frances writes on this Sunday’s Readings : Now that Eastertide is over we return to the different accounts of Jesus’

mission to his people and the growth of the Church in the light of his

great commission and example. In our gospel, (Luke 7:11-17), we find

Jesus in Galilee. We have to remember that to Jews, Galilee, whilst the

home country of Jesus was itself a dubious area up in the North and we

frequently see officials from Jerusalem checking up on Jesus’ mission.

Clearly this mission was a great success, for our gospel speaks of his

being attended by ‘a great number of people’. It is in this crowded

context that we see Jesus raise the son of the widow of Nain from the

dead. We are told that Jesus did this great, even impossible thing, simply

‘because he felt sorry for her’. Jesus apparently put his hand on the bier

and spoke to the dead man. That is something we find very peculiar for

there is no indication he even touched him, but the point is clearly made.

Jesus transcends the rules of life and death, he is its Lord and not

dominated by its demands. Jesus can then go out beyond the normal

ways of thinking and acting. The people acclaim him as a ‘great prophet’,

clearly Luke wants us to think in quite different ways about Jesus; the

Jesus he is presenting to his patron the Greek Theophilus, someone who

had his own very specific ideas of what divinity was like.

 

By way of comparison we read in 1 Kings, (17:17-24), of a similar

account of the raising of a child from the dead by Elijah the prophet.

Elijah we know was in serious conflict with Ahab, king of the Northern

Jewish state of Samaria, who had married a worshipper of Baal and

adopted her religion to the fury of the prophet. Zarephath was pagan

territory, belonging to Sidon, so the woman was most likely a pagan.

Perhaps then we are to see this raising from the dead as a turning of

God’s back on this evil and apostate king and his people and as a turning

to the gentiles. The ‘raising’ from the dead then becomes an analogy, a

rich story of God’s work with a different people, and of his turning away

from the Northern Kingdom. Elijah, one of Israel’s foremost prophets,

performs perhaps the greatest of his ‘miracles’, whatever was meant

by that, out away from his homeland and amongst needy foreigners.

The fact that at this time Ahab’s kingdom was economically rich in

comparison with the Southern Judah, and by implication had no need for

God, is telling. Prophets can only work their miracles amongst receptive

peoples.

 

Is this what we are seeing when we read Paul’s letter (Gals 1:11-19), in

which he writes to justify his mission to Gentiles? We, and they, might

have thought that Paul was best qualified by way of education to have

served the Christian cause in Judea. After all, he was a Pharisee and had

studied under Gamaliel. Who better then to have argued the new faith in

Jesus than Paul? Why was it that he went abroad and confined his

mission to gentiles? It seems that God, working through his Spirit in the

Jewish-Christian community thought it best to send this worker abroad.

Paul indicates in Galatians that his first missionary work was in Arabia.

Now ‘Arabia’ at this time was not what we now think of as Arabia, but

rather client kingdoms including the Nabatean Damascus and Petra and

kingdoms in the Decapolis; Greek city states over the Jordan. We have

no other evidence of Paul’s work in these places other than this comment,

and no letters appear to have survived from this earliest missionary

work. It appears that this was where Paul served his apprenticeship as a

missionary before going on to work in the three years before the Council

of Jerusalem in what we now call Turkey. This would include the Galatian

cities and those of Cilicia, Paul’s birthplace and Lycia. What we have then

is an albeit hazy picture of Paul’s move out and away from the security

of his very strict and traditional Judaism into very different and even

threatening environments. Anyone at all familiar with the lifestyle of

Greek cities would have immediately understood what a challenge this

would have been to Paul. Or, was this precisely the reason why he was

chosen for this task? His own upbringing in Tarsus –which he had left

resolutely behind when he opted to study with the greatest rabbis of

his age may in the end have been the reason why the Church felt it

best to send him abroad once more. Contrary to what may have been his

own expectation, given his education in Judaism, the Church may have

felt his earlier experiences provided him with gifts and abilities more

suited to a Gentile mission. Sometimes we have to go out of ourselves

to discover who we truly are, and then make the most of the situation

in which we find ourselves, as did Elijah, and just as Jesus did.