Monday, 30 May 2011

Ascension of the Lord - Year A

Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:17-23; Matthew 28:16-20

The eleven disciples set out for Galilee ...

Eleven is such a strange, awkward number. We might even call it a sad number. Twelve minus one. It’s like the smile of a Hollywood star – with a tooth missing. And the missing tooth is, of course, Judas the traitor, but not only.

In that same empty space the disciples can see their own infidelity and cowardice, not to mention their present incomprehension and uncertainty. They ran away when their Master was being crucified and one of them even explicitly denied him. In that space lies the incompleteness of their own faith and trust in the Lord; their own ‘absence’.

Perhaps this is why I imagine there is something gauche, and perhaps even a little stunned about these men. Watching them set out we might be reminded of Mark 10:32: They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem; Jesus was walking on ahead of them; they were in a daze, and those who followed were apprehensive.

Yes, the eleven were setting out. This, too, is worthy of remark. Jesus and his disciples were always setting out, and now that he has died, and is risen, his disciples are still doing it. For us who have followed the Lord for so many years this comes as no surprise. We well understand that ‘setting out’ is the hallmark of the Christian life. And when in old age or illness we are finally laid in that bed in which we will eventually draw our last breath we know that this is only another form of Christian ‘setting out.’

The disciples are heading for Galilee, back home to where it all began for them. They were heading for ‘the mountain’, which is Bible-speak for ‘they were going to meet God’. And they did meet him. As Matthew tells us : Jesus came up and spoke to them.

Most of them did what one would naturally do if one were to come into the presence of God: they fell down before him. Young John would have been among the first. He had always been the first to believe, even before Peter. When he looked into that empty tomb on Easter Sunday, at the cloths lying there: he saw and he believed (John 20:8).

But some hesitated. After all the teaching and the miracles and resurrection appearances they still were not sure. How honest the Gospels are about the Apostles’ slowness in coming to the fullness of faith! It’s almost a proof of their authenticity.

Also in the first reading Luke’s description of this final meeting of the eleven with their Lord demonstrates what we, with the benefit of hindsight, might even call the ‘obtuseness’ of the Apostles: Lord, has the time come? Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel? The mind-boggling silliness of the question might tempt us to shake our heads and look away but fortunately for us, for you and for me, in the embarrassing spectacle of the uncertainty and hesitation and slowness of the eleven, in the hole caused by that missing tooth, is found our own hope that there might just be room in God’s Church for us – poor, hesitant, half-hearted Christians that ‘some’ of us still are.

Jesus’ answer to his disciples betrays not a hint of the annoyance he clearly demonstrated on previous occasions. Perhaps he is consoling himself with the thought that the Holy Spirit will enlighten them in ten days’ time. Indeed, if we have been puzzling over the ‘poor eleven’ and suspecting that ‘something’s missing’, this surely must be the key to our disquiet; the Holy Spirit is missing! And when he comes all doubts will be resolved, all hesitation and confusion will evaporate, and all faintheartedness will give way to confidence and courage.

For the moment Jesus simply tells them that these matters are in the hands of the Father and it is not for them to be privy to his decisions. All they could do, and they did it, was to ‘look on’ and to ‘look up’ as the mighty plan of God unfolded before them.

Of course, Jesus himself is that plan, the plan of the Father. Jesus, the obedient Son, realises the plan of the Father with the power that his Father has given to him. Whereas the Father decides ‘by his own authority’, Jesus is careful distinguishes his own power as something that ‘has been given to me’. In John’s Gospel Jesus makes this explicitly clear when he declares (14:28): … the Father is greater than I.

The language of the first reading subtly refers to this power beyond Jesus in such phrases as ‘he was taken up to heaven’, ‘he was lifted up’, and ‘Jesus who has been take up from you’. The passive verbs direct our attention to the supremacy of God the Father who here acts on behalf of his Son.

Having perfectly fulfilled the plan of his Father Jesus is now able to announce that: All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. As Jesus was sent by the authority of the Father so now he has the authority to send his disciples: Go, therefore, make disciples of all the nations

And as he leaves them he promises to be with them always; a paradox well known to the Christian!

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