All week I have had the Ascension in my head: it is of course that time of year as we move out with the disciples into the brave new world that signalled the birth of the church. But beyond the bold narrative of Jesus ascending into heaven there has been much romanticised and less than helpful imagery; imagery which continues to dominate the Christian scene (or at least how others may perceive our faith). It is not only the white Jesus in floaty robes scooting up to heaven which I find hard to stomach (though that would be reason enough); rather it is the portrayal, not of a man who is intimately connected to his disciples (and all of creation), but of a Lord that now appears unobtainable. By bypassing this key relational aspect of the scene, many painters forfeit our fundamental need to grasp the role and interdependence of the trinity.
I love the fact that most of the action in the gospels happens outside: on a hill, by a lake, near the road, in the market. Other key events happen in the homes of his many followers, and, it is easy to feel you are journeying on with Jesus through the story, as the writers take you from place to place to the unfolding drama. And drama there was. By the time we reach Luke chapter 24 you might want to take a deep breath! For this last chapter begins with the women discovering Jesus’ body has disappeared, and, it ends with Jesus being carried up to heaven – that’s a lot to take in. Thankfully, Luke-Acts (as they are often referred to; being understood to be written by the same author) allows us to see what happened after the disciples went back to Jerusalem to wait. The time lag here is of interest; why did Jesus leave them alone; before the Holy Spirit was ready to ‘meet/ empower/ guide’ them? The instruction is clear:
‘”You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”‘ (Luke 24: 48-49 NRSV)
The scene I imagine shows Jesus in conversation with his dearly loved disciples. He is not distant or disengaged from all that awaits them once he has departed. He is blessing them and imparting the wisdom of the trinity – wait for my Spirit – was God ever truly absent from them as creator/ present in creation? Over the last few weeks, I have been reflecting on the benefits of slowing down, sitting, observing all that is around us and immersing ourselves in nature. The disciples were often told to stop hurrying, or arguing, or trying to be clever and to appreciate all that they had in their midst: Jesus. Now that Jesus has been taken up to heaven and they are told to STOP, to wait… they seem to find it a whole lot easier to comply this time around!
‘And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy;and they were continually in the temple blessing God.’ (v52-53)
Luke doesn’t say that they were scared at this point, but they did do as they were told: they waited. Was this a liminal time for the Disciples? The old way of doing things, with Jesus, had gone and they were yet to experience (or really know) what this power would look like. In our own lives, it can be hard to navigate this stop-go mechanism. When is the time for action, and, when is the time for being still and listening? Jesus’ teaching is all about mercy, justice, and truth borne out in practical activity, and, I am trying to picture what the landscape might look like if Jesus was ascending from a UK postcode today? He did not ascend in a vacuum of pure loveliness, but rather a landscape of political unrest, religious oppression, and violence. His followers were empowered to tackle injustice and liberate the oppressed, the marginalised, the poor.
As we awake to more scenes of violent unrest in Israel-Palestine it is not hard to imagine our world desperately needs this message of hope. But sacramental living is not merely words, it is faith in action. Just as in the United Reformed Church we have but two sacraments that we believe to be instituted by Christ: Baptism and Holy Communion, believing both to be rooted in scripture. So it is with our every day lives; to live a holy life that fuses our faith to our lifestyle. The horrific scenes of the Israeli bombing of Gaza (one of the most densely populated strips of land in the world) is a story that must be heard and shared widely if we are to live up to all that is asked of us and speak truth to power. **For those who may not have followed the escalation of the humanitarian crisis that has been unfolding for Palestinians over the last few years, a good place to start might be Abby Martin’s 2019 Empire Files film Gaza Fights For Freedom and it is available to watch in full for free right now on YouTube.**
Right action comes in many different forms; this week a group of us went out litter picking in our local community2. I was struck by both the incarnational nature of the activity and the symbolism of this sacramental living: showing care and reverence for God through her creation. And yes, there was joy, great joy! As you picture the scene, with Jesus hovering above you, what will he see as he looks down – what are the issues in your context? What action can we take to live out our faith beyond the walls of our churches? The environmental crisis is one that disproportionately impacts the world’s poor and the vulnerable, and, we should never feel that work in this area is small in God’s eyes.
But why did they have to wait for the Holy Spirit: was it to remind us that we are always to follow God’s plan, not to live passive lives, but to listen for wisdom’s call.