Saturday, May 15, 2010

Ascension: Promises Made and Fulfilled

I shouldn’t be admitting this in front of the younger parishioners who are still in school, but I was a very lazy student. In high school you could buy books called “Cole’s Notes” that gave summaries of everything we were supposed to read, and I made good use of them.

When I was studying political science at university, I used a wonderful little encyclopedia of political theory to save me the trouble of reading Plato and Aristotle.

It wasn’t so easy to cut corners in the seminary—I think Cole’s Notes was out of business by then, but I’m sure they didn’t cover theology textbooks anyway.

But if I ever need a lazy man’s digest of Christian faith, I know where to find it. Today’s Gospel is the whole story in a nutshell, summarized by Jesus himself.

At this crucial moment, just before he leaves them, Jesus lays it all out for his disciples. Confusion or uncertainty is the last thing he wants as he returns to the Father. He opens their hearts and minds to the past, the present, and the future.

And today, he would like to do the same for each of us. Although we’re not startled by his Ascension as the disciples were, we also need to have the big picture in front of us all the time, and especially in difficult times. It’s so easy to get bogged down in the details, and to miss the immense and glorious plan that comes straight from Christ.

So what does Jesus tell his disciples in this farewell speech?

First, he reminds them that he didn’t come to earth unannounced. He is the fulfillment of the promise God made to Israel. This is not just ancient history, even for us. One writer puts it beautifully: “To promise is one of the key words of the language of love.” (Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 465)

The New Testament has many passages that recognize Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promises in the Old Testament. To quote just one, St. Paul says that in Jesus “every one of God’s promises is a ‘yes’.” (2 Cor 1:20)

This is important to us because we’re the ones who’ve inherited the promises. At Pentecost, St. Peter preached a bold sermon in which he told the crowd “the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away—everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” (Acts 2:38)

We need, especially as Pentecost approaches, to believe that God keeps his promises, including the promise of clothing us with power from on high. I think this was why Jesus chose to look backwards, to the Old Testament scriptures, at the start of this final address. For nothing convinces us that someone will keep their promises than knowing they’ve always kept them in the past.

Jesus then turns to the present. He challenges his friends to reflect on their experiences with him. Don’t take it from me, he seems to say, you’ve seen it with your own eyes! You saw me suffer, and you saw me rise—you are eye-witnesses!

We might not be eye-witnesses to the death and resurrection of Jesus, yet how much have we seen! Each of us has a different set of experiences, but which of us hasn’t seen the power of God at work? Who among us has no story to tell of the forgiveness of sin?

If you have never seen or felt the power of the Gospel at work, you are either very young in the faith or need to jump deeper into its mystery. Repentance and the forgiveness of sins are what keep our community going, what keep our families loving, and what keep our own hearts from despair.

Then, of course, Jesus turns to the future, and to the Promise of all promises, the gift of the Holy Spirit. So important is that gift that he tells the disciples “just stay put until you have been clothed with that Power.”

Although the Spirit has indeed been poured out on all the earth, it is still very good advice. All too often we rush into spiritual challenges half-clothed; we don’t take the time to ask the Spirit’s help and guidance.

Jesus words are crucial for two reasons. The first concerns the gift of the Holy Spirit generally. Many of us have only heard the first part of what Jesus said: we’re more than willing to stay put. We don’t venture out. We need to receive the power that he promised; we need to put on the Spirit with conviction, by a personal act of surrender.

To quote my friend the author and lay evangelist Ralph Martin, each of us as individuals “has to experience today the work of the Spirit as we see it described in the accounts of Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles.” (Unpublished manuscript).

The second reason why the words “stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high" are so important is particular rather than general. Each of us faces challenges, opportunities, temptations, and none of us should face them without the power given from on high. How often do we rush into battle without the armour of the Spirit! How often do we say the wrong thing when a ten second prayer for God’s help would have allowed us to say the right thing!

This isn’t pious talk—it’s darn close to being the story of my life.

I once had a book of famous last words. In the humorous category, W.C. Fields won the prize. On his deathbed, a visitor found him reading the Bible. When he asked what he was doing, the comedian replied, “Looking for loopholes, my friend. Looking for loopholes.”

There was no room for jokes when Jesus took leave of his closest friends. And we have the proof that his words had their intended effect. Luke doesn’t say the disciples were left sobbing at his disappearance into the sky; on the contrary, they headed to Jerusalem full of joy.

This goes against common sense, but the wise words of William Barclay make sense of it. He explains the Ascension as both an ending and a beginning.

It was an ending, since “the days when [the disciples’] faith was faith in a flesh and blood person and depended on his flesh and blood presence were over. Now they were linked to someone who was forever independent of space and time.”

“Equally it was a beginning. The disciples did not leave the scene heart-broken; they left it with great joy, because now they knew that they had a Master from whom nothing could separate them anymore.” (Daily Study Bible)

What was true of the disciples is true for us if we take to heart the promise of power, the promise of the gift of the Spirit we will celebrate next week on Pentecost.

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