There is a story that when Jesus returned to heaven after his death and resurrection, the Archangel Gabriel was surprised to see him back so soon. Thirty-three years is not a long time, especially when you think about the importance and proportions of the task he had been given to do.
‘Back so soon?’ Gabriel said to Jesus.
‘Well, I would have stayed longer but they crucified me,’ Jesus replied.
‘Oh, so they crucified you,’ said Gabriel. ‘That means you failed.’
‘Not necessarily,’ said Jesus. ‘You see I called together a little group of disciples. They will carry on my work.’
‘And what if they should fail?’ asked Gabriel.
‘I’ve no other plans,’ Jesus answered. ‘There is no plan B.’
Jesus had preached the Gospel only to Israel. But now he commissioned the apostles to preach the Gospel to all nations. The torch had been passed onto them. It was a daunting task. A small, frightened group that had been through a roller coaster of experiences in the last few weeks are now commissioned to tell the whole world what they had seen. And the angels that join this little group at the Ascension are not for dilly-dallying either. “Why are you standing there looking up?” they ask. In other words, get on with it.
With no plan B and depending on this group, the outlook isn’t good. Furthermore, the disciples were probably not impressed with the angels’ remark. What if one or two of them had the nerve to answer back when the angels spoke? A Peter or Martha might have said. “He told us it’s not yet time! We’re supposed to stick around for whatever’s coming next.” Another might have chimed in: “Why are we looking up? Because we don’t know what’s about to happen! Where else are we supposed to look? We need to see beyond this pool of fear and confusion we are steeped in at the moment. All around us we see nothing but signs of all that went wrong the past few weeks.”
Of course, I’m leaning heavily on the imagination here nevertheless Luke’s story does portray the tension between looking heavenward and getting down to earth. Given their difficult situation earth was not very appealing. They were missing the physical presence of Jesus and straining their eyes toward heaven seemed far more appealing than dealing with the nitty gritty on ground level. And yet, that’s what they ended up doing, once the Spirit set them on fire. And, as we all know, they were very successful. The turning point in all of this is the Ascension. This is where the torch was passed on. If Jesus had never left them, they would never have come out of the blocks.
Today’s preface gives us a clue to understanding the Ascension. We are told that ‘He (Jesus) ascended, not to distance himself from our lowly state but that we, his members, might be confident of following where he, our Head and Founder, has gone before. In other words, Jesus didn’t simply dissolve into thin air. On Ascension Day, one might think that he removed himself into a new form of divine exclusion. But the case is exactly the opposite. In being with God, Jesus is here with us in a new and very specific way. Only by his physical separation from the historical scene can his spiritual union be complete with all the world for all time. Jesus one day left the world in order to be available to everyone through all time. He had to dissolve the bonds he had made with his friends, in order to be available for everybody. In Jesus, the future has already begun!
But let’s get back to that shaky start when Jesus left them. They needed help big time and the Letter to the Ephesians, born out of their struggle to witness to their Master, offers a list of gifts needed to move forward. We hear the prayer “may the God of our Lord Jesus Christ … give you a Spirit of wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge of him. May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened that you may know the hope that belongs to his call … the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe.”
What a prayer for semi-willing, most confused disciples! This prayer begins by grounding us in our faith, reminding us that the will of God the Father, “our Lord,” and the Spirit is always for our good. When it asks for a “Spirit of wisdom and revelation,” it opens us to the Spirit that gives us the ability to read the signs of the times, to recognise how God is luring us forward through the people and events of our days. To pray that the “eyes of our hearts be enlightened” pleads for a God-sized vision, for hope that will go further than all our imaginations put together.
Like the Apostles, we too are called to spread the Good News of the Kingdom. There is still no plan B. It is now our turn to carry the torch and tell the world all about Jesus and the beautiful future he has in store for each of us. Like the Apostles, we must face the very real, dispiriting events of our times, the circumstances that cannot be ignored, like the suicide bomber in Manchester or the 28 Coptic Christians massacred so savagely in Egypt. In the face of all these tragedies we too, like the Apostles, desperately need to understand and yes, look heavenward for a solution. But we may also hear angels or prophets who remind us that prayer is only one part of the equation.
If we have the audacity and courage to pray for the blessings of wisdom, revelation, knowledge of God, enlightened hearts and Christian hope, we will be impelled to action. The really good news is that Christ has promised that as we go to the ends of the Earth, he will be with us until the end of the ages.
Sunday, 28th May 2017