Reflection by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 24 May 2020.
• First Reading: Acts 1:1-11 (He will come back in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven)
• Epistle: Ephesians 1: 15-23 (Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians – a spirit of wisdom and revelation)
• Gospel: Luke 24: 44-53 (You are witnesses. I am sending upon you what My Father promises)
When General Macarthur withdrew from the Philippine Islands in 1942, he did so with the promise, ‘I shall return.’ And eventually he did. This was a promise, duly fulfilled.
There has been that famous celluloid image of a certain Mr Schwarzenegger making a similar statement: ‘I’ll be back.’ This time, I do not think that it was with a promise of ice cream and sweets. The tone was rather more somber and the statement was far more of a threat.
The Ascension of Jesus might be seen as rather more than either of these comments, for in them there is both the promise of a coming again to those who rejoice in Him and what He has done, but also a promise – or is it a threat of judgment of His opponents and vindication of those who have followed Him in their lives, often at dire and mortal cost.
For the disciples returning to Jerusalem it was definitely a time of celebration as they looked forward to beginning the task entrusted to them. From being a disorganized and demoralized rabble they had been met in their misery and turned around.
Now they were joyful, expectant, even gung-ho for what lay ahead. Now they had the initiative and were definitely not hiding away from the authorities in an upper room and behind locked doors.
It was not just that Jesus had confounded all expectations, including their own, by rising from the dead. He had spent the intervening time rallying them, forgiving and recommissioning them, teaching them and making to them the kind of promises that they had never dreamed about.
Now their horizons and expectations had changed. They may have started off looking for the expulsion of the Romans from the land and the inauguration of a new Kingdom of Israel under the Messiah.
Now they looked to the whole world as their mission field where none would be excluded from the gospel message and all who heard would have the opportunity to receive its blessings.
This would not be a task without preparation or support. Jesus had taken care to teach them the scriptures and to understand and apply them. He had promised them His permanent presence in every age and over all continents.
Whereas in His body Jesus was specific to one time and one place, now He was there in all times and places. Whereas anyone who wanted to see Him would have to go and find Him, now Jesus was equally accessible to all times and places.
He would hear the praises of the exuberant and the prayers of the desperate. The broken heart would be as close to Him as the heart that had just excelled in a contest.
The joy of the mother would be as close to Him as the grief of the bereaved. The thanksgiving for life and deliverance as intimate as the anguished cry of ‘Why??’ or ‘Why me (or her or them)??’
It does not necessarily mean that the disciples in their missions would be spared opposition or the pains of martyrdom, that they would have to seek the face of God as their societies threw up new moral and scientific challenges.
Should they opt for expediency or face the challenges and costs of saying the unfashionable or speaking up for the rejected? How to address the changing character of law or trade or warfare? How to respond to the many faces of personal rejection or disappointment?
In writing to the church in Ephesus, Paul tells us of his prayer for them to receive aa spirit of wisdom and revelation – and that is the spirit of God rather than any distillation of cynical, worldly, wisdom.
He desires for them to have the eyes of their hearts enlightened, to know the hope to which they were called and the riches of their glorious inheritance among the saints.
And this was a small church living in the shadow of the guild of silversmiths, all enriched by the fertility cult of Diana.
Paul’s vision even in the most unpromising of situations was to be reminded of the overwhelming promises of God opened to all who follow Jesus Christ.
Even where circumstances stood against them, Paul was saying ‘Look up! Rejoice and celebrate! Jesus is lord even of all this!’
The celebration of the Ascension of Jesus does not stop with His going away, for He is now present as never before. If anything He is present, multiplied in every soul that loves Him. Those who are drained of self any yet find new strength in Him.
Those who have not lost heart or hope, despite all their misgivings or anxieties. Those who give themselves, not just generously but sacrificially. Those who serve unseen and unthanked, often personally rejected and coping with memories of things long ago.
It is here that Jesus is also present and it is here that Paul’s vision for the Christians in Ephesus apply with special emphasis.
Because Jesus is both risen and ascended we also in all situations may also find the strength and courage to lift up our own heads.