Hey, this is the last Sunday of Easter Season! We are finished with these very difficult readings from the Gospel of John and from 1st Peter each week! To be very truthful, though, because of these readings, we might have had some of our better weekly Bible studies lately—deciding what those readings could possibly mean for us today!
Looking back over the past 6 weeks--for the Gospels we’ve had John give us the first two appearances of the risen Jesus to the disciples in the Upper Room after his resurrection, and then we went backwards in time to read Jesus’ gatekeeper speech and also his long before, during, and “after dinner” speech to his disciples at the Last Supper for the past few weeks. For the 1st Peter readings, it has been hearing over and over about how suffering for one’s faith and doing what is right is a blessed and worthy thing in God’s eyes. Even the Acts readings have been confusing—taking us ahead past Pentecost to hear Peter’s long speech about the meaning of the Pentecost event, the stoning of Stephen, and Peter’s preaching to the Athenians, before finally today taking us back to Jesus’ Ascension just before Pentecost. My running complaint always about our readings—who picks out this stuff?!
In the church calendar year, we are now in the 43rd day after the resurrection of Christ Jesus, heading to the 50th day and Pentecost next week. Last Thursday was the 40th day--celebrated as the Ascension of Christ. Our Acts reading today has a little of this event in it, while the only other places in the Bible that discuss the Ascension are in Mark (in a final chapter part that was seemingly added on later than the earliest manuscripts covered, where it also talks about handling snakes and not being bitten), and in Luke (who many believe also wrote Acts).
From Luke 24 (which was used for Ascension Day in some churches): “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 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.” Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.”
Bonnie, Mary, Yo, and I went to this place on the way to Bethany, during our 2008 pilgrimage to Israel. The Ascension took place on Mount Olivet (the "Mount of Olives", on which the village of Bethany sits). After the Ascension the apostles are described as returning to Jerusalem within a Sabbath day's journey. Looking across the Kidron Valley you can actually see the old city of Jerusalem from Mt. Olivet. It was a day’s journey because it was so hilly and a winding road, maybe only 1-2 miles.
Before the conversion of Constantine in 312 AD, early Christians honored the Ascension of Christ in a cave on the Mount of Olives. By 384, the place of the Ascension was venerated on the present open site, uphill from the cave. The Chapel of the Ascension in Jerusalem today is a Christian and Muslim holy site now believed to mark the place where Jesus ascended into heaven. In the small round church/mosque is a stone imprinted with what some claim to be the very footprints of Jesus. The Russian Orthodox Church also maintains a Convent of the Ascension on the top of the Mount of Olives.
A few points about the Ascension event:
Jesus told his disciples that after he ascended, “I am sending upon you what my Father promised”—the Holy Spirit would come down upon them with power. As we will read next week at Pentecost, they received the Holy Spirit like tongues of fire. Today, every believer receives the Holy Spirit, who gives wisdom and power to live the Christian life.
The command of Jesus to his followers was to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. The gospel first spread to the Jews, then to the Jewish/mixed race Samaritans, and then to the Gentiles. Christians now have that responsibility to spread the good news about Jesus to all who have not heard, and to act as Jesus did, showing love and caring to all people.
The angels warned that someday Jesus will return, in the same way he left. But instead of us idly watching for the Second Coming, we are supposed to be busy with the work Christ assigned us.
The Ascension of Jesus is one of the accepted doctrines of Christianity. The Apostles' and Nicene Creeds both profess that Christ ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father.
Our Bible study this week was especially interesting, I think. The 7 of us wandered our way through these tough readings much like a kid would with a meal that they knew they were supposed to eat, but hoped they could just try a little of each part and the parents would call it good. Corby’s first question, as our leader, before we had read even the first line of the readings was, “what does spiritual discipline mean to you?” Joyce in her “cutting to the chase” way immediately fired back, “doing something I don’t want to do!” We all laughed but in each of our own ways reluctantly agreed. Corby asked us to modify this to “something we can at least continue to try to do.” We had the fun interruption at the door with the surprise appearance of Superman, a young boy in full Superman outfit with cape with his Mom delivering lesson plans information for the upcoming Montesano Bible Camp in July. And, while studying the Gospel of John reading, we found time to digress to talking about good, native slugs (the banana ones) to the bad slugs (the brown ones), and how they can be killed by getting drunk on cheap Busch beer, as Martha informed us! We also brought up our health concerns for those we love, employment issues of our friends and close ones, and other needs for those we know (and don’t know!). And the question of the week—what was a moment when you felt the closeness or presence of God (I’m paraphrasing!)? A very fulfilling time!
I read somewhere that "Ascension is about the dangers of looking high, when Jesus asks us to look low at the people he has come to redeem." That last part seems to be a good summary statement of our mission here at St. Mark’s—for us together and as individuals, as part of the low people (we’re not better than anyone else!), to look across at those around us and be busy with the work Christ assigned us. After all, as Jesus said in John today, “protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Jesus is talking then about his disciples, but it also applies to us now. How can we fail with that endorsement? Amen.