Ascension Day is one of the principal feasts of the Christian Calendar. This means it is to be ranked alongside Christmas, Easter and and Pentecost. Yet it has rarely been accorded the same sort of importance in the life of the Church, or in the practice of individual Christians. Perhaps this is in part because the event it commemorates -- the ascension of the risen Jesus -- is recorded by only one evangelist, Luke (though that is also true of the Epiphany which is found only in Matthew). Perhaps it is because over the centuries, its precise location in the Christian year has been subject to local variation. But mainly it is because the theological significance of the event it celebrates -- Ascension -- is very hard to separate from the two events by which it is surrounded -- Easter Resurrection and the coming of Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
One way of identifying the unique significance of Ascension, however, is to note the special way in which the brief period between Ascension Day and Pentecost unites us, and Christians of every age, with the first disciples. The Apostles Peter, John, Andrew and so on, saw Jesus in the flesh. They walked and talked with him, watched, listened to him and ate with him over the three years of his ministry. That ministry ended in apparent failure, but then, as physical witnesses of the Risen Christ, the Apostles were granted a second opportunity to be in the company of the Son of God.
In the pursuit of our discipleship, we do not have these advantages. We must live in faith in a way that those few Galileans did not have to do. The Ascension is special because it marks the point at which Jesus left them to complete their discipleship, importantly by finding a faith just like ours. His departure "from their sight" meant that for a short time they had to stand firm in knowledge of the Resurrection, but without his unique presence to sustain them. In this way, his Ascension required them to relinquish their privileged position and prepare themselves for what the rest of us rely on -- a Holy Spirit that draws us into the eternal life of the Father whom we do not see and the Son whom we never met.
It is this same Spirit that prompts, and enables, Paul’s response to the dream recounted in the Epistle. An unknown person in far off Macedonia calls on him to share the Gospel, thereby indicating that its power and relevance must break all geographical and ethnic boundaries. In short, the Gospel Paul preaches speaks to the human soul that lies within everyone.
Between the Gospel promise and the missionary Acts of Paul the Apostle, lies Revelation’s compellingly beautiful statement of the ultimate goal in which the work of the Spirit will culminate. What is striking is just how God centred it is. The picture of the ‘heavenly’ Jerusalem that it paints, is not a paradise in which all our desires and needs are met, but one in which they are transformed and transcended within the Person of God. In the world to which we have been raised, we no longer need sunlight, or clean water, or political security, or even places of worship. God’s presence will be so immediate that everyone ‘will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads’. This vision is no promise, of course, for those whose hearts are set on wealth and power as the world understands these. But to those who long for a full realization of the spiritual nature that God has planted in us, no more wonderful prospect could be imagined.
In these passages, Jewish scribes asked Jesus to identify the most central of the several hundred commandments -- including the dietary restrictions the reading from Acts refers to -- that were to be found in their scriptures. He picks just two – one from Deuteronomy, the other from Leviticus – and declares that everything else in the Jewish law and prophets hangs on these two commandments. He also declares that he has not come to abolish the law. However, he does not expressly say that these two commandments summarize his own faith.
In contrast to the other three Gospels, the Fourth Gospel does not record this episode. Rather, in the brief Gospel for this Sunday, John tells us that Jesus offered his own disciples a third, new, and ‘great’ commandment – ‘that you love one another’. As faithful Jews, the disciples commitment to love of God and neighbour could be taken for granted. To mark them out as followers of Christ, they were called to obey a third commandment -- special love for each other.
Given the divisions, persecutions and mutual contempt that have so often marred the history of the Church – and still do – this third, distinctively Christian commandment has proved very much harder to live by than the other two, so hard as to be virtually impossible in fact. The judgment of history, then, seems to make the Christian faith a hopeless undertaking. Still, this Sunday’s reading from Revelation reminds us that ultimately we must place our hopes in a world that God has promised, not in a world that human beings, however well intentioned, will make. It is God, not us, who makes all things new, and God does so in ways that human beings may well find hard to discern. The implication is that we must wait patiently until ‘the home of God is among mortals’. Only then can we expect ‘a new heaven and a new earth’.
Most of the first Christians were Jews, but quite early on they departed from the Jewish prohibition on religious images and started to make pictures. One of the most ancient is Jesus as the Good Shepherd. This decorated the walls of the Roman catacombs, and of course, has deep Jewish roots in the 23rd Psalm. Over the next two millennia, it has proved to be one of the most enduringly attractive subjects for artists of all kinds.
Its contemporary appeal is reflected in the fact that our modern lectionary makes the 4th Sunday of Easter “Good Shepherd” Sunday in all three years, and with unusually little variation between them. The appointed Psalm is always ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’, and the Gospel for the day, with slightly different selections, is taken from John Chapter 10, where Jesus applies the metaphor of a shepherd to himself.
The continuing popularity of the 23rd Psalm has made the language of sheep and shepherd familiar and comforting to most church people. And yet the world in which we live – even in rural areas – is so far removed from the world in which the biblical shepherd was a familiar sight, that we might wonder whether the image can actually speak to us still. For a modern audience, describing faithful Christians as ‘sheep’ can be expected to have negative connotations – suggesting a docile inability to think for themselves.
To make the metaphor speak afresh, it is essential to understand that shepherds in biblical times had two crucial tasks -- to lead the sheep to sources of water that they couldn’t find for themselves, and to protect them from wild animals. The superior strength, wisdom and care of the shepherd was vital if the sheep were to survive and flourish. Without it, they would “go astray, each to his own way” as Isaiah famously puts it (Is.56:3).
So the message in the image is this. However earnest our spiritual seeking and searching, it is God who finds us, not we who find God. The challenge is to relinquish paths through life of our own devising, and have the wisdom and strength to recognize and follow His call.
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