God’s Spirit the power from above

  • May 8, 2012

Ascension of the Lord (Year B) May 20 (Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:17-23; Mark 16:15-20)

We can only imagine the thoughts and emotions of those who watched Jesus ascend to heaven. Joy, to be sure, that He was risen from the dead — but also bewilderment and anxiety. Where was He going? When was He going to return? Was He going to restore the kingdom of Israel or not?

The first lesson that they learned was that God’s plans seldom coincide with our own agenda. The people were all set to see some action — the Romans annihilated and expelled and the kingdom restored to the status that it had not enjoyed for centuries. To their query about God’s timetable Jesus gave a rather brusque and firm answer: it’s none of your business! Humans get into real trouble when they attempt to second guess God or to force God’s hands. In the meantime, Jesus had a mission for His followers. They were going to continue His work and be witnesses to the very ends of the Earth. He was going to pass the baton to them — and by inference to all of us — but they first had to be empowered from above. He ordered them to wait in the city and to exercise a bit of patience. His heavenward ascension calls for understanding: Jesus is not up in the sky somewhere and neither is God. They are everywhere, but it is far easier for humans — especially in the ancient world — to understand the spiritual realm in spatial terms.

It is helpful to keep the admonition of the two white-robed bystanders (probably angels) in our minds: don’t look up for Jesus, look around you. Jesus is to be found in others and in the world’s pain and suffering. He will be found in the struggles and joys of humanity, as well as deep in the human heart and soul. Don’t worry about when He is coming again or when kingdoms are going to be restored, it doesn’t matter. Jesus isn’t going anywhere and neither are we. There is a lot of hard but important work still to be done.

Ephesians also described power from above. This power was God’s Spirit — the power that raised Jesus from the dead, but also the one that continued to work in followers of Jesus. This Spirit grants us wisdom and continues to reveal more of God’s mysteries and it has barely begun its work. As we deepen our relationship with God more is revealed and we will have a greater sense of the immensity of the gift we have been given. A certain amount of caution is in order regarding the language of thrones, dominion, authority and power. These are not to be understood in the usual human way. They have nothing to do with domination, coercion or control but are expressions of the manner in which God’s love orders the world for our redemption and happiness.

The longer ending of Mark is rather strange in some respects. The original Gospel ended with verse 8 with the women running away in fear and telling no one. Later Christian communities wrote various longer endings to bring Mark in line with the other three Gospels and this passage is one of them. It is not recommended that we test our faith by handling venomous serpents (although there are some small but well-bitten sects that do just that!) or drinking poison. Healing and exorcisms are part of our spiritual repertoire, as well as speaking in tongues. It is interesting that the Gospel commands us to preach the good news to the whole creation, not just humans. Mark and the ancients believed that creation itself was in need of redemption and Jesus died not just for us but for the entire created order.

Our recent concern for the Earth is neither misplaced nor new but in keeping with the Gospel. The references to snakes and poison are metaphorical and remind us of the promise and dream of God in Isaiah. The prophecy spoke of a time in the future when the lion and the lamb would lie down together and the child play near the adder’s den — in other words, a time when humanity would be at peace and harmony with creation, God and one another. The dream is still alive, and all true and authentic expressions of faith promote this vision.

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