God prepares us for our glorious inheritance

  • May 24, 2011

Ascension of the Lord (Year A) June 5 (Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:17-23; Matthew 28:16-20)

Angelic figures floating on clouds and playing harps — that is the image of heaven portrayed in many cartoons, stories and works of art. In an ancient worldview it makes perfect sense — God is “up there” in the sky from where He dispatches thunderbolts, rain, sun, plagues and so on. But this view came unravelled with the arrival of modern science and the growth of human knowledge. One of the first Soviet cosmonauts remarked smugly to a believer that he hadn’t seen any God during his trip into space.

But our encounter with the transcendent, God, is not spatial or temporal. It is relational, and relationship begins on Earth through our relationships with one another, with the created world and with the deepest part of our own soul. Jesus is about to reveal this to the assembled disciples. First of all, they want a quick fix: are you going to throw the Romans out and re-establish the Kingdom of Israel now? But He rather brusquely dismisses their concerns, in effect, it is none of their business but God’s, and God has other plans. Their mission is to sit tight and wait for the bestowal of power from on high — the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Even as they stand gawking at the “ascending” Jesus, they are warned by the two angelic messengers to keep their eyes on Earth — on everyday life — for Jesus will be experienced on the level of human relationships. He must go away so that we can mature spiritually and apply what He has taught. The gift of the Spirit is not given as a personal possession or to “get saved.” God is providing us with the tools to work things out by following the teachings and example of the Lord. Since God is among us and within us God must be sought and experienced in this life — at least to some degree — before we can expect to find God in the hereafter.

If only we could glimpse for a moment what God has in store for us. The author of Ephesians prays for the spirit of wisdom and enlightenment for his readers so that they may truly know and understand the glory and inheritance God has prepared for us.

So often people think in terms of judgment and punishment but cannot bring themselves to think in terms of God’s generosity and kindness. God’s immense power is working on our behalf and it is the same power that raised Jesus from the dead. When we truly comprehend what God is prepared to share with us fear and negativity should diminish and a radiant hope should take their place.

Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, he portrayed Jesus as focusing His concern exclusively on the house of Israel. But as He prepares for His return to the Father all has changed — it is now time for universal sharing. Jesus commanded His followers to make disciples of all nations and to teach them everything they have learned from Him. Ironically, the part of the commission relating to baptism is likely a later addition as it represents a fully developed Trinitarian baptismal formula, something that was still many years in the future. The emphasis of the shorter original commission is on sharing and discipleship, especially following the pattern and example of Jesus. We dare not even think of making disciples of other nations if we ourselves are not true to Jesus’ teachings.

This is a crucial distinction for over the centuries Christians have frequently tended to focus on baptizing other peoples rather than on discipleship and example. Efforts to bring others into the fold were often mixed with the pursuit of wealth, domination and power that characterizes empires and ideologies.

The resulting exploitation and oppression form some of the saddest chapters in Church history. Jesus wanted us to pass on the good news but mostly by example and inspiration. It is not about numbers but helping all people live a deeper, richer life that is both genuinely human and divine. But true discipleship begins at home.  

We are not alone in this struggle — in one sense Jesus departed but in another sense He didn’t go anywhere, for He leaves us with the most encouraging words of the New Testament: I am with you always.