8Th MAY 2016.
Acts 1:1-11. Luke 24:46-53.
YOU ARE MY WITNESSES.
Tony van Vuuren
In the Creed today we will be saying of Jesus: ‘He ascended into heaven.’ What picture comes to mind when we think of him ascending into heaven? Perhaps it is one of the traditional biblical images of Jesus floating up into the skies on a cloud as described in the Acts reading?
Whatever the image, we run the risk of looking on the Feast of the Ascension with our eyes raised to the sky. This is exactly the opposite of what we should do. It is a feast that invites us to look to earth, to people among whom we are called to witness to and make present the work of our Lord.
In many ways the language in the New Testament, describing Christ’s Ascension, is symbolic or even mythological language. I don’t mean that the Ascension was made up, or that it never happened, but I do think it would be true to say that to talk about Jesus’ departure from the apostles as a rising into the sky and eventually disappearing from sight is to talk in terms of those images in the Bible that imagines heaven, and God, as being above the earth (and the underworld, somewhere below it). But that’s not literally true, and we don’t always find the meaning of these passages of Scripture by reading them in a literal way.
We find the meaning by looking behind the images to what the author is really trying to communicate. The readings today are a poetic way of saying that Jesus is no longer on earth in a fleshly, physical and material way. The words of scripture mean that Christ’s ascension and withdrawal brings about a new mode by which Christ can be present to us, intimate, yet universal and ‘interceding for us at the right hand of the Father.’
Does his being with God mean he is no longer with us? Of course not! He is actually with us more strongly, more powerfully, than when he walked the roads and streets of Palestine. He is with us in spirit, i.e. in his gift to us of the Holy Spirit. He acts on us in all the down-to-earth ways that the Spirit influences us. So we don’t go looking for him on the clouds or in the sky.
We find him in our reading, hearing and understanding of the scriptures, which speak of him. We find him in our celebration of the sacraments. Each of the seven sacraments is a sign of his presence and action upon us here and now.
This is especially true of the Eucharist, which is specifically the sign and presence of his now glorified and spiritualized body. We find him in our practical love for our neighbour, and especially for our caring for fellow human beings who are disadvantaged in any way, and those who are sad, sorrowing, afraid or despairing.
But if Jesus is no longer visible in the old familiar ways, how will people come to know of his presence? The answer is that he is present through us. So on this Feast of the Ascension we also remember the mission he gave us; his followers before he went home to God.
This is to go and tell everyone everywhere the good news that Jesus is alive and is our Saviour – the one who changes people for the better through his gift of the Holy Spirit. So, before he disappears from sight he says to his followers in every century ‘You are my witnesses’, and that in order to witness to my Father ‘you will be clothed with the power from on high’, the power of the Holy Spirit.
That then is our task: to be witnesses. There are two aspects to the role of witness 1) to actually experience the subject in question and 2) to tell others about it. Obviously one comes before the other. One can’t give witness to something that you have not experienced.
Some of us here might feel that their experience of God has been inadequate up to now and therefore they don’t think that they have anything to communicate to others. We shouldn’t underestimate ourselves. If we are sitting in Church this today it is surely because most of us already have some experience of God.
It is surely because we already hope and trust in him and because we know that it is in celebrating his Eucharist that we can come closest to him. Most of us came to this mass quite freely and must therefore have had a good reason and the reason must be because you already know God and want to spend time with him and do what he wants. There are surely particular times in our lives when we have been very close to him, times when he was the only one we could rely on, times when we spent extended periods in prayer. If that’s not experience of God, then what is?
It is this that the people in the world around us want to know about. They thirst for meaning and purpose; all too often they find themselves filling up the empty holes in their lives with material possessions, and all kinds of inappropriate things.
They want to hear from us. Or maybe, they don’t want to hear from us but want to see people who do find their lives fulfilling and who have direction and moral purpose. They want to look at us from afar and only later, when they are already convinced that what we are doing is right, come to know us better.
In ascending to heaven, Jesus has not left us. He has merely disappeared from our sight. This is similar to the Eucharist. So long as the host is outside us, we see it and we adore it. When we receive the host we no longer see it.
It has disappeared from sight, but it has disappeared so that Jesus in the host can be within us, and be present to us in a new way, and even a more powerful way than when he walked our earth in the flesh. So, like the first disciples, we are not sad that Jesus has disappeared from sight but happy, happy because he is still with us through the Spirit.
So did it happen exactly as the Acts reading describes it? Why not? Nothing is impossible with God. In the end though, the visuals matter less than the lessons of the Ascension: Jesus is with the Father. Jesus is always present to us through the Spirit. The two men in white robes assure us that Jesus will return. Meanwhile we have to stop staring up at the sky and get busy being the witnesses Jesus has asked us to be!