We are between the feast of Ascension (last Thursday) and the feast of Pentecost (this coming Sunday). Neither feast was a big part of my Baptist upbringing, and if Baptist (and similar) churches do now sometimes mark Pentecost (“birthday of the church”), Ascension still seems largely lost.
I suspect it is partly about the tyranny of the calendar – festivals that don’t fall on Sundays or public holidays slide by all too easily. When I studied Tudor and Stuart history at high school, I remember learning that one of the apparently good things about the Reformation was the elimination of many holy-days from the calendar, and more of a focus on work. But we lost something important in the process. Ascension is a festival, marking a great victory. It is a time for celebration and rejoicing. It isn’t just that Jesus had been raised to die once more (as Lazarus would) but that has returned to the Father – fully God and fully man, vindicated and sitting the right hand of the Father. He has gone ahead, foreshadowing the path – through death one day – that all Christians will one day take. He is, as he promised, preparing a place for us. This is our hope and our victory. It isn’t about arcane disputes as to what it might meant physically to “ascend”, as if heaven might be just beyond the clouds, but that the limitations of this world need finally have no dominion. At Ascension we look ahead to this hope of a new, or renewed, earth and a new Jerusalem. Yes, there is a lot to come between now and then, but now we celebrate.
And then we turn back to the task we’ve been given as the church of God. It is interesting to read again the Acts account of the ten days between Ascension and Pentecost. We might have expected it to be a time of slightly stunned disorientation. Jesus has gone, and although he has promised this “Holy Spirit”, but the Spirit hasn’t yet been given. We might have expected them to have been a bit lost. Where to start with this witnessing, we (I) might have thought.
But that isn’t how Luke tells it. There is no mention of fearfulness, unease or disbelief. There is a boldness about the account. The inner group of disciples is recorded as “constantly devoting themselves to prayer” – not just among themselves but involving (from the start) Mary, and Jesus’ brothers. And Peter takes the lead, gathering the whole group of believers (around 120 of them), and initiates a process to replace Judas. We aren’t told, in any satisfying analytical way, why they wanted to maintain the number of apostles at 12. Perhaps the quote from the Psalms makes the point, but is it self-evident that that was what the passage referred to? Perhaps there is something in the symbolism of the twelve tribes of ancient Israel. In any case, by prayer and by lot they (the whole congregation) together choose Matthias – who had been with the disciples during the whole of Jesus’ ministry, and is therefore equipped for the task of “becoming a witness with us to the resurrection”.
And so, when the tongues of fire appeared and the Holy Spirit came upon them they were ready – not that anyone could, or can, comprehend fully the workings of the Spirit, but that they were sure of the task to which they were called. Jesus had told them that he would be my disciple must take up his cross daily, and come follow me. For all or almost all the first disciples becoming witnesses to the resurrection would mean a faithful witness even to a martyr’s death. The first such death would not be long coming.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. This is the season of celebration – of memory, and of anticipation. Jesus has gone ahead, and in the meantime he has honoured us with the responsibility of being his church, his witness his people. Thanks be to God.