Reflection for Ascension Day - 13th May 2021
Like the closing of Christmastide, we have at the end of Eastertide too a sense of an action replay. Since Easter we have been hearing of the Apostles going out into the world taking the good news of forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. Now in the next 10 days we return to the events that empowered them to do this.
On Ascension Day we focus on the withdrawal of Jesus’ physical presence from his disciples. The gospels tell various stories about encounters with Jesus after his resurrection but it is clear that after a time these ceased to happen. One way or another the disciples came to believe that Jesus was now in heaven with God the Father and that they were commissioned to take his message of forgiveness of sins to all nations. Only Luke, in his gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles, tells of the Apostles seeing Jesus being taken up into heaven, the event that gives this day its name. Maybe for many around Jesus it was much more mysterious, perhaps they didn’t even know till some time had passed that a particular experience of the presence of Jesus after his bodily death was the last time they would see him in this life. But however it happened their lives were changed and a new energy given them. The apparent disaster of the crucifixion was not the last word and the meetings with the risen Jesus opened them up to God’s continuing work through them in the power of the Spirit.
For Matthew and Luke the giving of what has come to be called ‘the great commission’ is the last event of the gospel, Jesus’ last word to his disciples. It is followed in Luke’s account by his ascension into heaven. John’s gospel on the other hand ends on a much quieter and more intimate note. On Easter Day Jesus came to his disciples in a locked room, breathed the Holy spirit upon them and gave them the power to forgive or retain sins. This could be seen as John’s version of the ‘great commission’ but it is followed by further events that give colour to what this might mean. I see the dialogue with Thomas and the walk on the beach with Peter as highlighting how the gospel of forgiveness touches each one of us personally, forming the foundation for the message we share with others. It is not simply a theological abstraction to be taught but a relationship to be lived.
Jesus lovingly meets Thomas in his doubts and draws him into belief. Thomas in his turn became one who took the message of Jesus’ love to those who will never see the risen Jesus but yet believe through the testimony of those who themselves have been touched by that love.
Jesus’ walk on the beach with Peter is the scene that concludes the gospel and gives us an important ‘last word’ from Jesus. As he did with Thomas, Jesus meets Peter in his particular place of need. In his three-fold questioning he enables Peter to affirm his love for Jesus and to move on from his three-fold denial. Peter comes to know in a deeply personal way that he is loved and forgiven and this knowledge empowers him to share the message of forgiveness with others and to tend the nascent church.
In an interesting twist Peter then asks about the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’, who is following along behind them as they walk. To paraphrase, Jesus says “mind your own business. Follow me!”. Peter is not to speculate about the vocations of others, how they will live out their lives in obedience to Jesus. He is to listen and follow Jesus for himself, to live from his own relationship with him. I think the message for each one of us is that we need to stay close to Jesus, to listen and follow, and not get caught up in judging others or feeling inadequate in comparison. Peter was called to take a very visible upfront role and to be a martyr for his faith. John found himself abiding in his relationship with Jesus into old age, reflecting on this and quietly teaching the community around him. Very different vocations but both needed by the church. They each followed in their own way.
After this exchange between Jesus and Peter I picture them walking on as the morning mist rolls in from the lake to obscure everything. As the mist clears, the sun rises and a new day dawns. Jesus is gone but in their hearts the disciples know that he is always with them, whereever they go and whatever they do.
May we too know that mysterious unseen presence of Jesus and respond to his call: “Follow me”.
Mother Anne - 13th May 2021