The Ascension of Christ
After the Resurrection, Jesus continued to appear to the disciples in his physical, resurrected form for a period of time. Scripture says it was forty days, and the Church takes that literally for the calendar (expect where the Feast of the Ascension gets transferred to the following Sunday!). In symbolic terms, Forty seems to denote a less specific time than that literal interpretation would imply. It is certainly more than 30, but by just a bit – and just enough longer, without being burdensome.
In some cultures, the people observe forty days of mourning after a death. Thirty is measurable on the calendar, and not quite enough for folks to really let go, but a bit more time allows folks to make that transition (as a general rule).
But what happens when Jesus was making those appearances after his resurrection? For one thing, we are told time and again that the disciples did not immediately recognize him. So, even though he was making his presence known to the disciples, they did not always know who it was right away. They needed new ways to pay attention and recognize him. This is a lesson for the church today, as we try to recognize the presence of the Spirit among us on a regular basis. The Christ is not always recognizable. The Spirit is not always recognizable.
Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams described it this way, “It (Easter) occurs when we find in Jesus not a dead friend but a living stranger.” The supposed gardener near the tomb, a strange companion on the road to Emmaus, a stranger on the beach offering fishing tips; these are ways in which Jesus appeared to the disciples, rather than in the memory of the dead friend. It begs the question of us today – how much do we look to the past (scripture, writings, liturgical traditions) to inform us of who Jesus is and what he would ask of us? How much are we willing to risk seeing the Christ in the face of a stranger?
If sorting out the resurrection is not enough of a challenge, how do we deal with the Ascension? I have heard many folks try to use doublespeak when dealing with two natures of Christ. In the Creeds we declare Jesus as both FULLY human and FULLY divine. So trying merge a human Jesus back into the Godhead just doesn't work with our credal statements.
A recent book by Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks entitled Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence offers us a good model for seeing the Ascension (though, as a disclaimer, that was not the good rabbi's intent!). As the book unfolds, we are treated to a detailed treatment of how so much of the violence in the Hebrew Scriptures (especially in Genesis) stems from sibling rivalry, beginning with Cain and Abel. Isaac and Ishmael had their issues (as did their mothers). Jacob and Esau had their issues. Joseph certainly had problems with his brothers!
There is not much of reconciliation, though the theme keeps building. We only get a hint of reconciliation with Isaac and Ishmael, when they come together to bury their father, Abraham. Jacob has tricked his brother Esau and leaves town after the burial of Isaac, only to be tricked by his wives and their family as he prepares to marry. We are told of partial reconciliation as he meets up with Esau many years later, but the story does not sound entirely complete to me.
Joseph has been forced into slavery by his brothers and thrown in prison before he thrives in Egypt. When his brothers show up in Egypt looking for food, he has opportunity to turn the tables, and they suffer persecution and some imprisonment before being willing to do anything to protect their youngest brother. This suffering puts them into the same predicament that Joseph had encountered, and they demonstrate that they have changed their ways – they are not the same people they used to be when they sold Joseph into slavery. By walking in Joseph's shoes, they open the door to reconciliation.
When the Word of God took on human flesh at the Incarnation, the Birth, of Jesus, God became fully human, taking on our nature. Part and parcel of this process, perhaps the resolution, is Jesus ascending to heaven. Our human nature has been shared with God. While we cannot walk in God's shoes (assuming a corporeal nature) or in the sandals of Jesus, God has walked in our shoes and knows our nature. Thus, the way is paved more fully for God and humanity to be reconciled.
The implications of reconciliation are huge and a real challenge to us. We can make claims on reconciliation with God, but we still need to work on reconciliation with others. Can we walk in the shoes of the other? Are we willing to?
A story is told of the Mahatma Gandhi, who was asked to help a distraught Indian Hindu as he confessed to having helped kill an Indian Muslim, leaving behind an orphaned son. Gandhi's wisdom in the midst of that was to suggest that reconciliation might come if the Hindu man raised the Muslim boy as part of his own household, but to raise him as a Muslim.
As we able to engage others for who they are and where they are? Are we able to be fully present to Muslims, or Hindus, or Jews, or Sikhs, whether they live among us as neighbours or live far away? Are we willing to be fully present to Black and White, and Red and Brown or all the ethnic groups, whether they live among us as neighbours or live far away? Are we willing to be present and engage with Straight, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, Bi-sexual, Questioning, Pan, or other folks who are making their sexual identity known, whether they live among us as neighbours or live far away? Are we willing to be present to the variety of beliefs about how to engage public life, whether Libertarian, Republican, Democrat, Socialist, Green, or other affiliations on the spectrum, whether they live among us as neighbours or live far away?
Perhaps the reconciliation of God and humanity in the Incarnation and Ascension becomes the model for us. Perhaps we need to go farther and live into walking in the shoes of the other in order to be reconciled with each other, and not limit our attempts at reconciliation to God alone.
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I am one who thinks that Thomas gets a bad rap. As we look at various Gospel accounts, we find that he only asked to get the same treatment as the other disciples. They were invited to touch Jesus and his wounds. Thomas wanted the same thing. However, in John's treatment of the story, he is a doubter (making it sound like doubt is a bad thing). In fact, he was simply late to the party and missed out.
In the Catholic tradition, we celebrate various feast days, mainly for the saints, but sometimes for events. Thus, we have a celebration of the Conversion of Paul and the Confession of Peter. Somehow, we never get to commemorating the Denial of Peter, or Paul's persecution of the Church, but we do continue to talk about Doubting Thomas.
John tells the story "Do not be doubting, but believing", making it sound as if Doubt and Faith (Belief) are opposites. I would suggest that Certainty is the opposite of Faith. We are encouraged to keep believing in the midst of our questions and doubts, and that trust sustains us.
Perhaps we ought to start thinking of the Confession of Thomas, since he declared "My Lord and My God", when Jesus recognized his doubts and invited Thomas to touch his wounds. John does not tell us that Thomas actually touched the wounds, but most artwork suggests that he did. I suspect that the simple encounter was enough to prompt the Confession of Thomas.
I would hope that we can all make that Confession our own. We are indeed blessed in that same passage, when Jesus remarks that those who believe without seeing are indeed blessed.
Holy Week and Easter are upon us. These special observances are the culmination of the season of Lent. Lent allows us a time to enter into the wilderness, the desert of our hearts, and pay attention to who we are, and whose we are. It calls to mind the 40 years of the Hebrew people wandering in the desert while unlearning the old ways of slavery, and learning new ways of being. It calls to mind the 40 days of wandering in the desert by Jesus, as he prepared to enter into the specific public ministry of teaching and healing in his life.
Through the liturgical services of Holy Week, we are invited to enter more closely in the passion, death, AND resurrection of Jesus. As unpleasant as considering his passion and death are, they are features that occur in every life, and help us realize that we are not alone in our own sufferings. God is present and has experienced what we experience.
The Holy Week schedule of services is posted on the front page. Also, here is a copy of our newsletter, with the times posted.
We come to the end of the Sixth Chapter of John. What started as a simple miracle (is that possible?) of feeding the 5000, has become a discourse by John about Jesus being the Bread of Life. Feeding on Jesus in the Eucharist provides life. However, many around Jesus are finding his teachings too hard. They turn away. In today's religious climate, I wonder if we don't confuse the teachings of Jesus with the teaching of the various churches. Some people walk away from the church, but not the teachings of Jesus. In some cases, people don't like the teachings of Jesus and try to mold them into the image of what they think God and Jesus should be.
However, the attached reflections are about the relation between ruminating on the Body of Christ and the Marks of Mission, that indicate how we are doing in proclaiming the kingdom of God. The readings can be found on the Lectionary Page.
John continues to have Jesus challenge his listeners. It seems that when Jesus speaks literally, his hearers want things to be symbolic or metaphorical. When Jesus is using metaphors and symbols, people want it to be literal.
As we ruminate on the nature of Eucharist and the Bread of Life, we can also ruminate on how we are transformed into action for the kingdom of God.
The readings for this Sunday are found at The Lectionary Page. Here are some reflections on the Eucharist and the Marks of Mission.
John continues to challenge his listeners (then and now) to go deeper into the life that he offers. The Marks of Mission continue to challenge us as well. The Readings can be found at The Lectionary Page.
Today's gospel reading continues in the Sixth Chapter of the Gospel According to John. The readings can be found at the Lectionary Page. Here are some reflections on the gospel, relating them to the Five Marks of Mission.
For the next several weeks, the Gospel reading is from the Sixth Chapter of the Gospel according to John. Today's readings can be found on The Lectionary Page. For John, the Feeding of the 5000 is the Eucharist, since he does not include an account of the Last Supper. In Feeding the 5000, Jesus takes Bread, Offers Thanks, Breaks the Bread, and Feeds the People.
In reflecting on the Sixth Chapter of John, I was struck by several things written by Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, in his recent book Being Christian. I have developed a practice which mirrors that of Bishop Rowan, and many through the centuries, and reflect on the meaning of receiving the Body of Christ and how it connects me to all that is happening in the world, in time and space. Since Jesus is the Word made flesh to connect all humanity to God, we are all connected as we receive the Sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood.
In reflecting on the meaning connectedness, I chose the Five Marks of Mission as a way to connect the Sacrament with our mission in the world. The Five Marks of Mission were developed as an indicator of how the Church (or Churches) are doing in fulfilling our mission between the church and the world in which we live.
Here are the reflections for today's readings.
The Rev'd Br. Paul Colbert, CoS has served as Priest-in-Charge of Holy Trinity, Madera since 2009. He is a monk in the Community of Solitude, a dispersed ecumenical community the spirit of St Benedict and St Romuald.