Reflection on the Feast of the Ascension
In Matthew’s Gospel, in the section of the Gospel right before what we heard a few minutes ago, the women have just told the disciples, the eleven, that Jesus is risen. The women have seen him, they say, and he has spoken to them, and he wants the eleven to leave for Galilee where they will see him.
The eleven make their way to Galilee and find Jesus there. It is not surprising, though, that they doubt, that they are hesitant. Good Friday is still vivid in their minds and imaginations. Jesus is gone, dead, buried. Death is final. They know that. We have that experience, living here. Death is final. Someone is gone from us.
Matthew does not give us the wonderful Easter stories about the disciples and Jesus — eating fish by the shore, walking and talking on the way to Emmaus — stories that we find in John and Luke. In Matthew the disciples come to the mountain, see Jesus, worship him but with some hesitation. Then Jesus tells them what they are to do for the rest of their lives: go beyond your boundaries, make disciples of all nations, tell them everything I have told you. The responsibility shifts to them.
Matthew has no clouds, no Jesus ascending into heaven, as we find in the Acts and in Mark and Luke. Matthew’s Gospel ends with the promise: I am with you always, until the end of time. Were those words a comfort to the disciples or just more reason to hesitate, to doubt — certainly to wonder? They already knew that the ordinary intimacy of earth is over. What does he mean: I will be with you? Elaine spoke to us last Sunday of what that means in the context of John’s Gospel. Matthew’s Gospel does not explain.
What about this feast of the Ascension and us? We have not had the experiences the disciples had with Jesus while he was on earth — the physical closeness, the speaking together. Nor have we experienced his being ripped away in violent death. We have heard Jesus’ words since childhood: I am with you always until the end of time, but we have heard them from the mouths of those who have gone before us, not from Jesus’ lips.
It’s not so easy for us either. We have heard the same command of Jesus that the disciples heard: Go outside your boundaries; teach what I have commanded you. We have done that as best we can — most of us for a long time. Now, for many of us, our boundaries are different and we teach in different ways. Age and infirmity have presented new boundaries, certainly. In the past two months COVID-19 has presented new boundaries.
But much more has changed. In Matthew’s telling of the story, he has Jesus say, “Go, and make disciples of all nations, baptize them, teach them to observe all that I have commanded you.” How different a world we are in today. In reading the paper and listening to the news, we are forced to go outside our own boundaries, our boundaries of Christianity and of western ways. We have come to realize that our way is not the only way or necessarily the better way. Sometimes it is not good to go and baptize.
Nonetheless, as disciples of Jesus we do have a responsibility, not unlike the eleven. So how do we teach all that Jesus has commanded us? A teaching that permeates Jesus’ being is contained in other words from Matthew’s Gospel: Blessed are the poor, the peacemakers, the merciful, those who hunger for justice. Maybe one of the best ways of “teaching all nations” in the future, and even now, will be to live in these ways that Jesus taught — as peacemakers, as persons who show mercy, as those who work for justice. In that way Jesus will be with us until the end of time.