The Ascension and the Power of the Spirit

After the hectic end of a hectic school year, I return to this website.

ascensionLast Sunday (or, some places, the Thursday before) we celebrated the feast of the Ascension.  It is in a sense the culmination of the Easter season.  The whole Easter season is the passage from the Resurrection of Christ, the firstfruits, to Pentecost, in which the power of Christ is given to his Church.  This is the whole Christian mystery: the power of Christ is given over to his body, the Church.

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The first reading, the beginning of of the Acts of the Apostles, has three key moments.

First, it says, “wait.” “Wait for the promise of the Father . . . in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”  The waiting is key, because it manifests that the power is not theirs, but his.  It is not that the Church is automatically holy – our holiness is a gift from Christ.  At that first Pentecost and again and again in our lives, Christ makes us wait, to experience that it is a gift.

Next, it says, “to the ends of the earth.”  “You will receive power . . . and you will be my witnesses . . . to the ends of the earth.”  Christ, who is the fullness of God, wants to fill the world with his power.  This transition to Pentecost is precisely so that the power of God which was localized in that one man can spread out to the Church throughout the world.  Christ’s body is no longer in just one place, it is everywhere, throughout time – and filled with the same power of his divinity that was present in Christ “under Pontius Pilate.”

And third, it says he “will return” – “in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”  It is another variation on the “waiting.”  We wait for his fullness, wait for his kingdom, wait to see him face to face – but as we wait, his power is at work in us, to build up a worldwide Church that longs for him.

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Our Gospel reading in this year of Mark was the end of Mark’s Gospel.  “Go into the whole world,” Jesus tells his disciples, “and proclaim the gospel to every creature.  Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.”

His power in the disciples makes them witnesses: they can speak of him because he lives in them.  And they make his power available to all: “whoever believes.”  Faith is necessary: to know Christ, to know him as Savior.  The power flows only from him.  And yet that power is available to the whole world, “whoever believes” – even “to every creature.”

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Mark adds a strange section, one of the strangest in the New Testament: “in my name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages.  They will pick up serpents with their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them.  They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

The first thing to know is that the first generations actually did these things.  In Acts 28, for example, “when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand . . . .  he should have swollen, or fallen dead suddenly: but after they looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god” (Acts 28:3, 6).

God manifests his spiritual power in physical ways: shows the resurrection of the soul through the resurrection of the body, the giving of the Spirit through physical flames, the power of his witnesses through miracles of serpents and deadly drinks.  These aren’t the point, and so they don’t always happen, but they do serve to show the reality of his power.

But these things point to our spiritual gifts.  We may not be bitten by physical vipers, but the world attacks us in many ways – and the power of Christ, only the power of Christ, lets us pass through unharmed.  We are given many poisoned cups; the world often tries to kill us; but through the power of Christ, and only through his power, we are saved.  These signs make clear to us that it is not our cleverness – no cleverness can save you from physical poison, and no cleverness can save you from spiritual poison.  But Christ is in us.  That’s the point!

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The readings are too rich, and we have not the space to consider the readings (there are a couple options) from Ephesians, Paul’s fabulous letter on the spiritual nature of the Church.  Let us only say: it is the Spirit of Christ who builds the Church.  The Spirit who saves us from poison also builds up the faith, the various ministries which give us hope, and the unity in love which is the Church.  This is no natural body, but the power of Christ at work in us who believe.

How is Christ calling you to “wait” for his power to descend on you?

eric.m.johnston

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