The Feast of the Ascension marks the half-time point in the Church year. Starting in Advent, we have followed the human career of Jesus, Son of God, from Prophecy to Actuality in his birth, from his Baptism, the coming of the Spirit, through temptations and a ministry of healing, teaching and service, to betrayal, crucifixion, and resurrection. Now He is gone and the continuation of His work is left with His followers, the infant church. Waiting to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit for themselves, His followers set out to empower a dispirited group that might otherwise have dispersed unnoticed, into a force that still changes lives and the course of world history, 2,000 years later.
But what is the church, and what is it meant to be doing?
Personally, I find guidance in the familiar words of the Lord’s Prayer—that prayer that Jesus provided at the request of his disciples as direction for their lives. It follows the form of Moses’ Ten Commandments, starting with the acknowledgement of God as Father, recognizing that He lives in a spiritual, not a material world. The prayer asks that He be revered, and that the world conform to the community of peace, love and justice already established in the heavens. We pray for satisfaction of our immediate physical needs. Rather than being condemned for our sins, we ask for forgiveness, since we also forgive the shortcomings of others. Finally, in a section corresponding to the final commandment “Thou shalt not covet”, we have a request variously translated “Lead us not into temptation” or “Save us from the time of trial”, followed by a plea that is most accurately translated, not “Deliver us from evil” but “Deliver us from the Evil One”, recalling the temptations of material satisfaction, political power, and abuse of spiritual abilities that were offered him by Satan in his 40 days of temptation in the wilderness.
This view is fortified by the explanatory note added at the end of the prayer by Matthew’s Gospel (6:13): “For Thine is the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory forever and ever. Amen.” Kingdom, power and glory are precisely what the Tempter asked the man Jesus to take for himself, rather than reserving them for God the Father, to whom they belong.
Jesus has been described as “The man for others”—a life lived exclusively for the glory of God and the welfare of his fellow members of the human race. Nowhere did he use his superhuman gifts for his own convenience. Indeed, it seems that on several occasions, obedience to the Father’s will actually clashed with his desires as a human. He wept at the tomb of Lazarus after being forced to wait two days that might have saved Lazarus from death. He earnestly prayed to be spared his crucifixion, yet refused to ask the Father to intervene by the agency of “twelve legions of angels”. More profoundly, why did the Godhead ever put a snake in the Garden of Eden in the first place to tempt mankind into sin?
My personal answer (others may disagree) is that this is a measure of the Godhead’s enormous love and ambition for mankind. In this particular corner of the universe, and over vast stretches of time, a race has been created and empowered, with the mental and moral power not only to know right from wrong, but to receive God’s spirit. Our race has the ability to freely to choose to follow the will and nature of its Creator, caring for God and neighbours, friends and enemies alike, even to death and beyond.
A challenging assignment indeed—one that may well take us far from our “comfortable pews” into a life of fellowship, forgiveness, teaching, healing and, quite likely, betrayal and suffering. We strive to implement the purpose for which the human race has been brought into being—to establish the Kingdom of God “On earth as it is in Heaven”.