The Feast of the Ascension
My husband Dan and I have joined the masses these past few months in our tv obsession with The People vs. OJ Simpson. It’s a strange, and at times enlightening ride back over twenty years ago to “the trial of the century.” As most people of a certain age do, I clearly remember where I was when the infamous OJ car chase happened, although not being a football fan (or particularly up on celebrity culture apparently) I had to ask my friend who this guy was that was causing regular programming to be suspended (and for better or worse leaving us with the legacy of 24 hour news).
The mini-series begins not with OJ of 1994, but with the LA Riots of 1992 and casts the trial in light of the ongoing race division in American culture. In this context, we watch how the enormous weight of physical evidence convicting Simpson of the double murders was ultimately not strong enough to overcome a more important component in the trial: could the witness be trusted? Detective Mark Furhman was called to the stand to present the evidence found at the scene of the crime. And when he was later shown to be a racist and a bigot, his shockingly hateful language on record for all the world to access, his entire testimony became tainted. The defense was able to sell the alternative story of this football hero framed by a racist LAPD. In reality, had Furhman been of lilly white character, his witness would have no doubt still been suspect because of the cloud of violence and racism marking the relationship between the black community and the LA police. Likewise, Furhman’s character affected not only his own testimony, but further called into question the credibility of his entire profession. The witness of the past, the witness of the present, the witness of one and the witness of many were all judged untrustworthy. And because the witness was untrustworthy, the evidence though perhaps fail-safe on its own, was also condemned as false.
Today marks the Feast of the Ascension. For forty days following that first Easter morning, Jesus appeared in bodily form to his disciples, teaching, walking alongside, forgiving, and eating with them. And then we are told that “he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:50). Before he goes, he commissions them: “You are witnesses of these things.” (24:48)
Jesus entrusts to his rag-tag group of disciples guardianship of the story. They have so far shown little promise in any of the areas of miracle-working, teaching or faithfulness that one might hope for in one’s disciples. Yet everything that Jesus lived for, died for, and rose again for, is placed on them to communicate to others. They are called to the stand. They must give an account of the evidence, and their characters must be true enough that the evidence may be received and believed. They are:
Witnesses to how human and divine life came into full partnership in
Witnesses to human life similarly created for this partnership.
Witnesses to the Kingdom of God inaugurated in our midst.
Witnesses to how this Kingdom is present when all are valued and all are fed.
Witnesses to the fingerprints of God smudged all over the world around us,
Witnesses to the image of God visible in each person that we meet along the way.
Witnesses to the miracle and the forgiveness and the community and the abundance that ensues when we open our lives to God.
Demons cast out.
New relationship inaugurated.
The power of death broken.
And we too are raised to new life.
Two thousand years later, we know the seriousness of the responsibility represented by the story of the Ascension. We know that the Christian faith has had its share of Mark Furhmans: people who profess the faith and whose character and actions actually make it more difficult for people to recognize God’s blessings, receive God’s love, participate in God’s church. We know that most of us much of the time feel as unqualified to be called to account as those first disciples no doubt did. We judge others, we lose patience, we get worried and distracted by many things, we forget to see and care for our brothers and sisters, our faith can feel as small as a mustard seed… And yet, amazingly, here we are in 2016, forty days after Easter Sunday recalling the story of the Ascension because through that ragtag group truth was somehow nonetheless seen and believed. It was seen and believed strongly enough, in fact, that others have taken on that mantle of witness down through the ages, across the globe, and from one generation to the next.
As many in the Anglican church know, our General Synod meets this summer. This is the decision making body for the Anglican Church in Canada. We meet as ones who are bound by this story: You are my witnesses. As individuals, we are each called to recognize how our words and actions affect not just the way in which people see us, but also how they see the things in which we say we believe, the communities to which we say we belong, the truth that we try to hold, the One to whom we lift our voices in prayer and praise.
But as a national body, with invited guests from around the world, and the occasional media lens allowing the world to listen in on what we are discussing, that responsibility is all the greater.
The General Synod will seek to respond to the climate change crisis in a way that is courageous and impactful. We will listen to voices and experiences from contexts and cultures different from ours. We will seek to honour and hear the voices of our Indigenous brothers and sisters and heed the call to action that will back up words of truth and reconciliation with deeds. We will hear from LGBTQ2 Christians who will tell us that they still feel very much a sense of being excluded from full Christian membership. And we will have discussions that will reveal division and difference in how we make decisions, view Scripture, understand tradition and bring our faith to bear on how we live in this here and this now.
We will be a ragtag group too, bringing God knows what qualifications to the table. We can be humble in that reality, but we must also remember that, ragtag or not, that tremendous Ascension responsibility lies with us too. How we will speak with one another, how we will treat one another as we make our choices and disagree and respond to the hurt of the world around us can make or break how everything else is received: all of the evidence, all of the story, all of the miracle, all of the joy and healing and possibility and new life. Our witness will either clarify or cloud it, enliven or taint it, cause others to consider again or cause others to throw out the whole kit and caboodle.
Thankfully when Jesus called his disciples to the stand, he didn’t expect them to go it alone. And he left them with this promise: “I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:49).