Today, many Christians around the world will be anticipating the great Feast of the Ascension of Jesus on Thursday, the 40th day following Easter. Others will delay until the following Sunday, and Eastern Christians will celebrate it on June 2nd. Exactitude is not the point, obviously. What is shared is the belief that after the forty days during which Jesus appeared to his followers, he ascended into heaven where, following the ancient creeds, he is seated at the right hand of the Father and from whence he will come to judge the living and the dead, and, as we heard last Sunday, “make all things new.”
But we are not on our own. Jesus also promised his disciples, as we hear in the gospel reading, that in his name the Father would send the Paraklete (which means Advocate or Comforter), the Holy Spirit who will instruct us “in everything”… Pentecost is the name of the feast on which the Spirit erupted in the midst of gathered disciples – on the fiftieth day following the Resurrection and also the Feast of Weeks, celebrated in Judaism fifty days plus one after Passover. “Pentecost” is simply the Greek word for “fiftieth.”
All that remains to come. At the moment, we are effectively ending the Sundays of Easter with readings that begin by describing a critical moment in the life of the early Christian community and, in the climax of the Book of Revelation, which has been our daily reading during this joyful season, the ultimate triumph of God, the gift of a new heaven and earth.
The first reading for today details the resolution of a crisis first faced by Jesus’ early followers – whether to impose the full weight of Jewish law on the gentile converts of southwest Asia we heard about last week. In the Spirit of peace and reconciliation, the “Apostles and Elders,” and “the whole Jerusalem church” required only that the very minimum be imposed, that no burden be laid on the converts beyond that which was strictly necessary – a far cry from the more than 600 tenets of the Law.
Jesus himself made clear that his yoke was easy and his burden was light (Mat 11:30). Christian history sadly reveals that as time went on, more and more burdens were imposed, the yoke made increasingly heavy until the Spirit of Freedom periodically broke through the human tendency to constrict rather than liberate, even to weaponize the faith. Even today, one needs a degree in canon law to grapple with the thousands of accumulated rules, laws, and prescriptions, a welter of legislation that would astonish the early Christians and undoubtedly their Lord.
The gospel reading today is taken from Jesus’ “farewell discourse” at the Last Supper in the gospel of John. It is a charter of hope and love in which he promises not only God’s constant presence but the gift of the Paraklete, that Holy Spirit who is the very spirit of Jesus himself.
And then, Jesus endows his disciples with the gift of peace. His peace. He tells his them not to feel distressed or fearful. Challenges and disasters lay ahead, and we certainly seem plagued with them at present. We, too, need not only comfort but instruction and guidance, just as we still need “tidings of joy” once proclaimed on a dark hill near Bethlehem. Here, what we hear Jesus saying is, simply, do not fret: the reins of time and human history are ultimately in the hands of God.
The second reading comes very near the end of the Book of Revelation. It is not a horror story but a testament of hope, a promise of the ultimate victory of God in Christ, which is conveyed so well in the passage we have just read. Despite sin, oppression, and suffering, God triumphs in the end when every tear is wiped away and there is no more death or mourning. God makes all things new.
It is important to recall that the City of God, the New Jerusalem that descends from heaven, is not only beautiful. As I mentioned last Sunday, it is mind-bogglingly enormous, more than half the size of the moon! Roomy enough to fit everyone inside — everyone who ever lived, is living today, and will ever live.
And so, to repeat myself, our fears may be real but they are ultimately groundless. We have no reason to be afraid of the dark forces that threaten our peace. If the world turns from God, Jesus overcomes the world. And in the gift of the Spirit, sent from God as the earnest of Christ’s return, we have the pledge of an everlasting home. A very big one. The return of Christ to the Father that we will soon celebrate is the beginning of the end, a prelude to the coming of the Spirit of Christ that fills the whole world, the Lord and Giver of Life, making all things new. And in that Spirit we struggle build our human city, which one day will be taken up, healed, and transformed into the true and eternal City of God.
The public will believe anything, so long as it is not founded on truth. —Edith Sitwell