Passing the torch

Today is the Feast of the Ascension, one of the Principle Feasts in the Anglican Church. The readings assigned for today are from the end of Luke and the beginning of Acts, and they tell and re-tell the story of the passing of the torch. Jesus’s earthly ministry has come to an end; he is returning to his Father in heaven, and he commissions his disciples to continue the mission he started. Jesus tells them, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

This is a wonderful, succinct statement about the mission of the Church. We receive power from the Holy Spirit—our work is enabled and empowered by God. Jesus tells his disciples to wait; to not rush ahead trusting only on their own limited ability, but instead to rely on the infinite power and energy of the Holy Spirit. And what it this work that the Holy Spirit will enable them to do? To witness to Jesus. Witnesses see and then tell. The disciples have seen Jesus raised from the dead, and the Holy Spirit will empower them (and all the future generations of the church) to tell the world about the Risen One and his glorious reign.

The disciples respond to this charge from Jesus by asking him a question: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the Kingdom to Israel?” This is a political question. They are still, even post-Resurrection, thinking of Jesus as a political solution to their problems. They still want him to be the Messiah and to kick the Romans and all their colluders out of their country. Their question is more about conquest than evangelism, more about power than service, more about status than love. Jesus responds with a firm denial. “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” The work of Christ concerns redemption, reconciliation, and restoration, and the disciples’ mission is to bear witness to Christ’s work, his liturgy, for the world.

There are many different Christian theologies of political engagement. Well-meaning Christians will disagree about how Christians can and should (or should not) engage with structures of civic power. We’ve argued about the specifics of this for 2000 years. And yet, if the Feast of the Ascension reminds us of anything, if Jesus’s final words to his disciples means anything, it’s that our focus needs to be on bearing witnesses to Jesus, not on restoring or establishing a political empire. Jesus Christ has ascended and is reigning on high—the dominion and power is his, not ours.

+The Rev. Michael Whitnah