“Then he led them out as far as Bethany and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them.”
A group of young people preparing for confirmation were asked to sum up the New Testament
in a sentence. One said: “Well, it just seems like a lot of comings and goings.”
He explained that nobody seemed to stay in one place, always moving from town to
town: Jesus going to and from Jerusalem, the disciples disappearing off and St Paul
constantly travelling. Why go to Rome only to be martyred? “Why didn’t Jesus just
set up his ‘church’ in one place and bring people to it, as now?” He felt that Jesus’
person was magnetic enough to draw people to him; and in any case, how could he check
up on what his disciples were doing and saying?
This made sense to someone who was surrounded by communication technology, but did
not allow for the medium of imparting information in first-century Palestine; nor
the fullness of the meaning of discipleship. But it was a good point to make as it
opened up the debate and created food for thought among both the young people and
their leaders. Why is the Christian vocation so engaged in movement?
When Jesus “led them out as far as Bethany” did the disciples realise this was the
last journey with their Lord on earth? He had led them in so many different directions
in the previous three years, seeking the lost, preaching the word, going out into
the world to find people where they were; and this was, after all, towards the home
of his dearest friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Jesus had prepared them for this
parting, by reminding them again of the prophecies concerning himself throughout
history, as before. However, nothing prepares us for the absence of a loved one,
even when their proposed journey promises happiness; and his warning was not overt.
So, another journey, another hill to climb and another radical reminder of his status
and his relationship with God; but this one was final. We can only imagine their
feelings! Jesus blessed them, as on other occasions, before a journey or before sleeping.
Shocked by his disappearance, did they reach out to prevent it, as we might hold
tightly to a loved one as they leave us? Something told them that this was not just
an ending. Perhaps, even then, they realised that what was asked of them could not
begin until their Lord had left; and, of course, they had his reassurance that he
was with them for ever.
Nothing could prevent their communion with him whenever they called upon him. Wherever
they went and whatever they did, they would be accompanied by their Lord. His Advocate
would give them the words, the strength and the inspiration they needed to carry
out the responsibilities of discipleship. His work was what they were born for and
his life would be in them and the loss of his presence would be eased by the knowledge
that they were living his word and his life, with a complexity of feelings for which
the only resort is faith, pure and simple. When they saw him leave they had to rely
on what they knew of him: that he, journeying into heaven, was indeed God. So they
worshipped him, and allowed themselves the joy of this realisation to flood their
hearts and assuage their grief as they went to the Temple to give thanks.
Christians are a pilgrim people: it is who we are and what we do. We, like all Apostles,
are sent out – to proclaim Jesus, to declare his promise of a love that calls forth
the best in us and brings forgiveness and reconciliation, which lead to eternal life.
Christianity is not static, safe and effortless. As Jesus led the disciples up hill
and down dale to bring people to him, so we too are travelling people.
We may experience times of interior stillness, the peace which Jesus promised; but
our joyful task in the world is to be his hands, informed by his teaching, in a world
where his love is needed more than ever. His reassurance to us is the same as that
given to the Gospel disciples. He will never leave us. If we want to join Jesus on
that mountain to see his glory we are asked to (even metaphorically) trudge the highways
of life in order to change the world for him. But the same joy awaits us.
Reverend Stuart Ansell