Did Jesus Christ intend to establish a new Church when He was commissioning His disciples? That seems a daft question to ask, but is it?
If you study Church history, Jesus gave few directions to His followers about how they should continue His work.
True, He appointed Peter to be the leader of this small group (not the best choice at first sight because of his impulsive nature), but a direct ‘commissioning’ only appears in St. John’s Gospel 20, vv19-23.
There Jesus having breathed upon them as a sign, presumably to invoke the Spirit, lays hands on the gathered disciples, giving them an explicit command and authority to forgive their fellow men (and women’s) sins.
That together with the command to “Mission” (Matthew 28, vv16-end) are the only clear statements.
Note that there is nothing to indicate that they had any exclusive authority to preside over the Lord’s Supper, which is obviously normal within a very short time after the Resurrection. Indeed apart from Paul’s account of the former (1 Corinthians 11, vv17-end) which if the Corinthian Christians had behaved more reverently, much we would never have known.
That gives many a clue to the nature of The Church that was developing gradually under the guidance of the Spirit.
Incidentally, those of us who were ordained priest by the 1662 Prayer Book prior to Common Worship, etc., received the laying-on of hands by the Bishop to absolve people from their sins and “to faithfully dispense the Word and Sacraments”.
Unlike Rome, the newly ordained in most other denominations (including our own) are not presented with a chalice, signifying this pre-eminence in the Eucharist, but rather the emphasis is on the faithful pastoral care of those committed to their charge.
Indeed, with the growth of The Church in those early formative years, it is probable that there was no sense of setting apart men (and women?) for the purpose of worship-leading.
The whole Gospel is basically dealing with “Sin” which according to Jesus’ words and actions abolishes that sense of guilt that mars the lives of countless human souls.
In this age of bewildered, anxious people, this neglected Ministry in our churches is an essential tool in pastoral care, (as I have found over 60+ years of Ministry). If better understood and administered such confession would save many a soul from unending misery.
The sermons and addresses that are recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, apart from emphasis on the Cross and God raising Jesus from the dead, give us little insight into the greater teaching of the basics of the Faith.
Jesus laid hands on the first disciples; presumably they in turn did so to their successors in pastoral and priestly leadership.
There is a theory (essential to the Roman Catholic scheme of things) that beginning at Peter and the eleven, one could trace that succession down through two millennia, providing a tangible physical descent from the hands of Jesus Himself, thus giving the candidates a continuation of authority and teaching.
This is called “The Apostolic Succession”, whereby, only clergy who had been in this “mechanical” succession, tracing back through Bishop to Bishop down the ages, can be truly said to be guarantors of the purity of the Faith.
However, a quick look at Roman Church history with its sad tale of renegade, immoral and opposing popes, each claiming to be the true successors of St. Peter, shows that here it cannot be accurately claimed that this chain hasn’t been broken.
More importantly, regardless of these considerations, there is little doubt that the Church of England is part of the “Catholick” Church as the 1662 Prayer Book clearly states. We’ll see how this matters in next week’s Jottings.
The Roman Empire as it declined in influence, was divided into Rome and Constantinople, with an Emperor in each, and a Church divided on doctrines. A “Pope” each, as well!
Trying to fathom out the doctrine of the Holy Trinity after changes made in the Nicene Creed, (the one we use at the Eucharist) the final split came in a dispute that had been simmering for six centuries over three words.
There had been an uneasy standoff for most of this time over the place of the Holy Spirit in the Godhead.
“Was He a Person (equal to the Father and the Son) or merely an agency of both?”
Originally, ideas tended to assume that there were only two persons (a “Holy Duality) of Father and Son, but with the final shaping of the Nicene Creed in 381, three words had been inserted that changed it all, viz., “Who proceedeth from the Father AND the Son”.
This made the Eastern Christians, centred on Constaninople (The “Orthodox”) very cross, and brought about their separation from Rome and the Western Church in 1054 called “The Great Schism” the “Great separation”.
It had not been helped by Rome claiming that its Pope was master over ALL Christians, whether East or West to whom all were to be obedient.
These differences have not been eased during the last 100 or more years, with the proclamation that “The Pope is infallible” for which there is no Biblical evidence at all.
It enabled Rome to produce doctrines, which while they may have had popular support among its followers, were not so by historical or Biblical evidence.
However, that is as it may be, we have to take note of the activity of the Spirit regarding the growth of the Christian Church from the resurrection onwards and for this there is plenty of evidence.
“It seemeth good to the Holy Spirit and to us” say the gathered apostles in Jerusalem, when they decided that the Gentiles need not observe the numerous pernickety worship rules of the Jews, only certain basics, and this was no small step forward for a “Missioning” Church.
The Spirit eased the task of the Evangelists of The Church, increasing the rapidity of conversion among the Gentiles.
The Spirit is mentioned as the motivating and guiding force throughout the Bible, both Old and New Testaments and seems quite arbitrary in His judgements.
This is the message that comes clearly, that God through the Holy Spirit is present empowering, guiding, strengthening, creating from the very beginning of existence.
It is of some significance that what makes the “Catholic” Church a Universal religion destroying all barriers, can be seen as the work of the Holy Spirit.
Without the breaking of barriers between Jew and Gentile guided by the Spirit there could be no “Universal” Church, therefore the Nicene Creed states that the Spirit is to be “worshipped together with the Father AND the Son”.
The Spirit is the link between God and His people and God’s People with one another; by inspiring and promoting Christian love in our relationships, enabling us to sing: “Where true love and kindness are found, God Himself is there”; the motivating power is that of “love”.
Remember that this Greek word “agape”, (pronounced a-ga-pay) in the Greek New Testament has a unique quality, for it suggests “concern and care”, treating each other as if they matter to you, loving them as much as you love yourself.
Setting all divisions aside, the truth is that the Holy Spirit is fundamental to understanding the Christian life and should be the Guide and “Comforter” (“strengthener”) of both The Church as a whole and ourselves as individuals.
Talk of the Holy Spirit, and one might immediately think of Pentecost, with the outpouring by the apostles, obviously under the influence, not of drink, but of the Holy Spirit.
In fact, in the very first verses of Genesis, we find that Creation springs from the activity of God’s Spirit, and is the source of “Life”; note it is “The Spirit of God”, and as Hans Kung, a German theologian rightly points out, that ‘The Spirit is both the Spirit of the Father and of the Son”, the agent by whom (the Spirit is a ”He” and not an “It”) things happen.
It is interesting that what is translated as “Spirit” or “Ghost” is “pneuma” (Greek), from which our word “pneumatic” comes, an invisible, powerful force where air under pressure is able to exert great force. The Spirit is the invisible but powerful force that enables God and Jesus’ work to be done.
The book of Wisdom (to be found in an adjunct to the Old Testament, called the “Apochrypha”), identifies “Wisdom” as another expression of God’s thoughts, and although the text implies that it is a “she”, it suggests that in fact, he is masculine.
Throughout the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, the Spirit is a cogent force in conveying God’s will to those who seek guidance and an enabling force to carry it out.
It is the Spirit by whom the leaders of the Hebrews are guided and given the power to triumph; when the guidance of the Spirit is ignored, then disaster strikes.
The Early Church was aware of the Spirit in ways which have been lost over the centuries of The Church’s existence. We give lip-service to a Guiding and Enabling force emanating from God the Father and the Son, but we are half-hearted in practise.
My training Vicar John, refused to say conventional prayers prior to a PCC meeting, because it seemed to be a prelude to meetings that very often did not convey that sense of power and ability which the scriptures would lead us to expect.
The late Archbishop Temple in his valuable book “Readings in St. John’s Gospel” warns “When you pray, ‘Come Holy Spirit’ you should know the risks you may be taking and be dismayed by the guidance that the Spirit gives, changing your ideas and plans”.
Sometimes as the hymn says “We linger, shivering on the beach, but fear to launch away”, and I believe it is the failure of the modern Church to be bold, decisive and confident.
Every parish where I have been called to lead has had it’s own problems, particularly in those that were strapped for cash and where a major appeal for funds to pay for what was needed to be done seemed daunting and impossible; By proceeding in faith, the funds came and never through years of building and fund-raising was the work ever frustrated by lack of funds or energy input by the people themselves,
The modern Church of England seems to have lost a sense of divine direction and spiritual energy and is bogged down by all the various agencies and conventions and there is no sense of that confidence shown, for instance in the Acts of the Apostles.
Where is that confident leadership from the top that we ought to expect and receive?
In the 1950s, the prospect of having coffee after Church (which some of us thought to be one way forward in uniting a disunited parish) brought complaints by one or two to the Bishop in that “Father George was turning Holy Trinity into a Coffee Shop!” and also drawing criticism from some of my clerical brethren. The decision was “Spirit led” for we had prayed about it and were therefore sure that it would succeed.
Not every new idea is a winner, but if is adopted because that is the way the Spirit is leading us, then it cannot fail.
“Come Holy Spirit our souls inspire” but do we really want to be “lightened with celestial fire”?
Owen, one of our choirboys at Wootton approached me after the Ascension Day Eucharist with a puzzled look on his face.
A very bright lad and an avid reader.
“Father”, he said, “I have studied what the Bible says, that ‘Jesus ascended into heaven’. Now, I have studied how big the Universe is and have calculated that going up at the greatest speed a human could survive, Jesus won’t have arrived in heaven yet!”
He was, as far as I know correct in his maths. However, the Ascension receives different treatment in the New Testament.
Luke records in his Gospel that ‘a cloud received Him out of their sight’, Mark (the earliest Gospel) gives no details, except that Jesus ‘sat down at the right hand of God’ and John doesn’t mention it at all.
Matthew gives us the account where Jesus is recorded as giving a final command to His disciples, “Go therefore into all the world and preach the Gospel”.
We have a choice; whether Jesus went up into heaven, his robes fluttering around Him, or more likely He just disappeared, possibly amid a cloud.
No matter how Jesus disappeared, those early disciples knew that Jesus had returned from whence He had come, His bodily presence removed.
This was essential, for Matthew records that there was (and is) that promise, that He will be with us (yes, all of us) until the end of time.
We have a “Catholic” Christ, meaning that Jesus is universally present to everyone who calls upon Him and in that spiritual Presence, He can be with a refugee in some squalid camp, or a millionaire in a Mayfair luxury penthouse.
Jesus goes from us, in order that He can always be withus.
He said, “Where two or three are gathered together in my Name, there am I in the midst of them” which gives the lie to the priest who said that He wouldn’t take a service because there wouldn’t be enough attending to make it worth while!”
There is more, for the being that ascended into Heaven was both God and Man, and for us that is important, for it signifies that humanity has been therefore glorified.
As the Athanasian Creed says that “Jesus is both God and Man, but one Christ. Not by conversion of he Godhead into flesh, but by taking of the Manhood into Christ".
That common humanity has been raised to a Divine stature; the Body, born of a country maid is seated at the premier place next to the Father, wherever Heaven is (and it may be closer to us than we imagine).
It was said that “Heaven is where God is”, and that is true, for we can ourselves be in the Presence whoever, whenever and wherever we are.
In our daily devotions, we need to remind ourselves that Jesus is close to us; He isn’t “Up there” but “Down here, NOW”.
“Lo, God is here, let us rejoice and say ‘How awe-ful’ is this place” sings a Victorian hymn and we need to find time and place to become aware of this truth.
In the Dom Camillo stories, the little priest is aware of that Presence and talks to God as he would to any human being.
In our daily prayers, although Jesus is our brother and we can approach Him with boldness, yet we need to bear in mind that He is also “Immortal. Invisible, God only wise” and that hymn must make us aware in whose presence we are.
To help me with my prayers, I now have a lighted candle by me, reminding me that I am not alone; give it a try!
Ascension is not only a commemoration of Jesus returning from whence He came, but a reminder of our heavenly hope, “May we go where He has gone, rest and reign with Him in Heaven”.
But, of course, Jesus didn’t, for that implies that Jesus, crucified as a Man, raised Himself from the dead. The Resurrection was the action of the Father.
Peter in his preaching always said “God raised Jesus from the dead” (Acts 2, vv22-36), Jesus lived and died as a man enduring all that terrible suffering and rejection and this suffering was in God Incarnate (“Made flesh”).
One purpose of the Easter event was to justify Jesus’ claims to preach and perform actions that only God can.
The Resurrection was proof that “God was ‘In Christ’, reconciling the world to Himself” and the figure that ascended into heaven 40 days later was both God and Man.
The Resurrection as it was and is, proves us that His life after death being raised by the hand of God is vital as it demonstrates that all Jesus’ teaching and mission were authentic, displaying the true nature of the Divine.
What does that mean for us?
If we wish to know the character of God (whom Jesus indicated that He is a God of Love and Compassion) it is mediated to us through Jesus.
Humanity, with all its faults, has been interwoven with the Godhead and it is on that basis that Jesus’ promise of eternal life is based.
The Easter event was the Father’s Seal of Approval on the Man who was once the Carpenter of Nazareth.
Those who jeered at the suffering figure on the cross said “He saved others, Himself He cannot save. If He be the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the Cross”, not realising that as He hung there dying, He was in fact saving, not Himself, but all mankind. In His death was our life.
Nevertheless, if we are to share in God’s eternity, we need to think deeply about what eternal life for us entails.
For this, Jesus gave no definite teaching; no angelic choir, no harps or eternal singing, no wings.
When questioned about “With what body shall we come” we need to turn to the simple reasoning of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, where we are reminded that whatever body we have is one tailored to our existence.
It will not be our original bodies, for obviously they are not suitable for Eternity. Paul gives us an analogy by the different creatures being given bodies suitable for their style of life. A fish for living in and under the water, birds capable of flying. However it is essential that we have a body of some sort, for that is part of our identity, not being a puff of wind in the ether.
You might suggest that the fact that the Risen Lord has the same recognisable Body (including the crucifixion scars in hands, feet and side), that this will be the form of our eternal body. However, a moment’s thought will show that if Jesus had appeared in anything else than His human body, this would have proved nothing concerning our own eternal futures
The behaviour of the disciples after the resurrection is a testimony to the reality of Easter.
They had fled terrified from Calvary, most having already abandoned Him; yet within a few hours of Easter morning, they appeared confident, ready to share the Good news with anyone who would listen. This regardless of the enmity of the Hierarchy, both of the Jews and the Romans.
As I have said before, you cannot separate those final days, of Maundy Thursday (the Covenant meal) the Passion (the sacrifice of one who was perfect man but also perfect God, “for us people and our salvation” and the Promise of Easter Day.
We are no wiser regarding the true meaning of “Eternal Life” for mortals, but the fact that humanity was taken into God (at the Ascension) bodes well for us as we move towards our further pilgrimage (John 14, vv1-24), accompanied by Our Risen Lord.
“Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of time”.