The fulness of him who fills the whole of creation

Frances writes on the Readings for the Feast of the Ascension :- The alert among us will have noticed the different tradition of the post resurrection accounts of our Gospels. Luke in Acts (1:1-11) has the significant events taking place in Jerusalem, whereas Mark, Matthew and then John, for whom the post-resurrection appearances of the Lord are all and there is no separate giving of the Spirit,  place them in Galilee.  I think the latter writers do this because they wanted to stress that the Christian movement was largely non Jewish and so placed the significant events in Galilee, that gateway to foreign travel and the spread of the Gospel to all the nations. Moreover anyone writing, as Mark does in Rome at the time of the failed Jewish Revolt, would certainly have had very good reasons for detaching Jesus from Judaism. We need to think then why it was that Luke should adopt such a different approach. I suspect the give-away lies in the introduction to our Reading from Luke- Acts; it is Luke’s dedication to his patron Theophilus at the start of his Gospel. Theophilus was clearly a man of great standing, for he is described as excellentissimi, a title, and was probably the Governor of a Province in the Roman Empire.  That being the case, Luke would, as he claimed, be at pains to give a full and orderly account of the ‘Christ-event’ as part of this man’s conversion experience. What we have then is a carefully crafted account of the human life, the saving passion and the bodily resurrection of the Lord and of the beginnings and spread of the Church. As we know, it did have a beginning in Jerusalem and there was some spread out from there. By the time Luke wrote his Gospel, a number of the apostles, including the two James’, had been martyred; and the faith had gone out elsewhere and quite certainly the Jewish Revolt, in which the Christians did not join, made the divide between the two absolute. But Luke does give us the only account, other than that of Paul, of that process; and a vivid story of the development of the earliest Christian communities along with the picture of developing structure and authority which would ultimately become so important in Church life. Significantly too, from the point of view of a Roman Governor, is Jesus’ rejection of earthly ‘kingship’, or of any threat to Rome from Israel, as he firmly puts the apostles on the right track. His ‘rule’ is all about the advent of the Holy Spirit who will enable the disciples to witness to the faith throughout the world. Quite clearly a radically different kind of movement from the one they as Jews had envisaged was now called for in the coming of the Kingdom.

However, the author of Ephesians, (Eph 1:17-23) probably St Paul, wrote a very different sort of letter to the Christians there in the 50’s CE. In it he quoted a hymn sung in praise of Jesus, (1:3-10) and most likely already well known to the Christians of Ephesus. This hymn, and the part of the Letter which is our Reading, make clear that Christians in Ephesus already had a very elevated ‘theology’ of Jesus: as redeemer from sin; of ‘spiritual blessings’ in heaven; of a life post mortem, and of our being ‘adopted’ as sons of God; sharers in the mystery of God’s will. Adoption was a well known feature among the rich childless of the ancient world, guaranteeing the adoptee a wealthy and rosy future. Clearly these were men and women who knew the Gospel account of the Lord’s redeeming life, albeit in a purely oral tradition at the beginning; yet their faith, as shown in the letter(s), seems to be about something quite above the nuts and bolts of the message Theophilus received. These are people who already reap the benefits of their beliefs in a spiritual manner. Our text speaks of them as the recipients of ‘A spirit of wisdom and perception of what is revealed, to bring you to full knowledge of him.’  It goes on to speak of their being ‘enlightened’ in mind; all so very different from the reactions of those in the Gospels who witness Jesus’ miracles of healing the sick and feeding the hungry. It appears that the Christians of Ephesus were quite a distance apart from the Gospel stories.

Ephesus was at the time one of the great imperial cities of the East, immensely wealthy from its port on the Aegean and a cosmopolitan centre, not merely for trade, at which it excelled, but also in ideas and philosophies. Yet for Greco-Romans philosophy was the stuff of the wealthy aristocrat or such like, those who had the leisure to spend time in the peace of reflection, living off their multiple assets; it was not for the common man. Yet it is precisely this elevated kind of language with which Paul explored the Christian faith with the ordinary people of the city, claiming as he did that this elevated entry into ‘eternal life’ was open to them too. All indeed could become philosophers, all were guaranteed the vision of great and divine things, even belonging, in and through faith, in the risen and glorified Jesus. Significantly, for Paul as for Luke, all this is achieved through the bodily resurrection from death of Jesus. Unlike the majority of pagans, for whom bodily death was the end, the Christian could confidently look forward to sharing in God’s mind, his way of being. True, here and now the believer might be poorly off and even despised as a freedman, but his belief assured him of ultimate superiority over all earthly empires and rulers, the Christian was absolutely guaranteed to come out tops. ‘God has put all things under Christ’s feet and made him, as the ruler of everything, the head of the Church; which is his body, the fullness of him who fills the whole creation.’  Bite the dust Roman Emperors!

Something of the flavour of this ultimate superiority is captured in our Gospel, (Matthew 28:19-20) where Jesus gives the power of the Spirit to the eleven, and with it the authority to convert the world. If you think about it, it is a truly astounding claim and promise, one of a group supremely confident that God will do what he has promised. Indeed, it is precisely because of the confidence the Spirit inspired in the apostles that we are Christians today. Who would have believed that from such raggy beginnings, and such a desperate end on the cross, this could possibly have come about? Perhaps the modern Church needs to recover some of the confidence of the first Christians for today!