Easter Reflections (5) – May 22, 2019

‘The End of the Beginning…’

The question of meaning has plagued humanity through the ages. In his recent book, Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac (Eerdmans: 2018), Steven D. Smith helps us to see links between the culture wars of today and questions that arose in the ancient world.

In a chapter where he writes on the questions of meaning and the reality of death he quotes leaders and thinkers of the ancient world and observes that there was ‘a kind of futility in the Homeric assumption that the best a man can hope for is to kill gloriously and die gloriously, so that his name will be recalled in the lyrics chanted by bards when the man himself is no longer around to hear the songs.

Smith continues with a reference to Sophocles: ‘“Then what is the good of glory, of magnificent renown,” Sophocles has the aged Oedipus ask, “if in its flow it streams away to nothing?” Marcus Aurelius agreed: ”Fame after life is no better than oblivion.” A hero may grimly make the best of mortality, but given the chance, wouldn’t he eagerly exchange it for a life of endless contentment?…’ (p.185).

How different was the message that Christianity gave voice to. Quoting the historian Paul Veyne, Smith notes that ‘Under Christianity a person’s life “suddenly acquired an eternal significance within a cosmic plan, something that no philosopher or paganism could confer” (p.187).

And there is something else. Smith notes that Paul Veyne ‘adds that Christianity had another important advantage over paganism because it taught that God cared about – indeed, was essentially devoted to – human beings… “…Christ, the Man-God sacrificed himself for his people”’ (pp.187f).

It is so important that we remember this Christian message does not spring from myth or hero worship, but from events observed by eyewitnesses – witnesses the Gospel writers and Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 identify for us. The movement of thought that unfolds throughout the Bible – of creation and redemption – enables us to understand that we can participate personally in God’s story, a story that sweeps us up into eternity.

Jesus’ bodily departure from this world, described in Luke 24, opens a window on what this will mean for all who respond to his offer of forgiveness and new life.

In his last chapter, Luke takes us to the final scene of Jesus’ earthly life. Jesus led the way to Bethanyon the eastern side of the Mount of Olives. As he prayed for God’s special blessing on his immediate followers, Luke tells us that Jesus withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven (24:51).

His departure was not a disappearance, as when he left the two he had met on the road to Emmaus (24:31). Rather his departure here was somewhat similar to that of Elijah of old – though without the chariot (2 Kings 2:11). There was an air of finality about it. No longer would there be a physical face-to-face relationship between Jesus and his people.

And there was something else: Jesus departed from the world in human form. Luke is telling us that in taking on human form at his birth, the Son of God would exist forever as a man. His ascension foreshadowed the final state of all men and women who turn to him as Lord.

Luke’s Gospel concludes on a high note. Whereas chapter 24 had opened with the grief and despair of Jesus’ followers, their response now was one of wonder, worship and joy (24:52).

Jesus’ final display of transcendent power in his ascension, convinced the disciples. As they looked back over the years they had been with him, as they remembered what he told them about the announcement of the angels at his birth (1:31-33; 2:11-12), as they had seen him die and rise again and heard his words of explanation, they knew he truly was God in the flesh.

We can only begin to imagine their overwhelming joy. We begin to see why they worshipped him. And we begin to see why, empowered by the Holy Spirit, they couldn’t keep quiet about Jesus.

Luke began his narrative with the announcement of an angel to one man, the Jewish priest, Zechariah (1:5). Now he concludes his account with Jesus’ followers being in the temple continually blessing God (24:53). It was the end of the beginning. Jesus Christ is the One who stands at the hinge of history.