What next? A sermon on Ascension

I’ve heard a rumour that Aaron Sorkin is bringing back the American TV series the West Wing. I used to love this drama about an American President called Josiah Bartlet. He’s a Democrat, a Catholic and a Nobel prize-winning economist – so very different from current reality! But one of President Bartlet’s favourite sayings is, ‘What’s next?’

‘What’s next?’ You can imagine that also being on the lips of the disciples of Jesus as they came to terms with the Ascension. Afterall, they have spent the last three years of their lives trailing around after this wandering Galilean rabbi, never quite sure of where they might end up. Now they have gone through the trauma of arrest, trial and brutal crucifixion. Their hopes and dreams have been trampled underfoot by religious intolerance and military might.

Added to that is the utter confusion of the resurrection! Is he dead or isn’t he? And just when they were getting used to having Jesus back among them, post-Ascension, he’s gone again. What a rollercoaster of emotions, taking these poor disciples to the very extremes of hope and despair. What next?

The disciples’ first reaction is predictable, especially for Methodists – they form a committee to fill a casual vacancy. With Judas gone, the twelve have become eleven. So, according to the opening chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, the remaining disciples gather to choose a successor. They use tried and tested methods to discern the will of God and eventually Matthias emerges as the new number 12. But isn’t it interesting that we hear nothing more either about the exploits of Matthias or the one he pipped to the post, Justus. Some commentators have wondered whether Justus took his bat home disgruntled at not being chosen, but we shall never know.

More important for us today is to discover what this reaction to the Ascension says about mission. If nothing else, it reflects a desire for continuity among Jesus’ bewildered followers. In the absence of any firm plan for the future, they revert to what they know. Since Jesus chose twelve from among the many disciples who followed him - a sort of inner core or politburo – the post-Ascension Christians wanted to maintain that pattern. We could ask two questions of this decision – was it necessary to replace Judas, and; did the disciples jump the gun when they should have waited for Saul of Tarsus to come along?