I was startled earlier this year when news anchor Peter Mansbridge called someone a Good Samaritan on The National, the flagship nightly newscast of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. I was surprised that in our secularized, multifaith society, newswriters assumed that listeners would understand an allusion from the Bible.
A few years ago, while serving as a hospital chaplain, I received a call to a dying man’s bedside. Upon entering the room where a beautiful old man was breathing his last breaths, his son introduced himself to me: “Hi. I’m the oldest son, John.”
One way to approach the epistle text for this week is to talk about the spiritual discipline of saying yes and saying no, an idea I was first introduced to by M. Shawn Copeland. (I find The Message translation of this passage helpful here.) God created us with the freedom to say yes and say no. But as Paul reminds us, we don’t always know how to use this freedom very well.
It seems a little backward on the Sunday after Pentecost to receive instructions that have already been successfully carried out. Peter and the disciples blew them away last week, preaching up a storm of fire and spirit like a host of Rosetta Stone experts. But today we go back to the place where Jesus told them what to do: Go and make disciples.
I learned many Bible stories by watching movies in Sunday school. They were those old-fashioned movies, shown on a reel-to-reel projector, that tried to portray the stories as some Cecil B. DeMille wannabe imagined they took place. They were seldom more than a few steps grander than the local Christmas pageant; most of the disciples basically wore fancy bathrobes.
From Easter morning until Ascension Thursday, Jesus is present and absent, enfleshed and distant, there and not there. He breaks bread and disappears. He shows up like a ghost, and then eats fish like everyone else. At the end of the story he blesses them, and then he withdraws.
It’s striking that the disciples’ response, rather than to be confused or bothered by this yes and no of resurrection, is to head back to Jerusalem and worship with great joy. I think I would have wanted more.