The Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord:
Taking on the snakes and poisons of the world.
These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages. They will pick up serpents with their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them. They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover."
In some of the rural communities of our countries, ministers and their congregations take this passage literally. As a test of faith some will plunge their hands into a box of rattlesnakes, pull one out and hold it in front of the congregation. Others will drink strychnine poison. Some will survive. Some will be bitten by the rattlers. Some will die from the poison. Now these simple rural communities view the survivors as positive examples of the faith of the entire community. They view those who are bit by the snakes or who die from the poison as examples of the weakness of the community’s faith.
They are incorrect in interpreting Jesus’ words literally. He doesn’t want us to challenge him to heal us, nor does he want us to put ourselves in unnecessary peril. But they are correct in recognizing that faith in Jesus gives them the ability to conquer the evils of the world. And their communities are right when they credit success to the Lord and see failure as a result of their lack of faith.
But, first, let me say a word about literal interpretations of the Bible. This form of fundamentalism demands that every word, every statement be believed exactly as it is written and read. For example, the fundamentalists would say that the world was created some 40,000 years ago because that is the date they best determine from Genesis. If you show them a fossil they would say that it is fake. They get so bogged down in the details that they miss the point of the message: God is the Creator. Here is a little story that I think would help you understand better what is wrong with the fundamental approach to the Bible. A young Mom takes her five-year-old son to the beach. The Mom keeps an eye on the little one playing in the water, when suddenly the child calls out, “Shark, Shark!” The Mom runs into the water to protect the child, and the child just starts laughing. “This is not funny,” the Mom says, “I need to impress upon you that it is wrong to call for help when you don’t need it.” So she tells the child the story of the boy who called wolf. You remember, the boy was a shepherd and became bored. He called wolf to get the attention of the townsfolk. Then he laughed when they came running, all concerned. He did this twice. The people came both times, but were furious that he was playing a bad joke. Then the boy really did see a wolf. He called for help again, only this time no one responded, and he and the flock were attacked. Now, the Mom tells this story to the five-year-old to impress upon him the importance of only calling for help when it is needed. That is the point of the story. Anything particular about the shepherd, or whether he was tending sheep or goat, or where he lived or when he lived or even if it was a boy or girl, none of this is important. All that is important is the message of the story: Don’t call for help when you don’t need it. To get bogged down in the incidentals is to miss the purpose of the message.
What was the message that Jesus was giving when he mentioned the signs of those who believed? The message was that they could fight and conquer evil in its worst forms. Jesus used snakes to represent the devil. His followers, those who believe in him, can take on and beat off the devil. He used poison to represent the evil of the world, not just a poisonous potion, but the poison that is hatred, the poison that is materialism, prejudice, the drug culture, the sex culture, polarization, seeing all who disagree with us as enemies, and on and on. Jesus said that his followers would be able to take on the poison of the world and defeat it.
Then he ascended into heaven. Peter and the boys didn’t grieve that he was gone. Mary Magdalene and the girls didn’t resume their crying. No, they were too busy. Instead they got to work and proclaimed the wonders and the beauties of Jesus’s life. The devil went after them and all who followed them in full battle array. He convinced others to torture them and expel them from their communities and friends. He talked some into killing them, but the devil didn’t win. He couldn’t stop the work of the Kingdom of God. They beat off the snake. All the evil of the world went to war against Jesus’ followers. The poisons that destroy the soul, that destroy life attacked them. The Christians didn’t go into hiding. They took on the poison of the world and found a life free of evil, a life of meaning, the Christian life.
Jesus ascends to heaven and then says to us: “Get to work. Fight off the snake, the devil. Fight off poisons of the world. You can win these victories. You can win them because I really haven’t left you. I am with you. My spirit, the Holy Spirit, strengthens you.
We all have poisons that we have to fight off in our lives. We all have our own demons. Some are of our own making. Some are imposed upon us by others or by situations beyond our control. One person wages a continual battle against alcohol. Another against drugs. One is fighting to be in Christian relationships with others. One must deal with the fact that her family is not what it should be. Another is suffering the terror of abuse. One has physical challenges another has psychological challenges. All of us are fighting selfishness. These and so many other demons and poisons of the world attack us, but they can’t beat us down. We will win against the evil of the world because we have the greatest weapon there ever was. We possess Jesus Christ.
Jesus ascends into heaven and assumes his place as Lord of heaven and earth. What does that mean, “Lord”? It means that he has the power to win, to beat off evil. It means that he is in control. He is our Lord. He is the one who fights for us and with us.
When Jesus ascended into heaven, his followers went on offense. They didn’t cower in a room, afraid of what the enemies of God’s kingdom would do to them. Instead, they took the battle to the devil. The gospel puts this so simply: They went forth and preached everywhere,” People who would seldom leave their villages, traveled the world to wage the battle of the Kingdom. They preached everywhere. That’s what we are all called to do. We are called to take the battle to the enemy. We are called to combat moral evil wherever it exists, within us and around us. We are calledgive people the Gospel, the good News. The Good News is this: there is a much better life than the one the world paints as ideal. There is a life where every action has meaning. There is a life of fulfillment.
This life is the life of the Lord. That’s the Good News. Life is infinitely better when it is lived united to Jesus Christ.
Snakes will attack. Poison will be forced down our throats. But we, the people of the Ascended Lord will beat it all off. How? Well, the gospel explains how in its last words: the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word.
We don’t wage this war alone. We fight with the might of the Lord Jesus Christ. And with him on our side, how can we possibly lose?