Mark 16:15-20 | The Ascension of the Lord, Year B
A Call to Learn
I’ve always thought of the phrase in this gospel, “they will speak in new languages” (v. 17) meant God would give the disciples the ability to speak an whatever the language of the people they were speaking needed. But what if, as God tends to do, the message is much more nuanced? Maybe God wants us to meet people where they are and also to push the disciples towards understanding and growth?
Perhaps the disciples themselves (that’s us too) are charged with learning a new language. It could also be the language of carpentry or computers or teaching or business. Perhaps God wanted to plant His people everywhere so learning was reciprocal: the disciples could learn from those they had come to serve just as much as the people could learn from the disciples. Maybe the disciples weren’t gifted with sudden language skills. Maybe they were gifted with the opportunity to learn alongside their fellow human beings,.
In his homily for the 4th Sunday of Easter, Father Rob talked about Jesus as a shepherd—He lived with us, He felt our fears and our joys, He “took on the smells of the sheep.” Maybe that’s what Jesus wanted for His disciples, and by extension, for us as well. Native Americans said that you have to walk a mile in their moccasins to understand another, too suspend (and possibly surrender aspects of) our viewpoint. It’s not easy to do. Ask Jesus.
To live like that, we have to focus outward. The point isn’t our skills—the languages we can speak, the people we are able to convert. The focus becomes the other—their needs, their desires, their concerns. The focus shifts to meeting others where they are, a stance that requires understanding. While scripture makes it clear that Christians are to be in the world but not of it, we are in it, not above choreographing every movement. To be in it, we always have to be learning, always growing.
When Jesus ascended to heaven, He didn’t leave us to become the master choreographer from on high. He left because He had done what God intended Him to do. He hadn’t converted everyone on the planet. That wasn’t His job. His had come to live among the Jews, love His friends and family deeply, and teach those who were open to His message. He had come to experience life lived as a human being. Likewise, when He sent His disciples (and us too) “into the world to proclaim the gospel” (v.15), He wasn’t telling us to speak from on high. He wanted us to be with people, to be deeply affected by them, to love them, to take on their smell.
Prayer, a deep connection to God, enabled Jesus to live out His calling. The mystery of prayer is that it changes us, not the situation. Prayer stretches our limits and pushes our boundaries. Prayer keeps us both growing and grounded in the lived faith that Jesus came so we could experience life here and in heaven to the fullest.