Following a pattern found in many other biblical "departures," Luke uses Jesus' ascension as an occasion for the Master to give final instructions to his disciples. Jesus is specific in what he expects of them. "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth." One need only page through the remainder of Acts to discover that Jesus' followers will adhere perfectly to his geographic plan. After Pentecost they'll preach the word first in Jerusalem, evangelizing people in the immediate Judean area. Philip will then travel to Samaria, and Paul eventually will arrive in Rome, proclaiming the good news as a prisoner of the Empire. With the Apostle's proclamation in the world's capitol, the word will have its witnesses at the "end of the earth. Nothing can stop what Jesus and his Spirit have planned.
Of course, as we saw last week, Luke writes from an advantageous position: he composed Acts almost 50 years after Jesus' ascension instruction. When one narrates a prediction that long after the actual foretelling, there's always a temptation to squeeze the words into what historically happened.
We old-timers remember how this happened in April of 1968, immediately after Martin Luther King's assassination. Some reporters claimed that he'd actually predicted his demise during a talk he delivered the night before. But after tapes of that address were played, we found out that King hadn't been that specific about the time and place of his death. He had simply referred to his "mountain top" experience, something which removed any fear of what could happen to him in the future. It was next day's horrible event which led people to turn a general comment into a specific prediction.
Unfortunately, most of us aren't privy to specifics about the way Jesus wants us to live our faith. We have his general instructions, but little else to go on. These instructions are similar to those Paul shares with the Ephesians in our second reading: ". . . Live in a manner worthy of the call you have received with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace: one body and one Spirit . . . ." Paul expects the Holy Spirit to help us develop the specifics of building a loving unity. We're not provided in advance with a divine road map.
Though Mark seems to agree with Paul, it takes some "scriptural sophistication" to surface his agreement. Unless you have good footnotes in your personal Bible, you'd think the evangelist ends his gospel with today's passage. Yet, even before the Council of Trent's treatment of the subject, scholars realized these verses didn't come from Mark. He actually ended his gospel in verse 8 with the comment that the women ran away from the tomb saying nothing to anyone.
Such an ending must have been too abrupt for some readers and scribes, so they created other endings for the gospel. Today's pericope was obviously constructed by a person who had a copy of Acts in front of him or her. It's a summary of some of the famous events in that writing.
But if we go back to Mark's original ending, we're left simply with the angel's message that the risen Jesus is "out there," waiting to appear to his followers. Except for mentioning apparitions to take place in Galilee - the place where the disciples live - there's nothing more specific. How fascinating it is to live a life in which the risen Jesus can surface in any form at any time and place. Too much specificity can take (and has taken) lots of excitement out of living a Christian life.