At the end of Mark’s gospel Jesus gives his disciples some final instructions before his final ascension into heaven. He is sending them out into the world to spread the good news of God’s love and salvation. Some will accept the gospel in faith and be saved. Others will not believe. The world is a messy place. There are forces at work in the world that will oppose the gospel message. There is still a lot of evil, hatred, enmity and suffering in the world. In proclaiming the gospel, one cannot just sit back in a nice easy chair in a safe and comfortable environment and hope that people get the message. The evangelist who proclaims the gospel has to put his feet on the ground and walk amid the mess of the world’s suffering and evil. In proclaiming the gospel, the evangelist must walk in faith and it is this faith in the presence and power of Jesus through the Holy Spirit that will protect the person of faith. The sign of this faith is that one can work in the world amid all of the messiness of human life and not be harmed by the forces of evil or fall prey to the traps and pitfalls that are out there in the world. Jesus reassures his disciples that although he is returning to the Father, he is not going to leave them alone. Jesus will work with the apostles and there will be signs of his presence among them. They may not physically see the Lord with them but they will see the signs of his presence. Jesus describes meeting these challenges to spreading the gospel in these terms: “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.”
Jesus is not recommending testing our faith by seeking out serpents to handle or drinking deadly poisons. These things do not need to be sought out as we will meet these challenges on a daily basis if we are truly seeking to live our lives in faith and be a sign and witness to the presence of the risen Christ in the world today. There are many “serpents” out there that are hidden and laying in wait to strike the person of faith. Evil is insidious and if we are doing the work of God it will seek to strike at us and seek to harm us. There are many “deadly poisons” out there in the world that we will be forced to drink as people accuse the person of faith of being intolerant, unreasonable, fanatical, rigid, naïve, and a host of other accusations that spring from prejudice, hatred and misunderstanding. When we are working in faith we are never working alone. St. Mark reminds us in the gospel of the presence of the risen Jesus who works with us: “while the Lord worked with them.” (Mk 16,20) The presence of the Lord in faith keeps us safe in the world while we are meeting those challenges that the world places before us. Even though we are doing the work of the gospel in faith in a very messy world that is still inhabited by the forces of evil, we will not be harmed by these things if we remain in faith and in the love of our Lord.
In celebrating the Ascension of the Lord we affirm in faith that Jesus has not left us alone and unprotected in our world today. Jesus is still the Good Shepherd who is with us always and protects us from harmful forces in our world. Through faith we can overcome the challenges that the world places before us. There are many wolves and serpents out there in the fields where the gospel will be spread but our Lord walks with us as the Good Shepherd and keeps us safe. Jesus sends us out into the whole world to spread the gospel and to transform the world with his presence and grace. We are called to carry the gospel “everywhere” and to live our faith in all places, not just in the safe environments of the Church but also in the messy environment of the world. He will be with us and work with us wherever we go. To be aware of the presence of Jesus, who is now seated at the right hand of God in heaven, we must lift up our minds and hearts to heaven in prayer. St. Mark is encouraging us to not be afraid of the challenges that the world places before us but to live and work in faith. Our boldness in proclaiming the word in our daily lives will be a sign of the power of the word at work in our lives and the faith that we have in God’s presence and in the victory that Jesus has accomplished in overcoming the world in love.