For June 2, 2019, Ascension Sunday
Read: Acts 1:1-11; Ps 47:2-3,6-9; Ephesians 1: 17-23, Luke 24: 46-53
Have you ever had the experience of hearing an idea for the first time, and then suddenly hearing that idea again in different circumstances? I told you that Fr. Peter had given an excellent presentation at the General Assembly on Liberation Theology, a school of religious thought that aligns very well with the writings of St. Charles of Brazil, the founder of our own Catholic Apostolic Church.
Fr. Peter described two Church Fathers of the early Christian Church, and their theology in the years 300 – 400 AD. The first was St. John Chrysostom, who wrote this, “If a poor man comes to you asking for bread, there is no end of the complaints and reproaches and charges of idleness, you upbraid him, insult him, jeer at him. You fail to realize that you too are idle and yet God grants you gifts!” He certainly was direct!
The second was St. Basil the Great. He wrote, “(The rich) seize what belongs to all, they claim it as their own on the basis of having got there first, whereas if everyone took for himself enough to meet his immediate needs and released the rest for those in need of it, there would be no rich and no poor!”
The point is that the church in the early years strongly emphasized that we must be about the love that Jesus taught and practiced. Mercy, good works, generosity, love – those were the necessities of faith. But by the Middle Ages, the Church began to struggle to maintain itself against growing secular power: Kings and Kingdoms. In response, the Church teaching shifted more to personal salvation. The mindset changed from relieving suffering of others to viewing suffering as a way to be free of sin in preparation for eternal life. This new focus was somehow stretched to mean that other people’s suffering was good for them, somehow could be written off as deserved or even necessary, and not any of my business as I pressed to ensure my own passage thru the pearly gates.
The very next week after I heard Fr. Peter’s presentation, I managed to borrow The Time is Now, the newest book from Sister Joan Chittister. If you’ve had the experience of reading anything written by Sister Joan, a Benedictine Sister of Erie, Pennsylvania, you know hang on to your hat. She could well be compared to a strong wind storm.
She begins her book by describing her early days in the convent. A leader would read a passage from a Gospel, and ask the listeners to see themselves in the scene. So, Jesus debates with the Pharisees or raises the girl from the dead, and then turns and sees you. He holds you in his gaze, and asks, “What will you do for these ones – simply stand there looking on?” The purpose of this was to develop a spiritual practice, but it soon became apparent to Sister Joan that she was to immerse her own life in the life of Jesus.
Out of this would emerge a personal challenge to her own focus, her own behavior, her own life. She learned the teaching of the early Church Fathers which Fr. Peter quoted, and found embedded in them the primary spiritual obligation: to reshape a world that has lost its focus, its integrity, and its understanding of Jesus’ teachings and his purpose in our world.
Sister Joan says, “The question, ‘What will you do?’ is at the core of spiritual maturity, of spiritual commitment.” We may tell ourselves that by risking nothing, we can lose nothing. Sister Joan says we like our religion served calmly, silently. And we fail to realize that when we risk nothing, we actually risk everything. When there is no room in the inn for hungry children, when people fleeing violence must live in tent cities, when there is a growing culture of poverty or paying workers pennies to create clothing which sells for hundreds of dollars, when affordable housing is replaced by mansions, and wars are being fought where the innocent are used as shields, what are we to do? Stand there, looking on?
It is not a new question. Jesus rose from the dead. He appeared to believers for 40 days after his crucifixion, he presented proof of his resurrection, and the Holy Spirit was given to the Church. Jesus directed us to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. And then he was taken from their sight. And two heavenly beings appeared, asking, “Why are you standing there looking up at the sky?”
Some people want to focus on “he was lifted up and a cloud took him from their sight.” It was written by someone who had no words to describe what happened. We are savvy people, we understand special effects, our satellites and telescopes and probes reveal the secrets of the universe. But surely, you have seen something in your lifetime that was impossible to describe using the words. For instance, I have never talked with a brand-new parent who had words to describe the experience of birth. The Ascension is a moment of wonder, mystery if you must, unable to be articulated in a way that we have.
Likewise our various accounts of the Ascension don’t exactly match. Each author belonged to a different faith community, and had a different emphasis in their preaching. They used settings that matched the background of those they were teaching. Any good teacher does that, making the lessons appropriate to the life and culture of the students. But they all proclaimed the same message – Our Lord is Alive, is with God, and the Holy Spirit is within us. We say: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”
So, now what will we do with this information? Do you want the risen Jesus to remain in the Bible story, where you can close the book, put it on the shelf and go on with life?
Do you want to leave the risen Jesus to the clergy, and let them carry the burden of faith? Do you want to leave the work of Jesus to the Social Service agencies, have Bill Gates fund it, have public safety keep the homeless off the streets? Shall we let Mother Nature take care of the earth? Is the ending of Thrones or the newest superhero movie enough for you?
Or do you want to stop looking at the sky and invite people to church, to share your wealth of talent and experience and compassion with people who simply need some help? Do you want to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the dying and visit those in prison? (Don’t blame me, those are Jesus’ ideas.) Do you want to get dignity by giving dignity, pride by nurturing pride, joy by sharing joy? Do you want to give people a voice by speaking out? Do you want to make a difference and be a Christian, not just a consumer?
If what I see in the church today is accurate, I would guess that moving our focus from the Love for one another taught by Jesus to a focus on personal salvation wasn’t the answer to growth of secular power. We are here together in this place because of a Catholic Bishop who decided loving each other, especially the poor and powerless, was essential. If Sister Joan is right, having taken her cue from the angels in the white garments, then standing and looking is the wrong answer. There is no joy to be found there. I say, “My neck is getting stiff looking up, let’s look around us, see the needs and opportunities, and get busy.”