There’s no doubt that one of the most popular passages from the Bible is St Paul’s passage on love. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned but have not love, I gain nothing.” (1 Cor 13) What most people don’t realise is that Paul says all this and more, about love, to a group of Christians who are very religious indeed. They are all prayerful people. Indeed they are not just prayerful, they are always praising God, and apparently showing in their worship all the gifts of the Holy Spirit that I have been talking about in the last few weeks. Their prayers are ecstatic in praise of God. They fill their life with holy words, prophecies, that they claim come straight from God. They are active in giving their money away to those in need. But clearly they have a problem, which is why Paul’s words about love are not gentle but fierce. “You may think you are religious, but without love, YOU ARE NOTHING!”
When we hear this, we nod in agreement. We say “Such wonderful words! So true.” And then as soon as someone says or does something we don’t like, we easily become irritated, even angry. If we do something stupid or wrong, we always have an excuse, some reason for our behaviour; but we rarely excuse other people. They are just wrong. They must change their ways. They must behave better! And on and on it goes.
What is worse, is that how we treat others at home or at work, is also the way we behave on the world’s stage. Here we are : the people who call ourselves Christians, claiming to follow the ways of goodness and love, and yet all the way through our history, we have fought and killed one another. No wonder some people claim that religion causes wars! It doesn’t, of course. Wars are caused by us sinful human beings using various excuses, sometimes religious, to get our own way. We British Christians are some of the worst. We have fought against Christians in France, in Spain in Germany… we have gone round the world killing people in Africa and Asia and America, unless they became part of our Empire, and we have even killed our fellow Christians here at home – Catholics killing Protestants and Protestants killing Catholics. It’s a horrible story, and it must stand as a warning to each one of us, that every time we fail to love another person, every time we say that it’s their fault not ours; we are on the way to the hate and violence that has caused, and still causes, people to kill one another!
This is surely why the angels in the story of the Ascension today (Acts 1:1-11) tell off the friends of Jesus for looking up into the sky. It is all too easy, like them, to have a strong belief in God, to come to Mass every Sunday, and to fail to turn that yearning for God, that looking to God for help and support, into practical and sacrificial caring for others in our ordinary lives the rest of the time. In our 2nd Reading, (Eph 4:1-13) Paul once again goes on about this need. This time it is with the Christians in Ephesus; and he doesn’t just speak to them about love he IMPLORES them! Clearly he is in despair at their failure to live out their faith in love. He implores them “Bear with one another charitably, in complete selflessness, gentleness and patience”
However (and this is relevant to all that I have been preaching in the last few weeks about the Holy Spirit) he goes on to link this bearing with one another with our being one in the Holy Spirit. We cannot claim to have received the Holy Spirit, to be full Catholic Christians, if we do not “bear” with one another. We need to think about that person, or those people, who we find most difficult to bear : the ones that are most likely to make us upset, or angry or stressed. The one’s therefore that we find most difficult to love. Paul tells us: “Do all you can to preserve the unity of the Spirit by the peace that binds you together.” The peace there is another way of speaking of God’s presence, God’s Holy Spirit within us, and we have to work to make that presence an active reality in every part of our lives.
The Ascension of Jesus therefore, is not a one-off vision of Jesus in his glory, one with God. The while point of the Ascension is that the Risen Jesus is not confined to one place in the world. Until that moment he was just a Jew revealing his glory to Jews in their own country – a vision of God that they could claim as especially theirs. But now, in the Ascension, Jesus is declared as present in every part of the world, indeed in every part of the universe.
It is from this vision, and the empowering of the Holy Spirit that follows it that we celebrate next week, that the first Jewish Christians break out from their national identity and pride, and begin to spread the Gospel to others. That is the job they, and we, are given by Jesus on that day, as we heard in the Gospel. (Mark 16:15-20) “Go out to the whole world; proclaim the Good News to all creation” Yes, we may be ashamed how often the Church, and we Christians within it, have failed and still fail to live up to the love that Jesus taught us ; but we ought also to remember all the good work, through the centuries, that the Church has done to teach people this ideal of love and care for others, that our world so desperately needs.
That is the Ascension message. We must always go out to the world. We must try to proclaim the great message of God’s love that Jesus brings us, and in the power of the Holy Spirit we must make a daily effort to live that love out in our own lives!