Homily on hard things to do for Jesus

What would you say is the hardest thing to do as a Christian – the hardest thing that Jesus asks us to do? Perhaps it’s “Do this in memory of me” – the Mass? But for most of us, getting to Mass on Sunday may be a challenge, especially when other apparently more interesting things coincide with Sunday Mass times,  but it isn’t that hard…….. once you get into the habit!

Perhaps the more difficult request is, to “Love one another, as I have loved you.” Yet many people tend to think this is fairly easy, to be kind and loving to others – well, at least most of the time! Of course, they are wrong, aren’t they? Because they conveniently miss out the second bit of that phrase – to love “As I have loved you”. Ah yes, that’s the difficult bit! – to practise real sacrificial love – all the time – to cope, for example, in a kind way with irritating people, as Jesus did with his silly disciples today. They wanted glory now. “Has the time come?” they say. And he gently replies “It is not for you to know times and dates” . Whereas, you and I would probably have said  “You stupid idiots! Why do you never listen to what I say?”  !!!

So yes, real love is very hard. But no, I don’t actually think it is the hardest thing of all. For I think the hardest thing of all is something we hear Jesus asking us today in both the 1st Reading and the Gospel. (Acts 1:1-11/Luke 24:46-53)  He says, “You will be my witnesses….to the ends of the earth.”  

That’s it, isn’t it? We are fine being Christians…. not very good Christians maybe – but still trying our best- until someone finds out about us! Then we wait for one of those difficult questions we so dread! “So why on earth do you believe in God?… or in Jesus?…or in the Bible?… or in the Church with all its failings?”  What makes it doubly difficult is that the person asking these hard questions has usually already got fixed ideas about what God is like. It’s hard enough explaining to a sympathetic person why we believe, but how do we cope with someone who thinks we believe God is like a superman in the sky. Usually we struggle out some kind of an answer – perhaps “Well I just believe there must be something behind all this.. some underlying power” or even “Well I just do, but I can’t explain it.”, and then think later of all the intelligent things we could have said, but we just couldn’t find, when cornered like that!

It is comforting however to remember that the disciples way back then had similar problems – that the hard questions we are asked in the 21st Century are not any harder than those they had to face. They too had to face laughter and scorn and mockery when they tried to explain what Jesus, what God, meant to them. Remember how they despaired when Jesus died on the cross, and how bewildered they were when they began to meet him in a new way again at Easter. Can you imagine people mocking them? “So where is this Jesus then? If he is alive in this new way, why can’t we see him?  And then they had to explain that they could no longer see him, that somehow he was with God and yet still with them in an invisible way. And so we have the stories of the Ascension that we celebrate today, when they use images of Jesus disappearing into a cloud or on a high mountain to convey something far more mysterious than that. “Oh so he literally shot up into the sky? they say, laughing at us. “No” we say “That’s only a way of explaining that he is with God in glory.”

St Augustine said that when Jesus went to heaven he did not leave us, but how can you explain that, or even remember that, when someone questions you? How hard to explain things that cannot be seen, only believed!

In the end, it’s hard, because it’s something we cannot really put into words. because it’s something deep in our hearts. not just a theory in our minds. And we struggle with it too, don’t we? We believe, yet we doubt. With the world, we wonder how can there be a God, a loving power, when there is so much pain and suffering! Explaining why, deep down, we believe, despite all these questions, seems an impossible task, just as we cannot really explain love or beauty to others. They have to find it for themselves.

But be comforted! However ineffective we think our feeble attempts to explain ourselves may be, they are still worthwhile, and sometimes, when we least expect it, it helps. That’s why I leave you with a phrase from one of the Psalms. The Psalmist says “The Lord takes delight in his people”   And we might reply, “What me? God is working in me?” God is working in us stupid stumbling humans as we try to follow him? And God says “Yes, despite all that. You will be my witnesses, to the ends of the earth”

 

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God has placed his trust in us

Frances writes :-  There is often a tendency to wonder precisely why Jesus left us at the Ascension, why at the moment of his resurrected triumph over death he did not stay put. It is only when we really spend time with the implications, both of what his remaining would have meant, and what his departure implies, that we can begin to experience the enormity of his ascension gift to humanity.

This is an issue explored by our reading from Acts (1:1-11). It appears that the disciples, so like us, want to cling onto the risen Jesus and, despite all his talk to the contrary, are still thinking in earthly and very Jewish terms. “Lord, has the time come? Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Despite all his teaching on the nature of the kingdom of God they, like their fellow Jews who rejected Jesus’ teaching and understanding of the Father, are still stuck with him as a Roman basher; someone who would gather a huge army and come in power once and for all to throw any would be conquerors out of Israel. In their thinking, the reign of God on earth would still be a very worldly thing, about power and control, and making sure that Israel finally came out on top. The disciples, like us, cling to familiar concepts, and what they think they know, and they cast God in this image too.

This is precisely why the risen, glorified Jesus must leave them. It was time to move on – their time to move out into the great adventure which was to be Christianity. Had Jesus remained they and we would be incurably handicapped, forever overshadowed by the risen Lord, trapped in a world in which his power would have become absolute. There would be no need for any to search for God, for there he was, no need for us to think for we would be trapped; infantilized by his very presence. Instead, we notice that Jesus is looking forward to their baptism in the Holy Spirit, the coming of age of the disciples, and all that that will mean.

In Luke’s gospel (Lk 24:46-53) we get a rather clearer picture of all this, as Jesus instructs the disciples to remain in Jerusalem until they had been “Clothed with the power from on high.” Significantly, he reminds them of his death and resurrection, and their task, “That, in his name, repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Our, and I suspect the disciples’, problem was and is that few of us really take on board the gift of the Father to us. Sure, we have that wonderful promise of eternal life, of even sharing divinity with him in heaven, but in general, we fail to discern the real meaning of the ascension of Jesus.

The whole purpose of the incarnation, of the sending of God the Son in flesh and blood like ours, was to reveal to the world the true relationship between Father and Son and their intention for us. This is made clearer precisely by the ‘loss’ of the physically present Jesus. For in that we experience the full extent of the divine trust in us, in the human creatures God has made. Jesus’ mission is completed by his saving death and resurrection; the divine invitation to believers is that they trust us to make it known, shared and lived out in the world. Had Jesus remained, such a trust, any such call, would have been superfluous, void of meaning; humanity would have remained at best willing and obedient followers, at worst, puppets. But by his ascension, Christ gives this supreme honour to the disciples. That it is our task, our mission, our great act of willing and freely given collaboration with him, to make it known and available to the whole of humanity. God, it appears, is supremely optimistic about humanity. We may not be so, and from our perspective on the world, things can look pretty bleak, but we must remember that God has placed his trust in us, and knows that we will not fail.

The writer of The Letter to the Hebrews (Heb 9:24-28.10:19-23), written for what was obviously a predominantly Jewish convert audience, was at pains to take his readers beyond their commitment to God through Jewish temple worship. He may have deliberately seized the opportunity of the Roman destruction of the temple at the end of the great revolt in AD 70, when the void this created gave him an invitation to show how belief in Jesus could transcend the Jewish faith. He points out how the Jewish priests had to offer atonement sacrifices continually, because the sins of the people were constantly reoccurring, and shows how Jesus’ sacrificial death occurred only once and reconciled the entire creation to God for all time. In a spectacular piece of imagery he speaks of Jesus’ sacrificed body as the curtain of the temple, which has now been symbolically torn down, as God and humanity are now inexorably joined. Under the old and now defunct temple system, a huge embroidered curtain hid the people from the presence of God in the Holy of Holies. In the synoptic gospels this curtain is ripped apart at the death of Jesus; God and man are now no longer veiled, cut off from each other, but open, redeemed and accessible to each other. The writer of Hebrews picks this up, insisting that every Christian has the free access to God formerly only accorded the High Priests, that our access to God is open, and only limited by our own bad conscience. In principle, he says we are at home with God, familiar with him and he to us, that is the gift of the ascension.

 

Christ is all

Frances writes on the Ascension :- It  is about our time, the time of the Church, as we see the disciples adjusting to the post resurrection experience, and being pushed to develop their understanding of the meaning of the whole ‘Jesus event’. Our reading from Acts (1:1-11) points to just how necessary that was and still is, as we find the close followers of Jesus still stuck with the contemporary Jewish mind-set: “Lord, has the time come? Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”  It appears that they, like so many in Judaism, still thought in worldly terms, hoping that the resurrection would confer enormous military power on Jesus who would lead a huge army to wipe the Roman occupiers of Palestine off the map and secure Israel for the Jews. Jesus’ response told them of a quite different mission, one under the power of the Holy Spirit, one in which they would indeed have power – but of a very different kind – one in which they would “Be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem, but throughout Judaea and Samaria, and indeed to the ends of the earth”. They would conquer the world with the truth of the gospel, drawing millions of men and women to Christ, not with brute force, but with the message of hope and love and expectation of life with God, which is the Christian message. The Holy Spirit would give them the understanding to make them witnesses – in Greek martyrs – those who will stand for the truth; and gradually the disciples came to realise the meaning of this word in its fullness as many of them were persecuted for the faith, like Jesus.

Our reading from Ephesians (1:17-23) makes clear that this growth in understanding is a continual process, ongoing in the lives of believers. Paul prays: “May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give you the spirit of wisdom and perception of what is revealed, to bring you to full knowledge of him” ‘Wisdom, perception and full knowledge’ is what is both offered and received from the Spirit for the witnessing believer, so that he can fulfil his task for the Lord. St Paul was concerned to demonstrate that God’s power, working through Christ, was of a quite different kind and a different order. He goes on to demonstrate that God’s conquering power has been made visible in the resurrection of Christ from the dead, indicating by this the Lord’s power over the entire creation: “Every Sovereignty, Authority and Power, or Domination” ; something greater even than the apparently invincible Roman Empire under whose authority they all lived at the time. Whereas the disciples were often overawed by the power of Rome, Paul does a remarkable thing saying that God has made Christ the “Ruler of everything, the head of the Church; which is his body, the fullness of him who fills the whole creation.”  In Greek it seems to say even more, that “Christ is head over all things for the Church”, for you and me! It is a quite remarkable statement and one whose significance we can easily pass over:

Christ is the ruler of everything; he is the head of the Church;

the Church is his body; the Church, (you and me) are the fullness of (Christ) who fills the whole creation.

We are ‘the fullness of Christ’, so close as to be irrevocably united to him, as body to head, Christ and therefore we as his body ‘fill the whole creation!’

We Christians are his body, utterly one with the head and without this unity neither head nor body can operate!

What an extraordinary statement about the Church, about us believers? It is one which must have shocked the tiny struggling Christian community of Ephesus in the bustling imperial capital of Asia, with its powerful Greco-Roman settlement, with huge temples; its theatre and international markets; its vast army presence and its wealth. The Church, however insignificant it appeared to its members and to the world, is the body of which Christ the Lord of creation is the head. We and he are totally united; we share one being and identity, one member working in unison.

It’s worth while exploring just how the Church became that body, how it developed. It was not through any very dramatic actions on the part of some corporate group, but quite simply through the quiet work and commitment of the disciples. Paul, as we know worked as an itinerant leather worker, mending belts, shoes and tents in places where people were, and communicated the faith to his ‘captive’ audiences whilst they awaited their repairs. Others, like Peter and Mark, (whose Liturgy still survives in Egypt) most likely got to Rome via Alexandria and took ship on the great grain ships that went between the two. St Thomas went even further afield and reached India, again via the commercial ships which traded for spices in the Orient. We know from the amount of Roman coin discovered in India that this trade was flourishing; he may even have worked his passage as a sailor. Others stayed in Palestine, as we know from the literal martyrdoms (witness) of the two James’. What stands out is their witness to the Christian message under the power of the Spirit, which enabled them to understand more of what they were doing and gave them the faith and ability to testify to the truth and suffer for their convictions. In this way they truly fulfilled the gospel commission (Matthew 28:16-20) to go and make disciples of all the nations, to baptise them in the name of the Trinity and to teach them the faith. It is a task we share with the earliest disciples and has gone on throughout the history of the Church. It is not an option for the special few; it is a commission for us all, for the whole Church.

 

Adoption and Ascension?

I want to talk about adoption today! Most of us know someone who has adopted children or has been adopted, and for most adopted children it’s a good experience, so much better than the alternative they might have been faced with. Now you might wonder what adoption has got to do with our celebration of the Ascension! Well that’s what I hope to demonstrate, if you stay with me. You see adoption in the ancient world was even more significant than it is now. Indeed, a rich person, even the Roman Emperor himself, could adopt not only a child but also an adult, and once adopted that adult’s life would be changed for ever.  Nowadays we tend to go on about the importance of the link with the natural birth mother, but in the ancient world, what mattered was where you were going, not where you had come from.

And that’s the point you see. The Ascension is not just about where Jesus is going, but about where we are going too. You will hear it in a number of the prayers that the priest says at Mass today. I prayed “the Ascension of Christ.. is our exaltation” and I will pray that “we too may rise up to the heavenly realms.”  Now, as you know, that’s not a promise that we will suddenly float upwards when we die; it is an assertion that when we die we will be taken fully into the eternal and spiritual dimension that we call heaven, a dimension that we can only sense now, because we are principally physical. This is our promised destiny, because of what God has done in and through Jesus for the world.

But how does this work? How can what Jesus does actually affect us? How does his death on the cross actually change things for us, and (most relevant today) how does his Resurrection and Ascension draw us into heaven?  Now we might say “Well it just does, and that’s it.” But we are meant to ask questions about our faith, and to at least attempt to explain it to others, and this is where the idea of adoption comes in.

Now the idea isn’t mine. It comes from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans. He writes :- Those who are led by the Spirit of Godare the children of God. The Spirityou received does not make you slaves…… rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:14-16)

What St Paul is trying to demonstrate is the mysterious way in which we humans are drawn into union with God through Jesus. He says that he makes us members of his family.  Of course, as we are part of God’s creation we have a certain unity with God from our birth;  but unlike the rest of creation, the animals and birds and plants, who are one with God without any conscious effort, we have been given the ability to actually have a conscious unity with God. We are therefore aware that we are not just physical but also spiritual. We love, we hope, we imagine, we remember, and that is what, at our best, makes us decide what to do. We do not do things simply because of physical urges or instincts, but because we consciously think about things and make decisions. But that gift can also be a curse, because it means we can choose to do evil as well as good.

How then can we be rescued from ourselves, from what we might be without God, on a downward spiral into selfishness and greed? The answer is that we are given the chance of being brought back, not just into a unity with God but into something even higher, which we call “union with God”.  God chooses to enter into our humanity, as Jesus, and then, through the worst that humans can experience, suffering and death, and through the marvel of new life beyond death, makes us members of his family, makes us his adopted sons and daughters. Then, in that union with Jesus our brother, and in union with one another, we are made ready to be drawn from the death, that we must all experience, into eternal life with and in God. There, we are raised to our full potential. There all our mistakes and follies are driven away by God’s fatherly love.

In the end, that is what it means to be a Christian. Having faith does not mean believing in lots of things, it simply means accepting that God in and through Jesus has adopted us as his sons and daughters. As his children, as brothers and sisters of Jesus, we have full rights as his heirs to inherit what he has inherited, and because of this we must try to live up to what, through adoption, we have become.

Our potential with God

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- Why does St Luke have the scene of the Ascension of Our Lord into heaven? (Luke 24:46-53). St John ends his great gospel with the Lord and the disciples on the lake shore in Galilee; St Matthew with the story of the resurrection in Jerusalem; the lies of the bribed soldiers and the commissioning of the eleven in Galilee; whilst the short and probably more authentic ending of the Gospel of Mark has Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene. Only the secondary and later ending speaks briefly of the ascension. Just what is going on?

Well, as is ever the case, different gospels recount the story of Jesus      differently, and it speaks something of their authenticity that the Church records these different accounts; though all have some promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit. What is significant is the sense of ‘moving-on’, captured by all the writers. This is usually associated with the gift of the Holy Spirit, and I am sure this emphasises that the faithful are now in a different relationship with the Lord. After all, wouldn’t we all just be hopelessly stuck if Jesus were still with us in the flesh, continually performing miracles and directing operations? We would be deprived of our freedom to choose, to act and to work with, in and for His Kingdom; we would all be puppets.

St Luke demonstrates this ‘moving-on’ right at the start of his gospel, with his dedication to His Excellency, Theophilus, possibly a Roman governor and convert, and we see this again in Acts, (1:1-11). Luke shows how significant the absence of the physical Jesus was as the angels reinforce Jesus’ command that the disciples, “Be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem but throughout Judea and Samaria, and indeed to the ends of the earth.” That this tiny group of men and their helpers managed this amazing task and did indeed take the faith out under the guidance of the Holy Spirit speaks volumes both of God’s trust in his people and the faith which they had even in those very early days. We think of Christianity as a big world-wide organization, but at first it was infinitesimally small, and until the third century hardly featured statistically at all. Yet by the end of the first century Roman Provincial Governors like Pliny were already writing to their Emperors worried about the impact of these radical groups.

When we look at the Letter to the Hebrews, possibly the work of St Paul but more likely a little later, we begin to realise the challenge that Christianity was to Judaism. Now the Jews were a minority group scattered all over the Roman Empire, and they were respected and given special privileges by Rome because of their antiquity. In the early days Christianity was simply a sect within Judaism, but gradually emerged as distinct and different whilst owing much to their parent faith. Christianity claimed, as we see in Hebrews (9:24-28; 10:19-23), to supersede the Jewish Law and, not unlike the Letter to the Romans, to show in what way Christ has done for humanity that which the Law was never intended to achieve.  Hebrews is an attack on the Jewish temple sacrificial system. Jews believed that daily sacrifices had to be offered in the Temple to put sinners into the right relationship with God. Christians held that the life and death of Jesus -God with us – has wiped out that age old division between God and man for which Jewish practices were unable to offer any permanent solution.

Christianity’s claim is that uniquely in the sacrifice of Christ man is now united to God in an irrevocable bond and that “Through the blood of Jesus we have the right to enter the sanctuary, by a new way which he has opened for us, a living opening through the curtain, that is to say, his body.” Jews would rely on the power of the law to put them in a right relationship with God. For Christians, more, much more has now been achieved and guaranteed by the bodily life of God with us, and his death which wiped the slate clean. From now on, every believer is assured of his place with God through Jesus. For followers of Christ coming from Judaism this must have demanded a huge leap in understanding, just as for pagan converts it offered the previously unimaginable promise of divinity never before offered by the pagan gods. We too have to recognise what we are actually offered and called to in the life of Jesus, for there is a tendency for us all to underestimate both Jesus’ gift to us, and our own potential in Him.