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”