The stewardship of the truth has always been the special care of the Church. Error and lies can destroy us, and so we must constantly be vigilant that we are protecting the truth as Jesus gave it to us, as it has been revealed by God through Scripture and Tradition. In our first reading, Paul pounds that message home, pleading with the Ephesians and recalling the tears with which he taught them. In the Gospel, Jesus too, praying for the fledgling Church, asks the Father to “consecrate them in the truth.” We are told that the truth will set us free; the converse then is that it is error and lies that enslave us. We then, must be custodians of the truth too, so that the Church can continue to preach the word in freedom.
In these days after the Ascension, the Liturgy calls us to turn and find our hope in God. Even though he is unseen, he is still very much with us. He may be in the heaven of our hopes, but he also walks among us. We are sustained by the hope that we will join him one day in the place he is preparing for us. The world may very well scatter us and give us trouble; Jesus said as much. But we can take courage in the fact that Jesus has overcome the world and has not abandoned us.
For the early Apostles and disciples, today’s feast had to be a kind of “now what?” experience for them. Think about what they’ve been through. Their Lord had been betrayed by one of their friends, he had been through a farce of a trial and put to death in a horrible, ignoble way, they had been hiding in fear thinking they might be next, they had questioned what they were supposed to do without their Lord, and then they witness the Resurrection: Christ walks among them for a time, appearing to them and making himself known. They had seen redemption of a way of life they almost had abandoned, and now, on this feast of the Ascension, their Lord is leaving them again. In our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, you can almost feel the amazement and desperation they are experiencing as they stare up into the heavens, incredulous that their Lord is gone, again.
So once again, God sends two messengers, two men in white garments, to set them straight. God had sent two men in dazzling garments to the women at the tomb on the day of the Resurrection as well. That time, the men reassured the women that the Lord had not been moved or stolen, but had risen from the dead. This time, the men appear to the Apostles, assuring them that the Lord would return in the same way as he had just departed from their sight. Both times, it was the same kind of messengers, with the same kind of hopeful message. Go forward, don’t worry, God is in control.
One of the great themes of Catholic theology is the “already, and not yet.” Basically, that means that we disciples of Christ already have a share in the life of God and the promise of heaven, but we are not yet there. So we who believe in Jesus and live our faith every day have the hope of heaven before us, even if we are not home yet. And this hope isn’t just some “iffy” kind of thing: it’s not “I hope I’ll go to heaven one day.” No, it’s the promise that because of the salvation we have in Christ, we who are faithful will one day live and reign with him. This gives us hope in the midst of the sorrows that we experience in this world.
Another great theme of Catholic theology is that our God is transcendent, but also immanent. Transcendent means that our God is higher than the heavens, more lofty than our thoughts and dreams, beyond anything we can imagine. Whatever we say about God, like “God is love” or “God is good” – those things only begin to scratch the surface of who God is, because God is transcendent beyond anything our limited words can describe. But our God is also immanent. God is not some far off entity that has brought the world into existence and set the events of our lives in motion and then drops back to observe things from afar. No, our God is one who walks among us and knows our sorrow and our pain and celebrates our joy. Saint Augustine said that God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves. Our God may indeed be mysterious and beyond us, but he is also the one we can reach out and touch. If that weren’t so, the Eucharist would be pretty meaningless.
As you can see, Catholic theology is generally speaking not exclusive. We are not either already sharing in the promise or not yet sharing in it, but we are “already and not yet.” Our God is not either transcendent or immanent, but both transcendent and immanent. These two great theological themes come to a kind of crossroads here on this feast of the Ascension.
Today, as Christ ascends into heaven, our share in the life of God and the promise of heaven is sealed. We have hope of eternal life because our Lord has gone before us to prepare a place for us. If he had not gone, we could never have shared in this life. So, although Jesus has left the apostles yet again, they can rejoice because they know that the promise is coming to fulfillment. We do not possess it yet, because we are not home yet, but we share in it already, because Christ is our promise.
Today, as Christ ascends into heaven, he once again, with the Father, is transcendent, because we, along with the Apostles, can no longer see him. But he remains immanent by his promise to be with us always. Again, I will quote St. Augustine who said of Christ that “He did not leave heaven when he came down to us; nor did he withdraw from us when he went up again into heaven. The fact that he was in heaven even while he was on earth is borne out by his own statement: No one has ever ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man, who is in heaven.” St. Augustine teaches that the notion of time is that everything is present to God all at once. This explains how our celebration of the Eucharist in a few minutes brings us to Calvary at the moment when Jesus gave his life for us. And it explains how Jesus can ascend into heaven and yet remain among us. Time is a limitation for us humans, but not for God who created time in the first place.
All of this theology can be heady stuff, but what it boils down to is this: because Jesus died, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven, we now have the hope of heaven and of sharing in the very life of God. Even though we do not possess heaven yet, we know that it belongs to all who have faith in Christ and live that faith every day. And even though we do not see Jesus walking among us, he is still absolutely present among us and promises to be with us forever. The preface to the Eucharistic prayer which I will sing in a few minutes makes this very clear; it says:
Christ, the mediator between God and humanity,
judge of the world and Lord of all,
has passed beyond our sight,
not to abandon us but to be our hope.
Christ is the beginning, the head of the Church;
where he has gone, we hope to follow.
Jesus, having explained the Scriptures to his Apostles yet again, tells them “You are witnesses of these things.” And so they don’t have the luxury of just standing there, staring up into the sky for hours, dejected and crushed because the One who had been their hope had disappeared. No, as the Gospel tells us today, they “returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple praising God.” They are witnesses, “clothed with power from on high,” and they must be filled with the hope and joy of the resurrection and ascension of the Lord.
We disciples are witnesses of these things too. We must witness to a world filled with violence and oppression and sadness that our God promises life without end for all those who believe in him. And we have that hope already, even though not yet. We must witness to a world languishing in the vapidity of relativism and individualism and New Age Oprah and Dr. Phil philosophy that it is Jesus Christ, the Lord of All, who is one with us in heaven, and present among us on earth, who fulfills our hopes and longings and will never leave us. We must be witnesses to all these things, living with great joy, continually praising God because, as our opening prayer said so eloquently, Christ’s “ascension is our glory and our hope.” We too might hear those men in dazzling white garments speak God’s words of hope to us: go forward, don’t worry, God is in control.
Today we’re gathered on what is, for us, the eve of the Ascension. While the reading that we have in today’s Gospel is from John’s account of the eve of the Passion, the words could well have been spoken to the Apostles on the eve of the Ascension too. Jesus speaks of leaving the world and going back to the Father, this time until he returns in glory. The Twelve had to be broken hearted all over again. They had lost their friend and Lord briefly to death, but had been encouraged by him as he appeared to them after the Ascension, and now he is preparing to leave again.
But the truth of it is that nothing will happen with the fledgling Church until he does leave. Only then will the Father send the Holy Spirit to be with the Church until the end of time, giving the early disciples and us later disciples the grace and strength to go forward and proclaim the kingdom and call the world to repentance and grace. If God’s purpose is to be advanced on this earth, then Jesus has to return to the Father. If the Spirit does not descend, the Church would not be born. If the Church were not born, the Gospel would be but an obscure footnote in the history of the world.
The Good News for us is that the Holy Spirit continues to work among us today, as often as we call on him. “Ask and you will receive,” Jesus says, and so we ask and receive the indwelling of the Holy Spirit for the glory and praise of God. We disciples, we friends of Jesus, can count on his blessing, the rich gift of the Holy Spirit, the great witness of the Church. Our lives are enriched by our faith and our discipleship. What we do here on earth, what we suffer in our lives, what we celebrate — all this will bear fruit for the glory of God.
We don’t really know much about St. Matthias. We have no idea what kind of holiness of life he led that led to his being nominated as one of two possibilities to take Judas’s position among the Twelve Apostles.
What is striking about the selection of St. Matthias though is that this is the first of the Apostles that was not selected by Jesus. Jesus selected all of the original Twelve, but Matthias is the first to be selected by the fledgling Church on the authority passed on by Jesus himself. They act not on their own, but on the authority of Jesus, being led by the Holy Spirit for the glory of God the Father.
That same process has been repeated through the ages, over and over again, to select men to be bishops, priests and deacons, and men and women for religious communities. It is the forerunner of the process of discernment that the Church uses in so many situations.
Today we praise God for the Twelve Apostles, of which Matthias was one. We praise God for the authority of the Apostles which has echoed through the ages giving guidance to the Church. We praise God for the gift of the Holy Spirit who is active in all our decision-making
Today’s first reading finds Saint Paul proclaiming Christ to the Greeks at the Areopagus. These people were Gentiles, of course, even pagans. But, as Paul noted, they had an altar to “an unknown God,” and so he finds them very religious. And so he connects Christ to that unknown God, making him known to them, and is able to convert a few there. At the heart of this event is the truth that God known, in some way, by most people, even if they don’t know it. Some have said there is a God-shaped hole in our lives, and we can only ultimately fill it with his presence in our lives. This gives us the mandate to witness to Christ, helping to make him known to all those who don’t know how much they need him. We know that in Christ, we “live and move and have our being.” We have to make sure everyone else knows that, too.
Today, Jesus has for us good news and bad news. The good news is that he is eventually going to send the Holy Spirit upon the world. The Holy Spirit will be a new Advocate for us, and will testify to everything that Jesus said and did. The Spirit’s testimony will be further evidence of God’s abiding love for us, a love that did not come to an end at the cross or the tomb, but instead triumphed over everything to make known his salvation to the ends of the earth. The testimony of the Holy Spirit, combined with the testimony of the Apostles, would be the birth pangs of the emerging Church, given by Christ to make the Gospel known in every land and every age.
But the bad news is, that glory won’t come without a price. Those Apostles would be expelled from the synagogues and misguided worshippers would think they were doing God’s will by killing them. Jesus knew this would be the lot of his baby disciples and he cares for them enough to warn them of what is to come. It is an important aspect of their discernment to know what is to come. Also, by warning them, he is preparing them for what is to come so that when it does happen, they may not be flustered or frightened, but might instead hold deeply to their faith, knowing that God’s providence had foreseen these calamities and they might know that in God’s providence, these calamities would not be the end of the story.
We are beneficiaries of the good news and bad news of today’s Gospel. We have heard the testimony of the Spirit and the Apostles, have been nourished by the Church they founded, have been encouraged by all that they suffered to bring the Good News to us. It is important that we too know that there is good news and bad news in the future of our discipleship. The Spirit continues to testify and the Apostles continue to teach us – that’s the good news. The bad news is, sometimes our faith will be tested. But in the end, it’s all Good News: even our suffering will not be the end of the story. God’s love triumphs over everything. That’s our Easter faith.
Today’s scriptures speak to us about the essence of what it means to live a Christian life. First, as we can see in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, it means making a clean break with the ways that we have been tethered to the world. For the newest members of the Church in that day, the rules and traditions had finally been settled. Some of the Pharisaic members of the Church insisted the new members ought to be circumcised and comply with the many minutiae of the Jewish law. But the Apostles remained firm that faith in Jesus was superior to the minutiae, and insisted only that the new Church members free themselves from any participation in idolatry and to keep their marriage covenants pure. This freed them from the idolatrous tethers to the world, and would give them freedom in the Spirit.
The second essence of living a Christian life comes to us in today’s Gospel reading, and that of course is to love. But Jesus isn’t asking for just any kind of love: nothing superficial, not mere infatuation, and certainly not lust. Jesus insists that his disciples love one another in the exactly same way that he loves them. And he showed them, and us, what he meant by that when he suffered and died on the cross. The disciple is expected to love sacrificially, unconditionally, just as Jesus has loved him, or her.
So perhaps these readings can be for us a kind of examination of conscience. In this Easter season, we need to be moving closer and closer in relationship with our Lord. So we have to look closely at our lives for any ties to the world, and root them out, once and for all. We have to look at our relationships, and see if the love that we show our brothers and sisters is sacrificial and unconditional, the same kind of love that we have received abundantly from our God. We are reminded that we did not choose Christ, he chose us, and gave us gifts we never deserved. Our thanksgiving for that great grace must be total devotion to him.
This week we have been hearing in our first readings from the Acts of the Apostles, about the controversy concerning the Gentiles. As the Church grew and grew, many people from all walks of life began to turn to the Lord. That’s the kind of thing we want to have happen. But as the Church grew, it became time to clarify which traditions were just traditions and which really pertained to the faith. How much of the Judaic faith was really necessary for salvation in Christ?
Many of the traditions had to go. Jesus himself chastised the Pharisees and Scribes often enough for the parts of the law that they rigorously defended when they should long ago have been dismissed as scrupulous and irrelevant. But not everything would have to go. Certainly there were tenets of Judaic faith that should and do apply to Christians too. We retain a lot of Judaic faith in our own practice of religion even to this day: the Old Testament, the Ten Commandments, even the berekah prayer form is part of our Liturgy right now. So the task for the Church was to untangle what needed to stay, and what had to go.
The blueprint for them is as it is for us: the Gospel. What traditions pertained to the great love that Christ brought us and called us to live for God and neighbor? Those we should keep. What traditions merely amounted to undue burden on our brothers and sisters and became irrelevant in the light of the Gospel? Those would have to go.
We’ll see in the coming days that the Church figured this out. We know they did, or we would probably not be around today. But we still have to figure it out sometimes, I think. As we call Catholics to come home, we have to figure out how to welcome them back. Maybe they have been put off long ago by irrelevant rules that amounted to undue burden. We have to teach them what parts of our faith are Gospel values and put aside those things that are not.
Controversies like the one with which the early Church wrestled teach us things. We are forced to examine our faith and keep it lively and fresh, instead of letting it grow dim and lifeless. Keeping our eye on the Gospel will help us to welcome people home, to the Church and to the family of God.
So the goal is for each of us disciples to bear much fruit. That’s how the kingdom of God is built here in our time and place. Jesus says that the way we get there is by remaining part of the vine, which is Jesus himself, and by being pruned. Now I’ve seen a lot of pruning and have pruned more than a few bushes in my day. You have to imagine that pruning is a rather painful process for the shrub or the tree. That’s true of us too, I think. When we prune away the parts of us that don’t bear fruit, it will hurt a bit. We may have to turn away from relationships that we feel the need to continue but don’t do us any good. We may need to change the way we eat or sleep or think or live, and that’s not going to be easy. But the reward is totally worth it. Getting rid of that fruitless growth gives us energy to be used for bearing fruit for the kingdom. That is what gives glory to God, as Jesus tells us, and that is the point of all our lives.