Ascension Sunday
12 MAY 2002
Scriptual Reference: Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47:2-3,6-9; Ephesians 1:17-23; Matthew 28:16-20

Focusing in the Right Direction

       Today on Mother's Day, I am reminded of my deceased Memaw and how we could never get her to wake up if she was taking a nap. The children of the famous composer Johan Sebastian Bach were no different. Their father could sleep through just about anything. But, Bach of course had a very sensitive ear when it came to music. His children learned that if they would sing or hum a few lines of music such as this (hums "shave and haircut") that their sleeping father would be stirred out of a dead sleep. Bach couldn't stand for any musical piece to go unfinished. So, he would rise and rush to the piano where he would pound out the resolution (hums "TWO BITS!") He would strike out the final chords to complete the musical phrase begun by his children.

       The first reading today is the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles. Acts was written by the same author as Luke's gospel. In fact, the two were meant to go together. Luke's gospel is Volume One and the Acts of the Apostles is Volume Two. Luke, like Bach, couldn't stand for any story to go unfinished. Luke begins by offering a review of what happened in his gospel by writing, "In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up into heaven." After giving a summary of his first work, he launches into the theme of the second work. Luke couldn't just end his story telling with the ascension of Jesus into heaven; indeed, that's only the beginning of the story. What happens to the Christian community after Christ's death, resurrection and then his ascension is where the story of Christianity really takes off. The purpose of writing the Acts of the Apostles is to tell us how the early Christian community handled their conflicts and issues. It is meant to inspire us to possess in ourselves the same zeal as those first Christians. Luke writes the Acts of the Apostles because like most good storytellers, Luke can't stand for any story to go unfinished.

       Sometimes I see bumper stickers that say, "WARNING: In case of rapture, this vehicle will be unmanned." You might have seen it as well. Maybe you are a little mystified as to its meaning. The rapture refers to a theological idea made extremely popular by the "Left Behind" book series. Proponents of the Rapture interpret the scriptures in a particular way. They claim that Jesus is not coming back again once, but rather twice. One of these times, he will come secretly to snatch away the true believers. Others who are not found to be worthy will be left on earth to fight the anti-Christ as described in the book of Revelation. The authors of "Left behind" envision it happening this way: the righteous are zapped right out of their clothes. Unmanned cars with no drivers smash into other cars. Planes who lose their pilots to the rapture crash.

       However, for us Catholics, the rapture makes for good fiction, but has no bearing on our faith beliefs. In the gospels, and in the account from Acts today, the apostles are always asking Jesus just how he is going to bring about the end of the world and restore Israel to a place of prominence. "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the dominion to Israel?" they ask. They want to know how it works, and what will happen. But Jesus makes it clear, "It is not for you to know the times or the periods that the Father has set by divine authority. But, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses..." We know that Jesus will come again, only once. There will be no rapture and no 'leaving behind' as described in the fictional books. As we seen in Revelation, and in the Acts of the Apostles, and in all of the New Testament, the symbolic language of apocalyptic literature alongside the pragmatic words of Jesus help us to understand that God is in charge of the end of times, and that in the end he will win. What's important to us here and now is the promise to Jesus: the promise he makes to send us Spirit in order that we might be his witnesses.

       Last weekend, I ran in the mini marathon. After the race, I was walking along, and I overheard a story that a runner was telling in an animated way. She had been running along in the race, and was concentrating very hard in the last few miles that she had yet to complete. She was staring down at her feet and focusing on the finish line that was still a few miles ahead. Suddenly, she was jerked to the side by another runner. At first she was mad, and she glared at the offender. The other runner just pointed to the lamp post that had been right in the woman's path. Had this runner not pulled her to the side, she would have run smack dab into the pole, something that would not have been pleasant. This woman thanked her fellow runner, and realized that she needed to look straight ahead in order to see where she was going.

       The Acts of the Apostles describes how Jesus was lifted up and how a cloud took him out of the sight of the apostles. Then, there were suddenly two men in white robes, angelic messengers no doubt, who pose a challenging question. "You Galileans, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven." The apostles were gaping up at the sky, instead of looking straight ahead. The heavenly messengers are basically saying, "Hey guys, get to work! Stop standing around and wasting time."

       You know, in our lives, many times we are looking in the wrong direction. We put our heads in the sand, or we day dream loftily about what our lives might be like, "if only...I had more money, or was better looking, or had a more amiable spouse." Many times, it is easier to look anywhere else than inside our own hearts and into our own lives. We need to realize that Jesus Christ has given the Holy Spirit to each one of us, and we are called to be his witnesses! The story of salvation did not end when Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. Luke makes it clear that these actions of Jesus are only the beginning of the story. The acts of Jesus' witnesses constitute the rest. That's all of us! Rather than speculating on what the end of world will be like, or fantasizing about a fictional rapture, we need to act here and now in our world. We need to see what we see, and then witness to the love of Jesus.

       This morning, one member of the Men's Spirituality group was reflecting on a situation that is common to many of us. He asked a co-worker, "How are you?" expecting the regular reply of "Just fine." Rather, the co-worker began telling this man everything that was wrong with his life. He stood there thinking, "why me?" wishing more than anything that he could just roll his eyes and tell the co-worker to go away. But, he realized that at that moment, he was called to be a witness of Jesus Christ. And after it was all over, he said, "Thanks for sharing that. I'll be sure to pray for you today." Who knows just how his co-worker responded to that message, but one thing is for sure: this man had his eyes fixed firmly in the right place. Rather than wishing he was somewhere else, he was attentive to what he saw. God calls each of us to do the same, to look straight ahead, with courage. And someday, we will see Jesus coming down from heaven, in the same way that today he was taken up. +

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