Brief synopsis of the readings: This happens from time to time, but we have a choice in today’s readings. Last week we celebrated the Sixth Sunday of Easter and next week we celebrate the Eighth Sunday of Easter and it makes sense that today we celebrate the Seventh Sunday of Easter. But on May 25th we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord. Jesus’ ascension into Heaven marks a crucial event in our salvation history and so today the Church gives us a choice: we can either celebrate the Seventh Sunday of Easter or the Ascension of our Lord. Priests throughout the world will make their choices, and so will I. Frankly, I chose the Ascension readings because I like them better. My blog, my rules. Our first reading begins the Acts of the Apostles. The writer of Acts shows himself as the author of Luke’s Gospel by addressing Theophilus (as he did in Luke’s Gospel) and referencing his first book. He described the apostles gathering and asking Jesus if he was restoring the kingdom of Israel. Jesus answered by telling them that they can’t know the answer of where or when but that the Holy Spirit will give them power “to the ends of the earth.” After saying this, he was lifted up and taken from their sight. Matthew’s Gospel gives us Jesus’ final message to his apostles. The eleven (the twelve minus Judas) followed Jesus’ instruction to travel to Galilee and saw Jesus. Jesus instructed all of them to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” He then promised to be with them until the end of the age.
Scripture gives us few clues on the authors of the books we read. For centuries we believed that the first five books of the Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) were written exclusively by Moses. A few hundred years ago biblical scholars began to recognize that these books had at least three different authors whose names we don’t know. We also know that the book of Isaiah was written by at least two, and possibly three, people.
But the words that begin our first reading tells us something that many Christians still don’t know: The same person wrote both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. Luke’s Gospel begins with these words: “Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received.”
The Acts of the Apostles begins with these words: “In the first book, Theophilus, I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught until the day he was taken up, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He presented himself alive to them by many proofs after he had suffered, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” When I was in seminary the course “Luke/Acts” was taught as a recognition that these books were volumes 1 and 2 of the same work.
And so what do they teach us? Those forty days before our first reading must have appeared to have been a dream to the apostles. I’ve spoken at length about this, but I can’t imagine the roller coaster that the apostles rode in the days over (and after) Easter weekend. On seeing Jesus alive after a horrible death, it’s safe to think that they never expected their best days were ahead of them. But the sight of Jesus changed all that: Now back from the dead, Jesus could at last defeat the Romans and bring back their best days. And while Jesus’ appearances to them appeared mysterious (he came and went through locked doors and didn’t stay long) It’s not hard to imagine their hope that Jesus would stay around for a long time.
Except that he didn’t. His apostles asked him if he was going “to restore the kingdom of Israel.” Jesus responded that it “is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority.” Jesus continued by telling them that they would “receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witness in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
And then he left. He didn’t walk away, he didn’t call Uber, he didn’t just disappear. Instead he was lifted up by a cloud. I think we can find great meaning in this. From our beginning of time we’ve looked up to the sky to find our place in the universe.
Our history as humans does not go back far enough to know when we began to track the constellations in the night sky. But we do know that as long as we’ve been able to look up and chart patterns we’ve believed that what happens up there affects us down here. In the Middle Ages we referred to the sky as “the heavens.”
And so when Jesus was “lifted up,” we believed (and believe today) that he went to a place where we will all end up. Just as Jesus led his disciples while he was with us, he pointed the way we will all go. Even today we acquaint “the heavens” with Heaven. Several years ago I visited the widow of one of my patients who was grieving his loss. She told me that the evening before she was sitting on a bench in the backyard crying and her 5 year old granddaughter came out and joined her. Her granddaughter sat down, looked up at the sky, and said: “Hello Grandpa.” The faith of a 5 year old went a long way toward healing her grandmother.
I say this because the apostles almost certainly viewed the Ascension with some trepidation. Those 40 days informed the apostles that not only had Jesus defeated death, but that he also forgave them for abandoning him in his darkest hour. Jesus’ power must have appeared (and in fact it was) limitless. And now, instead of following the resurrected Jesus into a salvific future, they were told that they were to become the standard bearers.
Birdwatchers often talk about how chicks are born into a nest and fed by their parents. At a point of the parents’ (or nature’s) choosing, they are fledged. In other words, they are kicked out of the nest to fly out on their own. There is much we don’t know about this process, but we’re pretty certain it doesn’t happen when the chicks decide they’re ready. It happens when the parents or nature know they’re ready. Their initial panic becomes confidence only when they recognize they can fly and be out on their own. It only happens when they recognize the confidence placed in them was accurate.
I think that happens with us all the time. We’ve all experienced times when someone who knows us and loves us entrusts us with a role, job, or relationship that we can’t imagine we can do. This sounds silly in retrospect, but when I was 17 I was asked to serve on the liturgy committee of my church. OK, a liturgy committee is a pretty small committee (even in a Catholic church) but it meant that I was serving on a committee where nearly everyone was the age of my parents. Even now, 40 years later, I can’t fully explain how intimidated I felt sitting in a room with people in their 30s and 40s and be expected to contribute. But I did. And I did because the priest who invited me saw something in me that I didn’t recognize.
And while most of us may laugh at this, think about the most important events of your life: did you feel you could be an adequate spouse? More important, did you feel you could be an adequate parent? Or did you instead hope and pray you would be given what you needed to fulfill that role?
Jesus ascended because he knew that, with his backing, we could do what needed to do. The end of Matthew’s Gospel gives us this command: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
Today over 2 billion people read these readings and follow them. No continent excludes us. From the event of our first reading, witnessed by dozens, we have grown to what we are today. And every disciple, whether from birth or from conversion, has come to us by someone who had faith that Jesus mean what he said before he ascended.