04 May 2008

Just standing here looking at the sky

The Ascension of the Lord: Acts 1.1-11; Eph 1.17-23; Matthew 28.16-20
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Paul
and Church of the Incarnation

Why are you standing there looking at the sky?

The Eleven go to Galilee. On the mountain there they meet Jesus—again—and he gives them their final orders. Having lost him in the garden, having betrayed him by fleeing in fear, the disciples find themselves again and again in the company of Jesus. After his resurrection, our Lord stays with his students, instructing them, comforting them, promising them his constant company. And yet, they doubt. They obey, but they doubt. They worship, but they doubt. Jesus lays out for them their mission as apostles, their duties as men who will receive from him his Holy Spirit. And he gives them these final instructions just before he departs to sit at the Father’s right hand in heaven. Fully God and fully man, Jesus rises to the Father, body and soul, and leaves his friends to do what he has ordered. Even as they stand there, hearing his words, watching him with worshipful hearts, they doubt. Nothing he has done has moved them to fully believe, to accept, completely, with whole hearts who and what he is. They worship, but they doubt. And so, they stand there looking at the sky.

On this side of Pentecost’s history, we know that that doubt is burned away by the fire of the Holy Spirit. We know that whatever hesitations, whatever reservations they might have had about Christ and his mission are set on fire and turned to ash with the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. But we are on this side of history, looking back. We read in Acts, Jesus says to the disciples, “…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” We read in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, “…[God] put all things beneath [Christ’s] feet and gave him as head over all things to the Church, which is his body, the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.” This is not the witness of timid men, men who doubt yet worship. These are men who worship in spirit and in truth! We can easily understand how such faith and passion is possible, looking back as we do, standing here after the coming of the Holy Spirit. But then, way back then, as they stand on that mountain in Galilee, looking at the sky, they doubt.

And how does Jesus treat their doubt? How does he answer their vacillation, their dithering? Before this moment he indulges their need for evidence, presenting his glorified body for their inspection. Before this moment he chastises them, “Do you still not believe!?” Before this moment he teaches them again where to find him in the prophecies of scripture. And they still doubt. Do we find this doubt so difficult to understand? Probably not. How often do we find ourselves in the throes of questioning our faith, struggling with answers to questions we barely understand? How often, when evil seems to defeat us, do we question God’s promises? Question His love for us? More often than we would like admit? And yet, we worship. We pray. We come to praise His name and Him thanks. We do what they did and will likely do so again. How does Jesus handle this all-too-human distrust, our misgivings about his witness? He gives them, his Church, he gives us, his Church a monumental job to do.

It makes no sense at all for you to give a job to someone you do not trust, a job, which left undone, undoes everything you hold dear. And it makes no sense for you to be given a job, which left undone, leaves you and the one who has given you the job wholly defeated. We entrust important jobs to those we know will do what needs to be done. We are given jobs because we are trusted. And yet, there Jesus stands, on the mountain in Galilee, in front of his doubting disciples, saying to them, “Go…and make disciples of the nations, baptizing them…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Why does he trust them? Why, knowing their hearts to be brimming over with fear and hesitation, why does he give them this monumental task? Because he knows that the work he is giving them to do is his work and that because he is ascending to the Father, he will send them the Holy Spirit, thus fulfilling his final promise to them: “And, behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”

The ascension of our Lord is the fulfillment of his promise to be with us always. By leaving us, he remains with us. By going to the Father, he sends his Spirit, who abides, even now, always, forever with us. This solemnity is not about celebrating another miracle or recalling another sign of his heavenly power. Do we really need such a thing? This solemnity is about teaching us again that Christ’s work is our work and the job we have to do, we do not do alone. Even together, as the body the Church, we cannot witness, cannot teach, cannot preach, cannot do justice, cannot pray without his company. Without his company, we are nothing. And Nothing cannot do what needs to be done. With him, we are Christ, baptizing, teaching, observing his commandments. With him, we are his heirs among the holy ones; we are the very revelation of the Father to the world; we are this world’s hope, this world’s sacrament, this world’s salvation. Without him, we are nothing. With all of our doubts on full display—our faults, our failures, our sad little sins—we are everything with him. And everything we are is Christ.

I am firmly convinced that the Devil’s greatest power is his ability to convince us that we cannot preach or teach or do God’s work in this world because we are not yet good enough to do so. When he shows us our sins and points out our failures, we humbly confess that we are not worthy and flee into the desert of a crippling doubt. Though ultimately temporary, he triumph over the Church is complete when we accept the lie that we must be perfect in order to witness. The Devil shames us into bending our necks to stare humbly at our bellybuttons and we let the world pass by untaught, unevangelized, unloved. We say, what good am I as a witness when I remain so vulnerable to sin? What good am I as a sign of God’s love when I cannot love as He does? I have done nothing to be worthy of this task. I am nothing in my sin and Nothing cannot do what needs to be done. But Nothing can stand there looking at the sky!

Are we sinful? Yes. Are we unworthy to do Christ’s work? Yes. Will we fail? Yes. On these counts the Devil is absolutely correct! We can’t baptize. We can’t teach or preach? We can’t show the world God’s by doing good works. The Church is powerless, faithless, utterly without hope or love. To believe anything else is prideful! But to believe that we are forgiven in Christ, made worthy by Christ, successful with Christ; to believe that we work for the Good because of Christ, to accept, believe, and exercise these truths is humility itself. To see and love the Church as powerful with Christ, faithful with Christ, hopeful with Christ is to see a bald-faced reality so clear, so distinct that all doubt is burned away, all fear is swept away, all hesitation, all of our dithering is killed, dead, and buried.

So, standing there on the mountain in Galilee with his anxious disciples, our Lord charges his friends to complete his work despite their doubts; he gives them the greatest commission found in scripture in order to spite their false pride. Who says you will do these things without me? Who is telling you that I am relying on your good will and human strength? I am with you always. You will not do my work without me. And so, immediately after Jesus is taken up, two men in white appear and ask the dumbfounded disciples, “Men of Galilee, ummmm, why are you standing there looking at the sky?” What are you waiting for?

That’s an excellent question for the Church! What are we waiting for? We have our mission statement—“Go, baptize, teach, observe God’s commandments.” We have the leadership. We have the personnel. We have the training. All the resources we need are at hand—scripture, tradition, magisterium, sacraments, the communion of saints in heaven, one another. We have Christ. So, why are we standing here looking at the sky? If you are paralyzed in your faith, unable to move, grow, to do what needs doing for the gospel, remember Jesus’ promise to his friends, to us: “…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses…I am with you always, until the end of the age.”

I am with you always.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous8:57 AM

    Hi Father Philip:

    Excellent homily. Thank you for your blog. I drop by often. "Doubt" was certainly the theme in this gospel. You worked it beautifully into the gift of the Holy Spirit. I couldn't help but recognize the salesmanship here. Jesus ignored the doubt, knowing that once the disciples got into action thay would recognize the benefits, like a good car salesman soothes the doubtful prospect by suggesting "just drive it".

    God Bless,

    Ted McDonald
    Saint Louis