Friday, May 22, 2009

Feast of the Ascension of the Lord- Cycle B

Acts 1:1-11
Eph 4:1-7, 11-13
Mark 16:15-20

I recently watched an episode of a program entitled “Life After People.”

It is a documentary that explores what would happen to the world if human beings suddenly vanished from the face of the earth. During the program, a timeline progresses and the absence of human intervention in the world has both subtle and blatant consequences: within a few hours, most of the world returns to a state of darkness as multiple power plants fail due to lack of maintenance. After a few days, animals both domesticated and wild begin to venture into new habitats and develop new modes of survival. Within just a few short centuries, the New York skyline (and skyscrapers around the world) will collapse and be reduced to piles of rubble, Washington DC will be entirely under water, and Miami Beach will resemble a jungle. After watching the series, I have discerned two ubiquitous themes: 1) the great accomplishments of mankind require constant human presence in order to exist, and 2) powerful natural forces are always at work undermining that creation.

On this Feast of the Ascension of the Lord, we as a Church contemplate “Life After Jesus.” We have an opportunity today to reflect upon the impact that Christ has on the world by meditating on His departure. Just as I did while watching the History Channel documentary, I have come to identify two universal themes: 1) God’s love cannot be contained, and is intended to embrace all of creation and 2) the Church is expected to play an active role in that task. What that role is, and how we are to go about accomplishing it, is at the center of today’s readings.

They provide us with bookends of sorts. We start with the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, and we conclude with the ending of the Gospel according to Mark. However, the message is the same - Christ commands us to continue his work here on earth. His disciples ask, “are you at this time going to restore the Kingdom?” His reply plops the responsibility right in their laps: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses … to the ends of the Earth.” Mark tells us that he instructs his followers to “proclaim the gospel to every creature.”

Sandwiched in between these texts, Saint Paul provides some important insight into how we are to go about this work. “to live in a manner worthy of the calling” with “humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love.” This calling is through “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.”

And there’s the rub. Baptism. Not ordination, not consecration, not installation. Baptism. The word appears in all three readings today. Sure, God provides ministers to the Church – their names are on the cover of the bulletin. They have letters after their names and diplomas on the wall. But Paul tells us today, that they play a supporting role. “to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”

We - the entire community of believers - are the Body of Christ still present in the world called to maintain His creation and continue the work he started. Today’s celebration – a rite performed under the direction of the Church “in the absence of a priest” is proof that the work of the People of God is not the exclusive domain of the ordained or even professional lay ministers.

If our faith is to be authentic, our worship life – what we do here – must reflect our daily life – what we do out there. If we truly believe the words of Saints Mark, Luke and Paul, today, we must live them once we leave this building – in large ways and in small.

So what does that look like? How does one go about “proclaiming the gospel to every creature” “to the ends of the earth?” Many have interpreted that as requiring the rental of billboard space, or even the wearing out of shoes going door to door. I prefer to look at it in a slightly different way. A good friend of mine who is a liturgical musician and speaker, challenges us to answer the question, “What is the ‘world’ to which I have been called to proclaim the gospel?” Perhaps it is a classroom where you attend school. Or maybe it is an office building. Or perhaps the grocery store and pick-up line at preschool. We often find ourselves describing our relationships with loved ones using words such as “He/she/they mean(s) the world to me. In the light of today’s scripture, that expression takes on an entirely different significance.

In your daily life, where are the “ends of the earth” where God may be challenging you to reach out and be His presence? How are we challenged to spread the Good News that God made us to love him and to be loved by him? Quite often, we know what the answer is, we know what we are supposed to do, but have a tough time taking that first step. We must emerge from our comfort zone and act in a loving way towards someone with whom that response does not come naturally. It could be a perfect stranger, or maybe someone who has acted in a hurtful manner towards us.

In today’s scripture, the phrase “ends of the earth” was intended to be symbolic of Rome. The distance envisioned was vast. When we enter into relationship – or reconcile with someone else, we embark on a journey. Step by step we come closer together. Spreading the Gospel is not about talking at another person. It isn’t even about engaging in a lively debate. It is about entering into friendship. Spreading the gospel in this manner shows the other person what it means to have a God who loves us.

Proclaiming the Word of God is risky – and always has been. The bible is a collection of stories about people who have spoken in the Name of God. They do not get tickertape parades.

It is inevitable that as we depart from this space, we will be confronted with opportunities to take a risk and be the living presence of God in the life of another person. Equally inevitable is the apprehension we will feel, since this typically requires us to move out of our comfort zone. But that is exactly what we are called to do; we must move through the facade of fear into the Kingdom of Courage. In college, my campus minister, the late Msgr. Charles Kelly once observed that “courage is the virtue of living beyond our comfort. It is the reaction to fear of those who choose to believe that nothing can separate them (if they live the Truth in love) ultimately from life. There is nothing “life threatening” The only thing that threatens our lives is our choice not to believe and live it.” In the same reflection, he noted that “the fear of any failure is rooted in the fear of death.”

This Easter season, we are reminded that we are a Resurrection People. Death has no power over us! We live a “Life After Jesus,” one where we are called to continue his redeeming work here on Earth.

I will leave you with the story of a miracle of sorts. I am sure you are all familiar with the miraculous story of US Airways Flight 1549. After having its engines disabled by a midair collision with a flock of birds, the pilot glided the plane in for a perfect landing in the middle of the Hudson River. Not only did everyone survive, but there were no serious injuries. Well, this week in the news, I heard of a related story which is perhaps more miraculous. Those passengers got their luggage back! Professionally cleaned and restored, the survivors of that graced flight were reunited with the small tokens of daily life – a favorite pair of jeans, a newly purchased pair of boots a set of car keys. One woman received back the book she had been reading. Albeit a little water logged, it was none the worse for wear. Still stuck in its pages was the hotel envelope she used as a bookmark. Printed on it were the words, “Sure, life can be messy…. But that’s why I’m here.”

We may live a ‘Life after Jesus,” but as we will celebrate next week, he has given us the gift of the Holy Spirit to strengthen and guide us as we continue the messy work of maintaining the world he has left behind. However, today we remember that the Spirit works through us. We are not passive observers “looking up at the sky.” Each and every one of us is called to be the loving presence of God throughout our worlds to the ends of the earth!

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