Acts 1:6-14 I Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11 John 17:1-11
When the apostles had come together, they asked Jesus, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" He replied, "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by His own authority.”
The trouble with life, as the old saying goes, is that it’s what happens while you’re making other plans. The disciples had not bargained for Jesus’ crucifixion, and they certainly hadn’t expected His resurrection. Now, briefly, He is back among them, and with their heads still spinning they ask the logical question: “What comes next?” They’re thinking in terms of tradition; the Messiah will restore the kingdom of Israel. They ask, but Jesus does not answer them. Instead He tells them:
You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." Then before they can catch their breath, or ask what exactly He means by that, as they were watching, He was lifted up, and a cloud took Him out of their sight.
As difficult as it is for us to imagine the resurrection, this ascension may be harder. It certainly is equally difficult to accept. Someone much loved has come back from the dead, not as a spirit or ghost, but in body – solid, living, eating, breathing, real. Now, after having been briefly among His ecstatic friends and family, He is lifted up, bodily, into the heavens. We cannot fully imagine what we would feel if we experienced such an event. We have difficulty even accepting that such a thing really happened – but there are many witnesses who assure us that it did.
For Jesus’ disciples, it’s been an emotional roller-coaster. Ever since He was seized by the Roman authorities, they have experienced bafflement, confusion and grief. These feelings we can imagine because we have shared them. Most, and possibly all of us have had traumatic life experiences. Perhaps it has been the loss of a grandparent, parent or family member, the loss of a pet, destruction by fire, or, the totally unexpected and devastating loss through natural disaster. Recently many of us, myself included, have lost someone to COVOID-19. In one way or another, we know what these feelings of sorrow and loss are like.
It has been even worse for the disciples, because along with their emotional response to Jesus’ execution, they have had to fear reprisals from their own community, and have been sunk into doubt and disillusionment. Everything they believed has been tested, and their faith has been stretched to the limit. Now – just when Jesus has returned and they think He will guide them to the next step of their journey, He ascends into heaven, leaving them staring toward the sky where He disappeared.
…Suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”
It would have been a difficult question to answer – considering what the disciples have just witnessed. If we attempt put ourselves in their place, we can barely touch on the range of emotions that must have poured through them. One reason we modern people probably can’t begin to fathom what the disciples felt, is because we have never experienced anything like it, and because within our experience we have an entirely different way of dealing with the unexpected, the unexplained, and most particularly with disappointment.
Look at our society and you’ll see how modern people would respond. We do not like the unexpected, and we particularly do not appreciate life changing situations that rattle all we consider to be “normal”. Just look at our response to the pandemic. We may have begun in fear, but we’ve grown into restlessness, finger pointing, blaming, and anger. We don’t like having our lives turned upside-down, and Jesus has certainly done just that with His disciples – and now, He’s gone.
How do the disciples deal with what has happened? Do they storm off, each individual back to their own place, there to nurture their own personal grievances? No! Together they go back to the room where they shared the Passover meal with Jesus. Do they, as we might, then sit down and share their angry feelings of betrayal and abandonment, each one trying to portray him or herself as the most injured party? No – they do something we often overlook doing in this day and age. They gather as a group and were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
Jesus’ followers choose not to be angry, not to feel cheated, not to blame anyone, not to curse heaven, but to come together as a group and to pray together. Any time, but especially in this time in which we are living, prayer is always appropriate.
St. Peter touches on times of upheaval when he tells us, Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ's sufferings.
This message could have been given to us this day, and it would certainly apply to what so many are going through right now during the pandemic. We don’t like suffering. The idea that our suffering can be joined with that of Jesus’ is in today’s world not only antiquated, but totally alien to our way of thinking. In our society today, we want to be comfortable; we want life to return to the familiar, to “normal”. It comes as a revelation to many that we are called to resist the urge to angrily complain, that being Jesus’ followers gives a new dignity and purpose to suffering.
Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.
Jesus looked up to heaven and said, "Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you…
In the verse preceding today’s Gospel, Jesus has just ended his instructions to His disciples; He has concluded with “In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” Now He prays to the Father, in His prayer summarizing the significance of His life. He is speaking directly to the Father, but He knows His followers are still listening. Today, we are His followers, but sometimes one wonders, are we listening?
Most of us can say that, yes, we’re listening, so perhaps the real question is, are we paying attention? I’m sure all of you have noticed that the more familiar something is, the less you pay attention to it. Even in church, the service is familiar; and from week to week many of the prayers remain the same. Have you ever reached the end of The Lord’s Prayer only to realize that, in your mind, you were running through a shopping list while speaking those familiar words? We need to pay attention.
The biggest challenge facing Jesus followers, that is, facing us today, is somewhat different from that which faced the disciples. We aren’t called to deal with the emotions caused by the sudden absence of Jesus’ physical presence. We aren’t afraid of reprisals from our community when we speak His Name. We don’t fear physical suffering and torture if we preach the Gospel. For us right now, the roaring lion, the adversary, is without and within, and we need to be paying attention to all Jesus has taught us.
We are facing a world change, limits that we have not known in our lifetime but will continue in our future. We are called to deal with our grief, our anger and our restlessness. This is the time to put our trust in God and our energy into prayer our lives in Jesus’ hands.
This is the Sunday after Jesus’ ascension, but before Pentecost. This is the Sunday of complete uncertainty, of waiting. Today we are meant to stand with the disciples, who looked up in wonder and confusion, in fear and uncertainty. What a beautiful thing it is to be among Jesus followers, and yet, what a challenge for us.
When everything in our circumstances calls on us to be angry and frustrated, and society supports us in this, when time and distractions press in on every side, when our minds are filled with urgency and the need to have everything accomplished now, Jesus asks us to be patient and prayerful.
This sort of holiness, this quite centeredness in God, is not our natural human nature. Jesus knows we need help to be calm. So, as He leaves the earth in His bodily form, He again prays for His disciples, His followers, for us.
I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. "
Let us pray:
Lord Jesus, please grant us the gift of patience, the ability to listen, the desire to pray, and above all the certain knowledge that we belong not only to You, but to one another. Please fill our hearts with Your grace and grant us the ability to slow down, focus, and recognize You are within each and every person. Fill our hearts with Your overflowing love, that we may spread it generously to others, and grant us the patience and strength to live according to Your will. All this we ask for your love and mercy’s sake. Amen.