Acts 1:1-11 • Eph 1:17-23 • Lk 24:46-53
Sometimes there is nothing as frustrating as a church committee meeting. Committee members go to meetings with high hopes of improving the ministry and parish life of their church. Unfortunately, too often meetings either get off track or get stuck in details that have little to do with living the Gospel. Members talk endlessly about new copiers rather than ministry. Members get bogged down picking what color to paint the bathroom walls rather than how to reach out to those fallen away from the faith. Committees — and pastors — can become passionate about the wrong things.
The early Christian community was no different. Last week we read from the Acts of the Apostles of a bitter debate about whether or not Gentiles coming into the Faith had to be circumcised. Today, in Acts, we see a different distraction. All Christians believed that one day Jesus would return in glory to complete His work on earth. Some believers, however, were concerned about specifically when Jesus would return.
Luke seems exasperated by how the faithful were wasting time and energy on this question. One of Luke’s purposes was to turn his readers back to that which is important: although Jesus will one day return, God is with us now, especially in the Person of the Holy Spirit, and we have a continuing responsibility to convince people of this presence. Turning people toward God was the mission of Jesus, thus ours as well, and we must be vigilant to avoid getting off track.
We remain between two points in time: God with us now and the day Christ will return; thus we live in a world in transition, a world preparing itself for Christ’s return. Our focus is not to be on when He will return. Rather, our focus is to be on preparing the world for His return — whenever it may be. We live in the world now, and this is where God lives with us. That Christ will return is a promise and a source of strength and peace, but Christ intends us to be people not just of the future. He intends us to be keenly aware of the present and of our responsibility for it. If we are distracted by worry about when Christ will return, we will miss Him standing right in front of us.
At the moment of Jesus’ departure, as told in Luke’s Gospel, the disciples were filled with such joy that they could not wait to begin speaking praises of God. There was no sadness in the parting. We must note, too, Jesus’ last act recorded in Luke’s Gospel. With hands upraised, Jesus gave His disciples a priestly blessing, which placed them in God’s care. Jesus had sent the disciples forth to witness to all that they had learned of the Father through Him, and they would need help to do this; but, in so doing, they would begin to change in the world.
Acts presents a community struggling with its mission. Christians were bogged down in worry about when Jesus was to return, rather than worrying about what they were to be doing right then. In Acts, the disciples did not leave the place of the Ascension in joy, ready to get to work. They remained behind, looking for Jesus. Angels had to tell them to get to business, quite a different picture from the Gospel. Acts even puts the person of Jesus in a position of chastising His followers for being worried about the details of the Second Coming, that is, worrying about the wrong thing.
Luke’s two versions of the Ascension have something to say to us. The world is in transition. Something had started in the life of Jesus that would be completed upon His return. Although we live between the two moments we must remember that we do not just wait. God is here now. God is involved with us in our daily lives, and Jesus wants us to know this. The Holy Spirit was sent to impel us to go out and proclaim the ever-present love of God. Unfortunately, we still get stuck worrying about copiers and wall paint.
Although we wait for Jesus to come again, we have something to do now. We are to continue the change in the world begun by Jesus Christ by helping others encounter the God who is still with us. We do this by caring about people, not copiers. Paul prays, “May he enlighten your innermost vision.”
FATHER STEINER, born and reared in Chattanooga, Tenn., is a priest of the Diocese of Nashville. He currently serves as rector of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville. Previously, he served in thediocesan high school as teacher, associate principal, and principal. He received his education from St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana, the Gregorian University in Rome, and The Catholic University of Americain Washington, D.C.