Ascension – May 8, 2016

Fr. Alan isn’t preaching this weekend. Below is a “vintage” homily from 2013.

In Catholicism we make our confession of sins in private, but I feel the need to unburden myself. I need to make a public confession: I bought an iPhone. I feel so ashamed; I’ve become a minion of the Evil Empire of Cupertino, California. I find Apple products to be very geeky and eccentric, but the iPhone was the only one that fulfilled the whole list of qualifications I used to choose a new cellphone.

Of the many things that I dislike about my new phone is that I cannot listen to music, look at photos, schedule an appointment or browse the web without being invited to “share” the experience with facebook “friends,” if I had any. The inescapable “friend” button came to mind when I was looking at this week’s Liturgy of the Word.

The first reading on this Solemnity of the Ascension is the formal greeting of the book of the Acts of the Apostles. Acts says, “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.” (Acts 1:1-2) The book is addressed to Theophilus, not a single person, but the whole community of believers. The name Theophilus means “Friend of God.” The disciples of Jesus are to be “Friends of God,” but not friends in any sense that the word is used in daily conversation today.

Today, a “friend” is little more than an unwilling spectator to the mundane habits that fill one’s day. There used to be a cultural joke about the dread that filled one’s heart over an invitation by a neighbor to view the slides from their most recent vacation. That indignity is miniscule compared to what people put their “friends” through today. Today, it is routine to subject one’s “friends,” not to the exotic adventures of a vacation, but to the mind-numbing things that we do to fill up our idle hours. A “friend” is a synonym for a captive audience to nothing more interesting than what one had for lunch.

The use of the term “Friend of God” in the Acts of the Apostles is entirely unrelated to the use of the word “friend” in our culture. In the ancient world there was a political term, “Friend of the King” that described someone who had entered into a treaty agreement with a political ruler. A “Friend of the King” was not necessarily someone who was emotionally close to the King or Queen or Prince or Princess; nor was that person considered a peer of the King or ruler. A “Friend of the King” was someone who had exchanged vows of loyalty to the ruler; the mutual vows created rights and obligations for both parties.

This type of treaty was beneficial for both parties. The “Friend” received protection from the King, and the King received the pledge of loyalty and obedience from the “Friend.” The Covenant with Moses was based upon this type of treaty; in the Covenant, God promised to lead Israel into their own land, and the people of Israel promised to obey God’s commands. It was a logical step to apply this same type of covenantal relationship to Baptism; in the death of Jesus we receive God’s mercy and forgiveness in exchange for our baptismal promises of fidelity and obedience.

Throughout the Easter season the Scripture readings for Liturgy speak about the rights and obligations that pertain to God and the baptized because of the baptismal covenant. The book of the Acts of the Apostles was written solely as an explanation of the way in which the baptized are obliged to live.

When Jesus appeared to the disciples for the last time they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He responded, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority. But 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.” (Acts 1:6-8)

It seems that every time I try to do something on my iPhone I have to agree to Apple’s “Terms and Conditions.” I should probably read those “Terms and Conditions,” but I’m too disinterested to do so. I’m sure that somewhere in the “Terms and Conditions” I’ve agreed to on-demand organ donorship, and I expect fully that a smiling, friendly Apple Genius will show up on my doorstop someday to retrieve my vital organs.

The terms and conditions of baptism are very simple and straightforward, but much more serious than anything that Apple could conjure up, even in their most conniving and invasive moments. God has promised us mercy and forgiveness; in exchange, we owe God our loyalty and obedience. In this selection from Acts, the disciples ask Jesus whether and when God was going to set things right in the world (by restoring the kingdom to Israel). Jesus’ response explains the responsibilities of believers: not to worry about what God will do and when God will do it, but rather to be concerned with proclaiming forgiveness through the death of Jesus.

The terms of our baptismal covenant with God will always be challenging. It is inevitable for us to wonder when God’s Kingdom will come in its fullest. It is unavoidable for us to wonder why God allows sin and suffering to affect the world. It will always be tempting to second-guess God, but our promises of Baptism warn us against these temptations.

In Baptism we acknowledged that God alone is God, and that we owe our complete fidelity to the Lord. To fulfill those vows of Baptism we must renew our trust in God at the beginning of each day, we must dedicate our energies to proclaiming God’s Word, and crucially, we must be patient, awaiting the coming of the Kingdom and the fulfillment of God’s promises.