Solemnity of the Ascension – May 13, 2018

While waiting at a traffic light this past week, I noticed a tattered bumper sticker on the car in front of me; it read, “In Case of Rapture This Car Will Be Abandoned.” This sentiment was faddish a number of years ago, although there are still people who await “the Rapture,” an unexpected and cataclysmic end to the world. Based on the length of time it took the car to begin to move after the light turned green, I was willing to believe that it had already been abandoned.

There is quite a lot of diversity of opinion within Christianity about the last things and the end of time. In a somewhat similar manner, there was diversity of opinion during Jesus’ lifetime about how God would fulfill God’s promise of salvation. Today’s first reading features two popular, but mutually exclusive, sets of expectations about how salvation would be accomplished.

The author of Acts says about the Risen Jesus, “He presented himself alive to them by many proofs after he had suffered, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” (Acts 1:3) When Jesus spoke about the “kingdom of God,” he was advocating a renewed social situation in which all people would be faithful to God and one another.(*) In the “kingdom of God,” everyone would act in trustworthy ways toward one another and God because everyone would follow God’s commandments; an earthly ruler or government was neither necessary nor desirable.

Curiously, the apostles failed to grasp Jesus’ intention. Immediately after being told that God’s Spirit would come upon them, they asked about the competing expectation of the time; they asked when the Davidic monarchy was going to be reestablished. (Acts 1:6) Evidently, they thought they might have a better future under the rule of a human king than under the rule of God.

For the most part, Christians today do not think in terms of the establishment of a faith-based national government, but Jesus’ social concerns remain valid. Today, Christians are distracted by a more modern fantasy of self-indulgence. Today’s first reading speaks directly to that modern distraction.

After Jesus had explained to them in detail what he expected them to do, the apostles remained dumbfounded. He was taken into God’s presence, but they stood idle. Two angels appeared and asked, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?” (Acts 1:11) They were supposed to be waiting hopefully for the gift of God’s Spirit, but they more concerned about their own plans for the world.

Long ago, the Scriptural teaching about the eternal rewards promised to those who live in fidelity to Jesus’ teaching metamorphosed into a cultural myth. Today, “heaven” is understood as an entitlement for all who live conventional lives, rather than as the blessed state of being in God’s unmediated presence. According to contemporary secular beliefs, not only do all dogs go to heaven (as MGM Studios claims), but all people go to heaven, as long as they do nothing to put themselves outside the mainstream of western cultural sensibilities.

This preoccupation with heaven has some undesirable consequences. It devalues human existence in this universe (the only existence that any of us have ever known). It also denies the Scriptural injunction that salvation comes through faith alone (“faith,” in this context, means faith in Jesus as Messiah rather than faith in contemporary cultural values).

Among the several things that the Solemnity of the Ascension offers to modern Christianity, perhaps the most poignant is the angels’ question, “why are you standing there looking at the sky?” (Acts 1:11) Jesus preached a renewal of religion that would lead to a renewed fidelity to God and neighbor. The result, and reward, of this renewal would be the “kingdom of God.” Western cultural values, on the other hand, tell us to give our attention to obtaining personal rewards both now and in some indefinite future. Western culture’s obsession with “heaven” lacks both common sense and faith.

The only existence that any of us has ever known is an historical existence in this universe. If we devalue this existence for the sake of future rewards (whether real or imagined), we have given up the opportunity to live in a way that pleases God. If we assume that heaven is an inevitable consequence of being moderately good-natured or mostly inoffensive, then we’ve refashioned religion in the image of youth sports where every child gets a trophy without regard to team success or individual effort.

Personally, I think it’s crassly self-serving to worry about the nature and timing of the fulfillment of God’s promises. I am entirely willing to leave heaven and eternity in God’s hands. I am also entirely convinced that the type of life we choose to live today is of the utmost importance.

The Catholic Faith says that life in this universe has such great value that its value endures forever. If you choose to focus your attentions on the afterlife, please keep in mind how little sense it makes to disregard the quality of life you lead today. If you are concerned about the reward you expect from God, you should use every moment of life to do the things that God commands.

The Solemnity of the Ascension asks, “Why are you standing there looking at the sky?” (Acts 1:11) Hopefully, it’s because you’ve spent your life imitating Jesus in order to be found worthy of being called his disciple right up to the moment that the skies disappear on the day of Resurrection.

A note on the Scriptures:
In the preaching of Jesus, the phrase “kingdom of God” refers to the social situation of the People of Israel immediately after they entered the Land of Promise. God had promised Abraham a lasting legacy of plentiful offspring and a homeland. The Israelites experienced the fulfillment of that promise when they escaped from Egypt and came into the land of Canaan. When they settled in the Land of Promise, they divided the land among themselves according to Divine decree.

For quite a long time, the Israelites lived in peace without a central government. During the period of time before Saul was anointed as their first king, the Israelites farmed their land, protected the ownership rights of their neighbors, and worshiped God at local shrines. The lack of a central government was not detrimental in any way because all the People respected God’s Law and one another’s rights.

The subsequent establishment of a monarchy among the Israelites had some advantages, but some disadvantages, as well. The monarchy allowed for the creation of a standing army, but it also allowed for the imposition of burdensome taxation. As we know from the stories of King Saul and King David, moral problems arose along with the political problems.

The many failings of Israel’s Kings led to a deep divergence of opinion among the People. Some advocated a return to the simpler tradition of local rule while others preferred the political advantages of a monarchy.

When Jesus preached about the “kingdom of God,” he was advocating a renewed fidelity to the Sinai Covenant made between God and Moses. Jesus intended to call his contemporaries to embrace a renewed sense of justice with regard to God and neighbor. God was the literal king in the “kingdom of God.” In Jesus’ preaching, the reestablishment of an earthly ruler or government would have been a rejection of God’s will. In the Divinely inspired kingdom, everyone would act in trustworthy ways toward one another and God because everyone would follow the commands of God, the heavenly King.

The mutual trustworthiness that was presumed to be the result of the “kingdom of God” was equivalent to what the Scriptures call justice. In Hebrew religion, a righteous (just), person is one who pays one’s debts to God and neighbor. According to the Scriptures, one owes gratitude to God and trustworthiness to one’s neighbors. These two virtues, when taken together, comprise the biblical notion of faith. In the Scriptures, faith is loyalty to God and one’s covenant partners.

Jesus’ envisioned the “kingdom of God” that he preached as a situation similar to that of ancient Israel. He preached repentance, that is, a return to the social situation in which all people were loyal to God and trustworthy toward their neighbors. He explained that this renewed social situation was to come about as the result of God’s power rather than human effort, intervention, or merit. (Acts 1:5)