Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Promise of Power (Ascension 2013)

Like all of Christ’s mysteries, the Ascension contains enough truths for a thousand homilies. But today I want to address just one simple question: to whom does Jesus promise “power” before ascending to the Father?

To whom is Jesus speaking when he says “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you”? Who will be “clothed with power from on high”?

Was he speaking to you? Was he speaking to me?

The first reading gives us one obvious answer: the Acts of the Apostles says that Jesus was “giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the Apostles”. And today’s Gospel begins “Jesus said to the disciples…” So I guess this that answers the question. He wasn’t thinking of us.

But let’s not rush things. Today’s bishops, like the bishops of every age, are the successors of the apostles. Perhaps Jesus was promising to clothe them with power. That’s reasonable enough.

Yet even this answer doesn’t satisfy, because we know from St. Paul that there is one body and one Spirit, with different gifts and tasks in the Body of Christ. Working together, we build up that body. Is power—“power from on high,” only given to one group in the Church? Do the rest of us have to manage without supernatural power, doing our best with our human abilities and energy?

Notice what Jesus says right after promising the Apostles power from the Holy Spirit: he adds “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” In today’s Gospel our Lord calls his disciples “witnesses” just before telling them that they will be clothed with power.

If you attend Christ the Redeemer parish, you’ve heard many times about your call to evangelize—to be a witness—and you’ve heard many times that you received that call at baptism.

But in case you’re just visiting, let me quote Pope Paul VI, who wrote “it is the whole Church that receives the mission to evangelize, and the work of each individual member is important for the whole.” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 14).

I wasn’t given that mission when I was ordained, but when I was baptized. Archbishop Miller was called at baptism to evangelize and be a witness; so was Pope Francis, even if they received a special mission at ordination.

If we are all witnesses, then surely we are all promised power from the Holy Spirit. It makes no sense to think that only one part of the Church has been “clothed with power from on high”.

But there’s something that makes even less sense, and that’s to be promised power and not use it. It’s like having money in the bank that you don’t spend when you need it, or untasted food on the table when you’re hungry.

Yet how many of us even know—much less use—the spiritual power we’ve been given in baptism and confirmation? How often do we duck a challenge because we think we’re too weak? We find excuses to stay quiet, or to stay stuck in bad habits, or to live run of the mill Christian lives all because we don’t realize that we’ve been given power by Christ.

Today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews calls us “to hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.”

The Jerusalem Bible translates this more simply: “Let us keep firm in the hope we profess, because the one who made the promise is faithful.”

The one who made the promise is Christ, and the promise is the Holy Spirit—whose power makes all the difference. St. Paul prays that the Christians at Ephesus may be strengthened in their inner being with power through the Spirit” (Eph 3:16) and that they will understand “the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe” (Eph 1:19).

Paul reminds the Corinthians that God’s power is greater than human weakness (2 Cor 12:9) and writes to the Thessalonians that the Gospel message comes “not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit” (1 Thes 1:5).

I told the Confirmation students last week about the bike my friend built for me from spare parts in his workshop. He heard that my own bike was gathering dust in the garage because I’d found the hills in the neighborhood just a bit too much to handle, so he rigged me up an electric bike.

It’s not like an electric car—I still have to pedal! But when the going gets tough, a flick of a switch adds just enough power to get me to the top.

Given the trouble my friend took to get me moving, what would you think if I said I never use the power assist on the bike? Well, you might think that I’m another Lance Armstrong—either in strength or in dishonesty. But the fact is, I’d be like the baptized and confirmed Christian who does not accept and does not rely on the power given to us by the Holy Spirit “who has been poured into our hearts” (Rom 5:5).

That power can help us pray better, can help us love others, overcome fear, cope with sickness, make good decisions, overcome addictions, endure hardships, forgive enemies, understand Scripture, and face death.

But there’s more still. We have the power to bear witness—to share our faith in Christ with others. The power from on high with which we have been clothed does not belong in a clothes closet. It is the power to be a light to the world, and salt to the earth. It’s power to change the world.

So let me ask a very blunt question: have you experienced the power of God’s Spirit in your life? Or are you slogging it out on your own?

I’ll end with a proposal: if you feel power-less in your Christian life, do two things this week. First, be a witness in some small way this week. Come to the Life Chain this afternoon. Say grace in public. Invite a non-practicing or non-Catholic friend to join you next Sunday at Mass and the stewardship fair. Write a letter to the editor. Talk off the cuff to someone about your faith.

Second, pray for fifteen minutes, asking the Lord to make next Sunday your personal Pentecost. If that sounds too abstract, use the words that my friend Don Vicic likes to pray at our Friday morning men’s group: “Holy Spirit, soup up our faith.”

In one way or another, big or small, you will receive power from on high by the time Pentecost Sunday arrives.

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