“As they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.” Whenever I hear this story, I envision a little Jesus balloon bobbing upward until it fades from view. However charming that might seem, it’s unwise to take the story literally. Balloons that float too high run into problems and inevitably tumble back to earth, never to rise again.
Not only should we avoid taking Luke’s story about Jesus floating up into Heaven literally, we should also avoid thinking that the story is about Jesus leaving at all. The story is meant to convey the opposite. The story is a promise, a promise that Jesus would remain with us. You’re probably thinking that I’m referring to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament or something. And while that’s fine, sitting with the Blessed Sacrament is not the same thing as sitting with Jesus in his earthly form. And many of us would really like to sit with Jesus in his earthly form. There are questions we would like to ask, questions about our family and our work, questions about the meaning of life and where we go from here.
But I can’t chat with Jesus in his earthly form. Instead I must look within and around me for the answers I seek because Jesus promised to remain with us by giving us his spirit. The time we spend praying, listening, learning about him, and seeking the wise counsel of others are all ways in which we allow that spirit to speak to us. Discerning God’s voice within and around us isn’t the same thing as chatting with Jesus in person, but in some ways, it’s better. By giving us his spirit, Jesus has become inseparable from us. Where we go, he goes. And where he has gone, we will go. Filled with his spirit — and mindful of trees, birds, and power lines — we too will one day be lifted up, never to fall again.
Click here for a link to the Sunday readings: May 20 (usccb.org)
Sample Commentary from Acts 2:1-11
Fulfilling his promise
In his Gospel (Book One) Luke emphasizes that the Holy Spirit is with Jesus. At the end of Luke’s Gospel Jesus promised to share the Spirit with his disciples. This passage from Book Two shows the fulfillment of that promise.
Pentecost is the Greek name for the Jewish Feast of Weeks (Shavuot). It began as a harvest festival that was celebrated about 50 days after Passover. The feast day evolved into a commemoration of God’s giving of the law (Torah) on Mount Sinai. Fire and wind are linked with Pentecost because fire often represented the Torah and wind represented God.
Luke fills Shavuot with new meaning: God has sent his Spirit into those who believe in the saving power of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Christian Pentecost is born.
Want more? To download discussion questions and commentaries on the readings, click here: May 20 – Pentecost
For most Sundays of this Easter season our second reading is from the first letter of John. In his commentary on this text, St. Augustine wrote, Love and do what you will. Augustine’s words are an excellent summary of the Christian life. Unfortunately, they’re also perfect material for bumper stickers. Imagine the younger version of Augustine, the version that hasn’t yet converted to Christianity, reading these words emblazoned on the car in front of him. Here’s what runs through his mind: Awesome quote! I love to party! Let’s party! And girls!! I love girls!! Let’s party with girls!!!
At this point, Augustine’s mom, (St.) Monica, who made her son’s conversion her mission in life, would point out what love really means. We’re to love as Jesus loves, and as Jesus told his disciples, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down his life for his friends.” Jesus then promptly demonstrated his perfect love by laying down his life for his friends — as well as for a bunch of other people who didn’t care what Jesus did, including, at first, Augustine. We’re only free to do what we will once we’re securely anchored in the selfless and all-encompassing love of Jesus.
If, like the pre-converted Augustine, we’re thinking that discipleship kills the party, then we should reflect on something else Jesus said: “I have told you this… that your joy might be complete.” If we strive to love as widely and selflessly as Jesus did, then eventually we will arrive at the party that never ends.
Click here for a link to the Sunday readings: May 13 (usccb.org)
Sample Commentary from Acts 1:1-11
Luke begins his second book according to literary custom. He briefly sums up what happened in his first book (the Gospel). Then he prepares his hearers for what will happen in Book Two.
Luke also connects his two works geographically. Jesus goes up to Jerusalem, then up to heaven. The holy Spirit comes down from heaven upon the disciples, who then go forth from Jerusalem to the rest of the known world. Jesus’ mission is completed in Book One; the church’s mission begins in Book Two.
Want more? To download discussion questions and commentaries on the first reading and the Gospel click here: May 13 – The Ascension of the Lord
When Saul (now St. Paul) shows up in Jerusalem claiming he embraces the faith he once violently attacked, Jesus’ disciples are wary. I don’t blame them. We could all point to a moment in our own lives when we didn’t follow through on something we initially felt strongly drawn toward. Maybe we resolved to pray or exercise more, to watch tv less, or to do some type of service. In a few days or weeks, however, we reneged. As our commitment waned, we reverted to our former behavior.
So when Saul shows up, the disciples hang back. They’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. It never does. On the contrary, Saul shows complete commitment to Christ. Saul, once a respected leader, subjects himself to the authority of the disciples. He depends upon Barnabas to reassure the disciples of his sincerity. He debates the very people who might have once have been his friends and supporters. He so alienates one group of non-Christians that they try to kill him. The violent persecutor has become the persecuted. The disciples need no further proof of Saul’s sincerity. Saul clearly understood what it cost to be a Christian.
Maybe we do, too. Maybe that’s why our commitment to Christ, unlike St. Paul’s, ebbs and flows. We don’t want to subject ourselves to anyone. We don’t want to be opposed. We don’t want to lose our status or our friends. Maybe our resolve to stride forward on the path to holiness isn’t waning. Instead, maybe we’re not really making that commitment at all.
Click here for a link to the Sunday readings: May 6 (usccb.org)
Sample Commentary on Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48
To the Gentiles
After showing God fulfilling his promises to the Jews, Luke shows God offering salvation to Gentiles. The story of Cornelius transitions us from the apostles’ ministry to the Jews to the mission to Gentiles. Cornelius isn’t Jewish, but he is devout and God-fearing (10:1-2).
Astounded by the gift
Peter and the other Jewish apostles didn’t know that God planned to offer salvation to everyone. Peter’s words reflect his new understanding and acceptance of God’s plan (vv.34-35).
The Jewish followers of Jesus are again taken by surprise when the holy Spirit comes upon Cornelius and his household before these Gentiles are baptized. The presence of God’s Spirit is an inarguable sign that because these Gentiles have accepted Jesus, God accepts them.
Want more? To download discussion questions and commentaries on the first reading and the Gospel click here: May 6 – Sixth Sunday of Easter
If I were the hired man referenced in today’s Gospel passage, I’d have taken the shepherding job in the fervent hope that a wolf never showed up. I’d be like those lone, underpaid security guys in the movies who during their night shift don’t know what to do when the alarm goes off. I might not dash out the door, but I’d definitely freak out and wonder what to do. I would not want to be the person who runs away or hides helplessly under a table, but sometimes stuff comes at us and we simply can’t handle what’s happening or we can’t handle it at that moment in our lives.
Being a Christian, though, means getting ready for those moments. They will come. There will be moments when someone we dislike needs help we can provide, moments a family member or friend is diagnosed with a serious illness, moments we see an injustice or unkindness unfolding right in front of us. Secretly hoping that such moments never come is a bit like Jesus hoping he isn’t headed to Jerusalem, isn’t going to be crucified, isn’t going to die.
Holding our ground in such moments costs us. We risk our reputation. We risk our money or our time. We risk our comfort or even our physical safety. We also risk forming new relationships and reforming existing ones. We risk inspiring others. We risk furthering the reign of God. Some risks really terrify us. The other risks, I hope, make us want to hold our ground.
Click here for a link to the Sunday readings: April 29 (usccb.org)
Discussion Questions on Acts of the Apostles 9:26-31
- Why might Saul have gone to Jerusalem?
- Why are Jesus’ followers afraid of Saul?
- How might Saul have explained his conversion to Christ?
- How might Jesus’ followers have reacted?
- How does Barnabas change things?
- How has Saul’s situation changed?
- Why might the Hellenists have reacted violently to Saul?
- Why do the apostles send Saul away?
- What is happening to the church?
- What is the role of the holy Spirit?
- Have you ever undergone a change of heart that was hard for others to accept?
- When have you found it hard to accept a good change in someone else?
- Have you ever acted as an advocate or mediator?
Want more? To download discussion questions and commentaries on the first reading and the Gospel click here: April 29 – Fifth Sunday of Easter
Today we hear that the risen Jesus opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. I wish God would do that with other subjects, too, like general relativity, foreign languages, and human behavior. Life would be so much easier. Ironically, for Catholics, one area we don’t need as much help understanding is the Scriptures. When Jesus appeared to his disciples, they were struggling to understand how Jesus fulfilled what we now call the Old Testament. Since that moment those many years ago, we’ve become accustomed to interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures with Christ in mind.
After the risen Jesus opened the minds of his first followers to reinterpret their sacred texts, he commissioned them to go forth as his witnesses, to tell people about him and help them to understand and embrace the gospel. Although we aren’t historical witnesses of Jesus, we have our own stories to tell, stories about acting with mercy, patience, or compassion instead of condemnation, frustration, or resentment. We can offer our own testimony about the ultimately life-giving, uplifting nature of the gospel, about the capacity of God and God’s goodness to prevail over evil no matter the form it takes.
But for all our understanding of the Scriptures and our lived experiences of the gospel, we still need God to open our minds. In fact, we most need God to open our minds to understand our own minds. Sometimes we are so sure of ourselves we misinterpret both Scripture and our experiences. We conjure God up instead of paying attention to what God is really saying and doing — and we become bumbling or bombastic witnesses instead of humble and attentive ones. Such witnesses do not inspire people to embrace the gospel. If we truly want to draw people to Christ, then we must admit when we are wrong, confess our hidden motivations and desires, and acknowledge that there is always more of our minds to open up to God.
Click here for a link to the Sunday readings: April 22 (usccb.org)
Sample Commentary on Acts 4:8-12
From Judaism to Christianity
In telling the story of the growth of the early church, Luke must also tell the story of the separation of Christianity from Judaism. As the apostles continue the teaching and healing ministry of Jesus, they encounter greater and greater hostility from the Jewish leadership. Finally the two faiths separate.
Empowered by the Holy Spirit
Those who tried and executed Jesus have arrested two of his disciples for proclaiming that Jesus is risen. Although Peter and John fled and hid themselves during Jesus’ passion, now they speak with remarkable boldness. The cripple is a man Peter healed (3:1f).
The disciples’ power to heal and their boldness of speech indicates that Jesus truly is risen and has empowered his disciples. His Spirit gives his followers the courage and wisdom to speak despite the danger.
Want more? To download discussion questions and commentaries on the first reading and the Gospel click here: April 22 – Fourth Sunday of Easter