About 45 minutes outside of Detroit, there is a Protestant church I pass by several times a year, and for years now this church has had a curious sign in front of it. The sign reads, “Believe in Christ, not a religion.”
Even disagreeing with the content of the message, I suppose you have to give them some credit for the courage of their conviction. Their sign basically tells people that it doesn’t matter whether you set foot inside their church or not.
The problem is that this conviction does not come from Christ, while religion most certainly does.
Our Lord’s Ascension sets up a very basic question about our relationship with God. If Christmas gives us a new way of coming into contact with God through the humanity of His Son, does the Ascension of Jesus cut off this access? Have we been left alone to figure things out for ourselves? Should we engage in whatever vague form of “spirituality” makes the best sense to us?
Scripture tells us in the clearest possible terms that, because of Christ’s Ascension, we are not at all cut off from God. In fact, in predicting His Ascension, Jesus told His apostles, “It is better for you that I go” (Jn 16:7). But what does He mean by “better”?
We see the answer to those questions the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. In John’s account of the Last Supper, Jesus tells His apostles that things will be better after His Ascension, adding:
“For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (Jn 16:7).
Also, in Acts 1:8 and Luke 24:49, Jesus predicts the Gift of this Advocate, the Holy Spirit:
“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.”
“And behold I am sending the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”
At Christ’s Ascension, we are already looking ahead to the feast of Pentecost. The Gift of the Holy Spirit gives life and power to the followers of Jesus. The Spirit also gives authority to the leaders of the Church, the apostles, and empowers them to teach, to govern, and to make holy all the members of the Church.
Those who receive the Spirit are also empowered to give witness to Jesus in the world. The Spirit makes possible the Church’s mission of evangelization, which involves sharing Christ with others and inviting them to a new life with Him in His Church.
Notice that none of this is the invention of some early pope or any other merely human religious leader. This is not a sales pitch or a slogan for a Catholic membership drive. This truth is revealed to us by God. To believe in Christ is to believe in religion, because the Son of God came to us and lived with us and suffered and died and rose again so that we could become united with Him in His Church.
Saint Paul teaches in Ephesians 5:25, “Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her.” Today’s Second Reading from the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that right now Christ is standing before His Father on our behalf, interceding for us. Christ loves us as He loved His first apostles and disciples. He wants to give to us all the good things He has given to them.
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