Saint Peter the Apostle Parish Naples, FL
Acts 1, 1-11 Psalm 47 Ephesians 1, 17-23 Mark 16,15-20
In my sophomore year of high school, I had Brother Rosaire for Biology. In those days, the Holy Cross Brothers wore black cassocks tied around the waist with a black rope. One day brother walked in to the class room and reached both hands into the deep pockets of his cassock and lifted two live snakes. The brothers rarely had trouble with classroom discipline. The ones I had all had a way of commanding attention and respect. You did not talk to anyone in their class room unless told to do so. Let me tell you, when he pulled out those snakes no one moved and no one talked. Everything in that school was ordered by the alphabet. We sat in desks according to the alphabet. Role was called by name in every class, and an empty desk told you immediately who was missing. With my last name, I was always in the third desk nearest the windows right behind Amsted and Bachold with Cancilla, Cleary, and Coors behind me. Brother Rosaire walked toward Amsted. He put a snake on Tom’s desk and said, “Pick it up and pass it back.” I thought I was going to die until I looked at Bachold’s face as he turned and handed me the poor snake. Bachold was way past death. To this day when I read these verses of Mark’s Gospel the thought strikes me that if you have to handle snakes to be a priest, I’ll sign up for engineering. If these are the signs that accompany those who believe, I’m in trouble. I’m not all that great with languages either. Fortunately, I later learned in the seminary class on Mark’s Gospel that these verses were written long after Mark had died, and these specific “signs” were all lifted from incidents in Acts of the Apostles as proof that the followers of Christ were meeting with success in their mission.
This leaves us today sitting in this church reviewing the very last words Jesus speaks to his followers on this earth; words of instruction and commission. We have, all of us, been sitting in churches for a long time, and it strikes me that this is not what Christ asked us to do. While we proclaim the Good News in here, we are not necessarily the ones who need to hear it. What we proclaim in here to each other is a reminder, a review, and clarifying moment when we get together to get it straight and make sure we are all on target. We will leave here within the hour, and then the real proclamation begins.
As the Gospel concludes, it says: “They went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs.” The signs then are important, and they guide and focus our mission. The signs continue today.
We are to cast out devils. We stand up against the force of evil that destroys life. Remember that one of the ways in which demons did their damage was by forcing people out of community, breaking their relationships with others, rendering them untouchable. A 21st century Christian who casts out demons recognizes demons disguised as addictions that possess us not just alcohol, drugs, and sex, but shopping and buying things we do not need. There are demons of regret, resentment, and unforgiven offences. When Jesus lives in us, the hold of these demons is lessened. A sign of demons expelled is a community in which all lives becomes richer, deeper and more real.
We are to speak new tongues. We must communicate with others in a new way. In a hostile angry world of violence and oppression, we must speak kindly and gently words that bring peace and harmony. We must speak the language of love in a world that speaks a language of hate. How to do this in a multi cultural world is a challenge we can take up. Yet how to do this with people who Tweet and Blog while living to update their Facebook status never dreaming of missing the latest episode of American Idol with no interest in our Sunday morning shindig means we learn to speak new tongues. Living in Christ we must work like crazy to figure this one out always speaking kindly and joyfully.
There are many things that poison our lives, but they do not harm us. The poison of gossip is deadly and bitter. The poison of angry words and resentment can be fatal, but living in Christ is an antidote to all these poisons. We can handle snakes too – those people who might bite us with their anger and malice do no real harm.
Impressive as these signs might be, perhaps the greatest of all signs today confirming the gospel message given to us by Jesus at his ascension is simply this: that after so much failure by Christians in history, and by the Church’s leaders and members in our own day; after so many frustrations, so many betrayals, so many scandals and defeats in the struggle to fulfill Christ’s missionary command — nevertheless, after twenty centuries, so many, all over the world like us, are still here being faithful to the Word of God.
Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation, says Jesus, and these signs will accompany those who believe. One theme runs through these signs of Jesus’ life in the new community he shaped when I hear these words. They are all about healing and wholeness. They are all about the freedom that comes when your life is centered, not around yourself, but around sharing the healing power of God in Jesus Christ. They are about both individual healing and the healing of relationships: making us stronger, more whole, both in ourselves and for one another. Healing not only our own hurts, but those things that keep us isolated from a hurting world. It all begins in these pews, but it all happens in the rest of the week. If we do what Christ asks, we will need to come back next week if for no other reason than to be refreshed and encouraged again by the Christ who has not left us.