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Imagine a situation in which they are falsely accused of doing something wrong or making a mistake. (Perhaps their parents come home and find that an expensive vase has been broken.) Ask them also to imagine that someone else has seen exactly what really happened. (Their brother or sister, for instance, has seen the dog knock the vase off the table with its tail.) Now ask them if they would want the witness to speak up – or lie about what really happened? Remind your class that people accuse Jesus falsely every day when they say that he has deserted them or never really existed. Remind them that they are the witnesses who must speak up and defend Jesus.
Prove the world is round
There are many things we believe in this world that we haven’t seen. As children we learned that the earth is round. We’ve never traveled into space and looked back at the earth but we believe what we have been taught.
It was the ancient Greeks who first theorized that the earth is round. This discovery is attributed to Pythagoras who first proposed it sometime around 500 B.C. “Earth is a sphere floating in space,” he declared to a packed lecture hall.
It is said that a grave silence fell upon the hall when he said this. His listeners were amazed. They wondered how they could live on a sphere! Common sense suggested that earlier philosophers were right when they said the earth was a flat disc floating on the air. Pythagoras had deduced the idea of a round earth based on his observation that earth casts a circular shadow on the moon during eclipses. (1)
His revolutionary idea was accepted by Aristotle and other Greek philosophers and became common knowledge as early as 300 B.C. Most of the rest of humanity, though, had to accept it on faith. It has only been within our own lifetime that human beings have escaped the earth’s magnetic field and ventured out into space and affirmed that Pythagoras was right. The world is round.
Of course, there are still some people who belong to the Flat Earth Society. They believe from their own limited experience that the idea that the earth is a sphere is preposterous. Of course, some people still contend that humans have not landed on the moon. That it was all a government hoax. I have no idea what to do with such folks, but most of us have accepted the truths of science from an early age. We believe even though we have not seen.
Scientists tell us that life began to emerge on earth as early as 3.5 billion years ago. That is amazing. They also tell us that our earth is rotating on its axis at 1100 miles per hour; that our earth is rotating around the sun at 481,000 mph; and that our sun and solar system are whirling into space at 57,000,000 mph. Wow! It would take quite a leap of faith to believe all that, but people I know and trust tell me it’s true, and thus I believe that, yes, it is all likely true.
Furthermore, they tell us this universe is enormous. Now this isn’t mere conjecture. For four decades two Voyager space crafts have been hurtling beyond the edge of our solar system at a rate of 100,000 miles per hour. These space craft have been speeding away from earth and are now approximately 12 billion miles from this small planet. When these craft were still responding to signals at about 9 billion miles away engineers would beam commands to them at the speed of light. It took these commands thirteen hours to arrive, even at the speed of light! It is estimated that to send a message to the edge of our enormous universe at the speed of light would take 15 billion years. And within this enormous universe there are billions and billions of galaxies. (2)
That’s more than I can get my mind around, but isn’t it a magnificent thought that we live in such an amazing universe? Is there anyone in this room who believes that such a magnificent universe could just have happened with no guiding hand at work? Are you mad?
British astrophysicist Fred Hoyle compares the likelihood of life appearing on earth by accident as equivalent to the possibility that a tornado sweeping through a junkyard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the materials found there. (3) An accident? I don’t think so.
There is a story about a caveman who was out hunting one day and found a modern-day watch. He noticed this strange looking object on the ground making a ticking sound. Looking at the face of the watch, he saw the hands go around. Opening the inside, he saw a system with order. At that time, he didn’t know what it was but he said, “If this is a watch, there must be a watchmaker.”
And that is the way most of us respond to this amazing universe. Without a watchmaker, there could be no watch. And without Supreme Intelligence, there could be no universe. There is no way this world with all its immensity and intricacy and beauty could simply have happened. Even a caveman could see that.
Do you remember Thornton Wilder’s classic play Our Town? There is a scene in it where Jane Crofut gets a letter from her minister when she is sick. The envelope is addressed like this: “Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God.”
That’s right the mind of God. That is where it all began. Science can tell us how it happened, but only faith can tell us why it happened.
A father told of taking his family to the Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. He said the sky seemed more brilliant than they had ever seen it, and the stars were so close you felt as if you could touch them.
Their three boys decided that they would put their sleeping bags out on the ground so they could go to sleep watching the stars. The man and his wife had just settled down for the night when their youngest boy came into the tent, dragging his sleeping bag with him.
“What is the matter?” his parents asked. “Is it getting too cold?”
“No,” he answered. Then he added, “I just never knew I was so small.” (4)
Well, it does make us feel small. But it also reminds us of how great and wonderful God is. Even if you were determined to be an agnostic, you would still be left with mysteries that science cannot answer: The first of these is the creation of the universe itself: that there should be something rather than nothing is miraculous. The second is that, once upon a time, some of the inanimate matter on this earth planet suddenly came to life. And the third is that some of that matter that came to life gained the ability to think, to be motivated, to seek, and to imagine, even to hope. (5)
Even if you weren’t impressed by the immensity and the intricacy of it all, the wondrous beauty of creation alone should show the sheer lunacy of believing it all happened by pure chance. “Nature,” wrote Jonathan Edwards, “is God’s greatest evangelist.” And he was right.
So why couldn’t they see? Why couldn’t the friends and neighbors of Elliot Rodgers in Isla Vista see what was going on inside his head? Why couldn’t his parents see beyond their own frustration? Why couldn’t he see beyond his own needs and insecurities? Why could he not see the lives of those he would kill? The father of one victim asks “why can’t our nation see what guns are doing to us?” Professionals ask why we can’t help those who so obviously need it.
There is, I think, one kind of seeing that happens instinctually. It’s mostly passive. Our eyes take things in, we may note one or another thing, and then we move on to something else. Almost all the seeing we do this way. When something happens later, or someone points something out, we knock ourselves in the head wondering why we didn’t notice it at first.
But another kind of see is not passive; it’s active, engaged, searching, and deep. We have this striking phrase in the second reading today, from Ephesians: “the eyes of our hearts.” This is the scriptures’ way of talking about the deeper seeing we need when dealing with God. Look at so many more people who think they are atheists today. We want to ask them: are you even looking? Looking in the right place? Looking with open eyes?
But we ourselves can be like the disciples of Jesus who, with passive eyes, are staring at Jesus ascending into heaven. We can imagine this is all about outer space, and strange worlds, and the bottom of Jesus’ feet. “Men of Galilee,” the angel has to say, “Why are you looking into the sky?” We cannot see the Ascension by staring. We’ve got to use the eyes of our hearts.
What do the eyes of our hearts see? Deeper, more clearly, more peacefully, with contemplation, in prayer: all that for sure. But also our more expansive hopes, not only for ourselves but for humankind. Also the deepest meanings and implications of our loves and our loving. And, most of all, how we cannot see without seeing things in God. “In your light, we see light,” says one of the Psalms; St. Augustine meditated on this phrase for most of his life—to see everything in God’s truth and love. What does God’s light show me?
Part of seeing in God involves not only living in God, but also acting in God. The angel tells the “men of Galilee” that Jesus will return—so they are to live in hope, acting from hope, not with small and crippled visions. But Jesus himself tells the disciples in Galilee, in this very famous passage from the end of Matthew’s Gospel, that they are live with the kind of hope that drives them forth, helping others see in God’s light, helping others find Jesus with the eyes of their heart, helping the world become his disciples.
The eyes of our hearts, when they look on Christ, bring us hope and bring us mission. The Word has gone out—not only to all the nations, but through twenty centuries, until we ourselves hear it. We are no different than the “men of Galilee”—we too are told to make the world disciples. But we can do that only by consciously accepting our discipleship, consciously looking with the eyes of our hearts, and consciously seeking to help the world see God, see God in Jesus, see God with his Spirit.
This doesn’t mean we go to Nigeria or Thailand. It means right in our own homes, our families, among our friends, in our own living environment. If our families, our children, our friends and associates, only see us looking passively, how does this help them to see with the eyes of the heart? If our faith is mostly a cultural form, and not an active way of life, how do others come to see in the light God asks us to shed and spread?
Jesus’ Ascension is not an absence; it’s a deeper presence, in the world and also in our hearts. He continues to return in our prayer, our worship, our daily deeds done in love, in our love for others, in the hopes that allow us to live with conviction and energy. Enough angry people with eyes filled with violence, enough of that. It’s time for clearer eyes, light-filled eyes, and love-filled hearts.