In my work as a priest, people often tell me about spiritual experiences they have had. Sometimes they are experiences of the Lord in some way, sometimes of someone who has died, asking for prayers, or something like that. A lot of people do in fact have spiritual experiences. However, often after a time, people begin to wonder whether they really did have these experiences, or was it all in their imagination. It is impossible to know and in one way it is not even important. Usually the experience will have helped them at that time and that was its purpose. Often the mistake people make is to try and figure out what it means and are they supposed to do something.
A man came to me early one Saturday morning. Initially I thought he was going to ask me for money, which is often the case, but in fact he wanted to go to confession. He told me that the previous night a friend of his who had died some time before, had appeared to him. He was obviously quite shaken by the experience and he realized that he needed to go to confession himself. It was a wake-up call for him.
Different spiritual experiences help us to be aware of just how real the spiritual world is, which we can become very skeptical of. We will say, ‘Yes, I believe in God, but don’t expect me to believe in angels, or the devil, or hell.’ Why are these any more extraordinary to believe in? If God is real, then the spiritual world is real. That means there is an awful lot we haven’t seen and don’t understand, but the Lord tells us that these things are real and so we should believe in them. Jesus often spoke about the reality of heaven, hell, Satan, angels, sin and so many other things and yet we doubt. It’s amazing how many people doubt the existence of hell, or Satan and yet Jesus often spoke about both. If they are not real, then the crucifixion was meaningless, because the whole point of the death and resurrection was to make it possible for us to be able to go to heaven, which means we could lose it, which means hell must be real. If we lose heaven, we are left with the opposite, which is hell.
In the first reading today from the Acts of the Apostles—or the ‘adventures’ of the Apostles, as you might call them—Luke tells us how after Jesus rose from the dead, He continued to appear to the Apostles. Not just once, but many times. Why? No doubt to convince them that they had not imagined it. One thing that He did on at least two occasions was to eat something with them. The first time when he appeared to them in the room, they were all standing there speechless, and He said, ‘Do you have anything here to eat?’ So they gave him a piece of fish and He ate it in front of them. Then they knew it was not just a vision, but a real person, the same real person they had known before. It was not even food that He had brought with him, which could also have been part of a vision, but it was something they gave him and then they watched him chew it and swallow it. This was a beautiful and very human thing to do; something that we could completely relate to.
Luke also says that he not only appeared to them, but He continued to tell them about ‘the Kingdom.’ What is ‘the Kingdom?’ He was telling them about the reality of heaven: life with God, which He has created us for; that it is real and that we could also lose it if we are foolish. There we will be reunited with the people we love and we will experience happiness there, in a way that we can not even begin to imagine now. He was probably also explaining to them what the purpose of his life on earth was, why He had to suffer and die the way He did, what all this meant for the human race; God’s plan for his people. Also He was teaching them how the Kingdom of heaven is where God’s will on earth is lived out. Jesus said, ‘The Kingdom of heaven is among you/within you.’ (Luke 17:21). When we begin to live as God teaches us, his kingdom of heaven is established on earth. It is not one of political power, as the Apostles were expecting. It is one that starts inside the human heart. It will be fulfilled in heaven, but it begins on earth wherever people begin to live as God asks us to live.
I'm sure He also told them that He had a lot of work for them to do and that they must remember that their life here on earth was a time of service and not to worry if things were not easy, because when their work here was done He would bring them home to be with him again. What awaited them would be worth all the struggles they had to go through. What awaits us is worth all the difficulties we have to go through.
Notice too, how they still didn’t understand about the kingdom of God/heaven, even though Jesus had risen from the dead. It says that they asked Jesus, ‘Now are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ It was only after they received the gift of the Holy Spirit that they began to see the bigger picture. Until then they were still thinking in earthly terms, political power, Israel being dominant.
Why were they suddenly able to go out and start preaching to everyone about a man that most people had never heard of and not only preach about him for a while, but for the rest of their lives with passion? Almost all of them ended up being martyred, but they didn’t care, because they knew that the only thing that was important was to be faithful to the Lord Jesus, as best they could.
Why am I telling you all this? Because the same thing exactly applies to us. The Apostles were real people and these are real experiences that we are reading about. Our life on earth is just as short as theirs was and it is also a time of service, just as theirs was. For many of you it will be served by looking after your families and the people you work with. For priests and Religious it will be in a different way, but that is why we are here, to learn to love, to serve, to freely choose for or against God.
We are living in a time when people are very cynical and skeptical about religion and they point to the scandals within the Church as being ‘proof’ of just how hypocritical the whole thing is. We must not let that put us off. It has always been difficult to believe and probably always will be, but we ask the Lord himself to help us to persevere and not become negative, or cynical. In this Gospel it says that when Jesus appeared to them and was about to ascend to heaven, they worshipped, ‘but some doubted.’ Even with all they had seen, some of them still had doubts. It is normal to have doubts, but that is why we keep feeding ourselves with the things that will keep us close to God. If we fill our minds with only earthly things—think of all that you watch on TV—then the things of heaven can seem to be unreal. I have often noticed in Hollywood movies, if the hero or heroine is asked if they believe in God, they will nearly always say no. What does that tell you about Hollywood? It is saying that only foolish people believe in God.
If we truly believe that what awaits us is worth the sacrifice of anything, then it doesn’t really matter what happens to us in this life. It is only temporary. And when our time here is complete God will come and bring us home. I have no doubt that this is probably what Jesus was telling the Apostles about for those forty days. He wanted them to have no doubt about why they were here, so that we also could have a good understanding of our purpose here, through their teaching.
God has given us every possible help that we could ask for. If it seems too difficult it is only because we are not using the help that He has given us. What help? Above all, the Eucharist, which is the gift of Jesus himself; not a symbol, but really and truly the Body and Blood of Jesus. Also, his own words in the Scriptures; confession, etc. It is all there waiting for us. The clearer the picture we have in our own head as to what our life is about, the easier it is to keep going. That is also why we needn’t be afraid of anything in this world. If we offer ourselves to God, then why should we be afraid? All things are in his hands.
It often surprises me how fearful people are of death. So often I hear from people who are very sick, ‘At least I am still here.’ If we truly believe in heaven, why would we be afraid of death? Death is just the doorway to what we all long for. What awaits us is only joy. This is what Jesus taught the Apostles to pass on to us. If we have that hope, it changes everything that we face on earth.
May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened,
that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call.