Now, I have never in my life willingly picked up a snake, much less a poisonous one; I’m petrified of them. To the best of my knowledge, I have never tested whether I can drink poison without getting sick (or dying). I don’t speak in tongues; I find languages a terribly tedious task to learn – it’s just not a gift God has given me. I actually fail at every sign that Jesus announced to the apostles in this passage. So why did I have the audacity to present myself for ordination, now as a deacon and, in a few years, a priest? I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that most of you have not gone out of your way to pick up deadly snakes or drink gallons of poison. I suspect most of you don’t often speak in tongues.
Whew. All of us are off the hook. This must be for someone else because we don’t do that stuff, anymore. Right?
Some of these gifts are still with us. They crop up when we least expect them. God doesn’t often give us gifts like this just to show off. Instead, He gives them to us when it will serve to build up His kingdom and strengthen our faith.
On the other hand, Jesus said that all we need to do is believe and be baptized, right? I believe. I was baptized when I was a month old. That’s all I need, right?
Nope. Wrong again.
So, I’m up here saying that the most obvious readings of these are not what Jesus intended. I realize it’s a pretty bold claim. So what do these words mean for us, today, then?
In my name they will drive out demons,
they will speak new languages.
They will pick up serpents with their hands,
and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them. (Mk 16:17-18)
Jesus made these promises, and each of these come to pass when the Lord chooses — they are not magic tricks to prove our piety, but rather gifts that can be used for the building up of the Church. Only God knows when those gifts will be best used. Let me offer a story – a true story – of one such time. I was not there for this event, but others were; this isn’t just an urban legend.
In Florida in the mid-70s, there was a doctor named Vince Molina; he was not a Catholic, but a member of one of the protestant communities that places great value on the visible gifts of the Spirit. Into his ICU came an older lady who was restless, agitated and combative. He was called over to speak to her in Spanish to try to calm her down, so he did so; unfortunately, though, she didn’t speak Spanish, and that was all he could offer in foreign languages. Instead, he prayed over her in tongues; that calmed her down, and she rested. Round about a week later, she was being discharged, and saw him nearby. She asked to have him called over to thank him. You see, she wanted to thank the doctor who calmed her down by praying over her in her native language, Czech.
You see, the reason this moment was so memorable to the people who were there was not because it was an impressive trick. If that’s all we need, George Lucas or Stephen Spielberg could do the same; in fact, their tricks are far more impressive in many cases. Rather, this moment was remembered because Dr. Molina had no idea he was doing something so incredible. He knew he was speaking in tongues over her, but that would have been fairly unremarkable if that were all that happened. Instead, God gave him the true gift of tongues (or perhaps the woman received the gift of interpretation) that we will hear more about next week as we celebrate Pentecost. We must constantly proclaim the Gospel and be willing to be vessels for God to prove His power when He knows it will do the most good for His people and His Church.
How about belief and baptism, then? Is it enough to just be baptized (and confirmed) and to just come and sit here in Mass for an hour each week? Absolutely not! If I were to come to you and hand you a briefcase full of money, would you just say, “Why thank you” and put it on a shelf in a closet for the rest of your life? Of course not. The gift is there – just as it is there in our baptism – but unless you open the briefcase and spend the money in it, it’s of little use. The Sacraments are the same. If we believe, but that belief doesn’t make a difference in our lives, what good is it? It is as if we lit a lamp then hid the light, as if we took the gift and never thought of it again.
You are now entering mission territory.
The priest who was my spiritual director and confessor for many years before I started seminary used to have a sign on the inside of all the doors to his church that read, “You are now entering mission territory.” Such a claim reflects the end result of today’s celebration. Ascension and Pentecost: today, Jesus gives the apostles their mission; next week, he gives them the gifts and tools they will need to fulfill it.
Does this mean that, unless you become a missionary to the ends of the earth, your baptism is wasted; if you do not step up to the pulpit here to preach, your faith is in vain?
Of course not.
But just because you are not in the pulpit doesn’t mean you are not preaching Jesus Christ every day. Each time we get up in the morning, each time I put on this collar, each time you go to the office, each time we encounter anyone in life, that person encounters Christ. Years ago, when I was in youth ministry, I often reminded the kids before confirmation, if the only way people know they are Christian is that they say so or they wear a cool t-shirt, or they have a cross hanging around their neck, they are doing it wrong. The same holds true for us today. If the only way people know we are Christians is because we announce it in some superficial way, then we are doing it wrong. Every encounter we have with people should leave them saying, “There’s something different about that person.”
Ok. We got all that. But how do I do that every day? I don’t want to look like one of those crazy guys waving the bible on the street corner. Good. I don’t want you to. Instead, when we eat a meal with our families – or even friends or colleagues – stop and pray first. Make the sign of the cross right there in the restaurant (or at home) before we eat. When that guy cuts us off in traffic, don’t salute him; forgive him. Treat people in a way that would not bring shame to Christ when they realize that we are his representatives in the world.
Remember, the moment we walk out those doors, we, too, are entering missionary territory. And, in case we forget, I’ll remind us at the end of Mass when I give the dismissal for my first time as a deacon: “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord.”