As a teenager growing up I used to spend endless amount of time wandering the streets. At the age of twelve we moved house and on the first day we moved in there was a knock at the day and an invitation of friendship from someone my age. That young chap was someone I came to spend so much time with for years to come, but looking back now, I can see clearly that it was a friendship built on mockery, fear and ridicule. Most nights after eating I’d be outside, summer or winter it didn’t matter, and several of us would walk miles each evening. Some nights my ‘friends’ and I spent most of our time playing football, other times discovering new peculiarities of our extended neighbourhood as we chatted about the world. As we grew older they became more daring and risky in their behaviour. Some nights they’d spend all their money on eggs for peoples windows as amusement, cramped together in the phonebox ringing bogus takeaway deliveries, the old classic knock-a-door-run or when that got boring hurling stink bombs into corner shops.
There was a massive internal battle for me as a conscientious and introverted teen who excelled at school and thrived within the parish community. Going to different schools and these friends having no interest in faith kept my worlds apart. But it couldn’t last forever, and eventually those parts of my life clashed. The term ‘Bible basher’ was an ‘insult’ aimed at me repeatedly by my ignorant peers. They had no faith background, went to a secular school, Christianity was alien to them and something to mock. Even as a teenager I was so proud of my home town’s Catholic history, Preston originated from the words ‘Priest Town’ and for hundreds of years was the most Catholic place in England. We saw this every night as we’d pass Churches on what seemed like every other street corner.
Something that has remained etched vividly in my memory though is a time when one of the parishes opened up a new youth club. They’d managed to attract the attention of so many disenchanted young people, including the faith bashing peers I spend so much time with. In a strange way, I was excited to bring together these two entities – the evenings and my Sundays. The parish priest was a joyful and humorous man who I was convinced would change the opinion of those who damned me for going to this very place. As I turned up for the first time, using the parish room entrance I was so familiar with, the door was opened by sneering teenagers including my ‘friends’, who accentuating a previous disagreement, slammed the door of the Church in my face and locked it. I never once made it into that short lived venture.
The relevance of recounting these moments from my teenage years is linked to the upcoming solemnity of the Ascension. For weeks now we’ve heard countless tales of the early disciples travelling around, preaching to gentiles, standing up to those mocking them for continuing to believe in Jesus, bringing together new communities. In this Sundays first reading from Acts it recalls Philip making huge headway in a Samaritan town, a relationship Jesus showed the disciples needed to be repaired, “Philip went to a Samaritan town and proclaimed the Christ to them. The people united in welcoming the message Philip preached, either because they had heard of the miracles he worked or because they saw them for themselves…As a result there was great rejoicing in that town.’ (Acts 8:5,6,8). There is a great amount of time between Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension, one which is filled with revelations, truths and realisations.
The second reading from this Sunday is taken from St Peter’s first letter, and it was this one that really brought back some of the above realisations. Peter starts off by addressing the issue of defending the faith you have in Christ which shows itself through an outer expression of hope, “Reverence the Lord Christ in your hearts, and always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have. But give it with courtesy and respect and with a clear conscience, so that those who slander you when you are living a good life in Christ may be proved wrong in the accusations that they bring.’ (1 Peter 15-16). Even as an adult it can be hard to respond as St Peter says, with courtesy and respect and with a clear conscience, but the next part of his letter explains why, ”And if it is the will of God that you should suffer, it is better to suffer for doing right than for doing wrong.’ (1 Peter 17). This is a perfect link to the resurrection of Jesus and his suffering, and Peter is reassuring us today that we should follow those same steps in everything we do – follow our conscience, always know what is right.
On Ascension day, the reading from Acts couldn’t make it any clearer how much trust Jesus now has in his disciples and what their mission is. He both shows them his almighty power by ascending up to heaven before their eyes, whilst reminding them of their mission and to follow the spirit within them.
‘Jesus replied, ‘It is not for you to know times or dates that the Father has decided by his own authority, but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and then you will be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem but throughout Judaea and Samaria, and indeed to the ends of the earth.’
As he said this he was lifted up while they looked on, and a cloud took him from their sight. They were still staring into the sky when suddenly two men in white were standing near them and they said, ‘Why are you men from Galilee standing here looking into the sky? Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven, this same Jesus will come back in the same way as you have seen him go there.’’ (Acts 1:6-11)
At some point during my own experiences I felt this same strength and passion to be proud of my own faith, and to envelop my life more fully with Christ. Twelve months after my experience of the Church door slammed in my face, I was part of the parish council, taking part in ministries in the parish and going away on pilgrimage experiences. It took a lot of journeying, but Christ has a way of revealing himself to us all so we can look up to the sky like the disciples and then move forward in our own personal mission.