‘Jesus, not religion’ is a flawed idea, and the Ascension shows us why

Benvenuto Tisi’s 16th century painting depicts Christ’s Ascension to heaven. In ascending to the Father, Jesus does not abandon his flock, but instead sends the Holy Spirit to guide the Church into the truth throughout all ages. 

About 45 minutes outside of Detroit, there is a Protestant church I pass by several times a year, and for years now this church has had a curious sign in front of it. The sign reads, “Believe in Christ, not a religion.”

Even disagreeing with the content of the message, I suppose you have to give them some credit for the courage of their conviction. Their sign basically tells people that it doesn’t matter whether you set foot inside their church or not. 

The problem is that this conviction does not come from Christ, while religion most certainly does.

Our Lord’s Ascension sets up a very basic question about our relationship with God. If Christmas gives us a new way of coming into contact with God through the humanity of His Son, does the Ascension of Jesus cut off this access? Have we been left alone to figure things out for ourselves?

Our Lord’s Ascension sets up a very basic question about our relationship with God. If Christmas gives us a new way of coming into contact with God through the humanity of His Son, does the Ascension of Jesus cut off this access? Have we been left alone to figure things out for ourselves? Should we engage in whatever vague form of “spirituality” makes the best sense to us?

Scripture tells us in the clearest possible terms that we are not at all cut off from God because of Christ’s Ascension. In fact, in predicting His Ascension, Jesus told His apostles, “It is better for you that I go” (John 16:7). But what does He mean by “better”?

We see the answer to those questions the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. In John’s account of the Last Supper, Jesus tells His apostles that things will be better after His Ascension, adding: 

“For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you”  (John 16:7). 

Also, in Acts 1:8 and Luke 24:49, Jesus predicts the Gift of this Advocate, the Holy Spirit:

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 

“And behold I am sending the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”

At Christ’s Ascension, we are already looking ahead to the feast of Pentecost next Sunday. The Gift of the Holy Spirit gives life and power to the followers of Jesus. The Spirit also gives authority to the leaders of the Church, the apostles, and empowers them to teach, to govern, and to make holy all the members of the Church. 

Those who receive the Spirit are also empowered to give witness to Jesus in the world. The Spirit makes possible the Church’s mission of evangelization, which involves sharing Christ with others and inviting them to a new life with Him in His Church. 

Notice that none of this is the invention of some early pope or any other merely human religious leader. This is not a sales pitch or a slogan for a Catholic membership drive. This truth is revealed to us by God. To believe in Christ is to believe in religion, because the Son of God came to us and lived with us and suffered and died and rose again so that we could become united with Him in His Church. 

St. Paul teaches in Ephesians 5:25, “Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her.” Today’s second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that right now Christ is standing before His Father on our behalf, interceding for us. Christ loves us as He loved His first apostles and disciples. He wants to give to us all the good things He has given to them.

Do you long to be close to Jesus? The Holy Eucharist is Christ with us, and the fulfillment of His promise, just before His Ascension, “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). 

Do you long for guidance amidst the confusion of life? Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will guide the Church: “When he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth” (John 16:13). Our Lord also makes clear that His authority is given not in some vague way but rather precisely to St. Peter and the other apostles (and their successors):

“And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:18-19).

Do you long for forgiveness and mercy? It’s waiting for you in the confessional. This is another power Jesus has given to His apostles with the Gift of the Spirit:

“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained’” (John 20:21-23).

We could go on and on through all of the texts in Sacred Scripture that confirm the truth about Christ’s Ascension: this is a moment of victory, not of defeat, for those who love Jesus Christ and follow Him. Christ has not gone to heaven to abandon us, but to draw us closer to Him in His Church. The power of the Holy Spirit and the grace given in the sacraments make it possible for us to share Christ’s life and to prepare for heaven. 

It has become very popular these days to reject religion and to try and go it alone, to walk one’s own individual spiritual path. But Jesus calls us to Him and He calls us together. We are the beneficiaries of the supreme gift of union with God, and also the instruments by which others are invited to share divine life.

Fr. Charles Fox is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit currently assigned to the theology faculty of Sacred Heart Major Seminary. He is also a weekend associate pastor at St. Therese of Lisieux Parish in Shelby Township and chaplain and a board member of St. Paul Evangelization Institute, headquartered in Warren.