Sunday's first and third readings not only contain memorable verses, but also mark important stages in early Christianity's understanding and growth. When, as expected, the celebration of Jesus' Ascension replaces this Sunday's liturgy, we'll no longer hear these most significant passages.

Jesus' first disciples easily identified with the sentiments of Rev. 22: 12-14, 16-17, 20. Believing He was going to return triumphant in their lifetime, they must have reflected often on the promise contained in the seer's vision: "Remember, I am coming soon! I bring with me the reward that will be given to each as his conduct serves....Yes, I am coming soon!" Their favorite prayer must have been a simple, yet emphatic, "Come, Lord Jesus!"

But days, months and years go by. Because Jesus doesn't come in the way they anticipate, Christians eventually have to choose: either abandon faith in Jesus or adapt their faith to a delayed Parousia. The later authors of the Christian Scriptures choose to adapt.

First martyr

Luke, writing in the mid-80s, seems to be the first Christian author to presume that everyone in his community would die a natural death before Jesus' Second Coming. That's what makes the second reading so important (Acts 7:55-60).

Stephen isn't just the first Christian martyr; he's also the first Christian to die in Acts. His death sets the pattern for all others. Notice what happens as he dies: "Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at God's right hand." Then, "as they were stoning him, Stephen said, `Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.'"

Compare that scene with Paul's comments in chapter 4 of I Thessalonians (the earliest Christian writing, composed at least 30 years before Acts). Paul tells his community not to worry about those who die before the Parousia. They'll not be at a disadvantage with "those of us" who are still alive when Jesus returns. They, "like us," will have to wait to enter into the Lord's glory until He comes back, but they'll be the first in line. No one "gets into heaven" until Jesus arrives.

Here, in Acts, by depicting Jesus coming in glory to receive Stephen's spirit, Luke seems to be saying that each Christian, at the moment of death, experiences his or her personal Parousia. We no longer have to wait for Jesus' Second Coming to enter into glory. (Not understanding this evolution in theological thought, later theologians would speak about a "particular judgment and a general judgment.")

Living now

The delayed Parousia not only forces Christians to look at death in a new way, but it also makes them take another look at this life. Instead of just gearing up to endure an earthly existence for a few years, they now begin to see that they have to do their best to improve how they live right here and now. This is especially clear in the Gospel passage (Jn 17:20-26).

John's "radical" theology had laid the groundwork for divisions not only between his church and other churches, but also among some elements in his own community. Writing near the end of the first century, he knows Christianity easily could splinter into a myriad of denominational expressions, each labeling the others heretics. That seems to be why he ends Jesus' long Last Supper discourse with a plea "that all may be one as you, Father, are in me, and I in you; I pray that they be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me."

Jesus' goal in ministering, dying and rising in this world is simple: to reveal His Father to His disciples. That's why He asks the Father to make certain that "your love for me may live in them, and I may live in them." Such love will bind all Jesus' followers together; the resulting unity will also convince "the world" that Jesus really has been sent by the Father.

Even if the celebration of the Ascension eventually is transferred to this Sunday, no Christian can ever be dispensed from fulfilling Jesus' passionate wish to build and maintain unity among His followers, even now, long before His Parousia. Have we done anything lately to create and support that unity?