Christ's ascent to heaven is depicted in a stained-glass window at St. Therese of Lisieux Church in Montauk, N.Y. CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic

No shortcuts to the Lord

  • May 21, 2014

Ascension of the Lord (Year A) June 1 (Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:17-23; Matthew 28:16-20)

The people who witnessed the ascension of Jesus didn’t really understand what God was up to and they were not exactly in sync with the mind and heart of God. We perhaps share more with them than we care to admit.

The excitement of the 40 days they spent with Jesus after the Resurrection inflamed their hearts and imagination — they were ready and eager for “action.” Throwing the hated Romans out and re-establishing the Kingdom of Israel were the first items on their agenda — and that was the problem, it was their agenda rather than God’s. As far as God was concerned, there were far more pressing matters at hand. The disciples received a mild but firm rebuke from Jesus. The divine plan was none of their business! Their orders were clear — they were to do something most people find very difficult: wait patiently. Divine power in the form of the Spirit was to be given to them while they waited in Jerusalem.

We might remember that in Mark’s Gospel there was no giving of the Spirit in Jerusalem. The messenger at the empty tomb instructed the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee. Different traditions, different Gospels — the theological message of each Gospel should hold our attention. The Spirit was given for the purpose of mission — they were to be Jesus’ witnesses throughout Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the Earth, which meant “Rome” in Luke’s narrative. A lot of difficult, dangerous and selfless work lay ahead of them. There would be no fast and easy exit from the world. This point was brought home to them again as the crowd watched Jesus ascend.

Even today, many people gaze longingly towards “heaven” even though they realize that God is not “up there” but everywhere. The two figures in white, presumably angels, challenged them to keep their focus here on Earth. This is where we continue God’s work and where we learn the lessons of living, loving and serving. There are no shortcuts or easy answers, for the way to God’s realm passes through our precarious and messy world. It is fine to have our hearts in heaven, but our feet must be planted firmly on the ground we tread.

Many have difficulty understanding the extent to which God’s power works on our behalf. The full significance of the Resurrection of Jesus is sometimes unclear. The author of Ephesians prayed that His followers would come to know and understand that it is all about the power of God. It is God’s power that raised Jesus from the dead and placed Him in authority over all creation. It is that same power that will raise us, but even before that it will work tirelessly on our behalf. When we look at the world’s darkness, violence and sorrow, we should remember that the drama is still unfolding. God is ultimately in control, even if humans are slow to respond and quick to run the other way.

The same sense of mission was expressed in the “great commission” of Jesus in Matthew. As in Ephesians, all earthly and heavenly authority was granted to Jesus. Throughout the earthly ministry of Jesus, His mission had been strictly to the house of Israel. He was, after all, Israel’s messiah. But now His authority was universal and so was the scope of His mission. He commanded them to make disciples of all nations and share all that He had taught them. The core of this body of teachings was probably the principles that He imparted to them during the Sermon on the Mount. The emphasis was on sharing the treasure of the teachings of Jesus and making disciples of all people rather than merely increasing numbers or filling churches.

There is an implicit warning embedded in this commission. In order to make disciples of others, we must first be true disciples ourselves. Too often in the past, proclaiming the Gospel to other peoples was flawed by a poisonous mixture of ambition, lust for wealth and power, and imperialism. True discipleship also includes a willingness to learn from those to whom we proclaim the Gospel. The final words of Jesus were the most important and comforting of all: “I am with you always.”