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 The Peace Pulpit:  Homilies by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton

By special arrangement, The National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company is able to make available Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton's weekly Sunday homilies given at Saint Leo Church, Detroit, MI.  Each homily is transcribed from a tape recording of the actual delivery and made available to you as an NCR Web site exclusive.  You may register for a weekly e-mail reminder that will be sent to you when each new homily is posted.  From time to time, Bishop Gumbleton is traveling and unable to provide us with the homily for the week.
NOTE:  The homilies are available here five days after they are given, always on Friday.  By signing up for our weekly e-mail, you will be notifed as soon as each is available. (See the upper right corner of this screen.)
The Ascension of the Lord
June 1, 2003

Thomas J. Gumbleton

Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese
of Detroit, Michigan *

This week's readings **

Acts 1:1-11

The first book I wrote, Theophilus, concerned all that Jesus began both to do and to teach, until the day in which he was received up, after he had given commandment through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. To these he also showed himself alive after he suffered, by many proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days, and speaking about God's Kingdom. Being assembled together with them, he charged them, "Don't depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, which you heard from me. For John indeed baptized in water, but you will be baptized in the Holy Spirit not many days from now." Therefore, when they had come together, they asked him, "Lord, are you now restoring the kingdom to Israel?" He said to them, "It isn't for you to know times or seasons which the Father has set within His own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you. You will be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth." When he had said these things, as they were looking, he was taken up, and a cloud received him out of their sight. While they were looking steadfastly into the sky as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white clothing, who also said, "You men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who was received up from you into the sky will come back in the same way as you saw him going into the sky."

Ephesians 1:17-23

Brothers and sisters, may the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give to you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him.  May the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope of his calling, and what are the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints, and what is the exceeding greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to that working of the strength of his might which he worked in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule, and authority, and power, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in that which is to come. He put all things in subjection under his feet, and gave him to be head over all things for the assembly, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all things in every way.

Mark 16:15-20

Jesus said to his disciples, "Go into all the world, and preach the Gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who disbelieves will be condemned. These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new languages; they will take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it will in no way hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover." So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. But they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs.

* A longtime national and international activist in the peace movement, Bishop Gumbleton is a founding member of Pax Christi USA and an outspoken critic of the sanctions against Iraq.

He has appeared on numerous radio and television programs, and has published numerous articles and reports.

* Scripture texts in this work are in modified form from the American Standard Version of the Bible and are available as part of the public domain.

For your convenience, the Scripture texts, as they appear in the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the Dioceses of the United States, second typical edition, Copyright © 1998, 1997, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C., may be found at the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCC).

** The Web link to Pax Christi is provided as a service to our readers.

As you know from being here in church so many times, the window over there depicts the scene that is described in the Acts of the Apostles: Jesus gathered his disciples together, spoke to them for the last time and then was raised up. As you look at that you might say to yourself, "Just where did Jesus go?" We don't know the whole answer to that question, but if we reflect on the scriptures, we'll get a sense of where Jesus went.

First of all, it's important to recognize that this description was something put together by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles and Mark in his gospel and the authors of the other gospels many, many years after Jesus had died, been raised from the dead and took his place at God's right hand. It's an attempt to speak about mysteries that are almost impossible to describe in words, an attempt to say what happened in the death, the resurrection, and the ascension of Jesus. It's almost impossible, so the gospel writers, Luke and the other apostles, struggled to find words that would help us to grasp the truth behind these events.

It is also very important to recognize that those first disciples had a difficult time getting to a point where they could articulate anything. The passage that we read today, in fact, was not originally in Mark's gospel. It was put in much later. The gospel originally ended in a very strange way. We heard it on Easter Sunday. The women had gone to the tomb and said, "This is the place where they laid him." But they discovered that the stone was gone and Jesus was gone. Two people spoke to them and told them to go, "Jesus will go ahead of you into Galilee." Then Mark says the women went out of the tomb and fled. They ran away beside themselves with fear. They said nothing to anyone because they were afraid. They couldn't grasp what had happened. This kind of event had never happened before. This was just totally unheard of.

In a way 2000 years later, we get kind of routine about this, as though resurrection is nothing special. But, they had never, ever had a sense that this might happen. They were confused and afraid and didn't tell anybody at first. It was only over a long period of time that that first community of disciples began to sort it out and try to understand. And that's what we've been doing during this Easter season. As we start our seventh week, we go back and reflect, try to understand, try to come to terms with what had happened to Jesus and who Jesus really is.

We've been trying to grasp the main truth of the Easter event, the resurrection, which is that Jesus is alive. Jesus is alive. The first disciples had that experience. They came to understand that his body was still his body, even though it was very different from what it had been before. Jesus at times told them, "Touch, see it is I, don't be afraid." They gradually came to accept this unbelievable truth: Jesus is alive, he is among us. Everything he did before, he can continue to do -- his preaching, his healing, his reaching out in love and forgiveness.

Gradually they did come to understand that and so they were able to speak about it. In John's gospel, and his is the last gospel so the Christian community has come to a more complete understanding of the resurrection, when John speaks about Jesus coming back on Easter Sunday night, the disciples experience him as alive but already ascended into heaven and pouring forth the Holy Spirit upon them. It all happened at once; it wasn't really spread out over 50 days as we celebrate it in church. But the early church slowly came to understand, Jesus is alive, he's among us and breathes his spirit upon us.

As they began to understand about the resurrection, they also had to grasp what happened to Jesus and who Jesus really is. They had to put together that truth, just as we do today. Sometimes, though, I think we don't really understand how deep a mystery it is. This Jesus, son of Mary, the one who walked among us, like us in every way is also Son of God. Son of God. Son of Mary and son of God. An extraordinary, unbelievable, in human terms, truth. This human Jesus is also son of God.

When the disciples tried to express this reality, not just that Jesus is alive but also that he is son of God, in power, they start writing about him in exalted terms, as Paul does earlier in the letter to the Ephesians. Paul wrote, "He revealed his almighty power in Christ when God raised Jesus from the dead and had him sit at his right hand in heaven. Far above all rule, power, authority, dominion or any other supernatural force that could be named not only in this world but in the world to come as well." The exaltation of Jesus -- that is what they began to try to grasp. The more you think about this and the more you reflect upon it, I hope the more you realize the depth of the mystery of Jesus.

We won't ever totally comprehend it. But that's OK. Jesus wouldn't be God if we could truly comprehend everything about him. But if we keep searching, going into the mystery, trying to understand Jesus son of Mary, son of God. Crucified, put to death, but raised again. Alive, living among us. The truth will gradually take a deep hold within us. And we will feel a sense of joy and exaltation that God so loved this world that God sent Jesus into the world to be one of us, the son of God became our brother.

Gradually those first disciples began to get some grasp of the mystery of Jesus and began to write it down for us to continue to reflect upon it. But even as they began to grasp who Jesus is and what happened to him through his death, resurrection and exaltation at God's right hand, they still had some confusion. That is made clear in the passage from the Acts of the Apostles this morning. Do you remember the way Luke describes it, he says, "Those disciples came together with Jesus and they were still asking him the question: 'Is now the time that you're going to restore the kingdom to Israel? Are you going to make us a great world power again? Is this the moment?'" They didn't know really what Jesus was about. They thought he was going to establish an earthly kingdom and that he would restore Israel to all of its glory, make it the greatest kingdom in the world. That's not what Jesus was about at all, but they were still struggling to understand.

Some times maybe we, too, still don't really understand about the reign of God. It is not an earthly reign. It is not about power and wealth and prestige, dominating other nations, other people. Being able to wage war on a scale that makes us the most dominate nation in the world. No, that is not the reign of God at all.

I think one of the best descriptions of the reign of God was something Pope John Paul II wrote in his Peace Day statement for January 1, 2002 a few months after the terrorist attack on our country. John Paul was reflecting on that event and urging us and the world not to respond to terror with terror. He said there is a different way to bring peace into the world, to make the reign of God happen. It is built on two pillars, he tells us. The pillar of justice, the justice where everyone shares what God has given for all. And the pillar of love, and especially the kind of love we call forgiveness, reconciliation, reaching out to forgive. That love makes no one an enemy but everyone a friend. It transforms enemies into friends. That love is unconditional and unlimited. These two pillars make the reign of God happen. These pillars bring peace and joy and fullness of life into our world. They transform our world into as close an image of that reign of God as possible.

That's what Jesus was preaching, and that's what he wanted to happen. His first disciples hadn't really caught on, and maybe we haven't fully caught on either. But we must begin to think about what the reign of God really is.

But the second confusion on the part of those disciples is "Who's going to make it happen? Is this the moment when you will restore " You see, they thought that Jesus was going to do it. And maybe that's what we think too. But if we do we're wrong. Jesus brought together a community of disciples, and our message today on the Feast of the Ascension is what Luke described in the Acts of the Apostles. Remember the scene. Jesus has ascended and the disciples are standing around and they notice two other people there. One of these asks the disciples, "Why are you standing here? Don't you know it's time to go?" Remember what Jesus said, "Go out into the whole world, proclaim the good news, be people of the gospel, people committed to transform our world into as close an image of the reign of God as possible." That's what this feast is really about. That's the message to you and to me. We should celebrate the exaltation of Jesus in heaven, but we should also make the reign of God happen.

If we are to take this seriously, if we are to be the disciples of Jesus, then there are things that we need to do. We understand that Jesus is son of God and son of Mary. We understand that Jesus went through death and resurrection to new life to be exalted with God in heaven. And where is Jesus now? He's living in you and me. We are the body of Christ. And it's our task again to change this world into God's reign.

I can offer just a couple of very quick examples of things you could do; you can think of a lot more I'm sure. But one thing our own parish family, our parish community, needs is leadership to help us to continue to become the community of disciples we're supposed to be in order to change our world right around here, in Detroit. Next Sunday we're going to bring forth new members for our parish council. If you haven't thought about it, I ask you to think about being among those who would put their names forward, to become leaders, to help form this community. Then we can be a community that works within Detroit and in our nation and the world to transform this world into God's reign.

Another very specific thing you could do is become involved in work with our twin parish in Haiti and the suffering of the people of Haiti. You could be more involved in the efforts we are making to connect, to help people to rise out of poverty, a desperate kind of poverty that's imposed upon them though cruel injustice. This would help that part of the world to be transformed into the reign of God. But you can think of other ways I'm sure. And each of us must.

Remember Jesus now lives in us. This is where Jesus is. Our task is to transform this world into as close an image of the reign of God as possible. The reign of God is not some powerful kingdom of the earth. It is that place where the pillars of justice and love bring peace and joy and fullness of life to all. You and I can help to make that happen if we take seriously the lesson of the Ascension.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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