The Peace Pulpit: Homiles by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton
|The Ascension of the Lord||May 5, 2005|
In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke tells us that after Jesus had instructed the disciples through the Holy Spirit then he took them to the Mount of Olives. When they had come together, they asked him, "Is it now that you will restore the kingdom of Israel?" He answered, "It's not for you to know the time or the moment which God has fixed, but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem throughout Judea and Samaria even to the ends of the Earth." After Jesus said this he was taken up before their eyes and a cloud hid him from their sight, and while they were still looking up to Heaven where he went, suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them and said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking up at the sky? This Jesus who had been taken from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him go there."
There's no place in the Gospel that this event is recorded. Luke, in fact, has dramatized the departure of Jesus. If you look in John's Gospel you discover that Jesus rose from the dead, appeared to the disciples, brought the Holy Spirit to them and, except for appearing every so often, was gone. There was no moment just like that moment Luke described, but what we need to remember about the Feast of the Ascension is, first of all, what it is telling us about Jesus. Jesus was willing, as Paul describes in his letter to the church at Philippi, to "totally empty himself though he was son of God." Jesus emptied himself and became human. Became one of us. Gave himself over to death, even the ignominious death of the cross.
Jesus emptied himself totally, opened himself fully to God, and it was therefore that God raised him up and gave him the glory that is above all glory. Jesus, who was one of us, our brother, fully human like us in every way, is now raised up and, as described in that passage from the church to Ephesus, Jesus is dramatically present over all creation. Everything is subject to him. This reminds us of what Jesus told us, "If you exalt yourself, you will be humbled but if you humble yourself you will be exalted." To try to follow the way of Jesus, we can not be exalting ourselves, blowing ourselves up, making ourselves seem so important. We humble ourselves and, like Jesus, empty ourselves so that we can be open to God filling us and raising us up. Exalting us.
That's the first thing the Feast of the Ascension teaches to us -- the truth of what Jesus said and what he tried to insist upon to his disciples: "Be humble. Be ready to be the servant of all. If you want the first place in my kingdom don't try to be over all, don't try to be all important. Be humble. Be ready to serve." That's how you become first in the reign of God.
But then, also, from the Feast of the Ascension we must understand, and it is very clear, that Jesus is giving us a commission. As his followers we have work to do. It was spelled out by Luke in that passage from Acts, "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the Earth." He's talking to you and me! "You will be my witnesses." Jesus put no limit on it. He talked to those first disciples, those in Jerusalem, and Judea, and Samaria, but then to the ends of the Earth. The community of the disciples of Jesus, which is our church, we are to be his witnesses.
In the Gospel of Matthew that we just listened to, he said practically the same thing. "Go, proclaim the reign of God. Teach all nations. Take this message everywhere." That's the commission given to us today in this feast that we celebrate. Jesus is telling us, "You are the ones now who do my work. Carry on what I came to do. Proclaim the reign of God and make that reign of God happen."
So we ask ourselves more precisely what is it that Jesus has commissioned us to do?
There is a real dispute sometimes in our church, in the whole Christian community, about what is the commission. In fact, there is a quite long article in today's paper. The headline is "Peru's Catholics brace for fissures in their church." The church in Peru is splitting. This is about the country of Peru, but the split is this way: One of the archbishops of Lima says, "The proper role of the church as an institution is to cultivate souls and strengthen the dignity of a human person not to try to solve all of the problems of the world."
There are those who would say, "If you're going to follow Jesus, if you are going to carry on his work, separate yourself from the world; cultivate your spiritual life, be apart from the world. But then there are those who say in Peru -- this is where liberation theology started -- who say it is our role to transform the world, change the world, make it into the reign of God. So we can't separate ourselves. We can't go apart and just be by ourselves and try to save our souls.
Which is the real mission of Jesus? Is it simply to save our souls? To focus on our personal salvation? To say I have found Jesus and I am now saved and that's all that matters except, maybe, trying to convince other people to find Jesus and be saved? Is it simply trying to bring each person one by one to be saved. Or is the mission of Jesus more? Is it to transform our world? To usher in the reign of God?
What is the commission? How are we to decide?
To me it seems very clear. All you have to do is look into the Gospel. Look in Luke's Gospel, in the fourth chapter, a passage that you've heard many times: Jesus has come back from fasting for 40 days and 40 nights in the desert where he had been praying and doing penance, where he was in deep communion with God trying to discover his vocation, his call. He came back from this time of prayer, communion with God, and he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath. They hand him the scroll of Isaiah to read. Remember what he did? He carefully unrolled the scroll and found the place where it says, "The spirit of God is upon me and God sends me to proclaim good news to the poor, to heal the broken hearted, to set the downtrodden free, to give the blind new sight, and to proclaim God's year of favor -- the jubilee year where everything is changed and transformed, where justice begins to happen."
"The spirit of God is upon me and God sends me," Jesus said. When he finished reading, he handed the scroll back, sat down and everybody was looking at him. Luke said all eyes in the synagogue were fixed on him, waiting for him to speak. What did he say? "This day this scripture passage is fulfilled even as you listen," Jesus said. "It's fulfilled in me." That's his work.
So now, when he commissions us isn't it obvious that we must do the same work: proclaim good news to the poor, give the blind new sight, set the downtrodden free, proclaim God's year of favor, change the world, transform it? That's what Jesus says was his work. So if he commissions us today, we must take on his work.
There are, of course, various ways in which we can do that. One of the ways will be as we continue to try to do our work of evangelization here in this community. We're going to try to put more emphasis upon that again in the coming weeks. We're going to try to go out and really share the good news to the people all around us, welcome them to come here to be part of us. We will also reach out to help those who are in need as we do every day in our soup kitchen. We're going to try and intensify that work, transform this part of our city, this part of the world into as close an image of the reign of God as possible. But we have to go beyond that.
As you know, a few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit Cuba and Nicaragua. I found Nicaragua most upsetting. I discovered there when I visited the downtown part of Managua, the capital, a place where over 6,000 people were encamped, living outdoors. They had walked 200 kilometers from their villages. You know why? Because they're dying! They're dying! They are farm workers. Companies from this country sent pesticides down there that were banned in this country. They used them. There was no warning and now there are 80,000 people directly affected by that pesticide; 2,000 have died.
[Bishop Gumbleton reads from a paper:] "The extent of the health implications resulting from the consumption of crops treated with the pesticide is still uncertain. On March 11, thousands of affected workers and their families trekked 200 kilometers and created a makeshift encampment in front of the national assembly. Among the 6,500 people encamped, 50 are on a hunger strike to the death. They are demanding government enforcement of the successful lawsuit against the chemical companies. This pesticide, for thousands of the workers and their families has resulted in cancer, blindness, kidney failure, spontaneous abortion, birth defects and death."
I have pictures in the back of the church, which I ask you to look at after Mass, and a small card that describes what is happening to these people. This is one of the areas where if we really care about doing the work of Jesus, we have to reach out, and there are suggestions as to how you can do it.
I hope that we would see that this is our task, our role as those commissioned by Jesus. He said, "You are to be my witnesses. You are the ones who are to proclaim the good news to the poor. You are the ones who are to set the downtrodden free." That's all of us. That's our commission. It's very clear, it seems to me, what Jesus is asking of us as we celebrate this feast. And we remember, of course, that as he left he also said, "I am with you always." So we don't do it alone. We still do it with Jesus and through Jesus.
And as we celebrate today, first communion for some of our youngest members, I urge everyone of us to remember, and as these youngsters grow up I hope that we will continue to help them to understand ever more deeply what it means when you receive the body and blood of Jesus. What it means is very clear if you take seriously what happens when you come forward to receive: You take the bread and you sip from the cup and when the minister says, "The body of Christ" or "The blood of Christ" you answer, "Amen." One word but it means, "Yes!" You take Jesus into yourself and you are saying yes to Jesus and that means that you say yes, then to all that he taught, to all that he did and to the commission that he gave us.
Yes! That is what we say to Jesus when we receive Holy Communion, and we ask Jesus then to transform us so that we really can be his witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, Samaria and now to the ends of the earth.
In the name of the father and of the son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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