The Peace Pulpit: Homilies by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton
|Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord||May 28, 2006|
The Easter candle, of course, is and has been for the last 40 days the symbol of the presence of the living, risen Jesus in our midst. With the simple action of carrying the candle away, we symbolize what we celebrate in this feast today: Jesus in his physical presence on earth has definitively left his disciples.
In the Acts of the Apostles, St Luke takes a lot of time to say the very same thing through the symbolic raising of his body up into heaven, clouds come and he rides away in the clouds into heaven, someplace way up above. Its important for us not to be too distracted by those symbols, because in fact as we know from Lukes account of the gospel, actually Jesus rose and ascended back to God on Easter Sunday. During a period of time, he would appear off and on to the disciples, but he was gone; his death was definitive and when he rose to new life he reunited with God in heaven forever.
It must have been hard for those disciples to accept the reality that he was gone. In fact, as Luke describes it in the Acts of The Apostles, they hadnt really been able to hear what he had told them. Throughout his public life, a number of times, people wanted to make him the king, restore the kingdom of David in all its glory. Establish Jesus as a powerful king on earth, to bring about the reign of God. And even now at the very end -- as we hear Luke describe it -- they are saying to him: Is now the time when you are going to restore the kingdom? Its hard for them to think that hes going to be gone.
He had told them -- as it is recorded in Johns Gospel -- at the last supper that he would leave them, but it seems again that they werent able to hear what he says. He said, Indeed believe me, its better for you that I go away, because as long as I do not leave, the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, will not come. But if I go away I will send the Spirit to you.
It was so clear, and yet they found it so hard to believe. Maybe part of the reason was that they did not really want to accept that he wasnt, in his physical life on earth, to bring about the fullness of Gods reign. That was to be their responsibility. You will be my witnesses, in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth. You will be my witnesses, the ones proclaiming the good news about Gods reign and how that reign will come about. It will come about according to the way that Jesus lived and died, not through physical power or violence or wealth or earthly armies or kingdoms of the earth. It will come about as people learn to live according to his way, the way of love.
Thats a very difficult task that he left for his disciples and of course its not completed yet. And so those words in the first lesson today are being spoken not just 2,000 years ago but right now. Its a living word, Gods word. God is speaking to us this morning, you, each of us are to be my witnesses. We are the ones that have the task to transform our world, to try to transform hatred and violence through love so that peace can happen.
We are the ones who are to spread the message about Jesus. All that he was, all that he taught, all that he stands for. We have to do that first of all as Jesus suggests by being witnesses. That is we have to take in the message, we have to transform our lives so that our very lives speak the message of Jesus. Not just our words but our lives, the way we live. We become witnesses to Jesus and everywhere we go we spread his message and bring about the transformation of the world.
We might think its beyond us, to be able to this. But then we really need to hear what St. Paul tells those Christians at Ephesus. I suppose in a sense, he had established that church, he had proclaimed the good news, he had brought about the conversion of many of these gentiles in Ephesus, and probably they had become dependent upon him. But now hes in jail, and so they have to do it. They probably were lacking in confidence, and thats what he tells them, That Jesus from heaven sends his gifts. To some he gave to be apostles, others prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers, so he prepared those who belonged to him for ministry. Jesus prepares us in the same way, and it can happen, if we accept that we are gifted by God and begin to use those gifts.
In fact, I think it’s very significant in a way that I was gone last Sunday because I was in Haiti. And one of the reasons I was there was that I was working to continue in the effort to bring Fr. Gérard Jean-Juste back to his parish. Hes in jail, conditionally released to receive medical treatment which he needs so desperately, but hes in jail. And yet when I went to his parish, St. Clare parish in one of the slum areas of Port-au-Prince, it was amazing to see all that is going in that parish. Their pastor is in jail, but one of the days I was there the church was half filled with young people who were being prepared for First Holy Communion. There was no priest there to prepare them, but the people, the leaders of the parish were doing it.
When I celebrated Mass the choir was there and they sang with great power and joyfulness. And all the works of service are going on. In fact they have increased. You know that Fr. Gérard has been gone from that parish since last July when he was arrested and put in jail. But everything goes on, because the people, and these are very poor people that I suppose that a lot of us would say, Well how could they ever keep it going. Well they have. They have kept it going, because people have stepped forward, taken roles of leadership. They act as evangelists, preaching the gospel, living the gospel. They do the ministry of education and teaching. They do the ministry of reaching out to those who have no food. In fact, over the past few months the numbers they serve a full meal -- well, its not exactly a full meal. Its beans and rice and little bit of chicken -- they serve now up to 800 people a day.
Its amazing all that keeps going in that parish. And its because the people there have heard that they are the ones who are to be the witnesses, the ones who are to carry on the work of Jesus. To proclaim the good news. To make the good news happen. And its happening there.
I hope that all of us will begin to take very seriously this message. In a way, this feast day could distract us. We could look at that window over there [which depicts the Ascension], and spend our time thinking about how did Jesus rise up on that cloud and so on, and wheres heaven? Up there someplace? All of that speculation is absurd really. The message is: You are the witnesses. Get out and go to work. Thats what Jesus wants us to hear, and we need to take it in.
That makes me want to say a word about what I mentioned before Mass. Next Sunday well be trying to draw forth new leaders for our parish. I hope each one of us will prayerfully consider, maybe my name should be in that basket from which we draw the names of the leaders, maybe God is asking me to take a further role of leadership in this parish community. I hope we will think about that. Whether we become a member of the leadership of the parish council or not, nevertheless each of us still I hope will leave the church today hearing Jesus tell us you are to be my witnesses. Thats the message of the Ascension this feast day. Go out into the world and by your very life proclaim the good news: God is love, and love can transform this world if we all live according to the way of God.
Go and be my witnesses. Thats the message of this feast.
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