We are nearing the end of our Easter Season as we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord this Sunday, and then Pentecost Sunday next weekend. Both feasts help us to further make connections to the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Christ with the lives, deaths, and resurrections of our own.
Today’s Gospel is taken from the conclusion of the Gospel of Matthew. Here we are told that the eleven disciples go the mountaintop in Galilee, as Jesus had instructed through Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (cf. Matthew 28:9-10). They see Jesus, and he commissions them to baptize and teach, “to make disciples of all nations.” It is a task which Jesus had previously prepared his disciples for. However, earlier the Twelve were sent only to the House of Israel; in this Final Commission, the eleven are told to go to “all nations.” The mission of Jesus is now to be taken to all people; the task now is to baptize and to teach.
In the sequel to the Gospel of Luke, the Book of Acts, our first reading, the author elaborates on the reactions of the apostles: “When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?’”
God is showing steadfast love, sending these two messengers to remind them not just to stand and look up, but to look around, look ahead, and look toward the work they must do. They must proclaim “repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name to all nations.” They must be witnesses to what just happened. And they must not worry; they will receive the Holy Spirit to carry out the mission. Jesus has promised to send the Paraclete, the advocate in his absence, the power from on high. Jesus has told them to stay in Jerusalem to wait for it.
Going through something traumatic, it is easy to dwell on the past or fantasize about the future, but it is not easy to stay in the present. However, the present is exactly where Jesus wants the disciples to be.
Now the disciples should realize they are not only followers anymore, but also leaders. They cannot only stand there, looking up toward heaven. Rather, they need to follow Jesus’ commission, and they need to get into action. Nevertheless, before their action, before the Holy Spirit is bestowed on them, they need to reflect, to pray, and to bless God.
The verses after today’s reading from the Book of Acts tell us that, “When [the disciples] had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying . . . All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers” (Acts 1:13a, 14).
Finally, the disciples’ minds are opened to understand the Scriptures and the purpose of Jesus’ teaching. As we read in the Letter to the Ephesians, “May he enlighten the eyes of your mind so that you can see what hope his call holds for you,” From then on, the disciples of Jesus set up the Church and proclaimed the repentance and forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus to all nations. That is how we have had the Good News passed to us.
They have set a great example for us, the later followers. When we are at a loss, before we carry out our call, we need to pray and bless God, being in the very presence of God.
In our divided world, things seem to have changed for the worse. Life seems to be upside-down, with racial tension, terrorist attacks, chaos in the Middle East, and so much more. We may be like the disciples, with the tendency to look upward and not see the present, our call. But no, we must stay in the present, grounding ourselves in Jesus the Christ to proclaim repentance and forgiveness in his name, and bearing witness to the grace of God.
The reading from Matthew’s Gospel today for the Ascension can be understood as the beginning of the Church. Jesus commissions his disciples to continue to teach in his name and to bring others into the community of disciples through baptism. The Gospel ends, as it had begun, with the promise that Jesus will continue to be Emmanuel, “God with us” (cf. Matthew 1:23), Now, the time to get in action is here. It is not an easy task, but we will not be alone; the Holy Spirit will be with us. The power that God gives us, writes Henri Nouwen, “is not the power that controls, dictates, and commands; (rather) It is the power that heals, reconciles, and unites.” We receive this power – the power to heal, reconcile and unite – through our union with God. The Spirit empowers us to be healing presences in the world, to be channels of God’s compassion and blessing and peace to all whom we meet. Stay tuned and stay in the presence of God. Amen