Acts 1:1-11; Eph 1:17-23; Mk 16:15-20
Today, we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord. We are celebrating the final departure of Jesus from this world. Whereas, ordinary human beings depart this world through the pathway of death, the pathway of Jesus is different. His departure could only take place after he had risen from the dead. His ascension marked a TRANSITION.
1. THE ASCENSION OF JESUS AS A TRANSITION
Our lives are made up of a series of transition points. There is a transition from being a toddler to being a student, transition from Secondary School to the increasing freedoms of High School. Heading away to the university is a transition. Leaving home for marriage is a transition. Having children is a transition. When children move out of the home parents face another transition. Retirement is a transition. At each of these points, one begins a new chapter in one’s life.
Every year, on this solemnity, the first reading is drawn from the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles (1:1-11), while the gospel texts switch thus: Matthew 28:16-20 for Year A, Mark 16:15-20 for Year B, and Luke 24:46-53 for year C. However, of all the scriptural text talking about the actual event of the Ascension of Jesus, it is St. Luke who gives the greatest details about this incident, in his Gospel and in the Acts. In our reflection, therefore, we shall keep referring to his narratives.
As the book of the Gospel of Luke ends (Luke 24:50-53), we begin a time of transition for the early believers. The earthly life of Jesus is completed and the baton is now passed on to the disciples to testify to the truth and to build the church. Luke reflects this transition by ending his gospel and starting a new book, the book of Acts of the Apostles. Acts is a record of what happened as a result of the work of the disciples.
Luke tells us that, after the resurrection, Jesus was with the disciples over a period of 40 days. During this time, he taught the disciples and they had the chance to ask questions. Jesus told them that his departure would open the door for the Holy Spirit to take up residence in them. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus would now be able to be with them every moment. Following this summary of the forty days, Luke recounts the same event that we read about at the very end of his gospel: “When he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight. While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going, suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.” (Acts 1:9-11)
2. THE ASCENSION OF JESUS WAS AN ENDING
In his ascension, Jesus makes clear his departure. He would no longer be with his disciples on earth; He would be in Heaven. Luke writes: “When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God” (Lk 24:50-53). Certain actions of Jesus and his disciples show clearly this ENDING:
a) Jesus blessed them. The word for blessing is the Greek word “eulogy”. This does not mean that Jesus told lovely stories about the disciples. It means that His blessing was designed to uplift and build up the disciples. When you receive a blessing from the Son of God, that blessing has real power.
b) They rejoiced. This may seem like an odd response for someone who has just seen his/her Lord, Saviour and friend leave him/her. You might expect such a person to be a little depressed. Luke tells us that the dominant emotion was joy. This joy has reasons:
First, they understood that Jesus would leave the earth physically but would return and be with them ALWAYS through the Holy Spirit. They were actually going to be closer to the Lord. “Behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Mtt 28:20)
They knew that they had a great and wonderful job to do. This is like a promotion for them. No more second place! They were now the starters!
They were told that Jesus was going to return. Though he was LEAVING, he would someday RETURN.
They also, surely, rejoiced on behalf of Christ. Ascension does not only entail Jesus rising up in the air. It also describes one who ascends to the throne or rises to a position of influence or authority. Jesus ascended to the right hand of God! (Mk 16:19). He took His position as Lord of all! The disciples rejoiced over this fact.
c) They worshipped him. If one understands who Jesus really is, worship is a natural result. The disciples praised him and bowed before him. They knew that any future impact of their ministry would be anchored to their worship. They needed to be in tune with the Lord before they could effectively reach out to others. They recognized that God is the One who brings change.
3. THE ASCENSION OF JESUS WAS A BEGINNING
We learn from the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles that the Ascension of Jesus begins a new ministry for our Lord. Jesus is now involved in some new things.
a) First, he prepares a place for us. Think about these great words of Jesus,
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. (John 14:1-3)
Our Lord assures us that He is making preparation for our arrival into his Kingdom. Think about the comfort in these words: He is preparing a place for us. He is also preparing us as we live this life. Someone has said, “Heaven is a prepared place for a prepared people”. Even now Jesus works on our behalf.
b) He intercedes for us. In Hebrews 7 we are told: “Consequently, he is able to save to the utmost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb 7:25). Jesus prays for us constantly. He is always interceding for us (even as the Holy Spirit is also praying for us in groans too deep for words). Our Lord prays for us lovingly. He knows what we need most and prays with the wisdom of perspective. He sees the “big picture” which we do not see.
c) He equips us for service. Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians 4: “And he gave some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers, to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God, to mature to manhood, to the extent of the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4:11-13). Jesus gives us the tools we need to serve him faithfully! It can be frustrating to be given a job to do for which you do not have the tools! The Lord does not only give us a job to do; he gives us the resources we need to do that job. He enables us to play a part in his divine work. “They went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs” (Mk 16:20).
4. THE ASCENSION ALSO BRINGS ABOUT SOMETHING NEW IN US.
Most students enjoy their years at school. But it is also exciting to be a “grown up” and get a job, and begin the process of doing what they have spent all their school years training to do. That is where the disciples are at the Lord’s Ascension! They have followed Jesus. They have listened to him teach. As it were, they have had their periods of internship under his supervision. Now, they are “going live”. They are commissioned to do several things.
a) They are told to “WAIT”. Many of us are not particularly patient. Waiting is a discipline to cultivate. It is learning to wait for God’s leading and God’s direction.
b) They are told to witness. Their job was to pass on what they had seen and heard. It was their job to pass on the truth of God’s plan and heart. When we talk about “witnessing” today it is the same thing. It is not about learning a technique; it is about passing on what we have seen and become convinced of. The message of the gospel is like a baton that runners carry in a race. Each person in the race takes the same baton and passes it on to the next person. This is our leg of the race. It is our job to communicate the message faithfully and passionately.
5. THEIR “TARGET AUDIENCE” WAS UNRESTRICTED.
Jesus said, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In this verse of today’s first reading, we see an outlines of the book of Acts. In the Acts of the Apostles, we read about the disciples as they preached first in Jerusalem, and then they diligently start to reach out first to Jews but then also to the Gentiles. Their work had a ripple-like effect on the rest of the world. These men were faithful to do what the Lord has commanded them.
God has also called us to “go into the world and make disciples.” THIS IS ALSO OUR ASSIGNMENT. Our job is not merely to study the book of Luke. It is to take what we have learned and share it with others. We have to be witnesses to our family, our friends, to our work-colleagues and as far as it is possible to the world. This is our leg of the race. We need to have the same kind of determination and passion that we see in the disciples.
As we go into the world with the gospel, we actually have some advantages over the disciples. Today, we can travel great distances with ease. We have radio, television, print media, social media available to us. We have hundreds of teachers to learn from. We have the Internet; and we can use it to proclaim the message of salvation. However, these advantages are also our greatest challenges. People today are on “INFORMATION OVERLOAD”. We are bombarded with e-mail, tweets, Facebook-updates, Whatsapp, Insgtagram, text messages, blogs, discussion groups and other teaching material. We are so used to the shallow and superficial that it is hard for us to sit still for or digest the significant and rich truths of the gospel. But it can be done. That is what Jesus asks of us!
6. WHAT IS NEEDED IS NOT ABOUT ABILITY; IT IS ABOUT WILLINGNESS.
The disciples could have cowered and said to themselves: “the job was too big.” They could have been paralyzed by fear. But they chose instead to step out and trust that God would open doors and provide for their needs. That is a pretty good principle for us! But are we willing to make the sacrifices that might be needed to reach the world with the message of the gospel? To be honest, the whole idea intimidates any normal human being. Generally, we like our comfort zones. We like being safe and in an environment over which we feel we have some control. But, the truth is: we cannot be SAFE and also be FAITHFUL at the same time. Being ‘SAFE’ involves trusting in what we feel we can do in our own strength. On the other hand, ‘FAITH’ involves daring to move forward in God’s strength. So where do we begin? The simple answer is: begin where we are! The disciples started in Jerusalem. We need to take the message of the gospel to “our Jerusalem”; to our neighbours, our friends, and our co-workers.
The opportunities are endless. God will open doors, if we are willing to walk through them. But we must make sure that we read the fine print. Jesus did not say it would be easy. If you follow the story of the disciples in the “Acts of the Apostles”, you will see that these men met opposition; some of it fierce. Almost all of them literally died giving their lives to message of the gospel.
“Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11)
Transitions are a part of life. We have studied the life of Jesus. Now we are asked to transit from being observers to being participants; from being merely students to being witnesses (or teachers). This transition takes us from darkness to light; from the values of the world to the values of heaven; from pursuing OUR agenda to pursuing JESUS’; from living for the moment to living for the King for all eternity. As with other transitions, it may be a little scary. But as we move forward we will discover new joys, new opportunities, and we will find the new life that we have been looking for.
What should we be doing, therefore? Remember the words of Jesus to the disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Ascension leads us to the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday, to strengthen us. That is what we shall celebrate next Sunday or two Sundays from today. Happy Feast of the Ascension of the Lord!