Sunday, May 28, 2017

Homily for Ascension of the Lord

Homily for the Solemnity
of the Ascension of the Lord
Acts 1: 1-11
May 28, 2016
Matt 28: 16-20
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.

“Wait for the promise of the Father about which you heard me speak” (Acts 1: 4).

You’re all familiar with sequels.  Countless successful movies have them, sometimes multiple parts like Star Wars; books too, like the Harry Potter series.  Our 1st reading today is the opening lines of St. Luke’s sequel to his Gospel.  If you wanted to, you could call it “The Good News of Jesus Christ, Part II.”  On the other hand, it’s often called “The Gospel of the Holy Spirit” because the Spirit is mentioned so many times in this book (twice in the 11 verses we just read), often as a principal actor driving the apostles’ actions.  Officially, of course, it’s titled “The Acts of the Apostles,” a historical record—in parts an eyewitness account—of what Jesus’ closest followers did and preached in the 1st years after his resurrection from the dead.
The Ascension of Jesus
Benjamin West
These opening verses of Acts give us our traditional image of the ascension of Jesus as well as the number of 40 days during which he appeared to his disciples in his risen body.  The gospels, including St. Luke’s, aren’t so specific about either the length of time or the manner of Jesus’ leaving his disciples.

The fundamental truths are these:  Jesus was truly raised from the dead and is physically alive, immortal, but also transformed so that he can be seen bodily, be touched, be heard, eat; yet also disappear at will, pass thru closed doors, etc.  Jesus in his risen body is now in heaven with his Father, ruling over creation and interceding for the human race—our human ambassador at the divine court, as it were, representing the interests of humanity, especially seeking mercy for us.  And Jesus will return at the end of history to raise from the dead and lead into the glory of heaven all of his disciples and to ratify the damnable choice made by anyone who has refused his mercy and remained in sin.  As our Collect noted, “Where the Head has gone before in glory, the Body [all of his disciples] is called to follow in hope.”

Before we follow our Lord Jesus into heavenly glory, however, we have 2 commissions to carry out, 2 directives that he gave his disciples before he left them.

The 1st is “to wait for the promise of the Father,” i.e., for “baptism with the Holy Spirit” (1:4-5).  To that he adds, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you” (1:8).

The 2d command tells them what they’re to do with that power of the Holy Spirit:  “You will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth” (1:8), a commission confirmed in St. Matthew’s version of the Ascension:  “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, … teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (28:19-20).

When the Lord tells us that he will always remain with us (e.g., Matt 28:20), he isn’t specific about how he’ll be present.  Certainly he’s present sacramentally in the Eucharist.  But the scriptural stress today is on his presence thru the Holy Spirit.

The apostles and the rest of the disciples—some 120 in all, according to Acts 1:15, including Mary, the mother of Jesus (1:14)—had to wait for the Holy Spirit.  It was only when the Spirit came down upon them in wind and fire—as we’ll recall next Sunday, Pentecost—that they received this wondrous baptism the Risen Lord speaks of—and were filled with courage, strength, wisdom, and the other gifts they needed to become, in truth, apostles, men and women sent to spread the Good News of Jesus, sent to be his witnesses.

In one sense, you and I aren’t waiting for the Holy Spirit, my brothers and sisters.  He’s already been given to us in Baptism and, for most of us, in Confirmation.  We have already been given the power of the Holy Spirit.

In another sense, we’re still waiting on the Spirit.  Or perhaps the Spirit is waiting on us.  Have we invoked his sacred power?  Have we called upon him to inspire us, give us wisdom, give us courage, help us play our proper roles as witnesses of Jesus Christ?  If we want his power in our lives, we have to ask him to come upon us, to fill our hearts and our minds, to drive our wills.

Empowered by the Spirit, the apostles began immediately to preach the resurrection of Jesus, the forgiveness of sins, and mankind’s reconciliation with God.  They began on that Pentecost day to convert the world; Acts tells us that after Peter preached that day, “about 3,000 persons were added” to the number of believers (1:41).  The apostles began “in Jerusalem” and then moved on “thruout Judea and Samaria,” and as Acts narrates, into Syria, Cyprus, Asia Minor, Greece, and as far as Rome, and eventually “to the ends of the earth” (1:8).  To study church history is in part to study the steady expansion of Christianity to all 6 inhabited continents.  I’m sure there’s also a Christian presence on the 7th continent, among the scientists and military personnel living in Antarctica.

Jesus Christ came for the redemption of the entire human race, and he sent his Church—empowered his Church, which meant the apostles and all the disciples, and now means us as well—to perpetuate his mission of redemption in every land and in every age.  Today there are about 2.4 billion Christians on this earth.  That sounds like a lot.  Some of course, are Christians only in name, aren’t really believers, and don’t practice what they profess.  E.g., supposedly more than 1,000 families belong to our parish; but on any given Sunday, only 800 individuals come to give thanks to God for their salvation and recharge themselves with the power of the Holy Spirit.

Apart from that little matter, if there are about 7.3 billion people living on the planet, what’s 2.4 billion?[1]  33%.  It’s a considerable shortfall, no?  The mission of Jesus is far from complete, sisters and brothers.  We have a lot more witnessing to do—truly to live our faith on Sundays and weekdays, to know who we are as followers of Jesus, to speak and act constantly, consistently, courageously, humbly as followers of Jesus amid our families and friends and co-workers and anyone with whom we interact.  We are empowered by the Holy Spirit to be witnesses of Jesus in Champaign, thruout Illinois, and to the ends of the earth.  To us too Jesus says, “Go and make disciples”—1st in our own families, and then as opportunity presents itself, especially thru apostolic activity in our parish, e.g., in pro-life action, St. Vincent de Paul, catechetical action, Eucharistic ministry, youth ministry, music ministry.  Not least, pray for missionaries, priests, and other apostolic workers; pray for the conversion of sinners, always conscious that you, too, are a sinner still needing to turn fully to Jesus.  (Me too.)  May the grace and power of the Holy Spirit touch us all and lead us to fullness of life in Jesus Christ!

       [1] Statistics from the 2017 World Almanac, p. 698.

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