Acts 1:1-11, Ephesians 1:17-23 / Hebrew 9:24-28; 10:19-23, Matthew 28:16-20 / Mark 16:15-20 / Luke 24:46-53
On the Gospel, Making Disciples of All Nations
The Gospels contain many parables of a master who sets out on a long journey and gives his servants charge of his estate until his return. In the feast of the Ascension of the Lord parable becomes reality. Jesus departs to his heavenly Father and leaves his disciples in charge of the affairs of his kingdom till his return in glory. Each of the Gospels we have ends with a scene in which Jesus finally takes leave of his disciples. These farewell scenes focus not on describing the event in detail but on the last words that Jesus leaves with his disciples. In fact, the very fact of a bodily ascension of Jesus into heaven is described only by Luke. It is Luke who wrote the Acts of the Apostles from which we got our first reading today. A later ending of Mark also includes the Ascension. There are important similarities and differences between Luke and Acts on the one hand, and Matthew and Mark on the other, regarding the details of this farewell scene.
For example, in Luke-Acts the Ascension takes place in Jerusalem, whereas in Matthew and Mark it takes place in Galilee. Both traditions, however, agree that it took place on a mountain. In Luke-Acts the Ascension happens forty days after the Resurrection during which period Jesus appears repeatedly to his followers. In Matthew and Mark there is no indication of this time period between the Resurrection and the Ascension, rather the first appearance of Jesus to his disciples after the resurrection is also the last. The gospel writers apparently were not aiming at accuracy in historical details; they were more concerned with transmitting a message.
So what is the message, the charge that Jesus gives his disciples as he takes physical leave of them? The message is phrased differently in the Acts and in the Gospels:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:8)
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20)
Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover. (Mark 16:15-18)
These are the last words of Jesus as recorded differently in the Acts and in Matthew and Mark. All of them are in agreement that (a) Jesus gave his disciples a mission, a task to engage them till he returns in glory, and (b) he assured them of divine assistance in the carrying out of this mission.
The mission is to bear witness to the Good News of Jesus to the ends of the earth, to go into all nations of the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.. The universal reach of this mission is very clear. The message of Jesus is meant to be good news in the ears of all humankind irrespective of nationality or culture. Given the fact that till date many nations have embraced other religions in preference to the gospel, maybe it is time to ask: Are these people rejecting the message of Jesus or are they rejecting the messengers and the way in which they have presented it? The air of superiority and triumphalism assumed by many Christian missionaries is a disservice to the gospel and not part of the good news. Have we perhaps spoilt the Good Story in the telling?
At the beginning of the twentieth century, some mission-minded Christians started a periodical and called it “The Christian Century.” That title was an expression of their triumphalistic belief that by the end of the century the whole world would have been Christianized. Today we have hopefully grown wiser and humbler as we realize that in the 20th century, not only did we fail to Christianize the whole world, but rather that we added two world wars to our record of “accomplishments.”
The spreading of the Good News to all nations is not a goal that can be attained by dint of human might and craft. That is why Jesus promises to empower his messengers from on high by his abiding presence and the Holy Spirit. The challenge of sharing the Good News with all humankind should, therefore, begin on our knees as we confess that we have often taken matters into our own selfish human hands and promise to give the Holy Spirit a chance.
On the Epistle, Christ the Eternal Priest Enters the Sanctuary
In his book Written in Blood, Robert Coleman tells the story of a little girl, Mary, who needed a blood transfusion. Her little brother, Johnny, had suffered from the same disease that she had and had recovered two years earlier. Since her best chance of recovery was a transfusion from someone who had recovered from the disease, her little brother was identified as the ideal donor. “Would you give your blood to Mary?” the doctor asked. Johnny hesitated. His lower lip started to tremble. Then he smiled and said, “Sure, for my sister.” Soon the two kids were wheeled into the hospital room. Neither of them spoke, but when their eyes met, Johnny grinned. As the nurse inserted the needle into his arm, Johnny’s smile faded. Johnny watched his blood flow through the tube. When the ordeal was over, Johnny’s shaky voice broke the silence. “Doctor, when do I die?”
It was only then that the doctor realize why Johnny had hesitated, why his lip had trembled when he agreed to donate his blood. He thought giving his blood to his sister meant giving up his life. When he agreed to give the blood, Johnny had agreed to die so that his sister would live. Fortunately, Johnny did not have to die to save his sister.
Blood was a crucial commodity in the temple worship in Jerusalem. Much of the work of the priests involved slaughtering animals and shedding their blood to make atonement for sin, and sprinkling the people with blood to cleanse them from guilt. The reason for this was because, as the author of Hebrews explains, “Under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins (Hebrews 9:22). The most important institution in the covenant relationship of the Jewish people with God was not the king who ruled in God’s name, or the prophet who spoke the word of God, but the priest who offered the sacrifice of blood that took away the sins of the people and restored them to God’s favour. In the people’s dealings with God, the priest was seen as the number one mediator, since “Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins (Hebrews 5:1).”
Jesus did not identify himself as a priest or describe the role of his disciples as that of priesthood. The earliest Christians still worshiped in the temple and benefitted from the ministry of temple priests. When the temple was destroyed in 70 a.d. and the people had no more sacrifice, Jewish Christians began to understand that the sacrifice of animals in the temple was no longer necessary because Jesus has made once-and-for-all the only sacrifice of blood that pleased God. By the time Hebrews was written, Jewish Christians had come to see Jesus as the priest par excellence. Compared to the priesthood of Jesus, the priesthood of the temple was only a shadow.
The ascension of Christ into heaven where he sits at God’s right hand making intercession for God’s people is compared to the temple priest going up the steps into the sanctuary (the holy place) to offer sacrifice. But the sacrifice of Christ in infinitely superior. Today’s 2nd reading shows us three ways in which Christ’s sacrifice is superior to that of the temple priest. Firstly, unlike the case of the temple priesthood, “Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf”(9:24). Secondly, the temple sacrifice was limited in its effect, hence it was offered constantly year after year. Christ’s sacrifice was once and for all (verses 25- 26). Finally, the temple priest offered the blood of lambs, but Christ has offered “the sacrifice of himself”(verse 26). The blood of the Son of God is infinitely more powerful than the blood of lambs to take away our sins and cleanse us in such a way that we appear unblemished in God’s sight.
As today we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord, let us not mourn the disappearance of Christ. Let us rather celebrate his going up into the eternal holy place, God’s very presence, to make atonement for us. “And since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful”(10:21-23).