Feast of the Ascension – 24 May 2020

Go therefore, make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:18)

Today’s gospel reading depicts the final scene of Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus addresses his disciples for the last time. The setting is a mountain in Galilee where Jesus began his earthly ministry proclaiming the Kingdom of God.
Now the Risen Jesus speaks to his disciples and launches a new phase in God’s redemptive plan for the world – a phase in which they will be his agents. He begins by stating that “all authority in heaven and on earth” and has been given to him. Then, on the basis of this authority, he commissions his disciples to “make disciples of all nations”. Finally, he assures them that he will be with them until the end of time.

Three simple statements packed with meaning which raise the following questions:
1          In what does the authority of Jesus consist?
2          What does discipleship of Jesus entail?
3          In what sense is Jesus with his disciples until the end of time?

In what does the authority of Jesus consist? During his earthly ministry Jesus was reputed to have taught with authority, unlike the scribes and Pharisees: “They (the people) were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes…. He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him”(Mk 1: 20, 27).  Jesus words resonated with divine power and his actions manifested this power: healing the sick, casting out demons, stilling the storm, forgiving sinners. The authority of Jesus was not about imposing his will on others, but about overcoming the forces of sin and evil in the world, ushering in the reign of God, and communicating the “the fullness of life” (Jn 10:10).  Now, as the Resurrected One, his authority is supreme and all-embracing. In the words of one of the earliest Christian hymns, quoted by Paul, he is the One “before whom every knee will bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord” (Phil 2:9-11).

What does discipleship of Jesus entail? As Lord of the universe, the Risen Jesus commissions his disciples to be his agents in extending his life-giving ministry to the peoples of all nations. During his earthly life, Jesus’ ministry was limited primarily to the Jewish people. Now its boundaries are expanded to include all humanity. His commission to his disciples has universal scope. Jesus does not command his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to all peoples, although this is implied. What he commands them to do is to ‘make disciples of all nations’.  Making disciples, of course, includes preaching and teaching [instructing], and confirming people in their identity as God’s children by baptising them in the name of the Trinity. But it involves much more than this.
A disciple is a learner—a student—a person committed to learning what the master has to teach. A modern parallel would be an apprentice—or a student musician asking a master musician to be his/her teacher. The disciple is expected not only to learn what the master teaches, but also to practice what he preaches. Making disciples is about bringing others to embrace a new way of living, to become devoted followers of Jesus, and to imitate his way of life. This is a slow process that cannot be rushed, a process that requires patience and personal involvement [accompaniment] on the part of the teacher.

In what sense is Jesus with his disciples until the end of time? The commission of the Risen Lord to his still doubting and confused disciples must have seemed overwhelming, impossible even. But Jesus assured them that they will not be alone. His final words are words of tremendous reassurance: “And know that I am with you always; yes, to the end of time”(Mt 28:20).  To enable his disciples to carry out his commission, Jesus assures them of his continuing presence with them. Jesus remains Emmanuel – God with us – as much after his ascension as before. Yes, his physical presence among them ceases. This was limited to the period of his earthly life. Now as Risen Lord, he is now present to them through his spirit, a presence without limitation.
Ascended to the right hand of the Father, Jesus is no longer restricted to one particular place in the world but is accessible and close to all in the way that only God can be close to all.  Significantly, Jesus did not say “I will be with you” but rather “I am with you”, promising an always-current presence. 
And so, the disciples of Jesus will not be overwhelmed, but rather emboldened and empowered to carry out the commission they have received. And we, too, his disciples today, struggling to continue his mission in this strange and uncertain time will not be overwhelmed for he who has sent us remains with us “until the end of time”.

Michael McCabe SMA

Click on the play button below for an alternative homily from Fr Tom Casey SMA