Mission Accomplished: The Ascension of the Lord
Sermon by Emmanuel Suntheni OSB
Theme: Mission Being Accomplished (Entrustment of Mission): “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation” NB: Jesus Christ is saying, go and preach the Gospel, the Good News, not go and preach sad news (bad news) nor go and gossip.
Point of reflection: Have you ever experienced someone whom you love disappearing for good? The risen Lord disappeared in front of the apostles. Good enough, He has ascended to the Father. The Ascension of the Lord celebration commemorates the solemn commissioning of the disciples, and the Church, for a mission to continue Jesus’ work on earth. The timing of the Ascension, forty days after the resurrection, is symbolic. Just as forty days of seclusion in the desert preceded Jesus’ public ministry at the beginning of the Gospel, forty days of intensive communion with Jesus after the resurrection preceded the mission of the disciples.
The Ascension also opens a new stage in salvation history, the era of the Church.
First Reading: Acts 1:1–11
Psalm: Psalm 47:2–3, 6–9
Second Reading: Ephesians 4:1–13
Gospel: Mark 16:15–20
Sermon (Reflection): Today, the Ascension of the Lord is an important feast for Christians, but for the apostles on that very occasion, it might have been a very sad moment. Can we imagine how it was for the apostles that someone they loved most had died, rose, and then, disappeared again. Nevertheless, it was a mission-being-accomplished, not a final disappearing.
The Feast of Ascension does not conclude the story of Jesus. On the contrary, it is only the continuation of His story as the Lord of the entire creation. After His Ascension, His mission of salvation continues first through His own disciples, and then by the Church, which their mission brought into existence. Jesus explicitly entrusted the disciples with the task of witnessing to Him, as recounted in the book of Acts.
The first reading of today (Cf. Acts 1:1–11) is the introduction to the book of Acts which follows the conclusion of the Gospel according to Luke. This text links Acts to the Gospel of Luke as it recounts the same event with which the Gospel concluded, the Ascension. Clearly, the second book was meant to continue the story of Jesus. The beginning of Acts recalls the encounters of the disciples with the risen Jesus focusing on his final instructions.
The disciples are curious about the date of the final restoration of the “kingdom to Israel”. But Jesus points out to them what is truly important. Instead of thinking about when the kingdom would come, they ought to focus on their task of being His “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”. These words, in fact, outline the rest of the book which describes how the Church spread out to the whole world, starting from Jerusalem, through the surrounding regions of Judea and Samaria, and eventually reaches the heart of the entire civilized world, Rome.
In Africa, as Christians, are we expanding the Church by proclaiming the Word of God? This is the very task we have been given as Christians to be witnesses of the Gospel.
Quite worthy of notice is the way Luke the author of both books of Luke and Acts of Apostles start his introduction by addressing Theophilus. In Greek Theophilos is θεόφιλος, and Theo means God and Philos means lover. It simply depicts that Theophilos means the lover of God. Hence, Luke is addressing the Word of God to any lover of God. That is why in the book of Act of Apostles, the disciples play a crucial role in this expansion as they witness to the life and the work of Jesus because they were lovers of God (Jesus Christ the second person in the Trinity).
As Christians, are we lovers of God? Today, the Theophilus is us Christians because we are lovers of God, we are mandated to be witnesses of the Gospel. Thus, the mission the Lord has entrusted to Christians.
The second Scriptural reading of Ascension of the Lord (Cf. Ephesians 4:1–13) makes two important contributions to the theme of mission. First, the author writes about the great dignity of the Christian vocation and exhorts believers to live a life “worthy of the calling”. He urges believers to maintain harmony among themselves through the practice of virtues such as “humility and gentleness, patience, bearing with one another in love”.
These virtues and attitudes aim at strengthening the unity and peace, the “oneness”, of all community members united by baptism and the gift of the Spirit. It is a calling for us Christians to maintain harmony as the Lord has ascended to the father and we practise the virtues of humility, gentleness, patience, and bearing with one another in love.
Second, the author of Ephesians encourages Christians to participate in “building up the body of Christ”. They are to carry out Christ’s mission through employing the diverse gifts which He had bestowed on them. The author emphasises that oneness does not mean uniformity, as “each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift”.
This means that each of us is to employ his/her unique gifts, talents and resources to build up and strengthen the community. Sometimes in our communities, we deny each other the fruitful exercise of one’s gift and talent because we are afraid of his or her unique progress, we are being challenged today to accept the unique talents and gifts of others.
The gifts and talents we have as Christians are meant for building up our families, communities and countries: “until all of us come to the unity of faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity” (Cf. Ephesians 4:13). In Ephesians, the focus of the mission is the community itself. Mature Christians, gathered in a united community, are the best witness to the Risen Lord before the whole world. Such witnessing is the mission of the Church in the world, in Africa, and in our communities.
The Gospel of the Ascension of the Lord (Cf. Mark 16:15–20) presents the concluding verses of Mark’s Gospel report on the final words of Jesus Christ before His ascension. These words clearly demonstrate that the disciples’ mission after Jesus’ departure is to continue what Jesus had started. However, while Jesus’ mission was limited to the relatively small territories of Galilee, Judea and the surrounding areas, the disciples are to expand this mission to the whole world, indeed, to the whole creation.
Making Jesus universally known is the disciples’ purpose and mission. They will be empowered for this mission by the ability to perform signs, much like Jesus did. And the Risen Lord will himself accompany them, even after his ascension. The disciples are instrumental in making salvation available to all, even if its acceptance remains a choice for every person. This mission is immensely important because it involves the message of salvation. The acceptance of Jesus with faith will lead to salvation, rejecting Him will result in condemnation. But the message about Jesus must be made known to all, so that all might have a chance to come to faith. This is the very reason we are celebrating the Ascension of the Lord today, it is a calling for all Christians to make the message of Jesus Christ known to everywhere and to everybody.
Christian Act in Word of God “Living the Mission of the Risen Lord”
The disciples’ mission in the world was, and remains, to make this message known, by the word and example of a mature Christian life. The Psalmist’s invitation to praise foresaw this mission of the Church in the words, “Clap your hands, all you peoples; shout to God with loud songs of joy. For the Lord, the Most High, is awesome.”
As the apostles gazed into the sky, watching Jesus ascend, one wonders what their feelings were and what was going through their minds. Were they in a state of joyful ecstasy, or in a state of bereavement seeing a loved one depart from them? Whatever their feelings and thoughts, the rhetorical question of the two men dressed in white was the alarm bell to bring them back to reality, “Why are you looking into the sky?” There was no point in continuing to look up into the sky. They needed to turn their gaze on the earth, where there was much work to be done.
The ascension of Jesus into heaven did not bring to an end his ministry on earth. It only marked the beginning of another phase of his mission of salvation. The task of the second phase was to be carried out by His followers equipped with the necessary gifts – “He went up to the heights … he gave gifts to humanity” (Cf. Ephesians 4:8). Some are called upon to carry out this task as apostles, others prophets, some evangelists, pastors, teachers, catechists, choristers, ushers etc. The gifts vary but the mission is the same – “Go out to the whole world; proclaim the Gospel to all creation…” (Mk 16:15).
Take note that in the last verse of today’s Gospel, we read that the disciples went out preaching everywhere and the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word by the signs that accompanied it. There are two important points here.
First and foremost, it was the Lord who “worked with them.” It is one thing to work for the Lord and another thing for the Lord to work with you. It is true that many of us are doing many things for the Lord. However, what we do for the Lord is not as important as what we allow the Lord to do with us.
Second, we are told that the Lord “confirmed the word with signs”. Indeed, it is only when we give God the chance to work with us that divine signs abound in our work of evangelisation – signs that will confirm that the Lord is at work in us and with us. When and where there are no manifestations of divine signs in one’s life, one may want to ask him or herself, “Am I available for the Lord to work with me?” Food for living the mission the Lord has entrusted to us.
Action: The mission is entrusted to me: I will go out and proclaim the Good News.
Prayer: Eternal Father, today, we commemorate Your only-begotten Son ascending to You. We have been entrusted with a mission to go and proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. Help us Lord to be true agents of evangelisation and bring Your salvation to others. May we be ready to receive the Holy Spirit, grant this through Christ our Lord, Amen.