June 2 or June 5, 2011 – The Ascension of the Lord
Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:17-23; Matthew 28:16-20
Jesus’ instructions are as clear as can be imagined: the Church’s missionary task is to take the Gospel to the whole world. As St. Luke records it in Acts, “You will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth.” Or, as we read it in St. Matthew, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them … teaching them.”
It must have seemed a daunting task to the apostles. They had been a mere 12 men, now reduced to 11 because one had been a traitor, and a few additional followers of Jesus. They had a hostile Jewish establishment and an oppressive Roman government to deal with. And who knew what lay outside of the Empire? Probably none of the apostles had ever been beyond the borders of Palestine.Yes, it must have seemed overwhelming. Jesus had left them as he ascended into heaven. They didn’t know how they could accomplish the task that had been entrusted to them. They had only his promise, which they didn’t understand. “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me … I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28). “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you” (Acts 1).
We don’t fully understand the meaning of his words, either, but we have advantages they didn’t. We have a view across the centuries at how Christ’s promises are being fulfilled. We have the reflections of the apostles recorded in the New Testament, and we have the benefit of the Church’s teaching as it has developed through the years.
We know that Christ, having completed his earthly mission, ascended to heaven to take his place at the right hand – the place of honor – of God the Father and to intercede on our behalf. We know that he sent the Holy Spirit to empower the Church, to guide her, and to sanctify her. And we can see how the Church has carried out the mission entrusted to her ever since.
But the apostles had to devote themselves entirely to carry out the Church’s mission. We also, following in their footsteps, need to dedicate ourselves as stewards to complete our own part. They spent their time praying for guidance and strength and for God’s blessings on their infant congregations. Missions today still need our prayers in order to meet the needs, spiritual and material, of those to whom they minister.
The early Christians dedicated their talents to serve Christ. They studied the Old Testament scriptures to find how Jesus had fulfilled the prophecies. They worked to figure out how best to appeal to those to whom they were preaching. “I have become all things to all, to save at least some,” St. Paul wrote (1 Cor 9:22). His intention was not to deceive but to find the best way to reach each group with God’s saving words. We also have the task of determining how we can most effectively share the Good News of God’s work in Christ to those who do not know him.
The apostolic band also used their financial resources, their treasure, to serve the Lord Jesus, leaving the comforts of home to spread the news. God still calls men and women to share in missionary work of the Church. Those of us who do not have that vocation can still participate through our financial contributions by which the missions are supported.
Two thousand years have passed since the Ascension, when the Church received the missionary charge to spread the Gospel throughout the world. That charge required the time, the talent, and the treasure of the apostles and their companions. It requires the same from us today.