In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.
LET US PRAY
Loving and eternal God, your Son died and rose to life for our sake. As we reflect on his return to the glory of heaven, help us to understand what it means for us; bless us with wisdom, courage, and a strong faith so that we may continue his work of salvation on earth. We ask you this through Christ our Lord, Amen.
My dear friends, living is a vocation. By giving us life, God calls us to join in making the world a better place. For us Christians, living is an invitation from Christ to carry on his work and announce God’s plan of salvation for the people of our respective generations and cultural locations. Let us reflect on the ascension of the Lord Jesus, and pray for the grace to be his true witnesses in the world.
Our Scripture text for this reflection is from Act of the Apostles chapter 1 verse 1 to verse 11. Kindly, listen with me as I read.Again, Acts 1:1-11.
In the first book, Theophilus, I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught until the day he was taken up, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He presented himself alive to them by many proofs after he had suffered, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While meeting with them, he enjoined them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for “the promise of the Father about which you have heard me speak; for John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” When they had gathered together they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He answered them, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight. While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going, suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”
One thing we have to know about human life is that to live is to grow. From the moment the seed of life is planted, we begin to grow. In our growth, we move from being babies – protected, provided for, guided, and instructed, to being adults. As adults, we move up on the ladder and take up the role of doing for others the things we enjoyed as children. Whether as fathers and mothers, or as adults in the family and society, we take up the responsibility of teaching, protecting, guiding, and providing for others.We transition from childhood innocence and dependence to adult life of maturity and responsibility. Eventually, we grow old and die, and life continues for others. This is the way nature takes its course in our human life except for the times that misfortune strikes and people die before they could get to a ripe old age.
Just as our physical well being entails growth, our spiritual well being also entails growth. We begin as disciples and babies in the faith, receiving care and spiritual nourishment from Christ through the Church. We are baptized, confirmed, and receive the Eucharist. We marry or become priests or nuns,or we remain in the vocation of single life. We take up a wide range of responsibilities in the Church. As we get involved actively in the life of the church, we grow stronger in faith. We are not just disciples anymore; we also assume the role of apostles.
Yes, as disciples we are taught in religious education classes; we attend bible studies, and we sit in the pews on Sunday receiving spiritual guidance from the priest in the homily. We enjoy the guidance of the Church through our spiritual leaders. But as we continue to grow in the faith, we also become apostles charged with the responsibility of instructing others in the faith and guiding them to Christ.
So, we begin as disciples; we sit at the feet of Christ in the Church;and like children, we receive instructions and support through the ministry of our Church leaders – bishops, priests, religious, and other ministers.As we continue, we grow stronger and become apostles;and as apostles representing Christ in our world, we bring others to Christ and help them deepen their faith in the Lord.
Today, the Lord challenges us with the same missionary mandate he gave to his disciples at the moment of his ascension. One major theme in the ascension event is the transition of the followers of Jesus from discipleship to apostleship.
In Luke 6:12-13, the Lord Jesus prayed all night on the mountain.When morning came, he called together his disciples; and from them, he chose twelve men and called them apostles. With the others, the twelve were disciples – following Jesus and receiving instructions from him. But after a night-long prayer, he made them apostles or collaborators who will later take over the leadership of the Church.
Well, the job of taking over was imminent. On the day of ascension, the Lord told them that they will have to step up because he was no more going to be physically present with them. Until that time, these men were not really playing their roles as apostles. They were still babies in spiritual matters. But with the Lord about to return to the Father, they had to get ready because their moment of maturity and responsibility had come.
In the history of salvation, there are three most impacting moments. These are: creation, incarnation, and Pentecost. These moments depict the different ages of the Trinitarian manifestations in human history.
Creation marks the beginning of life when God the Father created the world ex nihilo; incarnation marks the moment of restoration when the Lord Jesus entered the world to reconcile humanity with God through his paschal mysteries; and Pentecost marks the moment of spiritual enlightenment when the Holy Spirit came upon Christian believers to empower and guide them in their journey with God. In all these different moments of divine manifestations, God has been acting through the instrumentality of human beings.
At the beginning, God created the world out of nothing. But immediately he placed humanity in charge of creation in Genesis 1:28-30, he stopped actingex nihiloand started using human beings as agents of his blessings, even though he has the power, the authority, and the wherewithal to do as he likes.In the Old Testament, he worked with Patriarchs, kings,Prophets, and many other people whom he chose according his divine plan. When the time came to fulfill his promise of redemption, he did not parachute the Lord Jesus directly from heaven. He used human beings –Mary and Joseph as vessels of grace. And when the Lord Jesus began his ministry, he did not undertake a one-man-show. He picked men and women to join him even when these individuals did not understand what the mission was truly about.
When we look back at the result of Christ’s mission on earth, we see that humanly speaking, he did not achieve much in terms of bringing a whole lot of people to believe in him. Not that it was beyond his power to do it; but he had to follow God’s divine strategy of making human beings his coworkers in the unfolding plan of salvation.
In the same way, the Holy Spirit did not come in his own time and sweep through with an intimidating force. He came through the apostles on the day of Pentecost just as he continues to come through us in the ministry of the Church. From what we see in the bible, we have to understand that God acts in the world through the instrumentality of men and women who open their hearts to him ready to be used as vessels of blessings in the different circumstances of life. When we understand this, we have to surrender and allow God to use us in every way he wants, so that the world may be blessed by his mighty power working through us.
This past Thursday, we celebrated the ascension of the Lord Jesus. That celebration reminds us that Jesus has gone back to his heavenly throne. He is no more physically present with us; so we are no more to live like babies. We have to step up from being disciples year after year to becoming his apostles and witnesses among the people of our world wherever we find ourselves. It is an invitation for us to join the Christ-wagon to fulfill the Lord’s command which he gave to the Church in Matthew 28:19-20 and in Mark 16:15-16.
In Luke’s gospel and in Acts of the Apostles, we see how Luke presents that mandate. Within the context of evangelization, Luke addressed the two books to a certain man called Theophilus. Let me mention here that initially, the gospel of Luke and Acts of the apostles were two volumes of the same book addressed to this one man. Historically, nobody knows whether Theophilus was a specific person or whether it was a symbolic attribution. However, the interesting thing is that Theophilus is a Greek word which means “lover of God”. So, whether the book was addressed to a specific individual named Theophilus or not, what we need to know is that it was addressed to someone who loves God.
In the gospel, Luke was writing to Theophilus about the ministry of Jesus. In the opening verses (Luke 1:1-4), he says that after a thorough investigation, he was writing to confirm what others have written about Jesus which he, Theophilus, had received. In other words, Luke wrote to explain the ministry of the Lord Jesus to this lover of God. Similarly, in the opening statement of Acts of the Apostles (Acts 1:1-5), Luke tells Theophilus that he is writing to inform him of the ministry of the apostles which they carried out according to the command of the Lord. Apparently, Theophilus did not have sufficient knowledge about the Christian faith and Luke saw it as his duty to explain to this man what the Christian faith was all about.
What Luke did for Theophilus is the same thing Paul did for Corneliusin Acts chapter 10; and Philip did the same for the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts chapter 8. The thing we have to keep in mind is that there are many people out there who sincerely love God in their hearts but who do not truly understand what the Christian faith is about. They need someone to guide them. Instead of shying away from these responsibilities, we should see it as our duty to explain our faith to such people so that they may be blessed with the gift of salvation. Like the apostles and other disciples in the early Church and other committed believers down through the ages, we must reach out to people in their situations and explain the message of Christ to them. In Romans 10:14-15 St Paul says that people will not understand the teachings of our faith and believe in Jesus unless we teach them. It is therefore our duty to share the blessings of our faith with people who do not understand so that they may come to believe in Christ who is our only hope of salvation.
After his resurrection, the Lord Jesus appeared to his disciples severally. He appeared to Mary Magdalene in John 20:11-17. In Luke chapter 24, he appeared to two of his disciples who were on their way to Emmaus. And he appeared three times to the apostles in John chapter 21. These appearances were to tell them that he is the Lord of heaven and earth; that life does not end in the darkness of the grave; and that no one and no circumstance can alter the eternal plan of God.
On the last day of his physical presence on earth, he gathered his disciples by Mount Olivet and gave them the final instructions before ascending to the Father. First, he told them in Acts 1:4 to remain in Jerusalem and not to depart from there until they receive the Holy Spirit whom the Father had promised to send in his name. The coming of the Holy Spirit was to initiate the new age; it is by his power that every believer is able to bear witness to Christ Jesus as the risen Lord.
Without finishing what he had to tell the disciples, they interrupted him with their material concerns of an earthly kingdom. Their minds were still on their old dreams. All along, they had believed Jesus to be the promised Messiah who will restore the political glory of Israel as in the days of David. They had expected his ministry to end with political liberation from the Romans; but that did not happen. As far as they were concerned, everything ended on a very wrong note. The people they had expected Jesus to conquer ended up crucifying him. It was for them a big disappointment.
As they huddled in a room for fear of the Jews after the crucifixion, they first received the news from the women disciples that Jesus has come back to life. They did not believe it. But then, he appeared to them again and again, and their hope of a political kingdom came alive once again. Interestingly, he did not say anything to them about political liberation in all his appearances. So, at that final moment before his ascension, they decided to ask for it. In Act 1:6 they said to him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” They were concerned about the political liberation of Israel but that was not God’s plan.
This also happens in our life. We often make our material well being the most prominent issue in our relationship with God. We focus on how he can give us enough money to take care of our needs. We worry about the fact that we are sick and he does not take the sickness away. We ask him questions and get angry with him for allowing our dear ones to die.We focus on our needs, without caring about what we can do to establish the kingdom of God on earth or bring people into the reign of Christ. Twenty-four hours a day our mind is on the material things God should provide for us.Only very few people think of giving themselves truly to the service of God and establishing his reign on earth.
As the Lord Jesus listened to their material and political concern, he took steps immediately to correct the impression and made them understand what true Christian concern should be about. The fact of the matter is that Jesus cares very much about our physical and material conditions but the main purpose for his coming into the world was not to put food on the table or fight our political battles. He came to reconcile us to God and lead us to heaven. Therefore, we should first and foremost commit ourselves to satisfying the spiritual needs of people in the world, bring them to the knowledge of God, and allow God to take care of the rest.
In Matthew 6:33 the Lord says, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.” In Matthew 4:4 he says, “One does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” And in Mark 8:36 he asks, “What profit is there for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?”
All these point to the fact that we should put God’s will above our material concerns just as Solomon did. As far as the Lord Jesus was concerned, the apostles were laying emphasis on the wrong value. The most important thing in life is not how to live big in this world, but how to get people into the kingdom of heaven; and that is what the Lord wanted his disciples to know.
In his response to the question of restoring the kingdom to Israel, the Lord Jesus told his disciples that such issue should not be a matter of concern to them. He made them understand that there are things we humans should be concerned about and there are things we should leave for God to do. In Acts 1:7 he said to them, “It is not for you to know the time or the seasons that the Father has established by his own authority.” In other words, they were not to worry about God’s side of the deal. Rather, they should face their own responsibility.
In Acts 1:8, he told them their line of duty. He said (Acts 1:8), “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This was the timetable for evangelization by which his followers will bring the world to the knowledge of the truth. They were to start preaching the gospel progressively from Jerusalem through the suburbs until it gets to the ends of the earth.
It had to start in Jerusalem because Jerusalem was the religious and political headquarters of the Jewish people up to that time. The temple was in Jerusalem and only in Jerusalem. The seat of the Jewish government was in Jerusalem. The Sanhedrin held their court sessions there in Jerusalem. That is where the Lord Jesus was tried; that is where he was condemned, and that is where he was crucified. And since he died in Jerusalem, it was only proper that the message of new life about the risen Christ should begin in Jerusalem.So, in his response to their question, the Lord Jesus told them that instead of worrying about the liberation of Israel from Roman powers, they should go by the power of the Holy Spirit they will receive and bear witness to him among the people of the world.
Listen brothers and sisters, this mission was not given exclusively to the disciples of the early Church. It was not a command to be limited to the past. It is a dynamic command, relevant today as forcefully as it was in the days of the first Christian believers. Jesus is speaking to us today in much the same way as he spoke to them in those days. We are to be his witnesses in our world. We are to stand up for Jesus and speak on his behalf in every place we find ourselves.
In today’s passage, Jesus told his disciples that the message has to proceed outward from the headquarters in Jerusalem to the remotest part of the world. In our own day, we have to do the same. We are also invited to begin proclaiming Christ within our families. Then we do it in our neighborhoods. From there we take it to our places of work and to wherever the wind of life blows us.
As ambassadors for Christ, our lives should always bear testimony to the truth of the gospel. In the message that the Lord Jesus gives to his disciples today, he does not set any boundary to the mission. The entire world is God’s territory and the seed of the gospel has to be planted in every land.
Sometimes we may be worried what the Lord Jesus is exactly asking us to do and we may ask, but how am I going to take the gospel to far off places when I don’t have the money or strength to travel abroad? Well, the Lord will not send you to places he knows you cannot go. The most important thing is to be attentive and obedient. When we are properly disposed, the Lord will guide us to where he wants us to be and show us what he wants us to do. To begin with, everyone is not designated to be a missionary in a faraway land. We can still serve God effectively without having to relocate or go to distant places.
When we look into the bible especially Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles, we see how the Holy Spirit guided the disciples to execute the Lord’s evangelical mandate. Unfortunately, we do not have sufficient account of how all the apostles fulfilled the command of their master. Well, the bible was not meant to provide a detailed account of everything regarding our Christian faith. Even those who wrote the bible did not think it was going to turn out the way we have it today. The bible only contains some significant events in the ministry of Jesus as John the evangelist points out in John 20:30-31 and John 21:25. It was not meant to be a compendium of everything Christian. Some of the important things we need to know about our Christian faith that we do not have in the bible are there in the tradition of the Church. For instance, the tradition of the Church tells us where the different apostles went to preach the gospel. Some of them remained in Palestine while some took the message to far places guided by the Spirit.
Peter was in Jerusalem working among the Jews and went up to Rome where he became the first bishop of Rome and died for the faith. Andrew took the gospel to southern Greece, Ukraine and Southern Russia. John preached in Asia Minor where he headed the Church in Ephesus. It was from there that he was banished to the Island of Patmos as he testifies in Revelations 1:9. Philip preached in Phrygia which was in present-day Turkey. Bartholomew went to Armenia, Egypt, Arabia, Ethiopia, Persia and India. Thomas went to the places we now call Iran and Iraq as well as India. Matthew preached in Palestine and went on to plant the seed of the gospel in Ethiopia. James the son of Alpheus was in Egypt. Jude Thaddeus went to Assyria and with Simon the Zealot, they went on to Persia where they died as martyrs. And Matthias preached in Judea and Cappadocia.
The Lord Jesus had commanded them to proclaim the gospel from Jerusalem through Judea and Samaria, and to take it to the ends of the earth. Each of them did it faithfully and even gave their lives for it. In this generation, we too have to step up for Jesus and preach the gospel like true believers. We should keep the flame of faith alive by faithful proclamation so that when Christ comes again as the angels told the disciples in Acts 1:11, we may welcome him with joy. And we should remember, it is not so much about the words we speak. It is more about the life we live and how we treat others; especially the helpless and the voiceless among us.
Oh that today you listen to his voice, harden not your hearts.
LET US PRAY
Loving and eternal God, you have spoken to us in the example of the early apostles. Help us to be courageous in our commitment so that through us the world may come to know and accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. We ask you this through Christ our Lord, amen.