This is one of those times when if we listen carefully to the readings, we discover that the Gospel, especially what I'm talking about, is not a historical document really. It's not a biography of Jesus. It's the recollections of the disciples over a few decades that were passed on by word of mouth, then only gradually written down. But the main point of what was collected and written down was not historical, not biographical, but theological. It's about God and God revealed to us in Jesus.
Solemnity of the Ascension
I mention this because if you take time to compare the different accounts of the resurrection, and now today of what we call the Feast of the Ascension, Jesus returning to heaven, we discover there are many discrepancies and contradictions and just a whole variety of descriptions of what supposedly happened. But we're not intended to look at these in that strict historical or biographical sense.
Just for example, even Luke in the first lesson today, whose account of the Ascension is that elaborate story that we're told about how Jesus had spent the 40 days over the period of time with the disciples instructing them and eating with them, rejoicing with them, and then gathers them together and is carried up above the clouds. In Luke's Gospel, and the same author, it happened at Easter Sunday night. He simply mentions that Jesus, after speaking with the disciples, ascends to heaven. That's all there is to it, but it's on Easter Sunday night.
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So where were the 40 days and all the events that Luke describes in the Acts of the Apostles? In Mark's Gospel, what we hear today, is actually something that was added on decades after the original Gospel first began to circulate. The original Gospel ended when the women came to the tomb and discovered the body was gone and then encountered the two people that were there telling them about it, who told them, "Now go and tell his disciples and Peter that Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there just as he told you."
But here's what the women do -- instead of going and telling, the women went out and fled from the tomb for terror and amazement had seized them. They were so afraid, they said nothing to anyone. That's not how we picture those first disciples based on our recollection of all the different accounts that we've heard over the years. It almost seems like as the church was beginning to develop and they were collecting these different accounts of what happened on that Easter Sunday, they were embarrassed by this. The disciples were terrified. They didn't know what to do; they ran away.
So gradually, the different versions began to be collected and written down and passed on to us. But, there is an importance in all of the descriptions of the events that took place Easter Sunday and then however long it was before Jesus appeared to the disciples in a way that they could see him and touch and eat with him and so on. The reason why we have the different accounts, for example, the account that Luke gives in our first lesson today, Luke is trying to emphasize the fact that Jesus, whom the disciples knew so well as one like them in every way, he was a fellow human, a friend, one who wept, one who laughed, one who ate, one who traveled with them, one who suffered, one who mourned, and wept over the loss of friends.
But Luke wants them to realize now, that this same Jesus, the one they knew -- fully human, could get angry, could be overwhelmed with sorrow, could be afraid of what was facing him -- death. This Jesus is now Son of God in power. This one they knew as their brother, their friend is God, the Son of God. Imagine how difficult it would be to start absorbing that reality. Luke shows in his account of the Ascension how Jesus is taken up into heaven and is seated then at the right hand of God.
A good description of what Luke is describing of Jesus now becoming Son of God in power is our second lesson today. Listen to how Paul, writing to the church at Ephesus talks about Jesus, "May the God of Christ Jesus, our God, the God of glory reveal God's self to you and give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation that you may know God. May he enlighten your inner vision that you may appreciate the things we hope for. May you understand with what extraordinary power God acts in favor of us who believe."
And here are the key words: "God revealed God's almighty power in Christ when he raised him from the dead, had him sit at his right hand in heaven, far above all rule, power, authority, dominion, or any other force that could be named, not only in this world but in the world to come as well. Thus has God put all things under the feet of Christ, set him above all things as Head of the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all."
Jesus, their brother, their friend -- this Jesus is Son of God. Paul uses those extraordinary words trying to show them just this amazing thing that has now happened that is revealed that Jesus going through suffering and death to new life is established forever, for all eternity as Son of God in power, the same Jesus who is the son of Mary, who is our brother. That's the theological truth that we're trying to explore and reflect on and take into our minds and hearts. This Jesus is God.
That's the main reason why it's important for us to realize that those first disciples were struggling and had to try and explain their experience of the risen Christ, use different ways to talk about it, different recollections on how it happened -- who saw what and so on. But ultimately, it's the revelation of Jesus as son of Mary, but now revealed to us fully as Son of God, whom we worship -- one of us and yet our God.
That's again, the main reason why we take a little time to point out that the scriptures are not for history or biography. There's some of that, but it's really teaching us about who Jesus is. But then as we think about that and begin to understand what this Feast of the Ascension really is -- it's a feast when we worship Jesus established as Son of God forever in heaven. We also can pick up a couple of other things from the Scriptures that are important for us now as we follow up on this awareness of who Jesus truly is.
First of all, I find it very challenging in a way in the account of Luke in the Acts of the Apostles when he describes when they came together. This is after the 40 days that he had spent with them, teaching them and so on. Now he's taking them to the point where he's going to leave. But before he does, the disciples ask, "Is it now that you will restore the kingdom of Israel?" Does that strike you as strange?
The disciples who had heard Jesus preach, who had seen him act, who had been with him those years during his time on earth, and who now had experienced his death and rising to a totally new life, they're saying, "Are you going to restore the powerful kingdom of Israel that we used to have?" They missed something, haven't they? Jesus, as he told Pilot when he was on trial, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, I could call legions of angels to come and rescue me. But that's not my kingdom. It's totally different."
It's so hard for those disciples and I think it's very hard for us to accept the challenge that Jesus has come to show us a radically different way than earthly kingdoms, a radically different way than seeking worldly wealth and power to dominate, to try to make things according to our will because we have the power to do it. No, Jesus gave up power and wealth. "He, though he was God," as Paul writes to the church at Philippi, "Did not think his divinity something to be clung to but emptied himself, became human, even became a slave, servant of others and then gave himself over to death, let himself be tortured, executed rather than try to use power and might, wealth, domination to do things imperiously, to do things through power."
No, Jesus gave all that up and as he told his disciples, "When I am lifted up on the cross, I will draw all to myself through love -- the only way." Again, we're back to this radical way of Jesus. You must give up domination and power, might, violence, war -- all of that. The way of Jesus and the only way is the way of love, the way of reconciliation, peace and love. That's the way of Jesus. Finally, people who appeared to the disciples in Luke's account in the Acts say, in a sense, "It's time to get going. Why are you standing there looking up into the heavens?"
This was written a few decades after Jesus was gone. The disciples were still thinking that he was going to return very quickly. So in a way, they hadn't really picked up the challenge that Jesus gave them, "Go out into the whole world and spread the good news." They were waiting for him to return. They thought it was going to happen. But now, it's made very clear; it's time to let that go. Go and spread the good news. Be witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the earth.
That's what they're told as they gather at that mountain at Galilee -- be witnesses. That's what we must do -- be witnesses to the radical way of Jesus. A couple of things have happened this week that I think really challenge us. Just the other day, not because it's going to make anyone come back who was killed in that terrible event at the Boston marathon, but the young man who has been on trial for this act of terrorism has now been condemned to death.
Many people maybe are not happy over it, but they're, "Well that's the way it should be." But is that really the way of Jesus? Look at Oscar Romero before he was put to death, "Even if they kill me, I will rise again in Salvadoran people, but you may tell those who kill me that even now I love and forgive those who do it." Somehow, if we're ever going to break a chain of violence and killing and war, we have to take up that attitude of Jesus -- rejecting violence, rejecting retribution, and rejecting vengeance.
What will be accomplished when this young man is put to death? One more killing. What could be accomplished? If he was loved into a humanness that obviously he lacks at the moment, what could be accomplished in our world if we were more like Jesus, the Son of God, our brother but also Son of God who's always reaching out in love, trying to draw people, soften those hard hearts, changing them into loving hearts. That's very difficult, I agree.
But we need to do it if we're going to follow Jesus in this instance. Also in our efforts to bring peace into the Middle East, continuing to press for diplomatic solution to the development of nuclear weapons by Iran. But also in Palestine and Israel -- this past week, Pope Francis working for reconciliation, trying to bring justice into that situation in the Promised Land -- Israel and Palestine, speaks up for the Palestinian people that they have a right to their own state, their own nationhood.
The new government in Israel, its Justice Minister is declaring that Israel should simply occupy all of the Palestinian authority, all that land -- take it over. What happens to the Palestinians? Push them out -- it's already happening through all the settlements. That needs to stop. As Pope Francis is saying, "The Palestinians have a right to the state where they've been living for hundreds and hundreds of years."
There will be many who vehemently disagree with that. It's a very challenging thing for Pope Francis to do, to speak up. But he is following the way of Jesus, speaking up on behalf of those who are being treated unjustly, speaking up to bring about reconciliation and a just peace in that area. It's not only international problems or huge problems like that, but everyday life where we again, have to listen to Jesus, hear what he says, watch how he acts as our brother facing violence and hatred, terrible situations as we do and yet also as the God who is love and through that love can transform our world into the peaceable reign of God that Jesus came to proclaim.
I hope as we recognize in this feast, Jesus our brother, son of Mary, but also now Son of God, that we will determine that we can follow him. Pray for the strength to do it and be faithful in listening and acting according to the way of Jesus, our brother and our God.
[Homily given at St. Philomena Catholic Church in Detroit. The transcripts of Bishop Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to NCRonline.org. Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]