'You are to be my witnesses'

by Thomas Gumbleton

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I really did read those letters from all of you and I found them very inspiring because you seem to understand what's really important about the Sacrament of Confirmation, that you are committing yourself now for the rest of your life to continue to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, baptized, confirmed, strengthened regularly by the Holy Eucharist and also by your own daily prayer. Each of you seem to find that an important thing to include, that you have come to know Jesus better through your preparation for the Sacrament of Confirmation. I do have that sense that you're truly ready, but it's important that we reflect a little bit further on the Scriptures and on this feast that we're celebrating, the Ascension of Jesus into heaven.

The first thing that I think is important about the feast day and what we are being taught about the feast day is not exactly when the Ascension happened. It's important for all of us to realize that the Gospels are not a history book. They don't follow the life of Jesus like we might do if we were writing history, or even if we were writing a biography of Jesus. But the Gospels do, and the other New Testament Scriptures like the letters of Paul and so on, teach us about Jesus -- who he is, why he came, what he did. They don't try to give us a chronological teaching about his life. In fact, if you listen to the Gospels carefully, you'll discover, when you listen to the Gospel of John about Easter Sunday, when Jesus came back to the disciples Easter Sunday night, it was then that he breathed on them, gave them the gift of the Holy Spirit, and then left them for good.

Solemnity of the
Ascension of the Lord

Acts 1:1-11
Psalms 47:2-3, 6-7, 8-9
Ephesians 1:17-23
or Hebrews 9:24-28; 10:19-23
Matthew 28:19A, 20B
Luke 24:46-53
Full text of the readings

It wasn't 40 days later. Luke puts that into his Acts of the Apostles because in the early days of the church, the Christians thought Jesus was going to come back very quickly and that he would restore the reign of God in its fullness; but it wasn't going to happen. By the time Luke wrote the Acts of the Apostles in the 80s, it was pretty clear that Jesus wasn't coming back anytime soon. And so, Luke puts into the Acts of the Apostles the story about how they gathered together outside of Jerusalem and then he's lifted up to heaven. The angels come down and tell the disciples, "What are you looking up there for? He's gone." That wasn't how it really happened, but the important thing is what we learn in one of the letters of St. Paul about what this meant.

What happened is described in this letter of Paul to the church at Ephesus. He tells us, "God revealed God's almighty power in Jesus when he raised Jesus from the dead and had him sit at his right hand in heaven, far above all rule, power, authority, dominion, or any other super natural force that could be named, not only in this world, but in the world to come. Thus God has 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."

What Paul is telling us there is the meaning of Jesus leaving. When he was risen from the dead and went back to heaven, he was established as Son of God in power. He's son of Mary, one like us in everything except sin, but now he's the Son of God in power over all things, forever and ever.

I bring this to your attention because I was impressed with the way that some of you wrote about how you are growing in your prayer life and you find yourself speaking to God, and I hope sometimes trying to listen to God. One of the things in your prayer life that I suggest you think about sometimes and pray over is this truth about Jesus. Remember, he's our brother. Think about that -- Jesus is one of us, a human being, has a human nature, and yet here he is, Son of God in power, our brother in heaven. See, we're all aspiring to be given that fullness of life of God in heaven. Jesus is already there -- and not just as God, but as our brother, as a member of the human family, just like anyone of us -- Jesus. It's an extraordinary truth.

But we have to reflect on it to see how profound it really is that someone like me, like you, like any of us, is Son of God in power over all of the universe, sitting (in a metaphorical way) at God's right hand -- the most important place in all of the creation that God has given to us. That's Jesus, and he's our brother. And I hope sometimes you'll try to reflect on this and get that sense of who Jesus really is -- like me in every way except sin. He's fully human, but now he's Son of God in power over all things.

St. Paul describes it very beautifully. That's the first thing I hope you might take from the Scriptures today.

The second thing, and maybe it's closer to what you've been reflecting on and trying to do as you prepared for Confirmation, where in St. Luke's Gospel we hear today where Jesus is explaining to the disciples, "It was written that the Messiah had to suffer [and] on the third day rise from the dead," and then, "In his name, repentance and forgiveness for sin would be proclaimed to all the nations beginning from Jerusalem." Then he says to the disciples (And this is what he says to you today, to all of us because we've been confirmed already, we can renew this, but to these candidates), "That is why I will send to you what God promised. Remain in the city until you are clothed with power from above. Then you are to be my witnesses beginning from Jerusalem, going to Galilee, even to the ends of the Earth, you are to be my witnesses."

That's what Jesus asks of those who are his disciples and especially a confirmed disciple, to be a witness. As I prayed in the opening prayer, "Send your Holy Spirit upon us to make us witnesses to the Good News proclaimed by Jesus." Make us witnesses. And it really is good news for our world, for all of us, that God loves us, God will always love us. No matter what trials we go through, God will bring us through to goodness and fullness of life. In the world in which we live, it's so important to be a witness to Jesus.

I think we should give thanks every day because we have an extraordinary witness now who is the Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis. Isn't that what he's doing so often? He is giving witness to the good news of Jesus when he goes to visit. When he came here to the United States, one of the places he went was to a hospital because Jesus always reached out to the sick and the suffering, and he brought healing and goodness and love into their lives. We can be that kind of a witness, visiting those who are suffering. Francis also went to a jail, and he does that regularly. These are people who are broken; they need God's help, God's love, so Francis visits them. Just a couple of weeks ago, Francis gave witness to the world about taking in those who are having to flee their homes because of war, because of violence, because of drought or economic situations. They're fleeing, fleeing for their lives.

So Francis, a couple of weeks ago, goes to the island of Lesbos where many of them have fled from the Middle East and he brings 12 families back to Rome. He's showing us that you must take in those who are in need of a home, who are in need of food and care, who need a way of life. And he arranged with a parish community in Rome, the community of Sant'Egidio to take care of these families, to find them jobs, to find them places to live. Remember what Jesus said, "When I was homeless, a stranger you took me in." That's what Francis is doing. It's so different from the attitude you sometimes find, "Push them away; keep them out!" That's wrong. A witness to Jesus will do what Francis does -- try to bring them in, give them the kind of help that they need.

Francis also shows us how he witnesses to the way of Jesus in rejecting violence and war. It's so tragic, isn't it, that we, our own nation, have been at war almost without a break since 1991. The countries in the Middle East have definitely been at war, and we've been involved since 1991. Francis recently showed us what we need to do. He went to the country of the Central African Republic where there is violence going on between Christians and Muslims. And he sent a representative ahead of time to prepare the way so that he could visit one of the mosques. He traveled to that mosque in this war-torn country to visit with an imam, to try to work out a way to reconcile, to end the violence between Christians and Muslims, through dialogue, through conversation, through trying to reach out to one another. Again, with the help of the Sant'Egidio community, through that dialogue, they've resolved some of the problems in that country and they're not killing each other now. They're finding a way to reconcile. That's the kind of witness Francis is giving to us.

We have to try to imitate Francis, who is imitating Jesus, who is always reaching out in love and forgiveness, in reconciliation, who rejected violence and war and killing. That's a difficult witness, but it's a witness to which all of us are called. Now you're very young, and I don't expect you to be traveling to foreign countries at this point, but I hope at least you get the idea from what Francis is witnessing to us that that's the way we have to try to shape our lives. That begins in not just [in] far away places, but within our homes where we reconcile with one another, forgive one another, within our communities -- reconcile with one another, forgive one another, welcome one another. Among different peoples of different races, peoples of different religions, we try to bring about reconciliation. It does begin right here for each of us to try to follow that witness of Francis, which is really the way of Jesus.

As we think about these things, about what Jesus said, "You be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, to the ends of the Earth," he was saying you are to be the witnesses to Jesus, here, in this community. You can show how to follow Jesus. Once more I commend you because in your letters you spoke, I think almost every one of you, about your experience of going out among the poor to serve at soup kitchens, to gather food for the gleaners program, and how inspiring you found that to be. But you know, you were giving witness when you were doing that, and I hope you continue to understand that that's the main thing that Jesus says to you, "You are to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, to the ends of the Earth."

All of us, I hope, will take seriously the call of Jesus to be witnesses to his way: his way of love, his way of forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace. When enough of us who are confirmed disciples of Jesus really live according to his way, we'll change our world. The world will become what God intends it to be: the reign of God, fullness of life and peace and joy for every person. But it all depends if we take seriously the call of Jesus to be his witnesses. So this evening as we celebrate this Sacrament of Confirmation, all of us who are here will be praying especially for you, that you will experience that coming of the Spirit upon you in a very deep way, and that you'll be able to leave this church as you indicated you would do in your letters -- to be a disciple of Jesus, giving witness to him for the rest of your lives. We pray for that for all of you and ask you to share in the same prayer, and to continue your good work as you've lived your way of following Jesus up to this point. God bless you all.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[Homily given at Confirmation Mass at St. Vincent Pallotti in Wyandotte, Mich. 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.]

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