Sunday reflection: Matthew 28:16-20 and John 17:1–11
This weekend’s Ascension of the Lord Gospel readings are Matthew 28:16-20 and John 17:1–11:
The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them. When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted. Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
Jesus raised his eyes to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come. Give glory to your son, so that your son may glorify you, just as you gave him authority over all people, so that your son may give eternal life to all you gave him. Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ. I glorified you on earth by accomplishing the work that you gave me to do. Now glorify me, Father, with you, with the glory that I had with you before the world began.
“I revealed your name to those whom you gave me out of the world. They belonged to you, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you gave me is from you, because the words you gave to me I have given to them, and they accepted them and truly understood that I came from you, and they have believed that you sent me. I pray for them. I do not pray for the world but for the ones you have given me, because they are yours, and everything of mine is yours and everything of yours is mine, and I have been glorified in them. And now I will no longer be in the world, but they are in the world, while I am coming to you.”
Last night, we spent the evening with close friends, having dinner and conversation. Since I’m usually the keeper of the movies, they asked me to bring one over to watch … but since they also know my quirky taste in films, they asked me to bring a few of them so everyone could choose. I grabbed Zombieland mostly to amuse them (it’s me being me), but I also brought Risen, which I discovered they had never seen before. This turns out to be a perfect film for an Ascension Sunday weekend, as it closely follows the narrative at the end of Matthew and the beginning of Acts, including some of our readings today. (My film review of Risen can be found here.)
The film captures in a very personal way what it would have been like to walk with Christ after the resurrection, but before Pentecost and the Holy Spirit. The disciples were filled with joy and comfort, and those who were not disciples but saw Jesus were converted, but still unclear about what the future held. What did Jesus’ return mean, and how would they be called to serve?
We see some of this in the readings for both cycles this weekend, perhaps especially in the very beginning of Acts. Luke writes that Christ appeared in Jerusalem for forty days, teaching about the kingdom of God, but that the disciples still had some confusion over its nature. The first question noted in Acts to Jesus is also the last Christ is asked before the ascension: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” This basic question about the nature of the Messiah had not been answered in the minds of the disciples, even forty days after the Resurrection.
This question and confusion around it had been at the heart of Jesus’ ministry. The Israelites expected a Messiah to return the kingdom of David to its previous ascendancy, with Jesus as the king — but in this world, not in eternity. That model for salvation had failed, a model that almost from the beginning had human beings putting themselves ahead of the Lord, and power and desire ahead of salvation. The temple authorities believed Jesus was going to seize their positions, and the Romans — to the extent they worried about it at all — believed Jesus might be a catalyst to a rebellion of arms, which came almost 40 years later anyway. There are signs that Judas Iscariot believed that Jesus would do exactly that, and either betrayed Him when it didn’t happen or tried to force Jesus’ hand with the betrayal. It’s clear from the Gospels that this misconception over the question of the nature of the Messiah leads directly to the crucifixion.
Nor does Jesus answer this question directly, even as He ascended into heaven. Instead, Jesus reminds them that it is not for even the soon-to-be apostles to “know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority.” Jesus promises the coming of the Holy Spirit to guide them, and then departs. In his place come two messengers, who tell them that Jesus will return in the same way He departed, but that they do not need to be “standing there looking at the sky” any longer. Their mission, for the moment, is to return to Jerusalem and wait for the Pentecost — and begin to build His church.
This they do in faith. As Risen depicts, the apostles and the converts did not yet comprehend, did not yet have a basis in reason for their actions. The Holy Spirit had not yet descended on them to give them gifts of prophecy and wisdom beyond their own innate capabilities. Their teacher had departed from them a second time with many questions yet unanswered. And still, these disciples had faith in Jesus, and faith in the Lord. Their first action was to return to Jerusalem, and to pray together with others, notably Mary the mother of Jesus, while awaiting the spirit.
They trusted in Jesus, without knowing what it meant or where it would lead. All they really knew at that point was that they loved Jesus, and knew He loved them. And this is the lesson for all of us as we struggle with the nature of the Messiah and the implications of eternal life and salvation. So much of this is a mystery still to us; as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 2:9, referring back to Isaiah 64:4:
However, as it is written: “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived” — the things God has prepared for those who love him— these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.
Some of these questions will never get a full answer. It is not for us to “know the times and the seasons” appointed by the Father. Human reason cannot unlock all of the mysteries of the mind of God and His plans for salvation and triumph. But we really don’t need to do that in order to participate in those plans. We need to rest our hearts on Jesus, and allow the Holy Spirit to fill us with faith and caritas, and trust in the peace and understanding of the Paraclete as we do.
At times, we find ourselves in the shoes of the disciples on the walk from Jerusalem to Galilee as they encounter the risen Lord. We find ourselves adrift, happy in the love of the Lord, but unsure what comes next and how we are called to get there. The best we can do is to embrace Him and put our trust in the Holy Spirit, to lead us on the path of salvation, even if we cannot quite glimpse the destination from here. We know that Christ has opened the path, and that He is always with us until the end of the age. And that is enough.
The front page image is a detail from “The Ascension” by Giotto di Bondone, a fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy, circa 1305.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.