Ascension, succession, and mission: Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is John 17:11–19:

Lifting up his eyes to heaven, Jesus prayed, saying: “Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are one. When I was with them I protected them in your name that you gave me, and I guarded them, and none of them was lost except the son of destruction, in order that the Scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you. I speak this in the world so that they may share my joy completely. I gave them your word, and the world hated them, because they do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world but that you keep them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world. Consecrate them in the truth. Your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world. And I consecrate myself for them, so that they also may be consecrated in truth.”

Several years ago when I worked in a more traditional corporate environment, our organization became focused on succession planning. Every so often, ideas like this would cycle through the corporate world, most of them good on the merits if not nearly as acute as they seemed, usually after a famous CEO wrote a book or an essay that suggested that some concept was the key to success and that most everyone else was missing it. We would then have meetings on it, assignments would be given out, and we busied ourselves with the concept — whatever it was — until either more mundane issues became more acute or the next great idea eclipsed it.

Succession planning was one of those good-on-the-merits-but-not-acute issues for our organization. It attempted to answer the question of what would happen if the leader of each unit suddenly left, which really didn’t seem to be that big of an issue in a hierarchical organization. Presumably the person next in line would take over, but then we had to plan past that, too. In my case, it became a little tougher when the person directly below me declared that not only didn’t he want my job, but that he’d refuse to take it even if ordered. (He was as good as his word, too; when I left, he stayed put and they had to find someone from the outside to take over.) In the end, though, there were very few surprises, except perhaps on the faces of people we had to ask about taking our jobs if we left.

In today’s Gospel on the day we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord, however, this may be the most acute application of the question in history. The salvation of the world rested on the shoulders of the disciples, soon to become apostles, of Jesus Christ, and they were not yet prepared to deal with the absence of their leader. Christ knows this, and asks the Father to guard them in the days ahead, knowing that the world already “hated them” for speaking Christ’s truth. This Gospel reading comes as part of a long, beautiful prayer captured by John for the Church. Not only does Jesus ask the Father to consecrate his disciples for their lives of service ahead, but then He also prays for us, as believers through their word:

I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.

In John’s Gospel, the very next act that takes place after Jesus’ prayer for the church is His arrest in the garden of Gethsemane. Despite Christ’s efforts to prepare His disciples, they scatter, unable to deal with the crisis in the first few days. They remain together but have no idea what to do until after His resurrection, knowing only that they need to remain together for both mourning and safety. They had almost all of the knowledge and resources they needed for their mission but had a crisis of faith and leadership until Christ returned and the Holy Spirit came on Pentecost.

In the opening of The Acts of the Apostles, Luke writes about Jesus’ ascension into heaven, and their realization that the mantle of leadership had been passed emphatically onto the shoulders of the eleven who remained. Peter is faced with his own issue of succession at that point — should anyone replace Judas Iscariot? As our first reading today reveals, the brethren of the church at that time numbered 120, and eleven leaders might have been sufficient. Peter, however, reaches back to Psalms to create what has become known as apostolic succession, the imprimatur of the Church and the guarantee of its continuity. Matthias takes the place of the betrayer, and the succession gives the church a path for growth and sustainability to support its mission of salvation to the world.

However, the issue of succession isn’t just about the leadership of the church. Jesus prays for His disciples and their protection from sin and worldly temptation, but He also prays for all of us as well. In baptism, we all become priests, prophets, and kings in our own right, and with those titles come responsibility to serve. We are also Christ’s succession plan for salvation.

We do not go to church on Sunday merely to spend an hour listening to scripture and taking communion; we are there to be formed as evangelists, ready to proclaim the Gospel and to bring people into communion with the Lord. Our succession may come more through family and friends than the apostolic line, but it is no less important to the overall mission. It is through formation in the Word, as Christ prayed in John 17, that we become His disciples and that “the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” We are both the fruit of Christ’s vine in the manner in which we represent His church to the world, and its branches in how we can bring forth more fruit through our own evangelism.

The other 108 or so people in the gathering in which Matthias succeeded Judas certainly weren’t passive bystanders or folks who had just dropped by for an hour to fulfill an obligation. They were ready to succeed the apostles in other ways — by working to build the communities in which they would preach, by reaching out to others to give them the gift of salvation, and by living to exemplify as well as they could John’s exhortation in our second reading today: “if we love one another, God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us.”

That need has not changed in the two millennia since. In fact, it might be greater than ever, or at least more acute than it has been in a long time. Christ’s Ascension still demands a succession plan from each of us, in active love and evangelism. The road may not be easy, but love and joy await us and those whose lives we touch through that mission.

The front page image is a detail from “The Ascension” by Giotto, 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.