The Ascension of the Lord - May 12, 2024

 The Ascension of the Lord - May 12, 2024

Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:17-23; Mark 16:15-20

Theme: “Go Into the Whole World and Proclaim the Gospel to Every Creature.”

The Gospel stories of the past two Sundays, taken from the “Vine and the Branches Discourse” in chapter 15 of the Gospel of John, have been preparing us for the solemnities of the Ascension of our Lord, which we celebrate today and Pentecost, which we will commemorate next Sunday. The context of that discourse is rooted in Jesus’ final comments to his disciples at the Last Supper. Jesus prepared them and us to understand the mission we must carry out after his death, resurrection, and ascension. In that discourse, Jesus invited his disciples, including us, to remain in him and his love as he remains in us to bear much fruit that will remain. We remain in Jesus and his love only when we actively carry out his mission, which he leaves us in today’s liturgy of the Ascension of our Lord. He remains in us through the Holy Spirit, whose coming we will celebrate next Sunday on the solemnity of Pentecost.

Today, we joyfully celebrate the Ascension of the Lord, the day Jesus was taken up into heaven. The Scripture readings we heard remind us of the profound significance of this event. The Ascension of our Lord does not signify a time for a reward, as the disciples mistakenly believed when they asked Jesus: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (First reading). Instead, the Ascension of Jesus is a pivotal moment of building a spiritual kingdom by proclaiming the Gospel to every creature and saving the souls of the people of God (the Gospel). To fully grasp the urgency of the mission that Jesus left us and to be empowered to carry it out wherever we live, we need the Spirit of wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge of God (second reading).

It is worth noting that the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are not separate works but one book in two volumes written by the same author, Luke. Theophilus, the recipient of Luke's book, is a name that carries a significant meaning. In Greek, Theophilus means “The Lover of God.” This implies that Luke wrote his two-volume book for all those who love God, including us today. Our first reading is taken from the beginning of the second volume, the Acts of the Apostles. It can be divided into two parts. The first part is an introduction where Luke summarizes what he wrote in the first volume, the Gospel of Luke. The second part recounts the story of Jesus’ ascension.

 Luke begins our reading by telling us that in the first volume of his book, he dealt with all that Jesus did and taught until the day he ascended to heaven. He focuses on different moments when Jesus appeared to his disciples after he had been resurrected from the dead. He instructed them about God’s kingdom and the Holy Spirit during this time. For Luke, the interval between Jesus’ resurrection and the last day he ascended into heaven was forty days. “He presented himself alive to them by many proofs after he had suffered, appearing to them during forty days (…)” (V. 3). This is a crucial detail on which I would like to reflect.

Luke tells us that Jesus’ ascension occurs on the fortieth day after his resurrection. The Church also celebrates the Ascension of the Lord forty days after Jesus’ resurrection. Note that the solemnity of the Ascension of our Lord this year occurred last Thursday, May 9th. For liturgical purposes, the local Church in the United States of America celebrates it today, Sunday. So, from Easter Vigil (March 31st) to Ascension Day (May 9th), it is 40 days. In the Scripture, the number forty conveys the symbolic meaning of preparation. We can recall Noah’s forty days in the ark, Moses’s forty days on Mount Sinai, and Jesus’ own forty days in the desert before he started his ministry. And now, our Lord needed a forty-day period after his resurrection to prepare his disciples for the mission he was about to assign them. Celebrating the Ascension of our Lord today, forty days after Easter, our Holy Mother Church wants to remind us that we have been well prepared to take up the mission Jesus has left us.

The second part of our first reading recounts the story of Jesus’ ascension (vv. 6-11). It commences with the disciples’ question to Jesus: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” They mean the “physical kingdom” in which they want to overturn the Roman’s power. In his answer, Jesus tells them that the times and seasons God established by his authority should not be their preoccupation. Jesus moves their minds to focus instead on the mission that he assigns them. He tells them that they will receive the Holy Spirit, who will empower them to be his witnesses throughout the world, starting with their own people, the Israelites of both kingdoms (Jerusalem in the north and Judea in the South), and notice how Luke includes even the Samaritans whom the chosen people considered as the “lost sheep.” Next, Luke reports that after Jesus had said this, he was lifted up, and his disciples looked at him as he ascended to heaven. Two angels, described as men dressed in white garments, questioned them about why they were standing there, looking at the sky. They confirmed Jesus’ second coming at the end of time when they told the disciples that the way Jesus was taken up to heaven was the same way he would return (vv. 6-11).  

Here, the Church wants to remind us that the Easter season will conclude next Sunday when we receive the Holy Spirit, who will empower us to carry out the mission that our Lord leaves us today. We should not be like the disciples who, through their question to Jesus (v. 6), were interested in the establishment of the “physical kingdom” while Jesus wanted them to build the “spiritual one,” God’s kingdom. The disciples unveiled the motivation for their discipleship. They have been following Jesus for about three years with a mindset to take the power from the Romans. Why do you and I follow Jesus? What are the specific motivations for us being Christians? Do our motivations correspond to what Jesus calls us for? In his answer, Jesus moves his disciples’ focus from their selfish motivation to the essential mission of a disciple. He tells us that our motivation for being Christians should not be to know with exactitude when God grants our requests. We are Jesus’ disciples essentially to implement God’s kingdom and be his witnesses everywhere we live until the ends of the earth. This is what Mark tells us also in our Gospel.

Our Gospel passage (Mk 16:15-20) is taken from the “Longer Ending” section (Mk 16:9-20). Bible Scholars agree that the Gospel of Mark originally ended with the story of Jesus's Resurrection, in which the women experienced the empty tomb and received a message from an angel described as a “young man clothed in a white robe” asking them to tell Jesus’ disciples to go to Galilee, where they would meet the Risen Jesus (16:1-8). The “Longer Ending” section was possibly added in the second century. The Council of Trent has accepted and defined it as a canonical part of the Gospel (see NABRE, note to Mark 16:9-20). Today, we read the second half of the “Longer Ending” section. The first part contains two short stories of Jesus’ appearances to Mary Magdalen (16:9-11) and “Two Disciples” (16:12-13). The second part, our Gospel passage, is the Ascension of Jesus’ account. It begins with verse 14, which the lectionary omitted. This verse relates that Jesus appeared to all eleven disciples and rebuked them for their lack of belief in his resurrection.

Jesus commissions his disciples to “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” (V. 15).  Notice that the eleven disciples are asked to go into the “whole world,” and the Gospel must be proclaimed not with “discrimination” but to “every creature.”  My question is: “How could these eleven men travel worldwide? Is it impossible?” The answer is “Yes” because, through the disciples, Jesus commissions everyone who believes in him. So, you and I, too, are commissioned, and today, at this Mass, we renew our commitment to go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to everyone without discrimination. Remember, the world starts in our family and is extended to our Church community, neighborhoods, societies, and all people, including those overseas, who need our prayers and support. Also, to “proclaim the Gospel” does not mean necessary preaching. We can proclaim the Gospel through our three “Ts,” Time, Talents, and Treasure. So, we are commissioned to spend some of our “Time” with Jesus in prayer, especially in the Eucharistic celebrations, meditation, Bible reading/study, rosary, visiting the sick and prisoners, and many other ministries and devotions. Jesus commissions us to use the “Talents” he has entrusted us with to build up God’s kingdom. Finally, Jesus sends us on a mission to support his Church and help the people in need with the “Treasure” he has blessed us with. Let us start the work now.

 Mark specifies that faith and baptism are fundamental for salvation. He also mentions specific signs that will accompany the believers, such as driving out demons (exorcism), speaking new languages, handling serpents, surviving poison, and healing the sick. The narrator comments that the disciples went forth, preaching and working signs everywhere (vv. 16-20). Let us go forth, preaching the Word of God wherever we live to deliver people from the demons of killing, hate, divisions, and racism. People who hear and believe in the Gospel will speak new languages of peace, love, justice, and charity. They will be able to handle the difficulties they go through. And they will be empowered with the gift of healing. For all these to happen, on the one hand, we are called to carry out Jesus’ mission everywhere, and on the other hand, we need to believe in the Word of God and be baptized.

May this Mass enable us to be Jesus’ missionaries wherever we live. Amen.

Rev. Leon Ngandu, SVD

 

 

6th Sunday of Easter – May 5, 2024

 6th Sunday of Easter – May 5, 2024

Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48; 1 John 4:7-10; John 15:9-17

 

Theme: What Remaining in Jesus’ Love Mean

The Gospel story we heard today is not a standalone narrative but a continuation of last Sunday’s Gospel. Together, they form a cohesive unit called “The Vine and the Branches Discourse.” This discourse is part of a larger sequence, beginning with Jesus’ Last Super Discourses (14:1-14) and his promise to send the Advocate to his disciples (14:15-31) that immediately precede our text and concluding with Jesus preparing his disciples for the world's hostility (15:18 – 16:4) that immediately follows our text. Thus, the historical context of John 15:1-17 is rooted in Jesus’ final comments to his disciples at the Last Supper (John 13-17). It extends beyond the immediate crisis of Jesus’ departure, serving as a guide for his disciples in the tumultuous days following his passion and death.

It is necessary to briefly review what the first part of this discourse (Jn 15:1-8) taught us last Sunday. It spoke of Jesus as the true vine, his Father, God, the vine grower, and the believers, including all of us, the branches. Like the vine gives wine, Jesus, the “true vine,” offers his Blood as the true drink for the eternal salvation of the world. In John 6, Jesus spoke of himself as the Bread of Life. So, bread and wine are two species used in the celebration of the Mass. Therefore, believers can remain in Jesus mostly when participating in the Eucharistic celebration, during which they receive the Body and Blood of Jesus in the Holy Communion after listening to him in the Scripture readings. Jesus exhorted his disciples to remain in him as he remained in them for at least three reasons: to bear much fruit, to live, and so that God might hear their prayers. He warned them about the role of his Father, the vine grower, which consisted of taking away those in him who do not bear fruit and pruning those who do. Here, the disciples and all of us learned that we are not just passive recipients of God's grace but active participants in his plan. We are expected to remain in Jesus, the true vine, produce fruits of virtues, holiness, and good works, and allow God always to prune us (meaning, discipline us) despite its painful process so that we continue bearing more fruits. If we fail to do so, at the last judgment, God will cut us off from the Body of Jesus and throw us into the fire of hell for eternal condemnation (see v. 6.) So, in this first part of our Gospel story, Jesus exhorted his disciples and all of us to remain in him as he remained in us and let God prune us to bear much fruit and have eternal salvation.

The second part of the Vine and the Branches discourse is today's Gospel passage (Jn 15:9-17.) Its context is found in the story that immediately follows our text (15:18 – 16:4a), in which Jesus asserts that people may persecute his disciples as they did to him. In our text, Jesus prepares his disciples for the world’s hate. He calls them to respond with great love instead. This love entails a one-on-one relationship and experience with God, keeping Jesus’ commandments and changing the status from slaves to Jesus’ friends.

Jesus calls his disciples to remain in his love. He says, “As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love.” (V. 9). Notice the word “as” in this statement. It compares two loves: the love between God the Father and Jesus and the love between Jesus and his disciples. The way God loves Jesus is the same way Jesus loves his disciples. The love that Jesus uses to love his friends comes from his personal experience of love with his Father God. This means we love others using the love placed within us by those who had loved us first. Unfortunately, it is sad to notice that many people in our societies have an unhappy experience of love behind them. They came from broken families; they experienced a lack of love from their parents and siblings, betrayal and cheating from their spouses and friends, and rejection and discrimination from their society. They received rejection where love was expected. To them and all of us, the liturgy of today’s Mass exhorts us to consider and use Jesus’ love for us.  Jesus loves us and invites us to remain in his love. This means that the way Jesus loves us with the love he gets from his Father is the same way we should love our brothers and sisters using our experience of love with Jesus.

First, to remain in Jesus’ love implies our one-on-one relationship and experience with him. We can use Jesus’ love in our love for others only when we ourselves experience it in our personal relationship with him in prayer life, using the sacraments (especially the Eucharist and Confession), and good works. This is what our second reading tells us when it says that we should love one another because we know God and are begotten by him. It affirms that God is love, so to know God results in loving others. We cannot say we know God if we do not love one another. Therefore, to remain in Jesus’ love entails our personal relationship with God and leads us to love our fellow humans as he loves us.

Second, to remain in Jesus’ love entails keeping Jesus’ commandments. Jesus connects the call of remaining in his love with keeping his commandments. “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love” (V. 10). Remaining in Jesus’ love and keeping his commandments go together. One who loves Jesus must necessarily keep his commandments. He explains what he means by “his commandment.” His commandment is this: “Love one another as I love you.” (v. 12.) The comprehension of this statement is on the word “as.” We are called to love our brothers and sisters “as” or in the same way Jesus loves us. And the way he loves us consists of laying down his life for us, his friends (v. 13). Therefore, we can say that we love Jesus and keep his commandments when we are capable of loving one another to the level of laying down our lives for those we love.

Third, remaining in Jesus’ love and keeping his commandments changes our status from slaves to Jesus’ friends. “I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father” (V. 15, NABRE). The word “slaves” here means “servants.” Moses (Dt 34:5), Joshua (Jos 24:29), and David (Ps 89:21) were called “servants” or “slaves of Yahweh.” Abraham was called a “friend of God.” (Is 41:8; 2 Chr 20:7.) In our text, the transition from “slaves or servants” to “friends” explains how Jesus invites us to a deep relationship with him. Our personal experience with him is no longer based on a relationship between the Master (him) and servants (us) but between friends. This means, in our turn, we should love all people as our friends with no discrimination. This is what our first reading teaches us.

The context of this first reading is the meeting between Peter (a Jew) and Cornelius (a Gentile), which broke the barrier that separated the Jews and Gentiles. God first appeared to Cornelius in a vision and asked him to invite Peter to his house (10:1-8). He then appeared to Peter also in a vision and told him to eat the food that the Jews considered “profane and unclean.” He told him that he should not call profane what God had made clean. Then God asked Peter to go to Cornelius’s house without hesitation. Note that at that time, it was prohibited for a devout Jew to socialize with the Gentiles. But here, God asked Peter to accept Cornelius’s invitation (10:9-23). Peter went to socialize with all the Gentiles found in Cornelius’ house. Our first reading picks up from here. First, Peter and Cornelius met (vv. 25-26). Then, he delivered his speech, which promoted unity between Jews and Gentiles. “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. 35 Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.”  (Vv. 34-35). The Holy Spirit fell upon all the Gentiles in Cornelius’ house, listening to Peter. Consequently, Peter baptized them all (vv. 44-48). The meeting between Peter and Cornelius broke the longtime barrier that separated the Jews and Gentiles. Our “remaining in Jesus’ love” that Jesus invites us to in our Gospel should also break all barriers that separate us from our fellow humans.  

The world continues to hate believers until today, as it did to Jesus and his disciples. Jesus prepared us to respond to hate with great love. May the liturgy of this Mass enable us to love everyone as Jesus loves us. Amen.

 Rev. Leon Ngandu, SVD

 

 

 

The Ascension of the Lord - May 12, 2024

  The Ascension of the Lord - May 12, 2024 Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:17-23; Mark 16:15-20 Theme: “Go Into the Whole World and Proclaim the ...