The Ascension of the Lord, Year A
Preached at Assumption Parish in Bellingham, WA
English – Recording & Transcript
[00:00:02] If you think about those very rare times in your life where you’ve had to say the last thing to someone, you usually try to make those words count. So if there’s a family member who’s dying, you really think about what are the last things I really want to say to that family member? Or if you have a friend who’s moving away, you might ask, well, I might not see them again or we might not keep in touch; what’s the last thing I want to say to them? The Ascension is the last time the disciples saw Jesus on Earth. So what they choose to say to Him must be really important, and what he says to them must be really important. In the Gospel of Matthew, for example, at the Ascension, we hear Jesus say, Go 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 all that I have commanded you and behold, I am with you until the end of the age. An incredibly important passage in the gospel, one that’s at the top of our parish bulletin every week when it goes out. One that a lot of parishes are taking more and more seriously each year as we contemplate our mission to evangelize.
[00:01:18] Well, here in the Acts of the Apostles the last thing that the apostles say to Jesus is a little unexpected. It’s not really what we would think that they would want to say. What they say is, Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel? Why would they ask that? Well, a lot of it is because they still don’t quite understand. They’ve walked with Jesus for three years. They’ve witnessed his suffering and death. They’ve seen his resurrection from the dead. And yet this question is still on their mind. Why?
[00:02:00] It’s because the Jewish expectations of the Messiah were such that the Messiah should be the new David. He was the new Moses, but he was also the new David. Now, David was the king who presided over a united Israel. Solomon did as well, but by the end of his reign, he had made decisions that were already splitting the kingdom. And by Solomon’s son, the Kingdom of Israel was split between north and south. But David had united the kingdom of Israel and so the expectation was that when the Messiah came, the Messiah would do what David did, which was unite the Kingdom and expel all foreign invaders. The Israelites had already been taken over by the Assyrians, by the Babylonians, by the Greeks, and by the Romans at this point. And so they were hungry for somebody to restore the freedom of Israel. Well, the apostles, despite everything that they’d witnessed, still had this expectation that the Messiah should be the new David and that that new Davidic Messiah worship should carry with it a political connotation.
[00:03:07] And so they’ve done everything. They’ve gone along with the program. They’ve seen everything Jesus wanted to do. And then the last day they’ve got him they’re, just like, “Lord this thing we’ve been waiting for, for three years and 40 days, when are you going to do it? Like, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now? We’ve been waiting for you to do it, and now we’ve got one last chance.” That’s why they ask this question, because it was still very present on their mind. Essentially: How are you the Messiah? With everything they’d experienced, they’re still wondering, how are you the Messiah? How are you going to fulfill this?
[00:03:46] Now. I don’t wish to impugn the sanctity of the Apostles, but we should remember that these are the same folks who were bickering over who would get to sit at Jesus’s right hand and Jesus’s left hand when he came into his kingdom. That debate earlier in the Gospels was about who would be the closest advisors to the King. If Jesus is going to be the new King of Israel, you want to sit at his right and his left, because that means you have the ear of the king. The king is listening to you. Jesus himself eventually does tell the apostles they will sit on 12 thrones, judging the 12 tribes of Israel. There is this current of discussion of power. They want a power. They’re seeking the power. They want to be Jesus’s closest advisors. They know that Jesus is the source of power. And as with all advisors to kings, they would only ever act with the power of the king. But they want that. They want to have that power and that leadership. And so the fact that he has not yet restored the kingdom to Israel isn’t just an abstract theological question for them, but it’s a very practical, personal question for them. “Lord, we are your closest friends. You chose us from all of your disciples to carry on your mission. We expect to act with your power. And so when are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel? When are you going to give us that power that we can act with it?”
[00:05:16] This is why Jesus answers in a way that that is not immediately apparent until you understand that context. First, he says, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the father has established by his own authority.” Now, because of some parallel passages in the Gospels to this. A lot of people associate this with the end of time. So when Jesus is asked, “When are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” and he gives this answer, a lot of us will read into that that he’s going to restore the kingdom to Israel at the end of time. There are parallel passages in the gospels that use that phrase to talk about the end of time. But this passage by itself doesn’t say that. It’s essentially Jesus’s way of shoving off the question. He doesn’t answer it. He basically says, That’s none of your business. Worry about something else. It’s not an answer. The answer he does give is, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.” He knows the question of the depth of their heart. He knows that it is this question of power. They want to know when they will receive his power, essentially when he takes the power of the Kingdom of Israel, and then he gives that power to them. And so he answers their desire. He says, You will receive power, but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.
[00:06:41] As with everything with the Lord. This is the kind of fulfillment that is so much greater even than what we ask for. These apostles, they wanted to act with the power of the king, and I don’t think it was for ulterior motives. I think they truly believed in what Jesus was doing, what he was preaching, and they wanted to take that power out into the world. They’d already done that when he sent out the 72 disciples. They cast out demons. They’d seen what that was like. So they have a holy desire here, and Jesus is answering that desire with something greater than they could ever have imagined. They wanted to act with the power of an earthly king, and instead Jesus allows them to act with the power of God Himself. By saying that you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, he’s saying you will receive the power of God. You will act with the power of God. This power that you desire will be given to you in a way you could never have imagined.
[00:07:44] And he continues. “And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the Earth.” The power that they are asking for, Jesus gives a very specific purpose. He says, this power that you will receive from the Holy Spirit is for witnessing so that you can witness – be His witness – in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the Earth. Now the Acts of the Apostles was written in Greek, so the word witness here, the Greek word, is martyr. It’s the same word. They are being given the power of the Holy Spirit so that they can become martyrs to his name, martyrs in his name. That martyrdom for 10 of the 11 apostles who were here, that martyrdom was a martyrdom of death. They died for the sake of his name. They died because they were such effective and zealous witnesses. For many of us, well, we’ll get to what our responsibility is, but for many of us, martyrdom isn’t physical death. But a lot of times it’s social isolation, it’s emotional abuse, it’s all of these other ways that people can hurt us for our witness. Jesus is calling his apostles, and by extension us, to be martyrs, to be witnesses. That’s the power that he gives us.
[00:09:09] Now, again, he doesn’t really answer directly, and Jesus is notorious for not answering directly, which is both incredibly annoying and also why we still have theologians 2000 years later, because we’re still trying to figure it out. He doesn’t answer directly the question “Are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” But he kind of does when he tells them where they are going to witness. He starts with Jerusalem, the site of his crucifixion and resurrection, the site of religious power in Israel, the place that God has ordained his name to be worshipped. So you start with the locus of worship of God. You start there. But then he says, throughout Judea, Judea is a name given to the southern kingdom of Israel; and Samaria, which is the name given to the northern tribes of Israel who are wiped out by the Assyrians and to the ends of the earth. Jesus is saying that the Kingdom will be restored to Israel through the Witness of the Apostles, to the Southern Kingdom and the Northern Kingdom and to the Gentiles. Jesus is saying He intends to restore the Kingdom to Israel through the preaching of the Apostles.
[00:10:21] To take this a step further, we might say. He has already restored the Kingdom to Israel by calling forth the new Israel, which is the Church. He calls forth us, his witnesses. We are the chosen people of God and we live in the restored kingdom of Israel. By the witness of the Apostles, the Southern tribes and the Northern tribes were reunited and the Gentiles were brought into the fold. That is us today. We are the result of the witness of the Apostles, and we today have been given the Holy Spirit so that we today can be witnesses to Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the Earth. We continue to build up and reunite the Kingdom of Israel. We continue to bring in new citizens to the Kingdom of Israel. It is our job to restore the Kingdom to Israel through the power of the Holy Spirit in the name of Jesus Christ.
[00:11:24] As I was preparing this homily, I was trying to think of a good analogy for the themes of the Ascension. At the Ascension we have the last words of Jesus, we have the fact that he was taken up into the clouds, but we also – and the church’s liturgy really emphasizes this – we also talk about the fact that Jesus ascends to sit at the right hand of the Father. Again, this squabble amongst the apostles, who’s going to sit at his right in at his left, whoever sits at the right and the left of the authority has influence over that authority. Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father so that He can mediate for us for all eternity. He can pray for us and intercede for us for all eternity. And so the best analogy I could come up with comes from my foreign travels.
[00:12:13] I’ve been blessed in my life to travel to other countries multiple times Canada, obviously, Mexico, England, France, Spain, Herzegovina and Israel and Palestine. And in some of these countries, I felt incredibly safe, like I was at home. And some of these countries, I felt a lot less safe. In each of these countries I visited, though I was hyper aware of the fact that I was holding an American passport. That hyper awareness gave me two things. The first is that it reminded me that I was an emissary of my country. I didn’t speak the language in a lot of these countries and even in England I couldn’t hide my accent; people knew that I was an American. How I conducted myself reflected on my country. And I knew that. And so I knew, as I treated people, I needed to treat them with respect and kindness and generosity. The same sort of values that I hope my country would have, I wanted to reflect to these people that I was meeting. But the other thing this passport gave me was an incredible feeling of safety. I knew that that passport meant that the entire US State Department and the entire US military had my back, that if something were to happen to me, my country would go to bat for me. Despite our domestic squabbles, you go overseas and suddenly you’re like, Oh, I’m an American. That means something. I really feel that very intimately right now.
[00:13:36] Well, this is very much the same sort of feelings we should have as citizens of heaven. We are part of the restored kingdom of Israel. Our nation, more than being citizens of the United States, our nation is the restored kingdom of Israel, it is the church, and our citizenship is in heaven. Well, like the US State Department or the US military, you should feel incredibly safe given that Jesus Christ is sitting at the right hand of the Father praying for you. The US military has nothing on the power of Jesus Christ. He is up in heaven worrying about you every day of your life. He is praying for you every day of your life. No matter what obstacles you face, no matter what horrors you have to gaze at, he is there with the Father, begging the father to take care of you. There is nothing that should make you feel safer than that.
[00:14:39] And then with that safety comes responsibility. With that safety, you now have the full freedom to be witnesses to his name, to Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. You have nothing to fear by being a witness. In those countries where I felt unsafe, particularly in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem and in in Mexico, in some of the back alleys of Mexico City that my guides told me not to visit, the reason you feel unsafe is because you stick out. You clearly do not belong. I clearly did not belong in Mexico, nor did I belong in the Muslim district of Jerusalem. I was obviously not supposed to be there. And when you stick out like that, anybody can do anything to you, right? You become a target. My brothers and sisters in Christ, if you are a witness to Jesus, to the ends of the Earth, you’d better stick out. You are a target. There is nothing that is going to cause you to look more different to this world than to act like a Christian.
[00:15:46] Your citizenship is not here on earth. Your citizenship is not in this world. Your citizenship is in heaven. And if you live into that citizenship, you’re not going to feel safe all the time. In fact, you’re not going to feel safe most of the time. Witnessing to Jesus is a very vulnerable and difficult thing to do. That’s why the word witness became the word martyr. That’s why it has those two meetings today, because every time people stuck out for Jesus, they were not received with great joy in Thanksgiving. But the Lord promised – his last words to the Apostles in the Acts of the Apostles – the Lord promised to send upon you the Holy Spirit. And He has. In your baptism and confirmation, you have received the power of the Holy Spirit and that power of the Holy Spirit gives you everything you need to be witnesses to the ends of the Earth. And in addition to the power of the Holy Spirit, which you possess in you, you also have the prayers of Jesus Christ who sits at the right hand of the Father begging for you day after day, moment after moment. With the Holy Spirit and the mediation of Jesus, we have nothing to fear. We are called to be witnesses to the ends of the earth, and we should do it because we are emissaries of our country, which is heaven.
Al ser una comunidad de inmigrantes, todos en esta sala entienden la importancia de la ciudadanía. Antes de que seas ciudadano, el gobierno muchas veces trabaja en tu contra, haciéndote la vida difícil, impidiéndote disfrutar de todos los beneficios de una sociedad. Pero una vez que eres ciudadano, el gobierno comienza a trabajar para ti, apoyándote, defendiéndote y ayudándote. Cuando visitas otros países, traes contigo el poder del gobierno del país del que eres ciudadano, y es muy útil viajar al extranjero con el poder del gobierno de los Estados Unidos a tu espalda.
Bueno, recuerda hoy que antes de ser ciudadanos de los Estados Unidos o de cualquier país del que hayas venido, tu ciudadanía más fundamental e importante es tu ciudadanía en el Cielo. Le perteneces a Dios antes que a nadie más. Y por eso es tan importante que hoy Jesús ascendió al Cielo y ahora está sentado a la diestra del Padre. Si cree que es útil que el gobierno de los Estados Unidos intente ayudarlo en su país y en el extranjero, imagine cuán infinitamente más útil es que Jesús lo ayude. Jesús, sentado a la diestra del Padre, es vuestro abogado. Él está trayendo tus necesidades a su Padre cada día y cada momento. Si te metes en problemas supervisa, se supone que tu gobierno te ayude. Si te metes en problemas como cristiano, Jesús es quien te ayudará, y Jesús es mucho más poderoso que cualquier gobierno.
En nuestra primera lectura, Jesús dice, “cuando el Espíritu Santo descienda sobre ustedes, los llenará de fortaleza y serán mis testigos en Jerusalén, en toda Judea, en Samaria y hasta los últimos rincones de la tierra.” No solo tenéis un abogado, un mediador en el Cielo que está constantemente intercediendo por vuestras necesidades, sino que también se os ha dado el poder de Dios a vosotros mismos. No tiene que esperar a que algunos supervisores de oficina contesten su teléfono: Dios mismo mora en usted y Su poder está constantemente en usted a través del Espíritu Santo. Dios Padre te creó y te sostiene, Jesús aboga por ti y el Espíritu Santo vive contigo. Tienes todo el poder y la influencia de Dios de tu lado. No tienes nada que temer, nunca.
Pero, ¿por qué Jesús aboga por ti? ¿Por qué se te ha dado la fuerza del Espíritu Santo? Es para que podáis ser testigos de Jesús. Es para que podáis predicar su nombre y difundir su Evangelio, hasta Judea, Samaria y los confines de la tierra.
Muchos de ustedes saben que pasé 6 semanas en Puebla, México cuando estaba en el seminario, para aprender español. De todas las ciudades de México, Puebla es sin duda la más segura, con algunos de los policías y funcionarios estatales menos corruptos. Y, sin embargo, a pesar de que Puebla era muy segura, mi familia anfitriona me dijo muchas veces que solo me mantuviera en las calles principales mientras caminaba hacia la escuela de idiomas, y que nunca bajara por los callejones laterales. También me dijeron que siempre estuviera en casa antes de las 10 de la noche y que nunca estuviera sola. ¿Por qué? Porque me quedé en Puebla. No importaba cómo me vestía o qué tan bueno era mi español (y nunca llegó a ser increíble), siempre iba a quedar claro que yo no era de allí y que no pertenecía allí, y eso me convertía en un blanco para ladrones y secuestradores. Bueno, si somos ciudadanos del Cielo, entonces debemos sobresalir sin importar dónde estemos, así como yo sobresalí en Puebla. No perteneces a este mundo, y no debes mezclarte. Si realmente eres testigo de Jesús, si realmente sigues y vives tu vida como él, entonces todos deben saber que no perteneces aquí. Y eso te convertirá en un objetivo. Los cristianos están siendo expulsados de la cultura popular, Hollywood, el gobierno y en todas partes porque no nos conformamos con los partidos políticos o con las nuevas creencias sobre el género y la sexualidad. Estamos siendo objeto de vandalismo y violencia debido a nuestra oposición al aborto. Esto es lo que debemos esperar. No pertenecemos a este mundo. No somos ciudadanos de este mundo. Y como no somos ciudadanos, este mundo trabaja en nuestra contra. En cambio, somos ciudadanos del Cielo. Esto nos hace destacar, seguro. Esto nos convierte en un objetivo, claro. Pero el gobierno que está trabajando por nosotros, el que aboga por nosotros, es Jesús. Si Jesús nos está defendiendo, si Jesús nos está dando el poder del Espíritu Santo, entonces no tenemos absolutamente nada que temer.
Spanish (English Original)