Sunday, May 21, 2023

Make disciples of all the nations: Homily for the feast of the Ascension 2023

St Paul preaching the Good News, former church of St Paul's, Jericho in Oxford, 


“God mounts his throne to shouts of joy.”

This phrase, the response in our psalm today, psalm 47, was, according to some commentators originally sung in connection with a cultic procession in the Temple in Jerusalem honouring the Ark of the Covenant. It is appropriate, therefore, that we should sing this psalm today, the feast of the Ascension, when Jesus, our Covenant, ascends to heaven to be seated at the right hand of God the Father. That is to say, he has ascended to mount his throne which is in the Temple not made by human hands.

A few weeks ago, however, in the course of a Lenten homily I had suggested to you that the cross was the throne of Christ, His throne of glory. How then do we reconcile these two possibilities?

One way to reconcile both cross and heaven as being the thrones of Christ, is to introduce you to a very Catholic response to theological questions. Not ‘either or’, but ‘both and’. Thus, it is not that it is either the cross or heaven which is the throne of Christ, but both the cross and heaven. Jesus is not either man or God, but both man and God. I could go on with piling examples one over the other, but I am sure you get the point. The formula of both and is typical of the Catholic because like our Lord in heaven we try to hold things together, in communion, recognising the complexity of matters, rather than settling for the binary solution which is so often the response to any difference of opinion, and indeed theological and liturgical disputes. To pull a thread from my homiletical engagement with you over the past few weeks, it is not either communion on the hand or on the tongue, but both are acceptable ways of receiving the Body and Blood of Our Lord, as long as they are both done properly – though of course, one does have benefits over the other. In this context I might add, that whenever you are worried by conflicting positions taken by priests, or indeed upstart deacons, remember that both positions might be valid and legitimate within the Catholic tradition. When you hear priests preach conflicting messages, remember that they may be preaching their preferred liturgical fashion, and that both fashions are acceptable and legitimate within the tradition of Holy Mother Church, though one may certainly be better.

This is not to say that the Catholic faith has no certitudes, of course there are certitudes, and it is important to bear these certitudes in mind  but it would be a spiritually rewarding way to live our lives when we resist the temptation to assert an either or position, and recognise the value of the formula both and.

Thus, the Cross is the true throne of Our Lord, just as His place in Heaven is His true throne. Indeed, He has his throne in heaven because He accepted His throne on earth. In doing so he offered us a lesson we cannot afford to forget, accept our crosses here on earth, so that we may be welcomed in triumph into heaven when we die and at the Final Judgement. In other words, there is no heaven without the Cross.

This brings me to another line that jumped out at me when I was reading the lectionary for this great feast. This particular line comes from today’s gospel:

When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted.

They, i.e., the apostles, worshipped, but they, or at least some of them, doubted. They doubted and it was also to settle this doubt that Christ ascended in glory into heaven.

It occurred to me that this line could very well describe the state of the hearts of so many of us in this congregation today – we worship, which is why we are all here, of course, but sometimes, perhaps often, we also doubt. We doubt, not consciously, but unconsciously, we hedge our bets by placing them with the powers of this earth, by stocking up money (often at the cost of the good of others), by accumulating power, or worse ingratiating ourselves to power (even when we know that we ought to be challenging the way in which power is being exercised unjustly).

After Adam and Eve had sinned by disobeying God, God comes to them in the garden and asks Adam “where are you?” Now God wasn’t asking Adam (and Eve) for their physical location. It wasn’t as if He, the omniscient, the all-seeing, could not find them or see them. No; He was asking them, where are you in your lives. What have you done with your lives? How far have you fallen from me? It seems to me that this is a good question to ask ourselves, especially when we doubt, and especially on this great feast of the Ascension, when so much is given to us, “where are you?” “where am I?”

The Gospel reading today, and in particular the address by Jesus to the apostles within this reading, allows us a way to figure out where we are:

“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.”

This is how we plot our location vis-à-vis God. We recognise that all power in heaven and on earth has been given to God the Son and therefore we do not need to bother about any other earthly power, because as He promised us, He is with us always, even until the end of time.

After Jesus had been taken up into heaven, the first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, tells us that the apostles saw two men dressed in white garments who said to them:

“Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?

I often think to myself that had this scene been crafted by a tiatrist the same dialogue might have been phrased as: Aré, tumi tond ugdon kitem poitat ré! Vos, ani kaam começ korat!!”

And this is precisely what the Gospel we read today asks us to do. We have been asked to make disciples of all the nations, and baptise them, teaching them all that Jesus taught, and continues to teach, us.

So, this is how we need to figure out where we are vis-à-vis God.  Are we making disciples of all the nations? Are we responsible for baptizing them? Are we teaching the nations to observe all that Jesus commanded us?  Or as in Jesus’ address to the apostles in the first reading are we being his witnesses “in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and [more pertinently to us] to the ends of the earth”?

For those who think that I am being impractical, remember that I am not saying that all of us should be preachers. As we will hear in the Gospel next Sunday, to each a charisma has been given, and this we must fulfill fully, completely, wholly. Do I run my business in a way so that people look at me and say “look at the honest way in which he runs his business! These Catholics are like that! You can rely on their honesty” Or if I am a teacher in a school, is the way I operate calling attention to the way my faith nurtures my daily life? If I were a government servant, in these times of moral turpitude, would my faith be front and central in the way I function? If not, then like the disciples who worshiped and doubted, we too are physically here, in apparent worship, but our worship is not true, and we are guilty of doubt.

Let me conclude this homily with the beautiful prayer of blessing contained in the second reading that we pray to God the Father to send us the promised Spirit so that we may shed our doubt and actively work to proclaim the Gospel to all people.

May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory,

give you a Spirit of wisdom and revelation

resulting in knowledge of him.

May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened,

that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call,

what are the riches of glory

in his inheritance among the holy ones,

and what is the surpassing greatness of his power

for us who believe.


(A version of this homily was first preached in the parish church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Aldona on 21 May 2023). 

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