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Sunday Scripture: The mission of the church

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

By Terrance Callan

Ascension of the Lord (B): Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 4:1-13; Mark 16:15-20

This Sunday we celebrate the feast of the Ascension of Jesus, His return to His Father in heaven after His death and resurrection. This feast marks the conclusion of Jesus’ earthly life and the beginning of the church’s continuation of His mission until the end of time.

The reading from the Acts of the Apostles contains the most familiar account of Jesus’ ascension. The reading says that Jesus appeared to His apostles during a 40-day period after His resurrection, offering them convincing proof that He was alive and speaking about the kingdom of God. Just before His ascension, the apostles asked Jesus, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”         

Jesus responded that it was not for them to know the times or seasons established by God. Jesus again promised that they would soon receive the Holy Spirit and commissioned them to be His “witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” They are to testify that Jesus has risen and that God has kept His promise to save the people of Israel and all the nations of the world. The fulfillment of this promise will be complete when Jesus comes again from heaven to which He has now ascended.

The reading from the Gospel according to Mark describes Jesus’ ascension in somewhat similar terms. During a final appearance to His eleven apostles after His resurrection, Jesus commissioned them to evangelize the world. “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.” Then Jesus was taken up into heaven and sat down at God’s right hand. The eleven went out and preached everywhere. The Lord worked with them and confirmed their word through miraculous signs.

We might think that the church carries on the mission of Jesus after His ascension simply because Jesus is no longer here to do it himself. However, the reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians reveals a deeper connection between Jesus’ ascension and the mission of the church. This reading understands Jesus’ ascension as the fulfillment of Psalm 68:18, which it quotes, “He ascended on high and took prisoners captive; He gave gifts to men.” 

When Jesus ascended, He gave His followers gifts. These are the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which include being apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.  These are gifts that equip the followers of Jesus for ministry. These different gifts must all be used together to form the body of Christ. For this reason the reading begins with an exhortation to “preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace.” We followers of Jesus must harmoniously combine the different gifts we have received in order to continue and complete His mission.

The readings from Acts and Ephesians both indicate that Jesus’ ascension reaches its fulfillment in Pentecost. It is Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit after His ascension that empowers the church to continue Jesus’ mission.

Callan is a member of the faculty at the Athenaeum of Ohio.

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