The Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord (A) – May 21, 2023
St. Paul – Lyons, KS
Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47:2-3, 6-9; Ephesians 1:17-23; Matthew 28:16-20
Time to Check Out?
So today we celebrate the great Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord, which is an incredibly important part of this whole “being a follower of Jesus thing”! Like, this week with the Ascension and next week with Pentecost…these are the culmination of everything!
But here, in our culture and our context…well, this time of the year is kind of at odds with where these celebrations are pointing us. The very flow of the year, of our rhythm of life…it pushes us in the opposite direction of the message and mandate we are given by these celebrations of Ascension and Pentecost. Because this is the part of the year when all of our normal activities and schedules come to a halt—schools ends, the normal schedule and flow ends. And yeah, there are plenty of summer activities, but we’re just all over the place until the school year starts again. And I get it! Even in the parish, PSR ends, Lent and Easter end, Rerouting was cool but now it’s just the normal stuff. Everything seems to be winding down. We’re about to start “Ordinary Time,” aka, “Boring time.”
And so this is what I mean when I say that this time of the year is “at odds” with where these celebrations are pointing us: Right as our normal rhythm of life is winding down, everything in the Church, in our readings, in the words of Jesus, in the solemnities of the Ascension and Pentecost—all of these are telling us: let’s get to work! These days are the big markers of the need to embrace a mission, to take up again the work that Jesus is entrusting to us.
Jesus’ Gameplan: Disciples to Missionaries
I’m gonna ask you to do something real hard, ready? I want you to think all the way back to January, to our readings right after Christmas, to our first week of “Rerouting…”. Woof! Long time back! Ok. Do you remember the Gospel story? What is the first thing we hear Jesus doing? “As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers…And he said, ‘Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men’” (Mt 4:18-19). So the first thing Jesus does? He calls them to follow him. He calls them to be his disciples, to live with him, walk with him, learn from him, to share life with him. That’s what a disciple is.
And what do they do? “At once they left their nets and followed him.” They drop everything and follow him. This should be very familiar to us by now! This is what we were talking about for twelve weeks during “Rerouting…” and during Lent! Everything was about hearing this call, understanding what this call really entails, why this call is so important…and then responding to this call: signing over the deed of our life to Christ, surrendering our life to him, giving our lives to him in faith.
But lest we forget: that was only the first half of Jesus’ invitation! “Come, follow me!” Yes! Be his disciple, be his follower, drop everything in your life for him, yes! But there is a second half! “Come, follow me…and I will make you fishers of men.” Jesus doesn’t just call them to hang out, or to totally trust him for no reason. Jesus doesn’t just call disciples to be disciples. He calls disciples so as to form missionaries. Let me say that again: Jesus doesn’t just call disciples to be disciples. He calls disciples so as to form missionaries, people who will be sent out—that’s what a missionary is: one who is sent, one who carries out a mission.
And if you’ve never heard that, don’t worry! Sometimes it seems like the disciples didn’t realize it either! Our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus is about to ascend to heaven, and the disciples’ question is: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” And you can almost feel the facepalm Jesus’ makes, like, “You still don’t get it!” So Jesus says, “No. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Jesus says, “No, I’m not going to restore the kingdom. But you will!” They will carry on the mission!
The Three-Fold Mandate
And Jesus then tells them their mandate; that’s what we hear in the Gospel, which happens right before he ascends. This passage is called the “Great Commission,” Jesus entrusting his missionaries, his missionary disciples with the mission. And this is it, this is the commission: “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.” Everyone of us should have that memorized. Homework for the week! Every one of us should be able to rattle that off, no problem. Why? Because that is the mission.
And as a parish, as a Church, as Catholics…we’re pretty good at two out of the three. As a Church, as a parish, we are very good at the “Baptize…in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” In other words, we’re very good at making sure our kids get the sacraments: Baptisms, First Communions, Confirmations. We’re good at that! Praise God! We’re also pretty good (better than most) about handing on the teachings of our faith. Jesus said, “teach them to observe all that I have commanded you.” We’re pretty good at that! I think of the Catholic schools, or our PSR programs, all of the great content on YouTube, the books. I mean, we’re so good at teaching our faith, that it seems like even atheists know it! “Only eat fish on Fridays…unless you forget.”
But even though we’re good at those two, we tend to be not so good at the first one—the most important one and the essential one, the one without which all of the others don’t really matter: making disciples. Making disciples is the first part of the commission that Jesus gives. Because here’s the thing: You can give kids sacraments all day! We baptize kids like crazy—but we don’t see a lot of them until their First Communion six years later. We had 17 kids make their First Communion—do you know how many came back for their second communion last week? 7. 21 kids got confirmed this Spring—want to guess? 7 come to Mass on a regular basis. Plenty of sacraments! But are they disciples? Did we make disciples? We teach the kids! We had 87 kids in PSR this year! So many kids learning the faith! …did you want to guess? 23, only a quarter of them attend Mass on a regular basis. And I’m not saying this to make anyone feel bad—please don’t think that! I’m saying this for this reason: there is a lot of work to be done when it comes to making disciples. When Jesus says, “Go, make disciples”—you don’t have to go far to find people to make disciples. We are good at getting kids sacraments, we’re good at teachings the faith. But making disciples? I’ve watched families walk into this church for a few weeks, and then stop. Are we making disciples? And if not, what do we need to do differently?
Discipleship Begins in Friendship and the Family
The common question I get to this is, “Well, what do we do, Father?” Some people say, “We just need to teach them better!” Some people say, “We need to require them to do more and stop being free-loaders!” “What do we do, Father? I don’t feel comfortable ‘preaching the gospel’ to them! What do I even say? What do I do?”
Glad you asked. Bishop Gerber always talked about the four pillars of Stewardship: Hospitality, Prayer, Formation, and Service (which are really just a different version of Acts 2:42 if you think about it). And while people love to focus on Prayer, and Formation (teaching the faith) and Service (making sure people have something to do!)—and these are all wonderful and essential!—Bishop Gerber would always say, “But the first pillar is hospitality. People are brought to Christ in friendship.” In this day and age, what people are looking for, longing for is hospitality, for friendship: radical hospitality, hospitality that is over the top, above and beyond. People want to belong. People want to be known. I mean, there is a great statistic: typically, if a new family shows up to a church and doesn’t make a connection with 7 people in the first six months…they leave. They don’t leave because the preaching is bad or too challenging; they don’t leave because the music is bad, or they don’t believe in the Eucharist, or any of that, no. They go to a parish—and no one ever learns their name. No one says “Hey, John, how are you?” No one takes an interest in them. They never make any real connections.
So you ask the question: “What do I do? What do I say?” Say, “Hi, my name is Michael. What’s yours?” Get to know each other. Take an interest in one another. If you get to know someone, invite them over for dinner some time. Go grab some coffee. Radical hospitality. Real friendship. Authentic connections. That’s what it is. That’s where it has to start.
I mean, think: the Disciples were the people that lived life with Jesus. If we want to make disciples, the first step is getting to know one another, living life with one another. It actually is that simple. It’s not a class, it’s not rules, it’s not more hoops to jump through: it’s just a friendship, a companionship, living life together. That’s where it starts.
That’s also why the Church talks about one place as the privileged and most important place to form disciples. Want to guess? The parish? In the classrooms? Nope. The family. The family is the single-most important part of this. Pope Saint John Paul II wrote this back in 1981: “The future of the world and the Church passes through the family” (FC 79). Whenever I do a baptism, this is what I tell the parents: this child will learn the faith first and foremost through your example. The parish can help, but it can’t live at your house every day. At the baptism, the parents are given a lighted candle and they are told, “This light has been entrusted to you to be kept burning brightly.” The family! The family must be renewed. And that’s very real right here! One more stat: 13; 13 of the 53 families that have kids in PSR attend Mass on Sundays. In other words, 40 of our families do not attend Mass on a regular basis. The family. That’s where the renewal must begin.
“Go, make disciples”
As we hear this mandate, this great commission from our Lord today, I think we shouldn’t take it lightly. Each and every one of us knows a family that needs a friend along the way, someone to support them. You don’t need to go yell at people at the grocery store to love Jesus, “or else,” no. It can really be as simple as more intentionally sharing life with other families, inviting other families, being their companion on the Way. I know it sounds too good to be true. But really, that’s the first step.
After “Rerouting…” I’m gonna be honest: I was kind of lost about what to do next. But like I said, I was confident the Lord would give us the way forward. Many of you have shared with me how you have felt the Lord calling you forward! And that is beautiful! And it’s the same for me. In the past several weeks, the Lord has given me three words. Three simple words for the parish: hospitality, family, Sunday. Just dropped ‘em right in my lap. Hospitality, family, Sunday. And so this is what I have turned all of my attention to in the parish.
More to come on this soon. But this is my challenge for you, this is the challenge from our Lord today: “Go, make disciples.” Fight against that natural tendency setting in as school comes to a close and everything winds down, the tendency to check out. And instead, embrace that great commission Jesus gives today. Take up your call to not only be disciples, but to be missionary disciples—disciples that Jesus sends out to share in his own mission! There is much to be done! And the Lord is asking you, inviting you: “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” And he assures us and comforts us, just as he assured and comforted the first missionary disciples, “Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” The Lord is with us. He is near. He will be with you. Do not be afraid.