Gospel for the Ascension of the Lord (1 June 2014)
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority 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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age." (Matthew 28:16-20 – NRSV)
1. This account is unique to the Gospel of Matthew, although each of the Gospels has accounts of post-resurrection appearances and final words. See Mark 16:14–18; Luke 24:36–49; John 20:19–23. See also Acts 1:6–8.
a. Each of the four Gospels, however, speaks of doubt or hesitation in the disciples.
2. Matthew and Mark both make explicit reference to "the eleven" disciples. Neither Luke nor John mention this.
3. The "women" have already seen and worshipped Jesus – see v. 9. It is through these "women" that Jesus issues the command to the disciples to meet him at this "mountain" – see v. 10. (It is impossible to say
where the "mountain" is precisely.)
4. Matthew, Mark and John each contain the command to go forth and proclaim the Good News. Luke does not include this in his Gospel but in his Acts 1:6-8.
a. Only Matthew includes the Trinitarian formula and the command to baptize.
5. On the intent of the command to go and make "disciples of all nations", one scholar writes: "The life of a disciple is different because of his attachment to Jesus. The Master is not giving a command that will merely secure nominal adherence to a group, but one that will secure wholehearted commitment to a person. In the first century a disciple did not enroll with such-and-such a school, but with such-and-such a teacher. Jesus' disciples are people for whom a life has been given in ransom (20:28) and who are committed to the service of the Master, who not only took time to teach his disciples but who died for them and rose again. Those who are disciples of such a leader are committed people. And, of course, this is the kind of disciple that he looks for his followers to make. They are to make disciples of all the nations, which points to a worldwide scope for their mission. It took the church a little time to realize the significance of this, and in the early chapters of Acts we find the believers concentrating on proclaiming their message to the Jews. But there seems never to have been any question of admitting Gentiles, the only problem being on what conditions." (L Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, W.B. Eerdmans, 1992, 746.)
In his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, repeatedly refers to the missionary nature of the Church. See for example the following quotations:
"John Paul II asked us to recognize that "there must be no lessening of the impetus to preach the Gospel" to those who are far from Christ, "because this is the first task of the Church". (Redemptoris Missio (7 December 1990), 34) Indeed, "today missionary activity still represents the greatest challenge for the Church" (Ibid., 40) and "the missionary task must remain foremost". (Ibid., 86) What would happen if we were to take these words seriously? We would realize that missionary outreach is paradigmatic for all the Church's activity. Along these lines the Latin American bishops stated that we "cannot passively and calmly wait in our church buildings"; (FIFTH GENERAL CONFERENCE OF THE LATIN AMERICAN AND CARIBBEAN BISHOPS, Aparecida Document, 29 June 2007, 548.) we need to move "from a pastoral ministry of mere conservation to a decidedly missionary pastoral ministry". (Ibid., 370) This task continues to be a source of immense joy for the Church: "Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than ninety-nine
righteous persons who need no repentance" (Lk 15:7).(Evangelii Gaudium, #15)
"The word of God constantly shows us how God challenges those who believe in him "to go forth". Abraham received the call to set out for a new land (cf. Gen 12:1-3). Moses heard God's call: "Go, I send you" (Ex 3:10) and led the people towards the promised land (cf. Ex 3:17). To Jeremiah, God says: "To all whom I send you, you shall go" (Jer 1:7). In our day Jesus' command to "go and make disciples" echoes in the changing scenarios and ever new challenges to the Church's mission of evangelization, and all of us are called to take part in this new missionary "going forth". Each Christian and every community must discern the path that
the Lord points out, but all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the "peripheries" in need of the light of the Gospel." (Evangelii Gaudium, #20)
The Gospel today and the exhortation of Pope Francis invite us to reflect on two important questions: What does being missionary mean? What does it mean for me?
I suggest we can take a lead from the idea of discipleship sketched by Morris above. The focus is relationship. Any talk of doctrine or law is subsequent to relating well with people. Grace builds on nature – be human and make way for grace. The moment for speaking explicitly of Jesus and his teachings may or may not come in this or that relationship.
"All this could he expressed in the following words: what matters is to evangelize human culture and cultures (not in a purely decorative way, as it were, by applying a thin veneer, but in a vital way, in depth and right to their very roots), in the wide and rich sense which these terms have in Gaudium et spes, #53, always taking the person as one's starting-point and always coming back to the relationships of people among themselves and with God." (Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975), 20.)