by Father Mike Stubbs
This time of year we often witness departures of various kinds.
Students graduate from school to the next step in their lives. Families move out of town to a new city. Young couples get married to start a new life together, often away from family and friends. And, as Christians, we also reflect upon the departure of Jesus from his disciples, commemorated in the feast of the ascension, which always takes place during this time of the year.
As we celebrate the feast of the ascension, we often focus upon Jesus’ leaving us, his absence from us. We imagine the dramatic scene of Jesus’ rising up into the heavens. At the same time, it is worthwhile to pay attention to the parting words of Jesus to his disciples — words also intended for us. Those words instruct the disciples on what they should do in Jesus’ absence.
This Sunday, we hear the version of the Ascension found in Lk 24:46-53. The instruction comes across somewhat indirect, but clear: “Repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of this.” The disciples are entrusted with the task of preaching repentance.
Compare this instruction with the one we hear in Mk 16:15: “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation.” Or also consider Mt 28:19-20: “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.” All three instruct the disciples to reach out beyond themselves.
On the other hand, John’s Gospel lacks an Ascension story, as such. Nonetheless, there still is a scene where Jesus appears one last time to the disciples, which we heard only a few Sundays ago on April 18. During that encounter, Jesus gives guidance to Simon Peter: “Feed my sheep.” Since Peter represents all the disciples, we can hear those words addressed to all the disciples, and indirectly to us as well, and not limited to Peter.
It is significant that in all these final appearances of Jesus to the disciples, he instructs them how they should act once he is gone. The specifics vary. In the three synoptic gospels, the instruction calls the disciples to reach out beyond themselves: “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel; go therefore and make disciples of all nations; repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached in his name to all the nations.”
In contrast, in the scene from John’s Gospel, the instruction focuses upon the Christian community. That reflects the tendency of John’s Gospel toward an inward direction, which could isolate the Christian community from the world. But all the instructions are compatible with one another. One will compensate for the gaps left by another. Together, they express the wishes of the risen Christ for his disciples, including us.