Several years ago I had the privilege of being at one of the ‘Intercession for Priests’ retreats given in Dublin every summer by Sr. Briege McKenna and Fr. Kevin Scallon. This particular year they were celebrating 25 years and the retreat I was at, was given by Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa. Fr. Cantalamessa is a Capuchin priest and the preacher to the Papal Household (to the Pope). He is and an extraordinary preacher and it was a very inspiring few days.
One of the themes that he kept coming back to is that ‘Jesus is Lord’; just that. The essence of our faith is really very simple and this is one of the key elements of it. Jesus Christ is Lord and if we believe in him and ask forgiveness for our sins, then we are forgiven and have eternal life with him. ‘If you shall confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus, and shall believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you shall be saved’ (Rom 10:9). Some months later Cantalamessa was visiting the national seminary of Maynooth, where I studied and he gave one talk and again he kept coming back to this fact: Jesus is Lord. One of the professors sitting beside me said quietly, ‘It seems a bit too simple really!’ I knew what he meant, but the truth is that it is very simple. We tend to make it more complicated. Jesus Christ is Lord. Our sins are forgiven in his name and we have eternal life through him.
Why is it so important to realize that? Because if that is true, then Jesus is the one person we need to turn to and listen to continually. Of all the information we take in each day, through advertising, news and tv, what could possibly be more important than what Jesus has to say to us? He is the one who has created us, who knows what our life is about, who makes sense of why we are here, and whose death and resurrection means that we will live forever with him. How could I not listen to him, if I believe that is true? All of us want to make sense of our life, to understand why we are here and where we are going and he is the one who completely knows these things. How could I not keep turning to him if this is so?
In today’s first reading from the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke recalls the Lord’s ascension into heaven. Just before Jesus was taken up to heaven, the Apostles asked again, ‘Lord has the time come? Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ They are still trying to make this happen in Israel today. In spite of all the time with Jesus and the extraordinary things they saw, the Apostles still had a very earthly way of thinking. ‘When will we have the power and glory? When will our nation be totally ours?’ Yet Jesus was showing them that this was not important at all. Worldly ways and worldly thinking are not important. Preaching about Jesus and our eternal life in him was the only thing that mattered. They were to receive power, but not worldly political power where everyone would acknowledge their greatness. Instead they were to receive the power of the Spirit, which would enable them to preach about Jesus, what He has done for us, what our life is about and how we have life in him if we choose it. That was the only thing that mattered. All of them were to suffer for their preaching too, but that also was secondary. They would be misunderstood by the world, as so many who preach the Gospel still are, but that message must be proclaimed all the same.
In modern missionary work, it is sometimes argued that we should not be talking about God, but only helping those who are in need. While it is true that we must do all we can to help those who are in need, the message of the Gospel should also be preached to people because they have a right to hear it. People have a right to know what God has done for them. It is up to each person whether they choose to believe it or not, but they have a right to hear the message that we have eternal life in God through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Our material needs are important, but if we neglect the spiritual needs, we may lose any sense of purpose and what our life is about. This is just as bad as being without food, as it can cause people to despair. So we try to continue to pass on the message that the Lord Jesus asked us to: Jesus is Lord and in him we have eternal life with God. He is the only one we need to turn to.
One of the commands that Jesus gave the Apostles before he ascended to heaven was this:
19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Mat 28:19-20)
For all of us who believe in Jesus, we are also asked to reach out to others, to make disciples of others. How on earth are we supposed to do that?’ Reaching out to people around us can be as simple as inviting someone you know to come to church. There are a lot of people who are lapsed, or who have never gone to church. So many people around us do not have a sense of the greater purpose of why we are here. This is so important, because it is what makes sense of our life. Everyone needs to know this and we have been blessed with this knowledge, but Jesus calls us to share it with others. I know of several people who ended up coming back to church simply because someone who knew them encouraged them to.
Jesus ascending to heaven before the Apostles’ eyes, was also a confirmation to them and to us, that something wonderful awaits us when we die. They watched it happen! Life after death is real and it is waiting for us. Almost every week I anoint people and send them off to the next world. It makes the transition very real because I see it so often. Sooner or later it will be our turn.
Now as he blessed them, he withdrew from them and was carried up to heaven. They worshiped him and then went back to Jerusalem full of joy and they were continually in the Temple praising God (Lk 24:51-53).