Home Homilies Michael Whelan SM, PhD Gospel for Feast of the Ascension (28 May 2017)

Gospel for Feast of the Ascension (28 May 2017)

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)

Introductory notes


The ending is also the beginning. The Christian community is a missionary community:

“In his concluding paragraph (which is peculiar to this Evangelist) Matthew tells of Jesus’ meeting his disciples in Galilee and of the charge he gave them to make disciples of all the nations and to baptize them in the name of the Trinity. Many scholars have raised doubts over parts of this section, particularly over the use of the Trinitarian formula for baptism. But the arguments are all subjective: there is nothing else with which to compare the passage, and textually it is well attested. And it is very important. As Johnson puts it, “No part of the Bible, with the possible exception of the letter to the Romans, has done more to give Christians the vision of a world-wide church. It has sent them to all nations, bearing the message of salvation through Christ, with which are linked the responsibility and privilege of obeying his words.”We must bear in mind that the picture of Jesus as a Jewish rabbi, with a little group of disciples around him, traveling in leisurely fashion in rural Galilee contrasts sharply with the missionary-minded church that we find in the early chapters of Acts. From the beginning the church exercised a missionary function and sought to make disciples out of those who listened to its proclamation. Why this sudden and dramatic change? Surely it is the fact of the resurrection of Jesus, coupled with the charge the risen Lord gave to his followers to make disciples of all nations.” (Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, W.B. Eerdmans, 1992, 743-744.)

And again:

“Jesus’ activity, following the initial declaration of 1:14f, began with a call to the masses in Galilee, accompanied by a call to individuals (1:16–20). This latter call is important because it shows that Jesus purposed from the beginning to create a new society. He was not simply teaching people in a vague, amorphous group; He intended to collect disciples (as the fine study by R. N. Flew, Jesus and His Church [2nd ed 1943], shows convincingly) who should later be His messengers (3:14; for the concept of ‘discipleship’ cf. E. Schweizer, Lordship and Discipleship [Eng. tr. 1960]) (R P Martin, “Jesus Christ” in G. W. Bromiley (Ed.), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Vol. 2). Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979-1988, 1039.)


eleven disciples: Acknowledging that Judas is no longer there. Matthew reports the suicide of Judas – see Matt 27:3–10. Luke reports the suicide and the replacement of Judas – see Acts 1:12–26.

Galilee: Where it all began – see Matthew 2:23, 3:13, 4:12 & 15 and 4:18-25.

mountain: “Speculation about which mountain it was is pointless”. (Daniel J Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Liturgical Press, 2007, 414.) Mountains are places of divine encounters – see for example Exodus 24:15. Matthew has the Sermon on the Mount – see 5:1-7:29 – and the transfiguration – see 17:1.

When they saw him, they worshiped him: The emphasis is on the second phrase: “they worshipped him”. The verb proskyneō may be translated as “worship” or “do homage”. Matthew uses the same verb –– in 2:2, 8 & 11 (“‘we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage’” etc), 4:9-10 (“(the devil) said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me’”). This is the first time the disciples “worship” Jesus, suggesting that they have now discovered something that both Gentiles and the devil knew all along – Jesus is the Son of God.

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me: “With this claim the risen Jesus accepts what is said about the ‘one like a Son of Man’ in Dan 7:14: ‘And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him….’” (Daniel J Harrington, op cit, 414.)

make disciples of all nations: “In Jesus’ final command Matthew’s favorite term mathētēs (‘disciple’) is made into a verb (‘make disciples’). Does the phrase panta ta ethnē refer to the Gentiles (non-Jews) or does it include Israel also (‘the nations’)? Several lines of argument point to it as referring to Gentiles only: the use of Greek ethnē and Hebrew gôyîm at the time, the uses of ethnos/ethnē elsewhere in Matthew, the use of panta ta ethnē to refer to Gentiles (Matt 24:9, 14; 25:32), the theology that the gospel be preached to Jews first (Matt 10:5), and patristic interpretations.” (Daniel J Harrington, op cit, 414.)

baptizing them: “There has been no preparation for mention of baptism up to this point. The Trinitarian formula accompanying Jesus’ command adds to the suspicion that the risen Jesus’ language has been shaped in light of the experience of the early Church, in this case by a baptismal formula (see Didache 7:1–3).” (Daniel J Harrington, op cit, 415.)

The English word “baptism” comes from the Greek verb baptizein or baptein meaning “to immerse” or “to wash”.

Ritual washing was part of the Jewish tradition. In the Sifre, a rabbinic commentary on chapters 14-15 of the Book of Numbers we read of the practice of ritual bathing for a pagan becoming a Jew.

The Qumran documents tell us of the Essenes – a group of zealots dating at least from the 1st century BC – who took baths of purification before eating or before speaking with a superior.

Indeed, ritual bathing is found in other religious traditions – for example, the Hindus bathing in the Ganges.

Some scholars have suggested that John the Baptizer had belonged to the Essene community. The men who were to become the apostles of Jesus received baptism from John – a rite of purification and forgiveness of sins. Thus John had said: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:16-17)

It is uncertain whether Jesus actually “baptized” anyone in this way. (See John 3:22-23; 4:1-3.)

In the apostolic community baptism of water is conferred “in the name of Jesus” (see Acts 2:38; 10:48; 19:5; 22:16; see also 1Corinthians1:13-16; 6:11; Galatians 3:27; Romans 6:3).

The Trinitarian formula – “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” – does not become part of the Latin rite of baptism until the end of the 7th century.

From the very beginning, baptism is also associated with instruction so that the baptized know what they are doing. One scholar writes: “We can find a certain process of evangelization in the Acts of the Apostles. Even though in the case of the eunuch baptized by Philip (Acts 8:26-39) the catechesis was very brief, we can nevertheless see a catechetical plan. For example, in Acts 10:37-43, which must be linked to Paul’s sermons (16:31-32; 17:22-31; 19:2-5), everything is centered on the person of Jesus now alive and as salvation. The emphasis is more on this salvation than on a doctrine. The wonders accomplished signify the very presence of Jesus in the community, in the midst of its members (Acts 2:14-19). He is the fulfillment of the prophets (Acts 3:18,21,24,25); he is described as the center of the world (Acts 3:20-21) and its reconstruction in its primordial unity. He is the author of life. Belief in Jesus means acceptance of the message he brought. At the heart of this message is his person, the object of faith. Therefore, to believe means to adhere to Jesus as Lord through radical conversion. This is the necessary condition for admission to baptism (Acts 2:42; 8:12, etc). Reception of baptism is a public liturgical act that expresses faith and concretizes it in the sacrament. (Adrien Nocent OSB, “Christian Initiation During the First Four Centuries” in Anscar J Chupungco, editor, Handbook for Liturgical Studies – Volume IV: Sacraments and Sacramentals, A Pueblo Book, 2000, 8.)

For obvious reasons, baptism was applied to adults or, at least, those old enough to understand what was happening in the ritual.

Baptism was conferred in the early centuries by immersion – as the very word indicates.

As time went by the ritual of baptism was influenced by new circumstances. For example, the very first to become disciples were, for the most part, Jews who probably had some expectation of the Messiah. As the generations went by and Christianity spread, many from varying backgrounds and careers sought admission to the community. If they were attracted to the way of life, they first had to seek out a sponsor who would accompany them through a period of moral formation – usually several years – before they could be baptized. And if they were prostitutes or pimps, makers of idols, actors or entertainers, gladiators or soldiers, they would have to find new professions before they would be accepted for baptism.

The lengthy period of preparation was known as “catechumenate” – from the Greek word meaning “instruction”. Although the instruction was not so much doctrinal as ethical. Until the year 313 AD – when Constantine declared peace for Christians – part of the sponsors role with regard to the candidate was to make sure he/she was reliable. Because of the danger of persecution until that time, outsiders were told little about the sacred mysteries or the meeting places.

In the early centuries a serious question arose: If baptism was necessary for salvation – as both Scripture and the early teachers taught – then what of those who died without being baptized? Thus the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century chose to remain a catechumen until he was about to die.

By the year 200 it was common for both children and adults to be baptized and for baptisms to take place fairly regularly within the community. In northern Africa in the 3rd century, given the high infant mortality rate and the belief in the necessity of baptism for salvation, it became common practice to baptize children the week after they born. Largely due to the influence of Augustine’s teaching on original sin, infant baptism had become a universal practice within the Western Church by the end of the 5th century.

Until the beginning of the 4th century there was no fully developed and universal teaching on baptism apart from the belief that it brought the forgiveness of sins, that it gave God’s grace, that it imparted the Holy Spirit and that it was not to be repeated.

During the 4th century the teaching on baptism became more explicitly Pauline. One of the greatest teachers from this era – Cyril of Jerusalem – reflects the writings of St Paul when he says: “having been baptized into Christ and having put on Christ you have been conformed to the Son of God, for God predestined us to be adopted sons and make us to share the likeness of Christ’s glorious body”.

During the 4th century it was no longer necessary to be secretive about Christian gatherings and catechumens were allowed to attend the Sunday liturgies up to the Scripture readings and homily


“Do you know what the most frequent command in the Bible turns out to be? What instruction, what order, is given, again and again, by God, by angels, by Jesus, by prophets and apostles? What do you think—‘Be good’? ‘Be holy, for I am holy’? Or, negatively, ‘Don’t sin’? ‘Don’t be immoral’? No. The most frequent command in the Bible is: ‘Don’t be afraid.’” (N T Wright, Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship, SPCK, 1994, 56.)

Afraid of what?

The Greek word, akolouthein, meaning “to walk behind, to follow” is frequently used in the Christian Scriptures to speak of discipleship. It gives a specific Christian meaning to the common Greek word mathētēs, meaning “disciple”. That word, mathētēs – in different forms – is used 261 times in the Gospels and Acts. It is rooted in the verb manthanō, meaning “to learn”. Put them together and you have the rich concept of Christian discipleship: Those who follow Jesus in order to learn what it means to be a human being. The following and the learning never cease. This is both the promise and the challenge of discipleship.

It is in the context of Jesus’ call to those eleven disciples to be disciples that Jesus says: “Remember, I am with you always … “ Jesus’ gentle reminder echoes God’s promise repeated throughout the Hebrew Scriptures – for example Isaiah 41:10: “Do not be afraid for I am with you”.

What is it about being disciples – Jesus’ followers and learners – that might frighten us? Are we afraid of losing control? Is it the unknown that we fear? Are we afraid of what Jesus might ask of us?

The deep, primitive truth of our fear – as in other complex life matters – remains buried below the surface of our awareness, masked by our pretenses and wishes and expectations and yes, even other fears. We can suppress and repress our fear but we cannot get rid of it. Only love can do that. It is crucial that we give ourselves every possibility to hear God’s word of love – to hear it in our bones, to taste it. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18)

Everything in the Gospel accounts of discipleship implies that it is a response to being loved. Those first disciples did not take the initiative. It was not a career move. It was a response to a word of love: “Come!” Interestingly enough, this Gospel text, in saying explicitly that the number of disciples here is eleven, reminds us that one of their number, although involved was never really a disciple. And those who did begin the journey of discipleship sensed something in Jesus that drew them to follow and seek to learn, more and more.

The disciple is, first and foremost, one who has let her/himself taste the love embodied in Jesus. Once you have tasted God’s love, everything else will follow.