Today can often feel a somewhat strange day, a day of slightly mixed emotions, and this year more than most, when we are not able to be together to pray, to worship Almighty God, and be nourished with Holy Communion. We are not celebrating Jesus’ departure from the earth, but His return to God the Father, Christ’s abiding presence with us, and what He asks of us, and promises to us. It is a day of celebration and expectation, looking forward to the future in love and hope.
The disciples have had six weeks to used to the fact that Jesus has risen from the dead, having carried the burden of our sins and experienced the pain and estrangement which separates God and humanity. That wound has been healed by His glorious wounds. Before Jesus returns to the Father, He makes the apostles a promise: they will be baptized with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4), receive power, and be Christ’s witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Christ is looking forward to Pentecost, to the church’s future, in which we live now.
In Matthew’s Gospel, before Jesus leaves the apostles, He gives them a commission, they are sent out to do something together. Jesus begins (Mt 28:18) by stating that all authority in heaven and earth has been given to Him. He is God, God is sovereign, and rules over everything, and it reminds us of the moment during Christ’s temptation by the devil, before the start of His public ministry, which we read on the First Sunday of Lent. The devil offers the world to Jesus, but it is not his to give, it belongs to God, who created it. Our worship is rooted in the fact that we have a relationship with a God who made us, redeemed us, and loves us.
Jesus tells the apostles (28:19) to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The church exists to be sent out to make disciples. Baptism is what makes us Christians. In it we share in Christ’s life, death, and Resurrection, and through it God gives us the virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love. Through our faith in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, filled with the hope of heaven, our supernatural end, to enjoy the vision of God, who is love. Loving God and our neighbour, this is the very heart of the proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom, along with the call of Jesus and John the Baptist that we should ‘Repent and believe the Gospel, and be baptised’. For two thousand years our message has been the same.
Jesus tells the apostles to teach us all that He has commanded them (28:20). The Church is called to hand on what has been delivered to it, this is tradition, and it stops us from making mistakes, by deviating from what Christ teaches us through the Church. Our religion makes demands of us, and calls us to be faithful to the apostles’ teaching, and to live it out in our lives, putting theory into practice and becoming living witnesses of the Kingdom. This is difficult, and it is where Christians fall down most often. But the Good News is that in Christ we have forgiveness of sin. We can repent, and turn away from our mistakes, and turn back to a God who loves us. We are not abandoned or cast aside, but embraced in love.
Finally Jesus says to the apostles, ‘Behold I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ (28:20) Christ is with us. How? In four ways: first in Scripture, the Word of God, which speaks of Christ, and finds its fulfilment in Him. It is true, and the source of truth. He is with us in the Sacraments, outward visible signs of the inward spiritual grace God pours out upon us, to fill us with His love. He is with us in the Holy Spirit which he pours out upon us, to strengthen us, and fill us with love. And finally He is with us in the Church, which is His Body, where we are united with Christ, in a relationship with Him, and each other.
Jesus makes promises which are true. We can trust Him, and like the apostles we can prepare for the Coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in prayer, and joyful expectation, knowing that we will never be abandoned, but that we are always united to, and loved by God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as it most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen