Homily for the Sunday before the Holy Day of the Lord’s Ascension.
We get a pre-Ascension speech from Jesus today in this Gospel of John 17. Its words answers the question: What main things was Jesus talking about to His apostles right before He would ascend to Heaven? The answer is that two things He was talking about were of the primacy of unity for His emerging Church, and that we needed much protection from Him in handling the turn of life we would make in Him, in detachment from a sinful world.
Let’s look at the setting in John 17, as we do some exposition and explanation in its verses. In verse 11, it says: “Lifting up his eyes to heaven, Jesus prayed..” What is taking place here? It is the Ascension of Our Lord. Who is He praying to? The Father. Who is He praying for? Us, including those disciples standing with him in this moment captured by the Gospel. Where is He? He is on a mount, somewhere near Jerusalem, and they are up on its height, and from it, and Jesus looks up, because, that’s where He is soon going. When is this? It is 40 days after Jesus’ Resurrection, so we know it’s a Thursday. What specifically is He praying to the Father? He is asking the Father to receive us in His Name, Jesus’ Name—the Son. The words are: “Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me…” What does that mean? It means that Jesus is the Word given by God to us and Jesus, God and man (with us in our humanity) is in favor with Abba Father. As Jesus is in favor, and His believers are in His care, Jesus is saying ‘keep them in My favor, even as I go from the earth in this unique participation with them. Let them live in Me, and in My Name, and My favor. Let Me keep representing them, O Father. For I am the Son Who has gone to earth to win people back into good graces. I present them to You now.’
What else is Jesus praying here? He is praying in acknowledgement to the Father of His task done in completion. As He nears the fulfillment of His Mission, He allows Himself to be overheard in this prayer for the benefit of His apostles. He’ll soon ascend in the sight of all these followers, to rise to the Throne of God (now as fully human and humanity’s perfect representative): He is talking to the Father of His mission, and He wants His followers to hear what priorities He is naming. They are two things I will highlight for you here, and they are quite important: Jesus is praying for unity or oneness, and He is praying for our protection. Two things. Our unity. Our protection.
Unity. Since He is reconciling earth to heaven, Jesus is now working a blessing into those souls who will now begin the Church and trust in His continued work: As they hear Him praying, they realize that one phase of Jesus is commencing and another is starting. It is about how things will continue. They hear that loud and clear, and what is important to Jesus as He prays to the Father? It is that He prays for our unity to remain in Him.
Hear him speak to the Father and long for unity, pleading “that they may be one just as we (the Trinity) are one.” Or asking, basically, that we may be united, just as God dwells in unity. He first is saying: ‘the work goes on, even as I ascend. Much more will now kick in for this New Covenant come to earth in Me.’
What Jesus clearly is saying that He wants that work to be done in a united way by His followers. This has been a priority of the Catholic Church from its founding with the apostles. If Jesus wants unity, then we want unity. We look to be all inter-connected in the world, as a global Church, spread through the nations, but in a oneness, under its appointed apostles of The Chief Shepherd.
Different as we all are, Jesus wants us to work together. He says that He will offer His love among us, and share it from His own Sacred Heart to ours. This Love, My love, will help us come together. It’s what Jesus is saying. He inspires a loving unity. In His love (the one “new” commandment), Jesus wants this oneness in His people. It is such a tall order and tall task, but He asks for it. He says in His prayer: ‘May they all be ultimately brought together. May these people have a spirit for unity, for that is how Heaven works, O Father.’
Unity. Yes, the reason unity is so important to the Church is that it is a condition for existing in Heaven. There are no separate neighborhoods in Glory, no dividing up, nor any me-first’ism. Unity is vital, so Jesus prays for that to be a sign of His true followers, and He hopes, in this prayer, eventually for “all to be one like We are—the Father, Son, and Spirit.” After all, we shall be invited into that Unity in Glory. We shall abide with God, and God is One.
Unity, by Love. Jesus offers this Triune love breakthrough to be coming to our lives. The breaking of His Heart, its piercing, was what broke open the love of God to be poured out upon us. From Jesus’ side is born the Sacraments of the Church, too, which we do practice here in Mass. The Sacraments foster unity. The Sacrament of the Church itself fosters unity. We are bid to come to Mass in love and in a spirit of unity—for God’s unity. If we can find it, then we have what is called “community—or common unity.” It is that plain and clear and vital for the Church.
I pointed out that Jesus prays on the Ascension Mount for two things. The second thing that Jesus prays for is our protection. Like a Good Shepherd, Jesus was looking out for His own followers while in ministry, like John’s Gospel says in the 10th chapter, and now on in John 17, He surely says so, in verse 12, how “When I was with them I protected them in Your Name that You gave Me.” This is what Jesus is saying to the Father, and it’s being overheard in His prayer for the benefit of His apostles. Jesus is saying to Abba: ‘I AM their Defender.’ God’s Son says He can protect our lives even as they get assailed in this world. Jesus knows that as we become more like Him, as His followers, then we will experience the opposition that He did. This is because the Lord leads against the grain of the world, or goes against the current. The world’s god is self, and pride is the devil’s temptation—and we are invited to turn quite around from that lifestyle and to live quite the opposite way. That is what repentance means and what the new life of “metanoia” is about in Jesus. It is to turn fully to live for God and others. It will put us in some conflict with the world, the one of sinners so separated from God and His ways.
‘He will protect us,’ says Jesus at His Ascension, but as in a new way from His Throne in Heaven and by His life implanted in us to our souls, via baptism and faith. The change coming from His earthly ministry to the heavenly one is said in John 17: “But now I am coming to you.. (Father in Heaven)… I speak this in the world so that they may share my joy completely.” There is a joy coming from how Jesus will offer us help from His reign on the throne, and via His overthrow of the realm of sin and death upon humanity. There is joy in salvation in Jesus. He is to be a shield about us, and even armor for us, as Ephesians 6 describes in the Bible, or as to what defense Psalm 91 describes for us. Read those passages in getting clear about the Lord’s Protection Plan for His own.
Jesus wants to protect us in a way that brings joy about in us. Hear it in His prayer to Abba about this. He says “So that they may share My Joy completely” is how He put it. Thus, His Ascension is necessary. It puts the climax on His ministry among us. Now, by Jesus’ reign on the Throne as our Representative, Redeemer, Savior, Brother, Mediator—there is a joy in that victory. If we can understand it now–it is great to deeply realize that Jesus reigns! Jesus reigns, and His Sacrifice makes it possible for us to be in union with God again! Oh, what joy is there in that! His mercy makes us worthy. His victory makes us victors in-the-making, and if our lives end victoriously, then certainly our joy would be complete. The goal of the Christian’s life is union with God in Heaven. We live for that.
Protection by God is about us having His holiness. Jesus mentions that He will share His holiness with us, because He reigns. He will be the Head of the Body, the Church, so then, what the Head has in perfection and fulfillment in Glory, so the body can receive and be brought into Glory. We will fight the temptations of the flesh and the arrows of the devil or demons as we go along, and we will fight to live the holy life in “the good fight of faith” (an Ephesians image again) even as we live among some people who will make it difficult for us. Opposition to holiness always comes—it’s the shame of the world that we prefer the darkness rather than the light (Jesus said that). Yet the last Beatitude says that we’ll have persecution and opposition because of His Name being lived in us, but we can take heart because Jesus said that He’d have great reward waiting for us in Heaven. And while we live in this world, Jesus has taught us His prayer that we should ask “deliver us from evil” because He wanted to be our protector an deliverer. Jesus says in His great prayer in John 17 that He will help us, even in the assistance of the Father in Heaven and in the Spirit in Heaven. He will help us into holiness of life, which is the great protection we need.
Hear Jesus say to the Father, “Consecrate them,” of which will be answered by the Father, in the Gift of the Spirit sent among us.” He wants to help us become holy. He also wants us to become true, so He says it so: “Consecrate them in the truth.” In other words, Jesus says: ‘Father, Spirit, make them holy and true! Not by force, but by invitation. Protect them for a life of holiness, goodness, love, gladness, meaning of life, hope, and more!
Jesus says to the Father in this John 17 prayer overheard: “Your word is truth.” Meaning, ‘God, Father, Your word is good. Your word is solid. Your promises are reliable and trustworthy. May My followers learn all the ways of trusting You for it.’
Finally, about this second area that Jesus mentions before His Ascension: If Jesus is praying for our protection, then certainly it means that we need it!! So, let us plead the Lord today for it. I have a daily prayer that is said at night: “Protect us Lord as we stay awake, watch over us as we sleep—that awake we make keep watch with Christ, and asleep, rest in His peace. Amen.”