Gospel reflection for May 21, 2023, Seventh Sunday of Easter
Father Koch: Even at the Ascension, some disciples were concerned
The Gospel passage on this Feast of the Ascension points us to a curious truth: some of the disciples of Jesus had their doubts, or at least concerns about what they were experiencing. It is extremely difficult to imagine now what the disciples must have felt -- collectively and individually -- given all that had transpired in their midst. They experienced Jesus as risen from the dead; they saw his wounds; yet we hear that “some of them doubted” though the Greek term can also mean that they “hesitated.” This hesitation at adoring Jesus as God is a remarkable insight, offering guidance to us today.
The very fact that Matthew points out this sense of doubt or hesitancy at the end of the Gospel is also very poignant.
When we look at the ministry of Jesus in its totality, we can see where the disciples struggle to understand who Jesus is and what they have gotten themselves into. At first it seemed that they were following this rabbi who was dynamic, taught with authority, and even had the miraculous powers of healing and exorcizing demons. Soon talk of Jesus as the anointed one (messiah) emerged, even among the disciples. This caused even more confusion as at the time that title had strong regal and militaristic overtones. If Jesus is the messiah they weren’t seeing it in the way that they expected.
We cannot imagine, either, the sheer terror and confusion that these men experienced as Jesus was arrested, tried, and executed in a matter of a few hours. They knew there were accusations against him, and he tried to warn them, but the reality of living through it is completely different.
They did not flee the city, choosing instead to remain together.
The mysterious miracle of the Resurrection served to make some of them even more confused instead of more certain. We know that Thomas denied the possibility of the Resurrection, doubted the testimony of those who saw Jesus, and persisted in this state of obstinate doubt until he, too, saw Jesus alive. Yet, he did not abandon the others, even if he felt that they had collectively lost their minds.
For forty days Jesus appeared to them on occasions. He instructed them and even ate with them. It wasn’t the same as before. He was not with them constantly. They do not generally recognize him when he appears, though they know it is him. He is physically present, but that presence is unusual in that he simply appears and disappears -- even in locked rooms.
Now, assembled with him atop a mount overlooking the Temple in Jerusalem and just a short distance from where he had been arrested, Jesus takes his final leave from them.
Another division, or misunderstanding, has emerged within this group. Earlier, even in the testimony that Simon Peter delivered when Jesus asked them who they thought he was, talk of Jesus as Son of God has emerged. This is hard to apprehend for, as Jews, they would have been radical in their belief in the oneness of God and his lack of physical form. So, we do not know for certain what the disciples thought that meant, but it was present. Clearly, not all of them held that belief.
This leaves us where we are -- atop the mountain -- with some of them paying due homage to Jesus as to God, while some of them hesitated, perhaps even doubted -- that he is indeed the Son, returning to the Father.
It will not be until Pentecost -- ten days later -- that through the power of the Holy Spirit, that they can shed that uncertainty and proclaim Jesus as Lord and Messiah on the streets of Jerusalem and to the ends of the earth.
In our own journey of faith it can at times be difficult to accept the simple truths of our faith with certainty. Hesitancy, doubt, even total rejection can come into play very easily, tempting us to abandon our faith. The world still doesn’t get it, even two-thousand years later. Indeed, the world will never get it.
Jesus is God? A piece of bread becomes his Body and a cup of wine his Blood? I can privately tell a priest my deepest sins and faults and they are forgiven? Miracles still happen in a world dominated by scientific theory and medical advancements? All of these questions and many more are riveting, challenging, and answerable through the mystery of faith and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Can we doubt -- yes -- it is a normal experience. But the Holy Spirit does not leave us there when we reach out to understand more fully the presence of God with us -- Jesus Christ.
Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.