Famous Last Words
Before slipping into a coma at the age of 90, Winston Churchill said, “Oh, I am so bored with it all.” Those were his last words before he died, nine days later. After a priest prayed “May the Lord have mercy on your soul,” Charlie Chaplin said “Why not? After all, it belongs to him.” He died shortly thereafter. A few hours before he passed, St. John Paul II said, “Let me go to the house of the Father.” A couple of days before her death, St. Therese of Lisieux was seen praying in the infirmary. When a fellow nun asked her what she was doing and why she was not sleeping, Therese told her all she could do was pray, and all she said was, “I say nothing, just I love Him!”
When people die, whether they be saints or entertainers or just our dear loved ones, we try to remember and memorialize their final words. What people say in those final moments of life become immortalized, almost as if that captures much of who they were and how they lived their lives.
In today’s Gospel, as we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord on this seventh Sunday of Easter, we get Jesus’ “last words.” He has already died upon the Cross, and He has resurrected from the dead and won victory for all. But now, He is ascending body and soul into Heaven, to sit at the right hand of the Father. And, as He does, He looks down at the Apostles gathered together and says, “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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
It’s a pretty powerful statement, one that captures exactly what Jesus set out to do for three years of His public ministry: bring people into relationship with God. The Apostles are being tasked with continuing the good work that Jesus had done – they are to go forth and do something. They aren’t meant to go hide and isolate themselves as super holy people who know the truth and keep it hidden. They aren’t meant to craft some secret society that preaches the Faith behind closed doors. They are meant to make disciples. They are meant to baptize, in the name of the Trinitarian God, and teach people how to live and what to believe.
This is no small order. These are not empty words and hollow instructions. This is precisely why Jesus came, and this is exactly what He needs the Apostles to continue doing. And so, He gives them comfort: they won’t be alone in doing this. He will be with them always.
I imagine the Apostles were sort of confused when they heard this last part. How can He be “with us always?” but he’s literally floating into the sky and disappearing from our sight? This seems to be a bit of a contradiction, Jesus… But what do we know comes next? Who will be sent? Who is coming as a helper – a guide – to aid the Apostles in all they do and say as they live out this mission? The Holy Spirit will empower them, and without fail they will be able to transform the world and gain disciples for the Kingdom.
Today’s Gospel is equal parts command and encouragement. It’s marching orders combined with a promise. This is Jesus Christ signing off and setting in motion all that He had planned for during His time on earth. And we read these words – we hear this story and then learn the history of the early Church – and know they are meant for us too. We too are Apostles standing on the mountaintop watching the Lord ascend into Heaven. We too are commanded to go forth and make disciples, by witnessing to our faith, inviting others to encounter Jesus, and proclaiming the Gospel with our very lives. We too are challenged to remember that Christ is always with us, and the Holy Spirit is given to us so we are empowered to live out this mission and command. We are meant to go and make disciples, observe the commands, and remember that He is with us always, until the end of the age.