John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States, served one relatively unsuccessful term as chief executive, but afterwards won distinction as a congressman from Massachusetts for many years. One day, at the age of eighty, he was shuffling along outside his home when a neighbor greeted him by asking, “And how is Mr. John Quincy Adams this morning?” The old man was in fact in very poor health, but was as mentally sharp as ever, and he answered with an analogy, saying, “John Quincy Adams himself is very well, thank you. But the home he lives in is sadly dilapidated. It is tottering on its foundations. The walls are badly shaken, the roof is worn. The building trembles and shivers with every wind, and I’m afraid John Quincy Adams will have to move out of it, move on, and change residence and address before long. But he himself is very well” (Jack McArdle, 150 More Stories for Preachers and Teachers, #41).
By referring to his physical body as a temporary dwelling, or as a house he would soon be vacating, Mr. Adams demonstrated a firm grasp of the larger realities of life, death, and eternal life. A similar understanding was shown by a man named Joseph Parker over a century ago. When his beloved wife passed away, he couldn’t bring himself to have the word “Died” carved on her tombstone. Instead, he chose the word “Ascended.” When he himself died some years later, his relatives remembered this, and so they had these words carved on his headstone: “Joseph Parker: Born April 9, 1830; Ascended October 28, 1902” (Msgr. A. Tonne, Stories for Sermons, Vol. 1, #117). This image is certainly appropriate as we celebrate the feast of Our Lord’s Ascension, for even though Jesus “changed residences” by returning to Heaven at the end of His earthly life, He is still present to His followers in a deep and personal way—and all who try to honor, imitate, and serve Jesus here on earth are assured of one day following Him into eternal joy.
It’s not an easy thing to say goodbye to someone we love, especially if it may be a long time before we see him or her again, if ever—so we can have some idea of the sense of sorrow, worry, and confusion the apostles must have felt when the Lord rose up into the sky and then disappeared from their sight. They knew this day was coming, but when it arrived, they didn’t feel ready, and were unsure what to do—to the point that God sent a couple of angels to tell them, in effect, to quit standing around and wasting time. The apostles had a mission to fulfill, and in the Gospel Jesus described it: they were to carry on His ministry by making disciples of all the nations, baptizing people and teaching them His commandments. For nine days, of course, they would wait prayerfully in the upper room for the coming of the Holy Spirit, whose Gifts would empower them to begin fulfilling the Lord’s mandate by preaching boldly on Pentecost Sunday, using that Spirit of wisdom and revelation St. Paul speaks of in his Letter to the Ephesians (1:17-23), and in this way helping others come to know the same Lord Jesus to Whom they had given their own lives.
The great biblical author and commentator William Barclay once wrote, “It is possible to be a follower of Jesus without being a disciple; to be a camp follower without being a soldier of the king; to be a hanger-on in some great work without pulling one’s weight. Once someone was talking to a great scholar about a younger man. He said, ‘So and so tells me that he was one of your students.’ The teacher answered devastatingly, ‘He may have attended my lectures, but he was not one of my students.’ There is a world of difference between attending lectures and being a student. It is one of the supreme handicaps of the Church that in the Church there are so many distant followers of Jesus and so few real disciples” (The Gospel of Luke, quoted by Charles R. Swindoll in Swindoll’s Ultimate Book of Illustrations & Quotes, p. 162).
This quote raises several important questions. Which are we: a true disciple of Jesus and an active witness of His Gospel, or a name-only Christian and reluctant bystander in the great work of evangelization? Do we actually follow Jesus, or more or less “hang out” with Him? Have we truly committed ourselves to obeying and following His teachings, or do we only live by them when they’re not too challenging or inconvenient? St. Paul prays in the 2nd Reading, “May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened, that you may know what is the hope that belongs to His call”—in other words, the hope of eternal life. Do our lives demonstrate a sincere belief in eternal life in Heaven, and a genuine desire to go there, no matter what the cost?
Many times true discipleship isn’t easy, but it’s always worth the price—even if it involves less time in front of the TV or computer so that we have more time to pray and read the Bible; even if it risks unpopularity because we’d rather spend more time talking about Jesus and His Good News of salvation than we would gossiping about others or talking about the weather; and even if we don’t quite fit in with this world’s values and priorities because it’s more important to us to live as faithful citizens of God’s Kingdom. Just as, once we reach a certain age, our bodies grow older and weaker with each passing day, so the world as we know it is passing out of existence, and will one day entirely cease to exist. This will be a tragedy for those who have sought only earthly wealth, and have placed all their hopes in this life. If we have a living faith in Jesus, however, regardless of what’s one day carved on our tombstones, we won’t have died, but will have ascended—destined to live forever in His glorious presence. Our Lord promises that He is with us always, until the end of this age and the end of our earthly lives—and right now we are given the opportunity to live in and share His love and truth, thereby demonstrating our desire to dwell with Him for all eternity.