Last words are very powerful.
Usually when we meditate on the last words of Christ we are talking about the handful of things that he said while hanging on the Cross. I do not mean to criticize that meditation in the slightest; it is a very powerful, very fruitful encounter with the Scriptures that I do encourage you all to do at some point. But today I encourage you instead to look at this Gospel as the last words of Christ. This whole Easter season we have been hearing about how Jesus was truly alive and with his disciples, how they ate with him and could touch his wounds and could hear his reassurance of giving his peace. But now in his Ascension that physical and temporal experience of Jesus comes to an end. “He parted from them and was taken up to heaven.” Yes, after this he poured out his Spirit in Pentecost and spoke to St. Peter in a dream and St. Paul in a vision… but these encounters were not the same as the stranger who walked with the two disciples to Emmaus or the man on the beach who told Peter to come and have breakfast. The Ascension was the end of those things, and the transition to the time of the Church and it’s apostolic foundations. So as we move from the ministry of Christ to the ministry of the Body of Christ — of you an me — Jesus speaks his last words.
And with the power of his last words us tells them what we are as the Church is: “You are witnesses of these things” or in the original Greek, “You are μάρτυρες of these things… you are martyrs.” I hope you have heard this before, that the word “martyr” literally means a witness because it really changes how you hear these last words. At least for me, the English word “witness” is a little bit light in its meaning. A witness isn’t necessarily defined by what they see; I can witness a car accident or witness someone sign a paper and then go on with my life like always. But a martyr… a martyr is transformed by what they see, so much so that their own identity is intertwined with it. You must be a witness to the Gospel in the strong sense of that word, a witness who is a martyr. You must witness to Christ and how you have found him in Scripture and in sacraments and you cannot be half-hearted in these things.
So exactly what things? Listen carefully, this is what we are witnesses of: “Thus it is written that the Christ would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Our lives now proclaim that we have chosen Christ who is risen from the dead, that we have turned away from the sins and the lies of the evil one, and that we have found forgiveness. We are living martyrs of the mercy of the Father.
What we are and what we should be is no small thing. And that is why Jesus finishes his last words with an assurance: “I am sending the promise of my Father… stay… until you are clothed with power from on high.” Next week we will see what that really means as we celebrate the feast of Pentecost, but for now we can meditate simply on this: Jesus, in his last words, named us as witnesses to him and promised the power needed to go out and encounter others as those witnesses. Remember, you are witnesses of these things.
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Homilies are meant to be heard, not read… and part of the Eucharistic liturgy, not words that stand alone. Please remember that no homily is written with this blog in mind.