Today we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord, that moment when our Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven to be seated at the right hand of the Father, where he intercedes for us as the Sovereign Lord of the cosmos, as the one mediator between God and men (1 Tim 2:5).
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
28 May 2022
In our gospel today, just prior to his ascension, Jesus said to his disciples (Luke 24:46-53): “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 nations…. You are witnesses of these things. And behold I am sending the promise of my Father upon you.”
My brothers and sisters, the Lord Jesus speaks these words to us all! We are witnesses of these things. These saving events are a part of our family history. And Christ has bestowed the Holy Spirit upon us that we may go forth with power and courage to give witness that Christ is the one and only unique Savior. The Holy Spirit calls us and leads us to give witness to Christ’s holy Church—the body of Christ—for the Church is God’s chosen means of salvation, grace, and truth. The Church is God’s sacrament of salvation. In fact, the Catechism speaks about the Church as necessary for salvation.
Today, however, it is unfortunate that many Catholics have lost the sense of their Catholic identity. They no longer see evangelization as something critically important. Why is this the case? While there are several causes of this situation, among them is failure to understand the importance of faith in Christ, the saving Gospel, and the necessity of the Church.
Many Catholics believe that all religions are systems of salvation. They think that all religions lead equally to God. And they believe that Christ is merely the privileged way to the Father, that he is one road among many others. They think that people who belong to other religions aren’t in urgent need of the Gospel. They believe that it’s not really all that important or necessary to be Catholic.
Are these new and novel ideas true? No, they are not.
Let’s ask these questions: Just how important is it to give witness to Christ? How crucial is it to tell others about the good news of the saving gospel?
Before his Ascension, Jesus appeared to his disciples and said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16).
Did Jesus really say those words? Did he really say, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; But he does who does not believe will be condemned”? Yes, he did.
Jesus also said in John’s gospel, “I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6).
The question is, then, what do these words mean? Do they mean that anyone who is not visibly Catholic is lost? Do they mean that anyone who does not explicitly believe in Jesus cannot be saved? Let’s explore those questions.
Here’s what Vatican II taught about them:
Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel. She knows that [the Gospel] is given by Him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life. (Lumen Gentium, 16)
So, if people do not know about Jesus Christ or his Church through no fault of their own, and they nevertheless strive to follow God’s will, following their conscience and assisted by God’s grace, they can be saved. In other words, God does not hold people responsible for what they cannot know or cannot do.
However, everyone is required to cooperate with God’s grace without exception. How many people are actually doing that in our highly secularized, pagan society? And how many more people would cooperate with God’s grace if we were to actively give witness to Christ in the world?
Also, we must always remember that it is more difficult for people outside the Church to be saved because they lack the grace and truth transmitted by the Church. They lack the saving grace of the sacraments.
Furthermore, if people refuse to believe in Christ; if they reject the Gospel, they cannot be saved. Remember, Christ said: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16).
Engage the Mission
My brothers and sisters, our mission to give witness to our Lord Jesus and his Church is as essential and urgent as it ever was. People need to know that they must respond to God’s grace. If they do not, they can be lost in hell. They need to believe in Jesus and have faith in him. They need to know about his saving sacrifice and the grace he offers through the Church.
Unfortunately, there are many people who have fallen into self-deception. The question is, how many people have heard about Jesus and yet have neglected to believe in him? How many people know about the Catholic Church, but think the Church is unnecessary and unimportant? How many people are not taking things seriously?
Vatican II had something to say about that as well:
But often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator. Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair. [To] promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, “Preach the Gospel to every creature”, the Church fosters the missions with care and attention. (LG, 16)
Again, our mission of evangelization is as critical today as ever. We live in a post-Christian nation. Everyone urgently needs to hear the Gospel. Everyone deserves to hear about the necessity of faith in Christ and membership in his holy Church. Everyone needs to know that Christ founded the Church as necessary for salvation.
Let’s turn again to Vatican II:
Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it. (LG 14)
That is sobering teaching from Christ’s Spirit-guided Church. It should serve as a wakeup call.
Christ Commands: Go Forth!
We were not created to simply live out our lives or have a rewarding career. We are on an essential, sacred mission from Christ. Each and every one of us, regardless of our age or situation in life, has received the command of Christ to go forth and evangelize.
As we heard in our first reading from Saint Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (1:17-23), Christ has given us his Spirit of wisdom and revelation so that we will have knowledge of him. The gift of the Holy Spirit enlightens our hearts that we may know what is the hope that belongs to God’s call.
As St. Paul tells us, we are to give witness to all nations, that all people may know what is the hope that belongs to God’s call in the riches of Christ’s inheritance. We must tell the world that Christ is raised from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father, that he resides in the heavens, far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion. We must give witness to the Lord Jesus, the Savior of the world, letting people know that all things have been put beneath his feet and that he is head over the Church, which is his body, the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.
As the Letter to the Hebrews chapter 9 teaches, Christ has taken away the sins of many and he “will appear a second time not to take away sin but to bring salvation to those who eagerly await him” (9:28).
Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful; (Hebrews 10:19-23)
Let us hold unwaveringly to our confession that gives us hope, for he who made the promise is trustworthy.
That’s the message. Christ is the one and unique Savior. He heals us with his blood and offers us eternal life in his Person. The Church is his Body, she is God’s unique instrument of salvation, grace, and truth in the world.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.