Seventh Sunday of Easter
Ascension of the Lord
May 20, 2012
(may be used for Seventh Sunday of Easter)
Commentary on the Text
There is no Lectionary Commentary for
this reading, but there is available a
Since this 24th chapter of Luke is so well used in the Lectionary, some of the commentary is repeated from other readings. However, each reading contains a different emphasis, so additional and more detailed information on some aspects is available in other commentaries on this chapter (Luke 24:13-35, Luke 24:14-43, Luke 24:36b-48, Luke 24:44-53). This passage is used in all three years of the Lectionary cycle for Ascension Day.
This reading from Luke is the second half of one of the two post-resurrection appearances by Jesus in Luke's Gospel. Because of various factors discussed below, these verses cannot really be separated from their literary context in this final chapter of Luke. Because of that, a significant part of the process of understanding this passage is to hear it in that context (see Commentary on Luke 24:1-43).
This account of the Ascension of Jesus is unique to Luke, occurring in slightly different forms and emphases both at the conclusion of the Gospel and at the beginning of Acts (it is mentioned in passing as part of a different emphasis in John 20:17; the brief reference in the longer ending of Mark 16:19 is generally understood to have been adapted from Luke's account). Because of its uniqueness, this passage is used as a Lectionary reading for Ascension Day in all three years of the Lectionary cycle (or on the Seventh Sunday of Easter in traditions that do not observe Ascension Day during the week). This reading is paired with the corresponding account at the beginning of Acts (1:1-11).
The context of this account within the book of Luke and its relation to the beginning of the Book of Acts is significant for interpretation. Not only because of its physical location at the end of Luke, but also because of its thematic ties to both Luke's Gospel and Acts, this passage clearly functions as both a literary and theological bridge between them. For that reason, we will need to pay special attention to the points of contact in both directions.
There are only two post-resurrection appearances of Jesus in Luke, both of which are unique to this Gospel. Jesus first appears to the two men on the road to Emmaus (24:13-35), and then to the disciples at the beginning of this passage (24:36-52). Both have overtones of liturgical shaping that suggest use in the early church in worship, perhaps in an Easter liturgy. The Emmaus story clearly has a Eucharistic setting (v. 35), while the final story concludes with a double emphasis on the community in worship (v. 52). This suggests that these stories are not simply the reporting of event, but are highly reflective theological recounting, bringing Gospel traditions to bear on the needs, concerns, mission, and identity of the emerging Christian community.
While each of these two accounts serves a particular theological purpose, the structural similarities between the two are unmistakable. Scholars have investigated in detail the literary structure of this entire chapter, and have presented convincing cases that there is a carefully crafted structure interwoven throughout the chapter. While that lies beyond the range of our interests here, it should direct us to the corresponding elements of these accounts as revealing the concerns of the passage.
Both stories open with disciples talking about preceding events in an atmosphere of incomprehension. On the afternoon of the discovery of the empty tomb, the two disciples were talking on their journey about "all these things that happened" (vv. 14-15). Later on the same day, the disciples were talking about the appearance of Jesus to the two (v. 36). In both cases, Jesus appeared to people but they did not recognize him as the risen Jesus (vv. 16, 37). In the second story, the issue is not whether they recognized the form of Jesus, but that they thought he was a ghost or a spirit of the dead. In other words, they thought they saw not Jesus but only an apparition, which is why Luke emphasizes both the touching and the eating as evidence that this is no apparition (vv. 39, 43).
In both stories Jesus chided them for their doubts (vv. 25, 38), and assured them that God had been working in events to fulfill His purposes (vv. 26, 44). Both stories tell of food shared with Jesus, a significant cultural act (vv. 29-35, 41-43; see Travelers and Strangers), as well as recognition of who he was (vv. 31, 41) followed by awe and joy (vv. 32, 34, 41). The role of Jesus in teaching them the meaning of the Scriptures also figures prominently in both passages (vv. 27, 45), although in the second story the content of that teaching is much expanded to conclude with the commissioning of the disciples to be "witnesses of these things" (v. 48). It is this expansion that comprises the major portion of the Lectionary reading.
These similarities of structure give clues to the concerns of Luke here, especially if we remember that Luke often uses individual characters and stories to represent much larger issues in the early church (recall the use of Peter and Cornelius to address the huge problem of the relations between Jewish and Gentiles Christians; see the Commentary on Acts 11:1-18). Here, the issues seem to revolve around a few basic and interrelated concerns: questions, doubts, and confusion about the nature of the resurrection; a lack of understanding about the continued role and mission of the church in the absence of Jesus, especially in terms of the scope of that mission; ongoing questions about the relationship between Judaism and emerging Christianity, focused especially here on placing Jesus in continuity with the Old Testament witness; a need to preserve and pass on (witness) the meaning of the events surrounding Jesus. It is in relation to these concerns that our passage must be seen.
The connections of this passage with the whole of Luke's Gospel run much deeper than the immediate literary context. There are clearly echoes of the beginning of Luke's Gospel here in these concluding sections. For example, the Gospel opens with Zechariah carrying out his duties in the temple. This last section concludes with the disciples "continually in the temple blessing God." This places the entire Gospel within the framework of worshipful response to God.
At the beginning of his Gospel, Luke spent a great deal of time connecting the unfolding events of the birth of John and Jesus with the Old Testament. A careful reading of that opening material reveals that Luke was very much concerned to relate the Incarnation to the work of God throughout Israel's history. While Luke recognized this as a new revelatory act of God in history, he also wanted to make it clear that it was the same God at work, and that work of God was unfolding in continuity with what he had done in the past in the community of Israel (see Commentary for Luke 3:1-6).
And now here at the end of his Gospel, Luke returns to the idea of continuity between the witness to God in the past and the witness to God that this new community will bear. It is a new witness, because the events to which they will be bearing witness are new. But the God who has revealed himself in these events is not new. He is the same God to whom the Scriptures have always borne witness, now revealed in Jesus the Christ.
It is in this light that the concept of "fulfillment" that occurs here in relation to Scripture (vv. 27, 44) must properly be understood. What we have here is not a hermeneutical paradigm for the proper interpretation of Scripture for today. Neither is it an affirmation of a predestined and predetermined world where events simply unfold out of divine necessity following some predetermined plan of God that eliminates contingency. Rather, it is a strong affirmation, and consistent for Luke, that while this event is new and even the message may appear new to some, it is perfectly consistent with what the Old Testament says about God (cf. the "new commandment" sayings in the Johannine tradition, John 13:34, 1 John 2:7). Jesus cannot be rejected because he is some new deity, or brings some new teaching, because he is the very embodiment of the God to whom the Old Testament Scriptures so eloquently bear witness.
The connections forward to the book of Acts are on the levels of both story line and theological theme, here woven together in Luke's typical style of narrative recounting that serves theological purposes. The phrase "beginning from Jerusalem" (v. 47), regardless of whether it is read as a conclusion to verse 47 or the beginning of verse 48, echoes the "journey" structure of Luke's Gospel toward Jerusalem (see Commentary on Luke 2:41-52). Yet, it also points forward to the physical setting of Jerusalem not only as the cradle of the infant church in Acts, and but also as the point of departure for the journey of the church into the larger world beyond.
Jesus' instruction to remain in Jerusalem for a time ("stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high," v. 49), Acts picks up directly ("he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father," 1:4). The emphasis on the need for the "power" of the presence of God through the Holy Spirit echoes the Gospel's emphasis on the power of the Spirit to carry out a task (1:35, 4:1, 14, 18, etc.). This emphasis is clearly the foundation for Acts as the opening two chapters focus on Pentecost, as well as the subsequent stories of the work of the Holy Spirit in the early church (for example, 8:17, 10:44, etc.).
Even the fact that the Ascension narrative is repeated at the beginning of Acts shows a deliberate interrelation of these stories and between the books. Luke's correlation of the departure of Jesus so closely with the giving of the Holy Spirit serves to underscore the continuity of Jesus' ministry with the work of the church. Just as Luke has gone to great effort to establish the continuity between the God of the Old Testament and this revelation in Jesus, so he makes as great an effort to establish that the work of Jesus was continued by his followers after his ascension. More than just an apology for the church or at attempt to legitimate this new community, Luke is more intent on focusing on the reason for the existence of this community, in giving it purpose and identity as the continuation of a God-called and God-commissioned people of God in the world. The effect of this continuation into Acts is a view of the church as the continuation of God's work in the world as his people, empowered with the task of bearing witness to the entire world what God has helped it understand about Himself.
Having seen this text in relation to its context as a literary and theological bridge between the Gospel and Acts, we have already touched on most major elements of the passage. However, there are still aspects of the passage that bear closer examination. The passage divides into two sections: the commissioning of the disciples based on a revealed understanding of Jesus (vv. 44-49), and the Ascension (vv. 50-53).
The opening verse of this reading (v. 44) clearly makes the connection between the risen Christ and the earthly Jesus. As the preceding verses have made that connection on the physical level (vv. 38-42), these verses make the same connection on the level of Jesus' teachings. Luke has anticipated this move earlier in the Gospel in the passion predictions where he has Jesus point ahead to this very connection (18:31, 22:37, and more subtly in 20:17). Just as similar concerns are expressed in John's Gospel (for example, John 14:25; see Commentary on John 14:23-29) there is concern here that the teachings of Jesus become the basis for the mission of the church in the world.
As noted above, the reference to fulfillment of Scriptures (vv. 44-46; cf. Acts 3:8) should not be read as addressing modern concerns about proving the validity of Scripture based on the correspondence of prediction and fulfillment. Nor should it be seen as setting out a Christological method of exegesis whereby all passages of Scripture must somehow be related directly to Jesus, either as prediction or by means of allegory or typology. Nor must these verses be interpreted in any predestinarian mode. Rather the emphasis here is twofold in a different direction.
First, as earlier in the Emmaus account (vv. 27), and later again in Acts (8:35), Luke presents Jesus as the "fulfillment," or the embodiment to use an appropriate metaphor, of what the Old Testament Scriptures taught. This reflects Luke's emphasis on the continuity of God's work with Israel and now with the church.
Second, there is the conviction in both the Lukan and Johannine traditions that Jesus cannot truly be comprehended apart from an ongoing enablement from God (there are hints of this elsewhere as well, e.g., Matt 16:18; cf. Gal 1:15-16). This suggests that even though Luke staunchly maintains continuity between Jesus and the Old Testament Scriptures, he also understands that such connection is not immediately and necessarily apparent (which itself severely limits the prediction-fulfillment apology as an inherent feature of the text itself). Even the teachings of Jesus that all the disciples had heard needed to be remembered and understood in light of both the resurrection and the new commissioning given to the church by the resurrected Christ (cf. John 15:9, 26).
So, the disciples needed to open themselves to hearing the Scriptures in light of this new action of God in the world. While John points to the Holy Spirit as the agent (although given directly by Jesus before he ascended, John 16:13, 20:22), Luke portrays Jesus as the teacher who "opened their minds" (v. 45) to understanding how the Scriptures had always defined the role that Jesus filled. This emphasizes the dependence of the apostles and the early church on God for understanding, which also reflects Luke's repeated focus on the enabling role of the Holy Spirit. It also lays the groundwork for the preaching ministry of the apostles as they open the meaning of the Scriptures to others. That this dimension of preaching, the explication of Scriptures in light of the new action of God in the world, is important to Luke is reflected in the first speech and sermon by Peter recorded in Acts (1:16, 2:16), as well as throughout the book.
It is also in this light that the phrase "it is written" (v. 46) should be understood. As Fred Craddock observes: "To say 'it is written' is the equivalent of saying, "It has been God's plan all along.' In other words, the new is not really new but is the old properly interpreted. The plan of God already set forth in Scripture contains a message and an offer that constitutes the charter of the Christian mission." (Luke, Interpretation, p. 391).
The commission given to the disciples in these verses is firmly grounded in God's revelation of himself to his people from the beginning. The concept of "witness" had always been a feature of Old Testament faith, although it had usually been interpreted primarily in terms of traditioning members of the community (e.g., Deut 6:20-25; Exod 13:14-16; Josh 4:2-7; but note the counter voice of a wider vision in Gen 12:3, 18:22-33, Isa 42:6-7, 56:6-8). Here it is clearly expanded to include "all nations" (v. 47), which moves to the heart of the book of Acts. And Luke presents it in such a way that it is not a new development, but had always been God's purpose for His people.
The core elements of the Gospel message are also included in this commissioning: the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus (v.46), and the proclamation of forgiveness of sins available to all nations (v.47). These elements constitute the core of the sermons throughout the book of Acts, which indicates that these were the central elements of the proclamation of the early church.
For the disciples to be able to carry out this mission to the world, Luke returns to his emphasis on the Holy Spirit that he has woven through his Gospel from the beginning. Luke has consistently affirmed the "power" of the Holy Spirit at work at key junctures in the life of Jesus, especially in empowering the beginning of his ministry, even reaching back to the birth of John (e.g., 1:15). Now he emphasizes the same power from the Holy Spirit at work in the birth of the church. Luke clearly places the commission of the church in the context of the disciples' need for the Holy Spirit's empowerment. They must wait for that empowerment before they can carry out their mission as the "witnesses of these things" (v. 48), with the unspoken implication that they cannot do so without it.
The concluding section of the passage, the actual ascension of Jesus (vv. 50-53), is somewhat anticlimactic, especially in light of the expanded version that follows in Acts. In fact, it would be easy to conclude that these verses only serve the purpose of providing an overlap and thereby an introduction to the book of Acts. There is some sense in which this is true.
However, these few verses also serve the purpose of providing closure within the book of Acts to the life of Jesus with crucial theological overtones. In these verses, the community ends up without its leader, but is also left in a state of joyous and worshipful celebration as it anticipates and waits for an unfolding future that Jesus has promised. This community celebrates because it has encountered the risen Christ who has revealed himself to them in the breaking of bread and in the opening to them of God's purposes recorded in Scriptures. It worships because it has come to understand who Jesus is and how his coming is the culmination of God's self-revelation throughout the history of his people. And it eagerly awaits a new empowerment to carry out the task that Jesus has entrusted to them as his followers because Jesus himself has instructed them to wait for God's movement.
It is this situation of Luke's church that in many ways reflects the situation of the church in any age, commissioned by the risen Christ to proclaim a message of hope and forgiveness to the world, yet needing the empowerment of the Holy Spirit to face the challenges of proclaiming that message. This is the theology of the church that Luke has been developing since the opening chapters of the Gospel, and which he will flesh out in detail in the following volume.
As is often the case, this text lends itself to both a general path for preaching or in more congregation-specific directions. Following Luke's lead down the more general path, this text calls for reflection on the nature and mission of the church as an expectant, waiting community. The Church lives in the in-between time, in a journey between the "already" of Jesus' birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension, and the "not yet" of his return. And yet that interim is not a passive waiting that is marked by inactivity, for the church is given a mission to be a witness to the world of the redemptive activity of God in Jesus the Christ. It is called to proclaim the good news of forgiveness and reconciliation, and the hope of newness that is given voice in the resurrection itself. It is a grand vision of being God's people, God's agents of transformation in the world
But there is more here than a grand vision. The idea of a mission to the world is not an especially difficult one to grasp, or even to undertake. In fact, many eagerly latch onto the idea of a mission or a cause, and expend enormous amounts of energy trying to carry it out. Plans are drawn up. Strategies are put into place. Resources are marshaled. Criteria for success are formulated. Results are tabulated. And the mission is declared a success if the goals or stated objectives are achieved or even if there is "growth" on some level.
And yet, this is not the mission in view here. The mission of the church here is nothing less than to go into the world as God's people, and proclaim a subversive, transforming message about a suffering God who calls anyone without discrimination to respond. It will not be a popular message. In fact, it will be scandalous. And people will not be so eager to accept just anyone into their fellowship, as we learn all too quickly in Acts. The task will be far more enormous than anyone imagined, confirmed by the fact that the church still faces the same issues today.
But that is not even the heart of the message here. The message here is, first, to wait. To wait for the power. It is far easier to recruit people for a cause, or for a program, or for a crusade, than it is to ask them to wait. And yet here, before the church can be the church, it must wait for the power, for the ability to carry out that mission. There is a clear realization from the very beginning of Luke's Gospel, that we simply cannot do what God has called us to do on any level without God's help.
That enabling power for which they are waiting is not something they can generate or make happen by their own efforts. It is a gift of God, in his own time and in his own way. It will be marvelous when it comes, and it will enable this group of disciples to storm the world with the message of the Gospel. But first they must wait. And they must wait without Jesus present, solely on his word that there would be an empowerment.
While we certainly do not want to stifle the enthusiasm of new converts, or discount the efforts of those who do any kind of proclamation of the Good News, perhaps we need to stop once in a while and reflect on whether we have waited sufficiently for the power, or if we are simply working in our own efforts. Perhaps this Ascension Sunday, as we observe the return of Jesus to the Father and realize that we are left in the world on our own, and as we wait this week for Pentecost, would be a good time to do just that.
If we try to be the church without the power of the Holy Spirit enabling our mission, we run the risk of expending a lot of energy and activity without really carrying out our mission. Or we run the risk of attributing success to our own skill, or zeal, or spiritual superiority, rather than to the One from whom the power for mission really comes. Luke tells us that the church cannot be the church without the power of the Holy Spirit enabling Jesus' followers to carry out their task as witnesses.
This does not have to take the form of miraculous manifestations in attempting exactly to duplicate the events of Pentecost or the experiences of the apostles. We can become so embroiled in debates about whether Pentecost is a repeatable event or a one time commissioning of the church, that we lose sight of the mission itself, and Luke's message that we cannot be the church without God's power to be witnesses. But neither does it have to take the form of programs and strategies, as important as those are on some level, that assume the task is ours and ours alone! Luke is clear that the church is the church only when it has waited until it has been clothed with power from on high. Otherwise, it may find itself like the emperor and his new clothes!
We have something about which we can bear witness! And yet, we realize that we cannot possibly do that in a world that does not really want to hear that message. So we are left with an utter dependency on the work of God to empower us for that task (cf. 1 Cor 3:6). And so we wait. But we wait with the full expectancy that the power will come, that the Spirit will so enable us as his people that we can boldly bear witness and proclaim the message.
Several suggestions for congregation specific preaching paths have already been raised in the commentary. For example, this might be an occasion to deal by way of example with the issue of how Scripture is viewed by many people in terms of prediction-fulfillment.
In some churches, the "battle for the Bible" has led to a single-minded focus on a surface and literal reading of Scripture that often obscures or distorts the depth of the biblical message. With echoes here from the first chapters of Luke, as well as the sweeping Christological statements about all three divisions of the Old Testament (v. 44), these verses provide a solid basis for demonstrating that Luke has other aims in mind than simply to connect Old Testament predictions with their New Testament fulfillment (which he does not do here). Luke's emphasis on the necessity of Jesus (or the Holy Spirit) helping the disciples see the theological continuity between the Scriptures and the events should also underscore the fact that this is not simply a case of direct correlation between historical prediction and historical fulfillment.
Another track that could be followed here is to focus on the continuity within the biblical witness that Luke so carefully brings out here. Care will need to be taken not to allow any subtle anti-Semitism to be expressed in denunciations of those who have supposedly distorted the Old Testament message. But there is some sense in which the themes that Luke sees in the Old Testament that he understands to be brought to the foreground in Jesus had not been adequately understood. Even the disciples who had been with Jesus all this time did not understand them. That, perhaps, is not so much a commentary on the obtuseness of the disciples, or perversion by the traditions, as it is testimony to the incredible human tendency to hear things from self-centered points of view.
This emerges as a clear warning today in the midst of doctrinal clashes, ethical debates, and the Bible wars, that perhaps we tend to read more of our own ideas into Scripture than we ever realize. As Jesus opened the minds of these early disciples to understand the Scripture concerning himself, we perhaps likewise need our own eyes opened anew to the message to which we are to bear witness. This is simply a humble acknowledgement, along with Luke, that we need our eyes and hearts opened by a power, by a reference point outside of ourselves in order to adequately understand the message of Scripture. This ought to lead us, as we attempt to understand Scripture, to the constant submissive prayer, "Lord, help me understand!"
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