I.Theme – The Ascension and its implications for the church
"The Ascension" – Catherine Andrews
The lectionary readings are here or individually:
First Reading – Acts 1:1-11
Luke begins his second book by summarizing “the first” (the gospel). “Theophilus”, to whom the gospel is written, may be a person (whose name means lover of God) or any reader who loves God. Jesus had chosen “the apostles” (v. 2) from a larger group of followers; in Luke 24 he instructs them. He showed himself alive to them during 40 days. The “many convincing proofs” (v. 3) of his resurrection include his appearances on the road to Emmaus and in Jerusalem.
In this passage they were specifically instructed to stay in Jerusalem (cf. Matthew 28:16; John 21:1; Luke 24:49) and wait. Naturally, they began to question what purpose Jesus had in mind. Even more naturally, they got it wrong. In this instance they merely gave voice to the traditional Jewish view that the Messiah would free Israel from foreign domination and restore Israel’s Davidic monarchy.
The version in Acts looks forward to the future, to the inauguration of the church’s mission and the final return of the ascending One. Rather than rebuke their misunderstanding, Jesus reminded them that the future God intended was not for them to know. Instead he gave them a mission and their final marching orders. They would be empowered to witness to the ends of the earth to what they had seen and heard. They also received the promise that Jesus would come again as some unspecified date. Jesus was clear in Luke 17:21 that the kingdom or reign of God is within us–it is already present at the same time we wait for Christ to do something new.
Luke describes the ascension physically (like Elijah’s) but includes a divine element, the “two men in white robes”, (v. 10), God’s messengers. Some of the disciples were from “Galilee” (v. 11). The time of the Church will end with Jesus returning as he departed.
Christ’s ascension not only demonstrated his divinity but signaled the inauguration of his messianic kingdom. The new age of redemptive love had begun. The empowerment of his disciples for their mission as witnesses would carry forward this new spiritual reality. Those who believed and accepted the symbol of new creation in baptism would share in this new life.
Psalm – Psalm 47 Page 650, BCP
This is one of the enthronement psalms, which, according to some scholars, were sung annual feast at New Year’sat which the king was enthroned to symbolize God’s kingship over his people. Some scholars believe that the returning exiles brought the practice came back from Babylon.
God is praised for being above all earthly kings. As the king took his seat upon his earthly throne, the whole people would have chanted this psalm in celebration of God.
Vv. 1-4 summon all people everywhere to praise the God of Israel as king. The Israelites gradually changed from recognizing a number of gods, of whom one was chief (“Most High”), to one God. Israel’s “heritage” (or inheritance) is the Promised Land. “Jacob” (v. 4) is Israel. “His holy throne” (v. 8) recalls Isaiah’s commissioning in Isaiah 6:1. V. 9a, as translated here tells of all rulers gathering as the people of Israel’s God (our God). Gather to is another possible translation, so it may tell of vassal rulers coming to Jerusalem to pay tribute. Either the “shields” in v. 9b are the rulers, or this half verse speaks of peace, i.e. destruction of weapons, as 46:9 says of God: “He makes wars to cease to the end of the earth … he burns the shields with fire”.
The Church in its liturgy has associated this psalm with, and transferred it to, the ascension of Christ. Ascension Day is the feast of Christ’s enthronement when the kingdoms of this world become kingdoms of the Lord. Henceforth God exercises his sovereignty over the universe through his exalted Son.
Psalm 93 is another proclaiming the sovereignty of Yahweh over all creation. Like its counterpart above, it may have formed part of the New Year enthronement ceremonies. Whereas the previous psalm celebrated political sovereignty to some extent, this one celebrated God’s dominion through nature (vss.3-4). It emphasized the way in which at the beginning of each new year enthronement rituals reasserted divine sovereignty in the cycle of the seasons and the produce of the land. Echoes of the creation myth of Genesis 1 can be heard through the roaring floods and thundering seas.
V. 3 speaks of waters raising up and “roaring”. To the ancients, waters were chaotic, very difficult for the gods to control. The gods did battle with them; when the gods had won, creation followed. Here God wins definitively, establishing world order, which “shall never be moved” (v. 1), i.e. changed or defeated. God rules over all of creation, even the forces of chaos.
Epistle – Ephesians 1:15-23
The first part of our passage prays for the church’s growth in wisdom and knowledge, and looks to the risen and ascended Christ for the power to foster this growth. This passage then presents God’s plan for salvation- his plan for completion of the restoration of the faithful to oneness with him.
The New Testament views Christ’s kingship as exercised in two concentric circles. The inner circle embraces the church, where his kingship is known and acknowledged; the outer circle embraces the world, where he is de facto king but his kingship is as yet unrecognized (O. Cullmann). The church’s function is to extend that inner circle to cover more and more of the outer one.
In vv. 15-16, he is delighted to hear of the successful missionary activity by people he does not know at first hand. A new unity had been created by Jesus Christ which removed all previous barriers and legalistic traditions. Their “faith” (commitment to Christ) and fraternal love (love of “all the saints”, Christians both Jewish and Gentile) go hand in hand: faith involves appreciating God’s great love for humanity demonstrated in the Father’s giving of the Son. Paul prays that these (relatively) new converts may receive “a spirit of wisdom and revelation” as each progressively come to understand God more and more.
It is not just digested knowledge (“wisdom”) that they will receive, but also “revelation”, what God will show of himself and his ways, his manifest character, his greatness, “glory”, and the fruit of interaction of knowledge with experience. The objective (v. 18) is that, illuminated by innermost conviction (“with the eyes of your heart”), they may attain a maturer knowledge of God in three ways:
• in spiritual growth (“hope”) being those whom God has called;
• the “glorious inheritance” Gentile Christians now share with their Jewish brethren; and
• experience of the tremendous power of God as he works in their lives.
Paul’s experience speaks here: God showed him mercy when he was a persecutor of Christians. Then v. 20: this power that they now experience is what the Father used in raising Christ and having him share in the divine glory. Christ has also conquered all alien spiritual powers (“far above all rule …”, v. 21) and pagan gods (“every name that is named”). God has made “all things” (v. 22) subject to humanity; the Father has given Christ to the church as ruler over all things spiritual.
The church as this new creation would represent the living Christ who reigns supreme. The church is one in Christ and thus is able to share in Christ’s exaltation, Christ being the complete embodiment of God, who is in the process of filling (making good) all things. It is through the church that God pervades the world with his goodness.
Gospel – Luke 24:44-53
Only Luke/Acts contain ascension stories–the other Gospels do not explain what happens to Jesus after the resurrection, and neither does Paul. The author’s purpose was to reiterate the absolute identity of the risen Christ with the flesh-and-blood Jesus of his earlier narrative. This contrasted with the late 1st century heresy called Docetism which denied the humanity of Jesus which asserting that his divine nature descended upon him at this baptism and withdrew before his crucifixion.
It is possible that elements of this heresy had already crept into the teachings of some Christian leaders by the time Luke’s gospel was written in the late 80s CE. Furthermore, the passage told of the commissioning of the disciples for their apostolic mission. This provided a transition from the gospel narrative to the Acts of the Apostles where the witness of the apostles is elaborated in greater detail.
Luke 24:44-53 is the first ascension description by the author of Luke/Acts, going back to the scriptures of “Moses, the prophets and the psalms” to explain who Jesus was and the recent events of his death and resurrection.
First he instructed the apostles so that they would understand the Old Testament scriptures fulfilled by his teaching and ministry. Then he gave them their mission as witnesses (proclaiming “ his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem”, share in the Good New) and told them they would be empowered to carry it out. They would stay in Jerusalem “until you have been clothed with power from on high.” They were given the power not only to carry on but to prosper. Finally, he led them out to Bethany on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olive and from there was carried to heaven, leaving them to return to Jerusalem to worship in the temple.