Final Instructions - Lectionary Reflection for Ascension Sunday (Acts 1)
1 In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2 until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4 While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Churches that follow the Christian Year will be either observing the Seventh Sunday of Easter or the day of Ascension (which does not fall on Sunday). In either case the first reading comes from Acts 1. The text for Ascension is the first eleven verses, while the Seventh Sunday texts come from Acts 1:15-26, which contains the call of Matthias to replace Judas Iscariot as the twelfth Apostle. The Matthias story is an intriguing one, but it is here in verse 8 of Acts 1 that the foundation for the Book of Acts is laid. So, I will address the first reading for the Day of Ascension.
Luke invites us to imagine gathering with Jesus after forty days of post-Easter appearances for final instructions prior to Jesus’ physical departure from the disciples, which opens a new phase of Luke’s Gospel story. Chapter one of the Book of Acts marks a point of transition from Jesus’ earthly ministry to the Spirit-empowered mission of the church. The message for this moment in time is to “wait.” Now is the time for the Spirit of to come down upon the believers, so that they might bear witness to the Gospel, from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. While it was good to be with Jesus in the flesh, it is time to leave the womb and enter the world, bearing the message of salvation.
In the opening verses of the Book of Acts, Luke writes to Theophilus, letting the recipient of this document know that the story that began with the announcement to Elizabeth that she would bear a child (Luke 1:5-25), followed by the announcement to Mary (Lk. 1:26-38), was entering a new phase. Volume 1 told the story of Jesus earthly ministry, including his death and resurrection. Volume 2 would begin here with the story of the Ascension (paralleled in Luke 24), and then transition to the story of the work of the Spirit in launching a new movement that would carry the Word of God to the ends of the earth. While Luke doesn’t explicitly say this, his two-part account challenges the idea that Jesus had no intention of founding the church. In Luke’s eyes, what follows in the book of Acts is a continuation of the Jesus story, only in this volume it will be the Holy Spirit who is the primary driver of the story. We see this in Jesus’ directive that the community wait patiently for the coming of the Spirit, who will empower them to carry out the mission of Jesus in the world.
Jesus tells the disciples that while John baptized with water, he will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Being that I am of an immersionist tradition, I will assume that Jesus intends us to be immersed in the Spirit. The disciples have taken in Jesus’ message of the kingdom. They understand that he is the key. What they want to know is when it will commence. Note they want to know when the kingdom will be restored to Israel. It is a nationalist question. Willie James Jennings translates their vision this way: “When will we rule our land, and become self-determining, and if need be impose our will on others? All this would, of course, be for the good of the world, they suppose” [Jennings, Acts: Belief, p. 17]. Nationalism is a notion that continues to present itself. It was present in Jesus’ disciples as they gathered for one last visit with Jesus. It remains with us. We see it on display in my country. While I’m reading something into the dialogue, we know from the Gospels that the disciples were concerned about their places in the kingdom (Lk. 22:24-30). That same sentiment is present in many of us, especially it seems among some of my co-religionists, who want seats at the table of power. Jesus hears their request and points them in a different direction. He simply tells them that the time of the kingdom’s appearance is not yet known, and ultimately not their business. Instead of focusing on the timing of the kingdom’s appearance, they will want to pay attention to their imminent calling, and this to participate in their Spirit-empowered mission that is about to commence.
Here is the key text—Acts 1:8—Jesus tells the disciples gathered around him: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This verse sets the plot-line for what follows. As Luke tells it, this mission begins in Jerusalem. This is where the death and resurrection took place, and where the early disciples first gathered. While this is the starting point, it’s not the end. What is born in Jerusalem must move outward into the world, spreading first to Judea and Samaria, and then from there to the ends of the earth. As the story moves outward from Jerusalem, one barrier after another is crossed or broken. This three-part statement in Acts 1:8 envisions a Spirit-directed movement. The Spirit empowers, encourages, and at times gently nudges (I won’t say coerces) the church to move through open doors.
During the Easter Season, our readings from the Book of Acts has already demonstrated this fact. We read about Philips mission to Samaria and then his witness to the Ethiopian Eunuch. Then we heard about Peter’s encounter with Cornelius. These are expressions of the commission that is announced here, as Jesus gives final instructions prior to his departure.
With the mission stated, Jesus instructs them to wait for the coming of the Spirit. This is important. They have their mission. It will take them to the ends of the earth. In the Book of Acts that will take us to Rome, where Paul hopes to witness to the emperor (Acts 28). As the reading closes, Jesus is gathered up into the heavens, departing from this world. His departure is similar in nature to that of Elijah. The disciples watch his ascent. They are stunned. They are in awe. We would as well. Let’s not get too hung up on the imagery here. We know that Scripture emerged in an age that posited a three-story universe. God was always assumed to live “up there,” and to get to heaven one would go up, while hades was down below. We needn’t take this literally to get the imagery (I think it’s only a few fundamentalists and atheists who assume that Christians take this literally). Taking this as metaphor, we can affirm with Luke God’s sovereignty. As Ron Allen writes: “The lasting message is that God’s authority and purposes transcend all others and that all authorities and powers are accountable to God” [Allen, Acts of the Apostles, pp. 18-19]. Ultimately, this is a message about the inbreaking of God’s realm that will arrive with the Spirit not many days hence. The word of the angels is worth considering. Why are you looking up? Why gaze into the sky. Remember, there is a mission to be undertaken in the power of the Spirit. This was the word given to the disciples as they watched Jesus disappear from their sight. What word do we hear in this passage? What is the mission that the Spirit would have us undertake? Might we heed Ron Allen’s words?
By portraying the movement from Jerusalem and Judea through Samaria to the ends of the earth, Luke indicates that the faithful witness enlarges community. The witnessing church becomes ever more inclusive. The witness of the church today, then, is in continuity with Acts when it also extends the boundaries of community. [Allen, Acts of the Apostles, p. 20].
And so we tarry, until the Spirit falls upon us, empowering and directing us in extending the boundaries of the realm.
Picture attribution: JESUS MAFA. The Ascension, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48398 [retrieved May 7, 2018]. Original source: http://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr (contact page: https://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr/contact).