Ascension Day (Year C), 30 May 2019
May 30, 2019 | by Ronald J. Allen
|Reading 1 Alt
|Reading 2 Alt
|Psalm 47 or Psalm 110
On the surface, the ascension is as much a challenge to a preacher with a scientific world view as any passage in the Bible. Jesus had come from the tomb in a resurrection body (that is a body that has substance but does not decay and is not subject to the usual limitations of the human body). He appeared to the disciples. In the story of the ascension, he leaves the earth and rises through the air to heaven where he takes a place at the right hand of God. This narrative presumes a three-story universe — heaven above, the earth in the middle, and an underworld beneath.
Several of these things are beyond the immediate experience of the contemporary congregation and are beyond the scientific view of the world. To my knowledge, no one today has had direct experience with a resurrection body. We do not think of the universe today as a limited three-story cosmic house to which Jesus could elevate. Indeed, some people schooled in the sciences even speak of an ever-expanding universe. Where could a defined space called “heaven” be in a constantly expanding universe? Where would Jesus go when he rose from the earth on Ascension Day?
Moreover, the most important theological implication of the narrative of the ascension is that God, through Jesus, is sovereign over all other entities, including and especially, the Roman Empire and Jewish leaders in the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. The story of the ascension is intended to motivate Luke’s congregation to continue to live eschatologically and to continue to witness (especially to gentiles) as they await the long-delayed second coming. Twenty centuries removed, the Roman Empire has collapsed only to be replaced by many other empires, including those whose violence would make even the Romans blush. Luke’s picture of many Jewish leaders is a caricature intended to discredit them. Such polemics contributed to anti-Judaism which eventuated in anti-Semitism, whose terrible nadir was the murder of six million Jewish people in the Holocaust, and which continues today.
These questions and circumstances create a charged environment for a conversation on Ascension Sunday. Exegetical, theological, and hermeneutical conversation about these things can help preacher and congregation clarify what they really believe about the texts in specific and about the underlying conviction of the ascension more broadly. And I have come to believe that the story of the ascension, reinterpreted, can be a powerful symbol of the relationship of the reign of God through Christ to the ruling authorities of the church and world in our own day.
The readings from the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts narrate the ascension itself. Ephesians 1:15-23 offers a more direct theological statement about the reigning Christ.
Luke 24:44-53 and Acts 1:1-11
We can discuss the readings from the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts at the same time because they tell the same event — the ascension — with different nuances. The ascension is the goal of the story of Jesus and the disciples of the Gospel, and it is the launching platform for the story of the church in Acts. Both take place under the guidance and protection of the ruling power of God through Christ represented in the ascension.
I think the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts are a giant chiasm, a way of arranging a text in antiquity so that the elements of the text are in parallel relationship.1 The center of the chiasmus — and the heart of its meaning — is the point at which the two elements meet. In the case of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, one part of the chiasmus goes from beginning to the end of the Gospel. This part of the chiasmus explains how the story of Jesus moved from an isolated Jewish setting to Jesus’ murder by the Roman Empire trumped by resurrection and ascension to the right hand of God. The Book of Acts moves from the ascension to describe the mission of the church and to describe, narratively, how that mission became ever more focused on gentiles.
The ascension explains how the resurrected Jesus got from earth to heaven. By placing Jesus at the right hand of God, Luke shows that Jesus is in the place of ultimate power. Jesus is the ruler of the rulers of the earth. He can oversee Luke’s congregation and its mission. Moreover, all other nations and groups — including the Roman Empire — will one day account to him for what they have done. The ascension reveals that God has given the risen Jesus the essential power to rule what happens in the world. Therefore, the story of the church in the Acts — especially the gentile mission — takes place under his aegis and cannot be stopped.
After the resurrection in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus appears to the women (Luke 24:1-12) and to the disciples on the walk to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). In today’s text the disciples are talking about what had happened on the road to Emmaus when the risen Jesus appears among them. Although the disciples had heard that God had raised him from the dead, they were still afraid when he appeared (Luke 24:36-37). A preacher might point out that if people in the very presence of Jesus could be afraid of — and misunderstand — the resurrection, it is natural for people today to respond similarly.
However, the resurrection is the penultimate revelation in the Gospel of Luke. To move readers towards the final and ultimate revelation, Luke establishes the authority of Jesus in Luke 24:36-44: listeners can trust what the character of Jesus in the narrative says because he is the same Jesus whom they knew earlier, albeit in a resurrection body. That is the point of Jesus explaining that he is not a ghost but has hands, feet, flesh and bones so the disciples can touch him. Moreover, he eats a piece of broiled fish. He is Jesus, but in a resurrection form.
Jesus adds to the authority of the moment by recalling that the Torah, Prophets, and Writings interpret his ministry as announcing, demonstrating, and teaching the Realm of God while inviting people to join the path to it. The powers of the old age so resisted that Realm that they murdered its prophet, Jesus. But as a result of the resurrection, repentance and forgiveness of sin would be preached to all nations — including gentiles — beginning from Jerusalem (a central place of authority and revelation for the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts). Luke turns to the role of witnesses in Jewish legal and religious traditions to indicate the truthfulness of this story: “You are witnesses of these things.” The disciples themselves were eyewitnesses to the ministry of Jesus as Luke just described it.
Luke continues the motifs of authority and witness by predicting, in prophetic mode, “And see: I am sending upon you what my [God] promised; so, stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). The “power from on high” is the Holy Spirit, the power that will continue to empower the disciples in the way of the Realm of God after Jesus ascends.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus predicts the coming of that power. It comes in Acts 2. This prediction and fulfillment reinforces the reliability of Jesus as presented in the Gospel of Luke. Listeners can trust how Luke narrates the story — especially its turn towards the gentile mission — because, before ascending to God, Jesus assured them that the Spirit would guide them.
The brief description of the ascension is the very climax of the Gospel. Just outside Jerusalem, in Bethany, he lifts his hands in blessing to indicate that the power of God is with them for good purposes. He steps away from them and Luke says, ever so simply, “and was carried into heaven” (Luke 24:51). And the disciples respond in a way that Luke regards as paradigmatic for the church: they rejoice.
The ascension is so important that Luke gives a slightly different version of it to open the Book of Acts. Indeed, the ascension is the foundation of what happens in the Acts from the giving of the Spirit to the Jewish believing community on Pentecost to igniting and empowering the gentile mission as the Book of Acts unfolds. The church can proceed with that mission in confidence through conflict with the Jewish leaders, rejection by some people, misunderstanding by others, and numerous conflicts and challenges, including false arrest, the threat of assassination and shipwreck.
Luke wants the congregation to come away from the Book of Acts ready to engage in comparable witness in the congregation’s later time and place. They can do so because Jesus, still ascended and in ultimate control of the forces of history, sends the Holy Spirit to empower them.
In Acts 1:1-2 Luke reminds the listening community to hear the story in the Book of Acts as a continuation of the story in the Gospel of Luke. The listeners must engage both books to get the one, full story. Acts 1:2 implies that the events in Acts occur under the leadership of the ascended Jesus who gave instructions to the apostles through the Holy Spirit.
Luke summarizes what Luke takes to be the key message of Jesus in the Gospel: “the Realm of God” (Acts 1:3b). All that Jesus said and did, including his suffering, pointed to the partial presence and coming future fulfillment of the Realm. Before God took Jesus into heaven, Jesus gave instructions to the apostles as to what would happen next in the way of witnessing to the Realm and inviting others to become part of the movement to it (Acts 1:3b-4; cf. Luke 24:47-49). In so doing, in Acts, Luke reiterates the trustworthiness of what Jesus said and did, especially after the resurrection (Acts 1:3-4).
The fact that Luke calls attention to the appearances of Jesus as “convincing proofs” suggests that authority was an issue for Luke’s community. The fact of Jesus’ ascension only reinforces that authority for he acts now from the very presence of God. They had further proof of his reliability when they did what he asked them to do (remain in Jerusalem) and found that what he predicted came true (they received the promise of God, the Holy Spirit). Luke further underscores the trustworthiness of the story in the two-volume work, Luke-Acts, by reminding listeners that near the outset of the Gospel, John the Immerser had likewise anticipated the day when believers would be immersed with the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:16d).
Acts 1:6-11 gives a fuller description of the ascension than Luke 24:50-53. In Acts 1:6, the disciples come together. The ascension, like Pentecost, is an event that takes place in community. Indeed, it is a community-forming event.
Some of those who are present — and who have presumably been with Jesus for a long time — ask him a question revealing that they do not yet understand his ministry. They want to know if this is the time that Jesus will restore the reign to Israel. The perceptive listener knows that while the people of Israel can be included (with gentiles) in the present and future community of the Realm, Jesus will not simply restore the nation of Israel as an independent entity. The Realm will involve “universal restoration” (Acts 3:21), that is cosmic transformation.
On the one hand, when Luke’s Jesus says, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that [God] has set by [God’s] own authority,” Luke indicates that the community cannot know precisely when the second coming will occur. Indeed, for Luke, the time of the great return is delayed. Jesus’ comment encourages the community to prepare for the day. On the other hand, Jesus as interpreted by Luke here does assume that an apocalypse is ahead (see Acts 1:11). People need to live towards that in the way prescribed in the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts.
After Jesus has ascended, “Power will come from on high.” God will send the Holy Spirit which, in the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, is the power that animates the Realm of God. The disciples will receive the same power that has animated Jesus so that they can witness. For Luke, the witness involves alerting others to the presence and future of the Realm, inviting them to repent, to be immersed into the eschatological community, and to receive the Holy Spirit. As the Book of Acts unfolds, the witness is increasingly towards gentiles. The reunion of Jewish and gentile peoples is one of the key aspects of the Realm. That reunion is beginning in the life of the church.
Acts 1:8 is a statement of theological geography in that it previews the movement of the mission. Not only does it go from the geographical areas Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria to the ends of the earth, but this movement goes from a predominately Jewish environment to one that is related to Judaism but not immersed in it (Samaria) to the gentile world, “the ends of the earth.”
Jesus then ascends to heaven (Acts 1:9). We soon learn that he ascends to the right hand of God, which is the side of power and authority (Acts 2:33; 5:33; 7:55-56).
The followers of Jesus seem immobilized by the sight. Consequently, two figures dressed in white — messengers from heaven — interpret the significance of the scene. While Jesus has ascended, he will descend (return) to complete the work of redemption. Although not stated directly, the implication is that the people who had been gazing into heaven need to move ahead in doing what Jesus said to do, namely gather in Jerusalem to await power from on high.
For Luke, of course, the definitive place at the “end of the earth” is Rome. The ascension guarantees that Jesus is in a place of power from which, through the Spirit, God and Jesus can guide the mission to Rome. While Luke recognizes the idolatry, exploitation, and violence of Rome, the grace of God is so far reaching that the witnesses offer Romans the opportunity to repent. Yet, the ascension is a critique of the Emperor and of the Roman system. The Empire itself is among entities that will be condemned and destroyed at the second coming. Caesar will be called to account for how he has ruled. At the same time, gentile individuals and households still have time to join the movement towards the eschatological renewal.
Because the point of Ephesians 1:15-23 is so similar with respect to its vision of Jesus’ role in heaven, I make homiletical suggestions at the end that discussion.
A student of Paul likely wrote Ephesians in response to struggles in the life of the congregation. It appears to me that gentile members exhibited superiority to Jewish members. People within the church were in tension with one another. Some people were anxious about challenges to the traditional relationships in households. Beyond the congregation, members felt that they were up against the principalities and powers, including (but not limited to) the Roman Empire. The letter is likely not directly to a single congregation, but is an encyclical, that is a document intended carried to several congregations who share similar issues.
The writer of the epistle calls the church to become one, that is, to live as a mutually supportive community whose manner of relationships exhibit those of the eschatological world and who represent the redemptive purposes of God to those outside the community. The writer of the letter makes this call on the strength of Christ now being elevated to the right hand of God. The notion of Christ being at the right hand of God functions similarly to its function in the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts.
Writing in Paul’s name, the author of the letter follows Paul’s pattern of giving thanks for the congregation, especially for its confidence in the work of God through Jesus Christ which is presently underway, and which will come to a climax at the second coming (Ephesians 1:15-16). This helps establish a positive relationship between writer and receiver and would often be a good model for preachers today.
Ephesians 1:17-19 articulates the broad hope for what this letter might accomplish in the congregations that hear it. The writer hopes that the people will have a deep sense of the hope that God will save the cosmos, based on an appropriate theological interpretation of what God is doing in their behalf. The author hopes that wisdom, revelation, and the enlightened eyes of the heart will lead to hope. The author wants the community to anticipate “the riches of their glorious inheritance,” that is, a place in the eschatological world. The author specifies the theological content of this wisdom, revelation, and enlightenment in Ephesians 1:20-23.
In Ephesians, as in so much of the Bible, power is a central category. Ephesians recognizes that many entities have and use power (Ephesians 1:19). A significant problem in the world of the Ephesians is that some people and other beings use power inappropriately, indeed, in ways that subvert God’s purposes. Regardless of how much power they have, however, their power pales when contrasted with God’s power, because the latter is immeasurable. The text indicates that God uses God’s power redemptively in behalf of those who believe. A preacher could make the argument that God uses divine power not only for those who believe but in behalf of offering the possibilities of the Realm to every situation in which such lures are needed.
The text asserts that raising Christ from the dead and seating Christ at God’s right hand is a defining demonstration of power. When the writer refers to “all rule and authority and power and dominion,” the writer has a double reference in mind. At one level, such designations can refer to trans-human beings, similar to demons, who served Satan and who sought to wrestle the world away from God and place the world under their own self-serving, God-denying control. Many ancient people believed that such beings occupied much of the space between heaven and earth, as well as living on the earth, and generated force fields to enslave individuals, households, and communities. At another level, these designations can refer to social and political entities, such as (and including!) the Roman Empire. Indeed, these latter entities become social-political-system embodiments of Satan and of the rulers, authorities, powers, and dominions associated with the Satanic world.
By raising Christ from the dead and by seating Christ at God’s right hand, God has made it universally clear that God has more power than every rule, authority, power, and dominion. Moreover, God has given the exalted Christ immediate power of these secondary beings and their social-political-systemic expression. God has “put all things under” Christ’s “feet and has made” Christ “head over all things.” Christ already has this power (“in the present age”) but it will not be fully and completely manifest until after the apocalypse (“in the age to come”). This insight is the specific content of the wisdom, revelation, and enlightenment of Ephesians 1:15-16.
The awareness of the power of God expressed through the ruling Christ relativizes one’s awareness of all other assertions of power. Ultimately, the power of God works for re-creation, which will lead to a world in which all exercise of power takes place according to the values and practices of the Realm of God. This awareness gives the church a source of power and a norm as it seeks to bring its own life more into line with the attitudes and actions characteristic of the glorious inheritance of the Realm. It also gives the church a place to stand as the church seeks to witness to the wider human community in the face of the principalities and powers and, in fact, as the church seeks to witness to the rulers, authorities, powers, and dominions that seek to hijack the present age for their own exploitative, self-serving purposes.
Furthermore, this power is already at work among those who believe. Additionally, as I suggested above, a preacher can legitimately extend the idea that God’s power is at work among believers to the conviction that this power is at work much more widely in the world to urge the world towards becoming more Realm-like. Indeed, a preacher can help the congregation identify places in the world beyond the congregation where this power is at work.
In the introduction to the ascension, we called attention to several enigmatic qualities associated with the ascension. Although a preacher may not be able to believe some of the physical details associated with the story, the preacher might regard the story as mythological in nature and draw some abiding affirmation that is not dependent on the world view of antiquity.
One of the most important is that the ascension affirms the omnipresence of the purposes of the Realm of God as manifest in the ministry of Jesus. While God may not have the kind of power that enables God to control history in the direct way assumed by Luke and the writer of Ephesians, the sermon can help us believe that God is present in every situation — no matter how unpromising — offering qualities of the Realm that are possible within the limitations of the situation. The degree to which individuals and communities embrace these possibilities often plays a significant role in the degree to which they come about.
Moreover, the eschatological community today is face to face with empire in ways comparable to the church in the time of Luke and the writer of Ephesians. The ascension promises that witness against empire and in behalf of the values and practices of the Realm of God is forever empowered by the risen Christ through the Holy Spirit. Even if empires are never completely replaced by the Realm of God, the ascension confirms that God will never stop offering the possibility of the Realm. For these possibilities come from the right hand of God.
1 See Ronald J. Allen, Acts of the Apostles. Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013).
Ronald J. Allen taught preaching and Gospels and Letters at Christian Theological Seminary from 1982 to 2019. Prior to that, he and his spouse, the Reverend Linda McKiernan-Allen, were co-ministers of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Grand Island, Nebraska. He loves leading Bible studies in congregations. He has published more than 40 books with the next one to be released in the summer of 2019: I Will Tell You the Mystery: A Commentary on Preaching from the Book of Revelation. His A Faith of Your Own: Naming What You Really Believe and his Reading the New Testament for the First Time are widely used in small group studies in congregations. With Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm and Dale P. Andrews, he edited the pioneering three volume Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Commentary on the Lectionary, which comments on every reading in the lectionary and introduces 22 new Holy Days for Justice (e.g. , Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Peace in the Home, Yom haShoa, Gifts of Sexuality and Gender, Sojourner Truth Day). With O. Wesley Allen, Jr., he urges thinking of preaching as conversation, as for example, in Allen and Allen, The Sermon Without End: A Conversational Approach to Preaching. Allen and his spouse have five young adult children: Canaan, Genesis, Moriah, Barek , and Sabbath, as well as five grandchildren. He and his family spent summers teaching in Zambia and Jamaica. He has also traveled in Israel, India, South Korea, Belize, England, Ireland, New Zealand, Aruba, Canada, the countries surrounding the Baltic, as well as Mexico, Spain, the Canary Islands, Uruguay, Argentina, and Antarctica.