< May 14, 2015 >

Commentary on Acts 1:1-11


On the liturgical calendar, this Sunday is known as Ascension Sunday.

In the Christian tradition, it commemorates the ascension of Jesus into heaven. Ascension Day, celebrated 40 days after Easter, actually occurs on May 14 this year, but most of those who celebrate it will do so on Sunday.

As Luke begins to write the second half of his epic telling of Jesus and the expansion of the movement that came after him, he does so by reminding his reader, Theolphilus, of the contents of his Gospel. He does this by delaying the major scene in the first section of Acts (2:1-4) by using a prologue (1:1-4) and two introductory scenes (1:5-11; 12-26) which help the audience transition from the first volume and prepares them for the second. Commentaries on these sections tend to rush over these too quickly, in my opinion, neglecting some of the important themes established here that run like a thread through Acts. I’ll simply focus on two.

By delaying the empowerment of the first Jesus followers and the beginning of the expansion of the church, Luke reminds his reader that the coming empowerment and expansion are firmly rooted in the ministry, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. He reminds Theolphilus “about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning” (Acts 1:1), thus anchoring everything that follows in the memory of Jesus Luke has already recounted in his Gospel. This introductory note, often skipped over with little mention, is important because this subtle reminder of “all that Jesus did and taught” recalls the story of Jesus for Luke’s readers and frames the book of Acts in those actions and words. In an age of “church growth experts” who seek to capitalize on a desire to increase membership, expand influence, and grow the budget, all Christian leaders would do well to remember this very subtle reminder from Luke: the expansion of God’s kingdom is rooted in the actions and words of Jesus, the risen Christ.

This does not mean, of course, that we should be inactive. Though Luke narratives the initial period of inaction as the disciples waited for the promised empowerment from the Spirit, they are soon empowered and compelled by the Spirit to speak. But, before rushing to empowerment and expansion, Luke pauses to note that the disciples seem to still be looking for the restoration of Israel, thus an end of Roman occupation. Though often rebuked for having such an ‘earthly’ vision in the presence of the risen Christ, perhaps the disciples do have something to teach us here. The disciples did not, they could not, remove their experience of the risen Christ from their own socio-cultural-political contexts. They expected that a risen Christ would indeed bring about change in those contexts. Have we gone so far the other direction that we chide the disciples for having too ‘earthly’ a vision that we can’t see that we often lack their sense of ‘real-world’ application? Should note the risen and empowering Christ bring about shifts in the socio-cultural-political contexts in which his followers live? Are not Christ’s people empowered with the Spirit to engage culture in order to transform it? Indeed, this does seem to be part of the narrative of Acts. No, not a restoration of Israel the way the disciples envisioned, but a radical cultural engagement through the power of the Spirit that brought former outsiders into the movement, reaching the very capital of the Empire.

There are other issues in this passage that could be unpacked. The ascension of Jesus in Acts 1:9 as resistance to the tradition of the apotheosis of the Roman Emperors, and thus again proclaiming that Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not. Then there is the apocalyptic vision of 1:11, which reminds Jesus followers that he will return in the same way that he was taken up. While some may be tempted to emphasis ‘second coming’ theology from this, it is important to note that Luke does seem to downplay the second coming, noting how the Jesus followers interact with and engage the Jewish and Roman cultural matrix in which they existed. Rather than emphasizing and waiting (inactively) for the glorious return, it seems Luke would have us be engaged with our wider culture and, though the power of the Spirit, transform it.