Lectionary Commentaries for May 10, 2018
Ascension of Our Lord

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 24:44-53

Osvaldo Vena

Have you noticed that Luke is the only evangelist to record the Ascension?

In Matthew 28:16-20 the ascension is presupposed, as it is also in John 21:22, when Jesus says: “If it is my will that he (the beloved disciple) remain until I come, what is that to you.” And Mark does not even mention it!

Why this lack of consensus on something so crucial for Christian theology as is Jesus’ return from heaven at the end, the so-called Parousia? For if Jesus is going to come back from heaven he has to first be there, and this is only possible via the Ascension.

The best way to explain this conundrum is to say that the gospels reflect different views on how the kingdom was going to be established, either by interruption of history through an eschatological coming of Jesus from heaven, or through the transformation of history by the issuing of the kingdom on earth.

Luke seems to be making narrative and theological space for the birth of the church, a view that he will develop in the book of Acts. The church will be the main focus of Luke’s theology so much so that the promise of Jesus’ return from heaven in Acts 1:11 will slowly disappear from the narrative.

Luke has two accounts of the Ascension, one in the gospel, one in Acts. The one in the gospel is placed at the end of Jesus’ ministry (Luke 24:44-53) and its purpose seems to be the vindication of his ministry. The one in Acts is placed at the beginning of the apostles’ ministry (Acts 1:6-11) and the purpose seems to be the authorization of their work of proclamation.

Luke 24:44-53 in its immediate context

Jesus is not with the disciples anymore (verse 44), and yet he shows up. Where has he been between the resurrection and now? For one thing, he has already been with a couple of his disciples on the road to Emmaus, where they realized who he was during the blessing of the bread at the meal. But Jesus vanished from their sight, only to reappear in Jerusalem, where the rest of the disciples were gathered (verses 33-43). There they can corroborate that he is not a ghost, for he shows them the signs of the crucifixion. The one who shows up in their midst, even when according to John 24:19 the doors were locked, is the crucified one, now risen.

In Luke 24:27 and 24:44 Jesus explains to the disciples the scriptures to show them that everything about his ministry was already written. But they needed to know how to read it.

The mention of Moses, the prophets, and the psalm is a reference to the three divisions of the TANAK, the Hebrew Bible: the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings. By the time Luke wrote these three sections were already considered authoritative.

That Jesus opened their minds to understand the scriptures in verses 45-47 is an expansion of what he told the Emmaus travelers in verse 27. Now scriptures have to be read in messianic key. This is a message for the Lukan community, which needs to learn how to read scripture with the new lenses provided by Jesus’ life.

Luke develops a history of salvation with a number of components: Jesus’ death and resurrection, repentance, and forgiveness of sins proclaimed to all nations. This sets the program for Acts, as clearly seen in Acts 1:8. The Jewish roots of the movement are stressed but the movement is not limited to Israel. It now includes the Gentiles, the nations.

The Holy Spirit is promised as fulfillment of the Father’s promise; thus, it is the promise of a promise. The nascent church needs power in order to carry on its ministry effectively.

After the Ascension the disciples return to Jerusalem with great joy and are in the temple continually blessing God. Luke starts his gospel with similar ideas. Zechariah has a vision in the temple where he is informed by an angel of the impending birth of a son, John. The announcement was going to produce joy and gladness (Luke 1:14). At both ends of the book the temple plays an important role, pointing to the Jewish roots of the church. It stresses continuity rather than separation.

Reciprocal blessing: Jesus blesses the disciples (verse 50) and they, in turn, bless God in their liturgical life (verse 52). This reciprocity needs to be understood alongside the notion of patron and client. When Jesus blesses the disciples, he is mediating the blessing of God, the heavenly Patron, and this always means something positive, the opposite of cursing. When humans bless God, it refers to the praise and honor that clients were to give the patron.

Relevance for today

We noticed that not all the gospels acknowledge the Ascension as part of Jesus’ life. Some assume it (Matthew, John), some ignore it (Mark). By doing this they displayed a theological autonomy that is seldom seen today and which we need to recover if we want to engage in authentic ecumenical dialogue.

Like the first Christians, we have to find a hermeneutical key into scriptures. For them it was Jesus as God’s Messiah. For us that is already part of our tradition but it still needs to be reinterpreted because it has ceased to be a self-evident concept, as it was for those early believers. The temporal and cultural distance between the world of the Bible and ours is so abysmal that we need to get hold of as many methodological mediations as we can in order to make sense of the text. Some of these are historical, some are literary, and some are hermeneutical, but we need to use all of them if we want to avoid anachronism and ethnocentrism, which are the two capital sins of any interpretive task.

What is the meaning and role of power in the Church today? How do we use it? Is it power over? Is it power to? Or is it power with? The three are different manifestations of power but while the first is oppressive, and the second paternalistic, only the third type is the power that comes from the Holy Spirit. It is the power to witness together: “power with,” a democratic, egalitarian kind of power, which makes the difference between an institution that is bent on self-preservation and one which understand its vocation as prophetic witness in society.

How can the idea of praising God be detached from its 1st century idea of patron and client? For that is obviously not our cultural context anymore. These notions were born in an imperial and paternalistic context, where the powerful showed goodness toward the weak and these showed their thankfulness by ascribing honor to them. This is hardly a helpful concept today, and yet it is still very much present in our liturgical life. We should be able to re-phrase much of our liturgies changing not only androcentric and misogynist language, but also imperial language, which is always demeaning. Still noticing the ontological distance between God and us, we should be able to speak of God in more fitting relational terms.


First Reading

Commentary on Acts 1:1-11

Mitzi J. Smith

Luke has connected Acts with his Gospel or his first book (proton), both of which are addressed to Theophilus (Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1).1

Perhaps Theophilus (a combination of the Greek noun theos, translated “God,” and the verb phileo, meaning “to love” or “cherish”) refers to a historical person and/or symbolically to readers who consider themselves as the friends/lovers of God.

Also in the Gospel of Luke’s prologue, which may be applied to Acts, Luke boasts of contributing a more accurate and orderly narrative about Jesus’ life and ministry based on his meticulous examination of all available eyewitness accounts and traditions so that Theophilus might know the truth concerning what he has been told (see 26:26; cf. John 21:25).

In Acts, Luke reiterates the breadth of his due diligence: His first book included “all” of Jesus’ deeds and teachings from the time he began his ministry until his ascension (1:1-3). Jesus’ ascension is pivotal. It confirms that all that Jesus said and did on earth was indeed driven by God’s Spirit (cf. 5:38-39) and that the good news about the baptism of the Spirit that this same Jesus had announced to his apostles is trustworthy (1:5).

It was through God’s Spirit that before he ascended, Jesus instructed the apostles whom he had chosen regarding their next steps (verses 2-3; 1:12-14). God’s Spirit was with Jesus from conception (Luke 1:35; 3:22; 4:18). The apostles Jesus instructed presumably included more than the Eleven, since one of the criteria for possible candidates that would replace Judas was that the man had traveled with Jesus from baptism to ascension; the candidate was present at Jesus’ ascension (1:21-22). He had to know first-hand that Jesus was not rotting in the grave, nor was he an apparition, but that God had exalted him (2:33).

The apostles to whom Jesus gave his pre-ascension instructions likely included women, despite their exclusion, on the basis of their gender, from the candidate pool to replace Judas: it must be “one of the men” (Greek: aner, for biological male) (1:21; cf. 1:13-14; 2:1) — and despite the presence of the women in the upper room during Pentecost in obedience to Jesus’ pre-ascension instructions. Some of the women whose lives Jesus transformed and/or who traveled with him, as well as some who may have been among the seventy/seventy-two sent out to heal and liberate people (Luke 10:1-20), received the same Spirit-induced instruction.

Indeed, in Luke it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and other women who proclaimed the resurrection of the crucified Jesus to the eleven and to “all the rest,” despite some men’s failure to believe (24:8-10). Women were among those who, while following Jesus, provided resources for him and their fellow apostles (Luke 9:1-3). How might this preach? The preacher should preach about the inclusivity and parity of Jesus and God’s Spirit in calling and anointing women and men to share the good news; that sometimes we have to read between the patriarchal lines even in a sacred text because it is also a human text.

This is good news for young girls and women whom God has called and whom the church has oppressed; it is good news for the local and global church and for the rest of the world that stands in need of the giftedness and contribution of all humanity, not just one-half; and it is good news for men that they don’t have to bear the gospel alone.

The living Jesus had appeared to and spoken with his apostles about the basileia (kingdom) of God (1:3). But Jesus conceded his ignorance regarding God’s timeline for re-establishing the kingdom of Israel (1:6). Such authority belongs only to God the Father (1:7). This too might preach! If Jesus could comfortably acknowledge his ignorance about godly things, we certainly should be willing to do the same. God shares what God chooses to share. Even when they are God-derived, human knowledge and power are imperfect and limited because we are fallible.

God promises and sends the Spirit (1:8). Humans do not control when and how God’s Spirit enters or interacts with humans. The Spirit can enter like a dove or like tongues of fire (Luke 1:22; Acts 2:3). In Acts the Spirit is not at the mercy of rituals like baptism and anointing with hands. Ritual is for the benefit of humans; ritual does not coerce, order, or direct God’s Spirit. The Spirit enters whom, when, and how it chooses — Jews and Gentiles, before or after baptism, accompanied by foreign or ecstatic languages or not, and with or without the narrator’s explicit pronouncement (8:26-40; 10:44-45; 15:22-29: 19:1-7). God shows no favoritism (10:34). This will preach!

A direct effect of the Spirit’s communion with human beings is that they witness about God and about Jesus. And the Spirit’s power to engender testimony is not restricted to any one language or geographical space (1:8). God’s Spirit will compel and empower the apostles, male and female (even if all do not get the same coverage in the canonical narrative), to testify about what Jesus said and did, in Jerusalem and far beyond. This spirit-induced testimony is necessarily contextualized, because the Spirit speaks through us in our contexts so that it can bring to us a significant testimony and so that we can carry a relevant testimony to others within their contexts. Indeed, the crowds at Pentecost heard the apostles speaking to them in their own language (2:11-12).

Two men robed in white stood with those who stared as Jesus ascended (1:10-11; cf. 7:54). Perhaps the two men were present to comfort them because their master and teacher, their traveling companion would no longer be present in the flesh, on earth. Yet, the two men do not pacify them; they redirect their gaze toward Jerusalem — toward earth, toward their life context. This too will preach! We are born here and given a vocation here on earth and that calling is not to be always gazing into heaven, indifferent to the injustices and needs of our neighbors, but to be busy sharing and being good news to humanity.

The apostles returned to Jerusalem from the Mt. of Olivet (1:12; cf. Luke 24:50-52). Yet Jesus had commanded them at 1:4 not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the Father’s promise. Acts is a very theocentric text as was Jesus a very theocentric Jewish man. Jesus preached about and came to glorify God the Father. Recurring themes and early Christian kerygma (from the Greek verb kerusso; translated to proclaim) in Acts include the good news that “God raised Jesus” (2:24, 32; 3:15, 26; 4:10; 10:40; 13:30, 33, 37; 26:8); that God made the “Jesus whom you crucified” “both Lord and Messiah [Christos]” (1:36); and that God has done great things (megaleia) among, in, and for them (2:11b; 2:22; 15:12; 19:11).

In response to the powerful activity of God, people repented, were baptized in Jesus’ name (2:38; cf. 19:30), and ultimately praised God (2:47; 3:9, 10; 4:21). God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power to do justice, heal the sick, and liberate the oppressed, for God was with him (10:38; cf. Luke 4:18). God, through Jesus, called the apostles to proclaim good news in very particular and diverse contexts (20:24; cf. 16:10). The preacher must preach good news. It is good news that God’s grace and power transcends gender, race, ethnicity, class, and other human distinctions, as well as the circumstances and contexts into which we are born or find ourselves trying to survive. Jesus’ ascension is good news.


Notes

1 Commentary first published on May 29, 2014.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 47

Jerome Creach

Psalm 47 is a hymn that celebrates God’s reign as king over the earth.1

The psalm also portrays a procession for the purpose of celebrating God’s kingship. This is most evident in the declaration that God has “gone up” with shouts and trumpet sound (verse 5) and now sits enthroned over the nations (verse 8). Such language makes the psalm appropriate for the Sunday the church celebrates Christ’s ascension. The church claims that “God rules the world and lovingly claims all the world’s peoples” through the work of Jesus Christ.2

Psalm 47 is often discussed in relation to other psalms that speak of God as king or of God reigning over the world. Psalms 93 and 95-99 all contain similar language. Scholars sometimes refer to these psalms as “enthronement psalms” because they speak of God taking a throne or assuming the place as king over the universe. Several points are important to clarify what these psalms are saying by this language.

First, divine kingship has to do with God’s sovereignty over both the created order (the non-human realm) and the forces of history (nations, peoples). Psalm 47 does not say explicitly that God controls the forces of nature. This idea, however, stands behind statements about God’s control of the nations. As king, God first put the forces of chaos in their place. The unruly waters produced fear for ancient people (see Genesis 1:6-10). The threat of enemies was often described as the threat of agents of chaos (Exodus 15:8).

Second, it is important to recognize that all people of the ancient Near East spoke of their chief deities as kings. So, when Psalm 47 speaks of God this way it is saying indirectly that God reigns over the world, but Baal, Marduk, and other gods do not. Furthermore, Israel’s neighbors all had stories about their deities becoming king through battles with other gods. The poetry of these other nations (like Israel’s psalms) often depicted the god’s enthronement, their becoming king. Psalm 47 and similar psalms in the book of Psalms, however, rest on the assumption that Israel’s God always was king.

The psalm twice summons worshippers to praise (verses 1 and 6). Following both calls to worship are sections that give the content of the praise called for (verses 2-5 and 7-10). The particular focus of God’s kingship, and the reason for praise is God’s control over the nations and God’s special care for Israel. God’s care for Israel, however, is for the purpose of including the nations also in God’s grace. Indeed, verses 1-4 declare God’s sovereignty over all the earth by calling all peoples (NRSV) or nations (NIV) to praise God (47:1).

Verses 3-4 speak particularly about how God acted on behalf of Israel; God “subdued peoples” under Israel. Here the special place of humankind is summed up in Israel. Just as God placed all living things “under the feet” of humans (Psalm 8:7), so God placed all nations under Israel’s feet. In other words, God in God’s sovereignty made Israel sovereign over other nations. The “pride of Jacob” seems to refer to the gift of the land (see Amos 6:8). God gave a special territory to Israel as its inheritance.

The point of Psalm 47:4, however, is not really that Israel is superior to other nations or that Israel has rights to the land of Canaan. Rather, the point is that Israel did nothing to earn its “heritage” or any of the blessings it enjoys. God gave these privileges to Israel. Therefore, Israel cannot boast of anything.

The word selah comes between verses 4 and 5 and is not really part of either verse. No one knows exactly what this term means. It is not even certain which Hebrew root gives rise to the word. When the psalm was performed selah may have signaled the people to bow down, shout, clap or otherwise express joyful praise. Or the word may have been a key to the musicians, meaning essentially “hit it!”

Whatever the word selah meant to those who first heard it, in Psalm 47 the term sets verse 5 off from the previous verses. It marks a transition and highlights verse 5 as the climax of the first section of the psalm. Verses 2-4 praise God as king and recall what God has done in the past. Verse five also speaks about God’s kingship, but it highlights something that likely occurred at the time the verse was spoken in worship.

“God has gone up” probably has in mind a ceremony in which the ark of the covenant was taken into the temple or sanctuary (see the statement in 2 Chron 36:23 regarding the return of God and worshipers to Jerusalem, “let him go up”). Many other psalms likely have such a ceremony in mind. For example, Psalm 24 speaks of a procession into Zion and the temple that was probably like the ceremony that stands behind Psalm 47.

Verses 6 and 7 say five times “sing praise,” each occurrence using the same Hebrew word. The term used here is from same root as the word most commonly translated “psalm” (though the word at the end of Psalm 47:7, translated “psalm” is a different word in this case!). The reason for praise (and the content of praise) is stated in first half of verse 7: “God is the king of all the earth.”

Those who belong to God include the foreign nations and their leaders. The “shields of the earth” essentially refers to the same people as the term “princes” (47:9). Although there is some disagreement about the meaning of verse 9 it seems to make the remarkable statement that these leaders and their people gather with Israel and are identified also as “the people of the God of Abraham.”


Notes:

1 Commentary first published on this site on May 29, 2014.

2 J. Clinton McCann, Jr. “The Book of Psalms,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IV (Ed. Leander E. Keck; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), p. 870.


Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 1:15-23

Lucy Lind Hogan

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians opens with a loving prayer.1

He has heard how they are fulfilling the commandment to love God and love their neighbor. And he has also heard that their faith in Jesus is strong. Shouldn’t that be all he can ask? But, as Paul would say, “By no means.” He reminds them that they have only begun their journey and I take comfort in and am encouraged by the fact that, given all of that he knows about the church in Ephesus, still he prays that Jesus will give them “a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him” (Ephesians 1:17).

Paul’s prayer reminds us that learning to know Jesus does not happen all at once. Rather, it happens slowly over time, perhaps over our life times. As we reflect upon the portrait of the risen and ascended Christ painted by Paul, may the eyes of our hearts be enlightened — what a beautiful image.

Who is this man Jesus? It was the question asked at the beginning of his ministry by the disciples of John the Baptizer. It was the question Mary asked as she stood at the foot of the cross and outside the empty tomb. It was the question asked by the disciples throughout their journey with Jesus and as they stood on the hillside in Bethany watching as was carried up into heaven. It was the question asked by Paul on the road to Damascus. And it has been the question asked by everyone who has followed in the footsteps of Mary, Peter, and Paul. Who is this man Jesus?           

The gospels present us with the portrait of the man Jesus. A man who walked, talked, ate with friends, was angry with religious leaders, and who scolded his students. In a way, this is the man with whom we can relate because we also walk, talk, eat, are angry, and become frustrated with friends and foe alike.

But with the resurrection and ascension we must come to know and come to terms with the risen, the cosmic Christ who is “seated at the right hand in the heavenly places” (1:20). It is this Christ that Paul describes for his sisters and brothers in Ephesus. It is this Christ that Paul met on the road to Damascus; we must remember that he never walked the roads of Palestine with the man Jesus.

Far above place
Paul uses the metaphor of place to help us to understand that the man Jesus, who had walked the roads of earth, was no longer limited to that earth-bound existence. Think back to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Following his baptism in the river Jordan, Jesus was tempted by the devil. In the second temptation the devil led Jesus “up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world … “To you I will give their glory and all this authority” (Luke 4:5-6.) But Jesus would not worship the devil, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” (Luke 4:8). Through the power of God Jesus is now far above everything.

And what place is that? The risen Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Throughout the scriptures we are reminded that this is the place of highest honor and veneration. Seated in the heavenly place Christ is now able to see “in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.” You might take a look at the portrait of our world taken by the crew of Apollo 17 on December 7, 1972. This portrait of our earth, that has come to be known as the “Blue Marble,” gives us that distance, that sense of the “heavenly places,” the ability to see “all the kingdoms of the world.”

Far above power
Paul also reminds us that the man from lowly Nazareth — “can anything good come from Nazareth” (John 1:46) — is now far above all earthly powers. Paul wants to make sure that we understand that the power given to the risen Christ cannot compare with anything on earth so he names them all, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion” (Ephesians 1:21). Kings, queens, presidents, prime ministers, dictators, emperors, tyrants, czars — the risen Christ is far above them all.

Paul also uses the images of enthronement to remind us that God has put all things under Christ’s feet and “has made him the head over all things” (1:22). We are to grow in our knowledge and understanding of the one whose power is limitless.

Far above time
And finally, Paul reminds us that the risen Christ is far above the most limiting of all, time. We are captive to our limited time on this earth, this blue marble, but not the risen Christ. Our Lord Jesus is “above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come” (1:21). Christ is “the Alpha and the Omega,” the one “who is and who was, and is, and who is to come” (Revelation 1:8). As John sang at the opening of his gospel:

He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him,
And without him not one thing came into being.
What has come into being in him was life,
And the life was the light of all people (John 1:2-4).

Hope and riches
Far above place, power, time, and yet Christ is Emmanuel, God with us. Fully God, fully man, Paul wants the church in Ephesus to come to know the risen Christ so that they may fully know who they are and the life that lies before them. He wants them to appreciate the hope that is theirs. He wants them to appreciate the riches of their inheritance. He wants them to understand how Christ’s power is working in and through them each and every day. And I believe that Paul wanted us to know the same. We too have been given that hope and those riches as we come to know the risen and ascended Christ.


Notes

1 Commentary first published on May 12, 2013.