Lectionary Commentaries for May 21, 2020
Ascension of Our Lord

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 24:44-53

Jennifer T. Kaalund

Electronic devices die, or at least that is how we describe what happens when their batteries have no power.

We connect them to chargers for a period of time in order for them to be able to function again. Charging is an ongoing process. However, many of us may not know that there is an optimum period of time that a device should charge in order to maximize the battery’s life expectancy. For a laptop, it is 24 hours and for most smart phones it is a minimum of 3 hours. You cannot simply pull your device from the box and start to use it. If you get a little eager and use it before it has been fully charged, you are negatively impacting it future ability to perform. In other words, you will shorten the life expectancy of your battery if you do not allow the initial charge to be optimal. I think this analogy may be instructive for understanding the impact of Jesus’ ascension on the disciples.

Remembering: Whose report will you believe?

Isaiah 53:1 states: “Who has believed our report? And to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?” These questions are posed in the context of the description of the suffering servant. These questions seem pertinent for Luke 24. At the beginning of Luke 24, there is an empty tomb.

Two men in dazzling clothes ask the women: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen” (24:5). The women, Joanna, Mary, Mary Magdalene return to the disciples to tell them what they witnessed, but the disciples did not believe them. They did not believe the report of the women. Their eyes were not yet open to the truth of the resurrection.

The women’s witness is associated with an act of remembering. Though remembering is often associated with death, it is at the same time a life-affirming action. To be remembered enables life to be continued in a way. Funerals are replete with remembrances. It is as though we have to look back in order to move ahead. I think it is significant that the gospel writer states: “Then they remembered his words.” After remembering what Jesus had taught them, the women at the tomb realized that he, indeed was not dead.

Even after his death, Jesus continues to teach his disciples. On the way to Emmaus, Peter and Cleopas encounter the risen Christ. After Jesus blesses and breaks the bread “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished.” (23:31). When Jesus appears to them again, he reminds them of the words that he spoke “while I was still with you.” They are instructed to remember. Jesus’ teaching  “opens their minds to understand the scriptures.” Remembering can open our eyes and minds. This was all done in preparation for the opening of their hearts in order to receive the Holy Spirit.

Jesus takes the disciples out of Jerusalem to bless them. They are away from the city when Jesus is carried up into the heavens. However, their return to Jerusalem brings this gospel full circle. Jerusalem is a central character in Luke-Acts. In Luke 2:22 Mary and Joseph take Jesus to Jerusalem “to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord).” In the temple they encountered a man named Simeon who took baby Jesus “in his arms and praised God, saying “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32). Here, at the end of Luke, the disciples return to Jerusalem “with great joy” and they, too, go into the temple and praise God for their eyes have seen our salvation.

A season of preparation

Jesus instructs the disciples to stay in the city. Reading Jesus’ instruction to the disciples through our own experiences of sheltering in place sheds new light on the necessity of waiting. Now Jesus has been carried up into the heavens and the disciples are waiting “until you have been clothed with power from on high.” There is no indication in the text that they knew how long they would have to wait. It seems that the Holy Spirit could have descended on them at the same moment that Jesus was leaving, but instead they are sent back to Jerusalem to wait.

Waiting is rarely easy and it can be even more difficult to endure when you do not know when the end will be. The beginning of Acts provides a glimpse into what was happening. The writer describes the group as together and unified, 120 people who spent their time praying and waiting. This time of preparation equipped the disciples to go out and spread the gospel, enabling the church to grow.

While they were waiting, they questioned when would Israel be redeemed? And just as suddenly as Jesus leaves, the Spirit descends. The disciples may not have experienced this waiting time as a time of preparation. Perhaps this is only apparent in hindsight. Yet, this season of waiting seemed necessary. Much like we must wait to fully charge our devices, the disciples likewise had to wait to be clothed with power. If their initial “charge” had not been full, they would not have been able to operate at their optimal levels.

Eastertide is a journey to Pentecost. Forty days after Jesus’ resurrection, he ascends into heaven. During this season we reflect upon his life, death, and resurrection. We remember that though he has gone to heaven, he does not leave us alone. Our eyes, minds, and hearts are once again opened in order to receive the Holy Spirit, our comforter and our guide.

There is no power without a season of preparation, without a period of waiting. May we be empowered to do the work of the Lord as we are reminded, that this promised gift of God’s presence will always be worth the wait.  

First Reading

Commentary on Acts 1:1-11

Frank L. Crouch

The book of Acts begins by reminding its reader, Theophilus, of an earlier book — the Gospel of Luke (Luke 1:1-4), placing the reader in the midst of an extended story with Jesus at the center.1

The first book portrays Jesus — the crucified, risen, and ascended redeemer — in the context of a drastic condensation of world history. It begins with a story of miraculous events, births, and prophecies that interrupt the lives of a young Joseph and Mary and an older, related Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1-2) who live under the rule of the dominant empire of the first century. From these couples come John the Baptist, who proclaims that the reign of God is near, and Jesus, who brings that reign to fulfillment (Luke 3-4). The rest of the book illustrates how Jesus’ story reinterprets all other stories, tracing the roots of his ministry through the history of Israel, the Temple, prophets, the Law, patriarchs and matriarchs, all the way back to Adam, and to God (Luke 3:23-38).

The second book, Acts, retains its links to this primal history and describes a new, equally primal history. The book also begins with a small family, brothers and sisters in Christ, living under the rule of that same empire. As the Holy Spirit empowers them, they will become Christ’s “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The reader is welcomed into this narrative with its own miraculous events, rebirths, and prophecies that will interrupt and transform individuals and communities. From the start, these people overcome severe opposition and find the joy of life God intended from the beginning, enduring into the future.

Through the opening interchange between Jesus and the apostles, Acts reminds its readers of their grounding in a central element of history — God created us for life and preserves us. “After [Jesus’] suffering he presented himself alive to them” (Acts 1:3). Because he has life, we have life. No matter how relentlessly the world seeks to lead us astray or frighten us with the threat of death, or even if Jesus physically departs from the earth, the Holy Spirit keeps alive God’s purposes and brings God’s life-giving power.

If those purposes seem empty or that power seems absent, at times we serve best by waiting (Acts 1:4-5). In our current American culture, “waiting” is generally held as something to be avoided. Fast food, next day deliveries, nonstop flights, Google searches that take milliseconds, on-demand movies, text messaging, and so on all create a culture of impatience. Not that these are all bad, but Acts reminds us that the God of all time acts on God’s own time, and sometimes we just need to wait, sit, and be.

While we wait, Acts reminds us not to assume we already know what we’re waiting for. When Jesus returns to the disciples as promised, they essentially ask, “We already know what you’re going to do. When will you do it?” The people of God have a long tradition, continuing today, of believing we can predict God’s next steps. Acts is a story of surprises, best exemplified when Peter reminds a crowd of God’s admonition, first delivered by Habakkuk, “in your days I am doing a work, a work that you will never believe, even if someone tells you” (Acts 13:41, Habakkuk 1:5). Although we benefit from certainty in our faith, it helps to remember that God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:9).

Along those lines, it is not clear that the disciples were expecting Jesus to be lifted up and taken out of sight. From the first book until now — first surprise, Jesus is crucified; second, he is risen; third, he’s back eating and talking; fourth, he is gone again. The exact nature of what “ascension” was or how it fits with a scientific worldview — these get no more explanation in Acts than resurrection does in the rest of the New Testament. Whatever it was, it aligns with a slender thread through scripture, found in Elijah’s chariot of fire disappearing into a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11) or possibly in Paul’s talk of someone caught up to the third heaven (2 Corinthians 12:1-4). Luke and Acts both describe the ascension (Luke 24:50-51, Acts 1:9), along with other boundary-crossing glimpses into divine realities: transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36), the wind and fire of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13), Stephen’s pre-martyrdom vision of Christ (Acts 7:55), the complementary visions of Saul on the road to Damascus and Ananias, who welcomed him after he arrived (Acts 9:1-19), Peter’s visionary conversation with God over new dietary laws (Acts 10:9-16), and so on.

Skepticism about such experiences did not begin with the scientific revolution, nor is it without its merits. Both Old and New Testaments warn about false prophets and advise caution in the face of claims of revelation, even in Luke and Acts (Luke 21:8, Acts 13:6-11). At the same time, similar stories permeate both scripture and the lives of believers today. When God does something radical against expectations or out of sync with cherished traditions and practices, God uses every means available to get a new point across. Throughout Acts, along with boundary-crossing experiences, God also acts through the basic stuff of spiritual life — praying (33 times from 1:4-28:8), worshipping (13:2, 16:14, 18:7, etc.), reading scripture (1:16, 8:32-35, 17:1-15, etc.), teaching (18:24-8, etc.), and so on. Acts is not simply a book of surprises; it is also an account of how communities discern truth in light of difficult and unusual experiences as they seek to stay open to God’s higher ways.

Though, as mentioned above, Acts has moments where the people are advised to wait, it is foremost a record of people and God in motion. Luke and Acts show how people, based on all that Jesus did and taught and all the Spirit empowers them to do, act where they are and wherever God calls them to go. And, so, the two men in white robes say to Jesus’ followers, “People wherever you are, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? It’s time to move.”


  1. Commentary first published on this site on May 5, 2016


Commentary on Psalm 47

Paul O. Myhre

Affirmations of faith are varied across cultures and traditions.1

How one articulates what is central or core to their belief system varies depending on a countless range of factors—age, gender, knowledge, experience, and so on. Here the Psalmist breathes in and breathes out what is foundational to the tradition. It is an air of life, a breath of heaven, and a breeze that coalesces with the hearts and minds of the people of God. The Psalmist speaks the word that calls to mind that which is already known—God is the source and preserver of all.

In five verses the Psalmist provides a miniature Torah—God is creator, preserver, and lawgiver and as such is the one with whom one can align their trust, offer their praise and worship, and obey God’s laws. The God who creates is the one who creates possibilities when none are evident. The God who gives laws provides them to people so that they might flourish in every way that a human being can flourish. The one who is an ever-present help is the one who can give certainty to people who live in places that are uncertain, unhealthy, and latticed with threats to their own security.

Five verses are breathed out that speak of a familiar reality that is somehow beyond familiarity. The Lord reigns and the world is a secure place on which people may thrive. Yet the experience of the world suggests that it is anything but secure or be regarded as a place for thriving. For people of any age there is always the common song of war, rumors of war, and threats to human stability and thriving. Here the Psalmist utters five short stanzas of affirmation about God—and the order of the world in which people live.

Yahweh is melek—king. For people in contemporary North America the notion of a king may not resonate well. It brushes against our ears like rough sandpaper and may not offer a depth of comfort. A democracy is not envisioned here. It is the clear order of a king that has everything in control. This is a faith statement that can grab hearer’s imaginations and roil settled waters.

God is king. But the king’s garments defy simple explanation. The writer doesn’t provide details. One word in Hebrew is ge’ah, which is derived from gaah, is translated into English as “majesty.” Yet one might also translate the word as “exalted.” If so, perhaps the word might connect hearer’s imaginations with the thought of God dwelling on a high mountain or in the heavens themselves and wrapped in a garment of exaltation. One might also conceive of the garment as the entire creation that this creator king has made—full of majesty and armed with strength. The one who sets planets in orbit around suns and suns in their courses around galaxies is surely one who is strong enough to deal with the day-to-day events of the people of God.

What difference might it make to anyone that God is robed in majesty and armed with strength? If God wasn’t dressed in majesty and strong enough to face any adversary, could this God be one worthy of praise or worship? The Psalmist makes a declaration that assures uncertain feet that the ground on which they walk is secure. Perhaps this is enough to face the trials and difficulties associated with the present or foreseeable future. Maybe that is enough of an assurance that God’s capacity is greater than any other force’s capacity to thwart. It can breathe confidence into uncertain hearts.

Anyone who has spent time near or on the ocean knows something of its strength and the audible volume of waves as they crash on the shore. The sound can be deafening. Generated by wind and tidal movement ocean waves can reach great heights before colliding with shorelines. The weight of an average wave is massive. The weight of water is approximately 8 lbs. per gallon. In a 2011 New York Times article entitled “The Destructive Power of Water” Kenneth Chang wrote, “A cubic yard of it, filling what at first glance seems a modest volume of 3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet, weighs nearly 1,700 pounds, as much as the Smart micro car. And when water is moving at 30 or 40 miles an hour … the heaviness of water turns deadly. Imagine 1,700 pounds hitting you at that speed, and each cubic yard of water as another 1,700 pounds bearing down on you. The destructiveness of a tsunami is not just one runaway car, but a fleet of them.”1

The people of the Mediterranean world were familiar with the power of the sea and the people of Israel generally were not known as seafaring people. The ocean or sea would have been a place of threat from a force greater than any foreign army. It was stronger than any one person or army of persons. The threat of death could echo in the waves as they crashed on the shore. Their sound could cause fear to rise and knees to weaken. But here the writer is intent on reflecting on the voice of the waves themselves. What do they say? What does this part of creation say about the one who created them?

The sea wave voice speaks a truth deeper than the depths of the ocean—God on high is mighty. God is strong. Here the voice of strength speaks to that which is strength. The artist hears the thunder of waves pounding rocks into sand and their voice proclaims a greater strength than that which they themselves possess.

The capacity of an artist—psalm writer—to hear something and reinterpret it for reflection is pressed to the front in these five verses. Questions could easily be the framework on which the poetry rests. The five verses in a sense could be read like a catechism. Who is God? God is king, powerful, and eternal. How strong is God? God is creator and mightier than the power of the ocean. Are God’s laws certain? God’s laws stand firm. Can we trust our life with this God? Is this God eternal? Is this God holy? In a sense, the questions that give rise to the Psalmist’s statement of faith is a declaration of assurance to a people who might be asking similar questions, but be afraid to speak them aloud. The waves speak affirmations of truth that combine with the Psalmist’s poetry to declare truths about the identity of the God who reigns and is worshiped by the people of God. This is a word of assurance that can breathe hope and comfort into lives that long for both.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on May 5, 2016.
  2. New York Times, March 12, 2011: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/13/weekinreview/13water.html?_r=0

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 1:15-23

Susan Hylen

Ephesians proclaims the exalted position of the resurrected Jesus as evidence of God’s power, the same power that is at work in the church.1

Like Ephesians 1:3-14, verses 15-23 are one long sentence in Greek. The subject of the sentence shifts seamlessly from thanksgiving for the faith of the Ephesian church to a prayer for their continued enlightenment (verse 16) to a confession of the authority and power God has given to Christ (verses 19-23).

The recipient church’s reputation for faith (verse 15) does not stop the author from petitioning God that they might increase in knowledge. He prays that God may grant them “a spirit of wisdom and revelation” (verse 17, NRSV). This prayer does not negate the faith the community already has, but reflects a tension that runs throughout the letter, in which the church occupies an exalted state as the body of Christ even as it remains in need of instruction and growth.

Throughout the letter, the author affirms that the church already occupies a high position, at the same time he calls them to attend to their spiritual advancement. On the one hand, the author later describes the church as being seated with Christ in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6). (This exalted description of the church is unique in the Pauline corpus and is one-reason scholars think the letter may be written by another author in Paul’s name.) On the other hand, even though it is Christ’s body, the church is instructed about its need to “grow up in every way into him who is the head” (4:15). Thus the image of the church as Christ’s body, which begins in 1:23, should not be taken as a simple equation of Christ and the church. Instead the author suggests that, as Christ’s body, the church needs to continually strive to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (4:1).

Because of this, the prayer for wisdom and knowledge of verse 17 is not simply a convention of prayer but is a real request that the church may grow in knowledge. The author prays specifically that the church might know three things (verses 18-19): the hope of their calling; their rich inheritance from God; and the power of God who raised Jesus from the dead and seated him in the heavens. Because the passage falls on Ascension of the Lord Sunday, these comments focus primarily on the third of these petitions.

Although the letter has already raised the topics of the believer’s hope in Christ (Ephesians 1:12) and the inheritance given by God through their adoption as children (1:14), these verses bring a new focus on the church’s knowledge of the power of God. The power of God is seen not only in the resurrection of Jesus (verse 20) but also in what happened after Christ rose from the dead. God seated him in the heavenly places and gave him power over other rulers and authorities (verses 20-22).

Christ is envisioned as being above all powers. The four words in verse 21—“rule and authority and power and dominion”—are roughly synonymous. The collection of them here is meant to suggest a power that is all encompassing. Although the power evoked thus supersedes any number of earthly or spiritual powers, the concern of the letter is less about human and political powers and more about spiritual forces. In Ephesians 2:2, the author reminds the audience that they formerly followed “the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient.” This ruler is a force that competes with Christ for human allegiance, which the readers formerly pursued. They know now that Christ triumphs over all forces or authorities that humans might follow.

Although the idols of our modern age differ somewhat from those of antiquity, contemporary readers certainly share in common idols like the pursuit of wealth and status above other considerations, and the arrogance of making one’s group identity superior to any other. Preachers may want to select one of these or some other specific “spiritual power” that the congregation will recognize as competing with their allegiance to God.

The passage thus lends itself to a view of Christ’s ascension as a tenet of the faith from which the church may draw strength. The idols of the world no longer hold sway. Although they certainly may appear powerful from our human perspectives, the reality revealed in Christ is that God has elevated Christ far above all of these other powers, so that allegiance is rightly directed to him.

The call is for the church to “know” God’s power as it is revealed in Christ. This Christ who is above all things is also the head of the church, which is his body (verses 22-23). The letter goes on to call the church to unity, a unity that is founded on Christ’s reconciling work (Ephesians 2:13-18). Unity is not achieved because the parts of the body are identical. The work of unity is active: the church must build itself up in love (Ephesians 4:16), without eliminating the differences of its members.

The concentrated language about strength and power in verses 19-22 returns in chapter 6 of the letter, where the church is called to “put on the whole armor of God” (Ephesians 6:1; cf. 6:13). In these later verses, the church is portrayed as joining in the struggle against rulers and authorities of the spiritual realm (Ephesians 6:12). Although Christ’s power above all other powers, the church is not to leave the battle to Christ, but participates actively by pursuing truth and peace and faith. In these prefatory remarks of chapter 1, the verses stress the overarching power of God that is visible in Christ, and positions Christ as the head of the body.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on May 14, 2015.