Lectionary Commentaries for May 5, 2016
Ascension of Our Lord

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 24:44-53

Barbara Lundblad

“The Nurturing Place” was a day care center in Jersey City.

Few people would have heard of it if Anna Quindlen hadn’t taken us there in her newspaper column. The center, run by Roman Catholic sisters, welcomed children whose families were homeless, families with no addresses. One day the sisters took the children to the Jersey shore. The 3 and 4 year olds scrambled up the sandy dunes, falling and giggling their way to the top of what must have seemed like mountains to their little legs. When they got to the top, they could hardly believe their eyes: water as far as they could see — more water than they had ever seen. They slid down the dunes and ran to the ocean’s edge. They chased the waves that teased their toes. Then they went off for a picnic in a nearby park. After lunch they begged to go back to the dunes. One little boy named Freddie outran the rest and climbed his way to the top. He looked out, then turned to the others and shouted, “It’s still there!”1

In Freddie’s short life, so much had disappeared — even the ocean could disappear over lunch. We’re older and wise enough to know the ocean is there even when we’re not looking. But we’re not so sure about other things. We may feel a bit like the poet who said: you discover that “ … you live in a different place though you have never moved.” We’re scrambling up the sandy dunes, trying to find a place that will hold.

Jesus’ disciples must have felt the earth slipping beneath their feet at the thought of being left alone. Again. It had been a roller coaster ride of emotions since they followed Jesus into Jerusalem — hope, fear, death, and then the unbelievable presence of Jesus — no longer dead, but alive. But they knew he wouldn’t stay. Indeed, Jesus speaks as though he’s already gone: “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you … ” Isn’t he still with them? His words must have seemed very confusing. Then Jesus opened their minds to understand the scriptures and interpreted the meaning of all that had taken place. He had done the same thing with two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Now Jesus promises even more than scripture: “See, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”

What did he mean? What was this “power from on high”? Jesus doesn’t say “Holy Spirit” here, but he does in Luke’s second volume, the book of Acts: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1: 8) This is the same Spirit that rested on Jesus at his baptism, the same Spirit that anointed Jesus to preach good news to the poor and freedom for the oppressed. This same “power from on high” would now be given to the disciples and by extension, to us. This is a gift from beyond ourselves — not the same as “team spirit” or conscience or inner peace or anything we create on our own.

But how can we speak of something we have never seen? Could the Spirit be anything we imagine? In John’s gospel Jesus compared the Spirit to the wind — you hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes. Though we cannot see the Spirit, we can see where the Spirit has been. There’s a wonderful woodcut of Jesus’ ascension by Albrecht Durer. If you look closely at the picture — not up in the clouds, but on the ground — you can see footprints on the earth. Durer has carefully outlined Jesus’ footprints down on the level where the disciples are standing with their mouths open. Perhaps the artist was simply imagining a detail that isn’t in the text. Or perhaps, he is asking us, “Why do you stand looking up into heaven?”

Look at Jesus and we will see where the Spirit has been: Jesus’ feet carried him where others wouldn’t go, brought him to tables surrounded by odd companions, gathered children on his lap, and questioned the disparities between the wealthy and the poor.

Theologians haven’t had an easy time talking about the Spirit. They’ve talked far more about God the Father and God the Son. Theologian Elizabeth Johnson says, “Perhaps at the end of their long treatises, they simply got tired.”2 Sometimes, they forgot about the Holy Spirit all together. “This is a shame,” says Johnson, “for what is being neglected is nothing less than the mystery of God’s personal engagement with the world … the mystery of God closer to us than we are to ourselves.”3 This is staying power.

The Spirit is something rather than nothing. Look at the life of Jesus to see where the Spirit has been — leaves moving, then still upon the tree, nailed down. But the story didn’t end there. God breathed into lifeless clay and brought Jesus forth from the tomb. And when the risen Jesus appeared to his disciples, he said: “Stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” From now on, Jesus says, I will be with you in the power of the Spirit. Though I am leaving, you will not be left alone. This is staying power.

The Spirit that anointed Jesus anoints us, still breathes with us and surprises us. Still reshapes the community called the church. If we forget and imagine that we’re in this all by ourselves, if we trust only in our own efforts, I hope we’ll hear a little boy named Freddie calling out to us: “It’s still there!”


Anna Quindlen, “Public & Private; Social Conscience” (New York Times: April 4, 1991).

Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God I Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad, 1993) 128.

Johnson, 131.

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.

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.”


Commentary on Psalm 47

Paul O. Myhre

Affirmations of faith are varied across cultures and traditions.

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 worshipped by the people of God. This is a word of assurance that can breathe hope and comfort into lives that long for both.

1 NY Times, March 12, 2011 http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/13/weekinreview/13water.html?_r=0

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 1:15-23

Sarah Henrich

The earlier preaching studies for this passage gathered here in Working Preacher surely offer us part of the “wisdom and revelation” given by the Spirit (Ephesians 1:17) to help the “eyes of our hearts” be opened more fully to both the immanent and heavenly presence of God in Christ throughout the cosmos.

I highly commend all the thoughtful and passionate work of those who have written on this Ascension passage. On the one hand, the sheer variety of emphases suggests the richness of the passage itself. On the other, that variety of informed and faithful exegesis has a theological basis: the riches of our inheritance are constituted by God’s yearning to be fully among us, each and all of us, at every time and place. The “immeasurable (verse 19) fullness of God encompasses all our concerns and questions because God is living and so are we, God’s people. The richness of the ways to hear and understand the gifts of God, the varieties of ways in which wisdom and revelation enable us to know God, can be a theme for preaching in its own right.

I wonder if our text from Ephesians might have been greeted with a little sigh of relief by those original hearers. The first section of chapter one is lush with images of our unshakeable connection with God through Christ. We hear several times of the inheritance as God’s own, marked by the seal of God’s promise, the Holy Spirit. It is a generous description of what God has already done and the wonders that await when all things in heaven and on earth are gathered up in Christ. These are exalted words, uplifting, powerful, and almost too much to take in.

In Ephesians 1:15, the writer turns to a series of I-statements that bring the truth about whose we are into the lives of his hearers. Although the writer expresses great gratitude for the faith of the believers and honors them as witnesses to their love of the Lord and one another, the writer prays that they may continue to be filled with wisdom and revelation for the sake of greater enlightenment, joy, and confidence in God. It is precisely the “immeasurable greatness” of God’s power, the mystery (verse 9) of God’s gracious will and generous benevolence, the sheer gratuitous, incomprehensible grace of God that offers believers opportunity for every deepening appreciation of the great gift they have received.

This is a wonderful message for Christians of every age and every gift. There is always more of God than we knew or could imagine. What we thought we had learned about faith and the love of God come home to us new and with more power as we move through the joys and struggles of our lives. It may be the case that “all I really needed to know I learned in kindergarten”1 but we are far beyond “need” in this passage. This writer speaks to people of faith for whom the blessing of rich relationship is a gift they will never fully plumb as long as they live. That’s good news.

In C.S. Lewis’ final book in the Narnia series,2 many of the characters move toward “heaven” in a remarkable run that becomes more thrilling and freeing as they are running—not the typical result of our earthly runs! “Further up and further in,” the runners cry to each other. In another evocative example of growth in the mystery of love, the lyrics of Greg Brown’s song “Further In” are remarkable. The final verse could be addressed to the Lord Jesus, whose life for us is, at his ascension, the very life of God:

further in, O my love, take me further in
past the place where love hides its face and down to where we begin
so deep in this mystery, my tears on yours depend
and they like some wild river flow as we go further in.3

This is not a song about internal focus versus external, anymore than the writer of Ephesians is focusing on celestial geographic directions, up and down. Its again about the mystery of love, graciously poured out on us, even more graciously beckoning us to know more and more the One to whom we belong and to whom our sisters and brothers in faith likewise belong.

A believer dares to rest secure in the promises of an invisible God for reasons that are poetically described in Ephesians 1:20-23. The writer lists all the kinds of power which might lay heavy on the lives of most inhabitants of the Roman world (rule, authority, power, dominion) and declares that Jesus has been raised so far beyond these powers that they cannot touch him. How important a word of reassurance that would be for followers of one who had been crucified by the Roman imperial powers. Being raised from death meant that all earthly powers had been rendered powerless, foolish even. Secondly, quite unlike the constant shifting of powers in this age (that is, this time of earth’s life), Jesus is united with God in purpose and beneficence now and in the future.

Finally in these verses we come to the mystery of our connection to God in Christ. Jesus Christ has been made the “head” or kephale of all things “for” the church. This use of kephale can well be understood as “source” rather than authority. Rather than “head of staff” or “headmaster,” kephale makes more sense as the head in headwaters. It is the source from which flows all that he is, his “body,” the “fullness of him” which fills all in all. Jesus raised to God’s presence is like the headwaters of the Mississippi that now expands to fill, shape, even become his people.

We are the people of the flood in a very different way from Noah and his family. Jesus has broken the levees, the dykes, and he has overflowed all things for the life of his church which may live “in praise of his glory.” (Ephesians 1:14). This is a dangerous image for many of those who come to church on Sunday morning. Perhaps a more accessible image is that of a spring that flows into and becomes a river. The spring water is still there, still part of that larger stream and not separable from it. It is the spring that is the source and substance of the river.

We can sympathize with the writer who so passionately wanted the letter’s recipients to realize and become ever more imbued with their new reality, their being flooded with the love of God to press a metaphor a little too hard. We are not always a people much inclined to poetry which is almost demanded for expression of such great mysteries. We are a people who love music and know some few moments of inexpressible clarity about gratitude and joy. Perhaps either of those can help open up the incredible reality of our inheritance that we most often domesticate and tame.


  1. Robert Fulghum, All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, New York: Random House Publishing, 1986.
  2. C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle, 1956.
  3. Greg Brown, “Further In,” http://www.gregbrown.org/gbfurth1.html#further, accessed February 12, 2016.