Lectionary Commentaries for May 29, 2014
Ascension of Our Lord

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 24:44-53

Richard Swanson

The disciples walking to Emmaus have hurried back to Jerusalem and reported their experience.

In the midst of their report, Jesus himself joins them and asks for something to eat. What comes next links Jesus (and Christianity) to Jewish faith and practice. Rabbi Ben Bag-Bag, a rough contemporary of Jesus, said that the proper response to any situation was to “turn the Torah and turn it, for everything is in it.” In the face of circumstances that confuse, confound, and complicate everything, faithful Jews read Scripture, and read it again, and read it yet again.

That is what Luke’s storyteller presents to us: in the course of a story about great joy that will come to all people, the messiah is killed by Roman imperial force. Now this same messiah has returned: to life, to Jerusalem, and to the regular practice of eating with his disciples. Luke’s storyteller shows him turning Scripture and turning it, replicating the practice that exercised the early Christian community and gave it theological shape.

Luke argues that resurrection is key to the work of God (and God’s messiah) in the world. Rome can indeed crucify. In crushing the First Jewish Revolt (66-73CE), Rome crucified thousands of Jews. Luke’s audience would have known that; they probably even knew people (even relatives) who had been crucified. Roman violence can even kill the messiah, that agent of God’s restorative purpose in the world, but now Rome faces a God who can raise the dead to life.

Jacob Jervell, in his study of the book of Acts (Die Apostelgeschichte, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1998), notes that the hope of resurrection is central to Luke. Luke is arguing, says Jervell, that any other view isn’t even Jewish. This is partly a continuation of an old, passionate argument about what counts as Scripture: not just the Pentateuch (as the Sadducees argued), but also the prophets and the writings (agreeing with the Pharisees). It is also a new and passionate argument about what the crushing of the Jewish revolt means for the positions held by collaborationist Sadducees. And it is an argument about how it is possible to hope in a world in which Rome has such power.

Luke recognizes the shock that faithful Jews felt when Rome destroyed the Temple and along with it Jewish hopes. Luke is arguing that the experience of the Jewish people is embodied also in the career path of the messiah, and that this path is first described in Scripture. Jewish faith has always been a faith that expected life out of death, and the crushing of the Jewish revolt, seen through the lens of the story Luke tells about the messiah, is simply another exemplification of the old pattern of living a life of hope so durable that even death cannot kill it.

Luke even goes so far as to expect that the raising of hope out of death and destruction will bring about change-of-mind (metanoia, usually translated as “repentance”) for the Gentiles. This is not a bland statement of some kind of Christian universalism, and it certainly is not grounds for Gentile Christian supersessionism. Luke is telling his story in the ruins of the Temple, in the ruins of Jewish life and hope, in a world in which Gentiles, the children of Esau, create chaos and deadly violence at will. In this dangerous world Luke says that, because Jewish faith believes in resurrection, even Gentile enemies will be raised to change-of-mind and will participate in the reunification of all of God’s Creation.

This is no small, spiritual hope. This is no abandonment of Jewish forms of messianic hope of a world transformed. Quite the contrary: Luke stands in the ruins of the Temple and reclaims the old hope of real transformation. This hope goes back to Isaiah and the Exile, goes back also to Ezekiel standing in the valley of dry bones. In Ezekiel, the prophet stands in a valley full of the bones of Jews killed by Gentiles and receives a promise of a rebirth of hope that had been clean cut off.

Luke stands in the midst of a similar scene of slaughter. Luke promises a raising and re-gathering of all of God’s Creation, even from among the enemy who brought destruction to the Jewish center of the world. This is real audacity. It will require metanoia, that basic change of heart that changes everything. It will require that Gentile enemies become something basically different than they have ever been, namely, allies in place of enemies. Luke presents this as the consequence of what you should expect out of a faith that refuses to see even death as a hindrance to the keeping of God’s promises.

This may be too much. Every one of us has heard expressions of pointless Pollyanna-like “faith” that imagines that all you have to do is smile and be cheery and perky and plucky and everything will turn out great. The gospel of perkiness is finally no gospel at all. If Luke were simply exhorting people to be happy, I would find his story repellent. The world does not need more phony smiles, more desperate cheerfulness.

But Luke is up to something stronger. He makes this clear when he has Jesus direct his gathered followers to wait in Jerusalem and begin from there. At our distance in time and memory, we forget what this would have meant. Luke’s first audience would not have had access to that lazy luxury. Jerusalem was a smoking ruin. Elie Wiesel, standing in the ashes of European civilization says what Jews in Luke’s audience would have recognized as their own words: Never will I forget. His words from his book, Night, are worth quoting at length:

Never- will I forget this night, the first night in the camp, it will remain with me as being the longest night in my life. Never- will I forget the smoke. Never- will I forget the small faces of the children before my eyes, whose bodies rose up like coils of smoke, into the blue heavens. Never- will I forget the flames, that consumed my faith forever. Never- will I forget the silence in the night, that took my lust for life away- for all eternity. Never- will I forget the moment that killed my God, and my soul and my dreams- which took on the face of the depraved. Never- will I forget even if I am sentenced to live as long as God: Never!!

Luke’s Jewish audience would also remember the coils of smoke that rose from the flames of Jerusalem; Luke’s audience would have had relatives among the dead, listed by ancient sources as numbering a million. Luke expects the raising-to-life to start there. Luke expects even Gentiles to be included in God’s act of re-Creation. The text for this Sunday raises our eyes to see this audacious faith. Such faith takes my breath away. The text for this Sunday leaves me to wait for Pentecost for breath to come back.

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).

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.


Commentary on Psalm 47

Jerome Creach

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

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.1

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 worshippers 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.”


  1. 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

James Boyce

If the assigned reading is to provide any clues, then an important aspect of the marking of the festival of the Ascension of our Lord is thanksgiving and awe. 

Thanksgiving for what God has done in Jesus our Lord, and awe at the amazing power that God has bestowed on our Lord, all for the sake of the church — and we are that church!

Whether the writing is to be ascribed to Paul or not, the words of this reading from the opening chapter of the letter to the Ephesians follow upon one of the most beautiful and amazing doxologies in the New Testament. Strung together in what is in the original only one long breath-taking sentence (1:3-13), we hear the mind-boggling sweep of the story of salvation, punctuated on three occasions with interjected praises of God’s glory (6, 12, 14) and culminating in the good news of salvation and the redemption of God’s people. It is the fulfillment of God’s promises and all in accord with God’s will to gather up everything in the universe in Jesus Christ.

Launched by this grand salvo, the author now directs attention to the marvelous status of those who have heard and responded to this good news of salvation. Again, whether or not from Paul himself, the opening words imitate almost verbatim his thanksgiving in his letter to Philemon (cf. 1.15-17 with Philemon 5-6). With beautiful rhetorical flourish, the author expresses his ongoing thanks, doubly focused by the key attributes of faith and love: thanks for the faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and thanks for the expressions of love directed toward the community of believers.

This unceasing thanksgiving is paired with an equally unceasing attitude of prayer on behalf the hearers. Along the way we are given a fascinating and profound clue as to the identity of the God to whom this prayer is addressed: this God is 1) the God of our Lord Jesus Christ and 2) the Father of glory. That Jesus is “our” Lord invites us to acknowledge our standing alongside this Jesus, through whom God’s salvation has been worked. Finally, that this God is the “God of glory” picks up a theme that has been sounded frequently in this opening chapter. God’s “glory” is to be seen in this: the grace by which God fulfills God’s promises in accordance with God’s will (see 1.6, 12, 14, 17, 18).

In addition to establishing the important identity of God, the prayer’s addressee, the author lets us in on the content of his ongoing prayers on behalf of the hearers. Fulfillment of the prayer will be seen in ones who have “the eyes of their heart enlightened.” The image of hearts with eyes is at once creative and provocative in its blending of multiple senses of both “seeing” and “the heart.” Just what would it look like to be people who see not just through the physical gift of sight, but can “see” into the deeper implications of God’s ways of salvation in Jesus Christ, implications visible only to those whose hearts are open to the working of God’s glory and grace in their individual stories.

Such a gift of seeing with the heart contains a kind of wisdom that runs deeply and holds specific content that is at least three-fold. This wisdom is given to know 1) the hope that belongs to those who have been called by God in Christ Jesus; 2) the magnificently rich inheritance that belongs to all those whom God has called; and 3) the immeasurable greatness of God’s power at work in those who believe in Christ Jesus — each of these refrains escalating in their sense of greatness and power (1:17-19). They culminate finally in the reference to that power which God has “energized” (“put to work” NRSV) in Christ when he raised him from the dead and then “made him to sit at his right hand in the heavenly places” (1:19-20).

Ascension, then, is ultimately about awesome power. With the reference to Christ’s being seated at God’s right hand in the heavenly places the author initiates a veritable whirlwind of agents and positions of power which now belong to Christ. His ascension to power is simply an extension of the work of salvation which has been accomplished in God’s raising Jesus from the dead.

Resurrection and ascension belong together as aspects of the same salvation story. The author strains to name and characterize the majestic nature of this power — it is not just “above” but “far above” (1.21; in the original, not just ano, but hyper-ano); it transcends all measures of space, identity, and time (“above every rule, authority, power, and dominion; above every name that could be named; and not only in this present age, but also in the ages to come”).

One could imagine that the author has just about said it all, has grasped about as much as could be said about the power and majesty couched in the ascension to power of our resurrected Lord. We could be forgiven if about now we might say, enough, already; just give me a chance to catch a breath and take it all in, should that even be possible.

But one last salvo remains, at first glance simply a summation and repetition of all that has been said to this point: “he has put all things under his feet and has made him head over all things.” And then comes an unanticipated surprise; if our attention were to falter, or the eyes of our heart were to become glazed over with the majesty of it all, we could almost miss it.

Both in the original Greek and in the NRSV the surprise comes in that one last word of verse 22 — it is “for the church.” All of this glory and majesty, all of this power that belongs to the Christ in his Ascension to God’s right hand, has from the beginning had only one purpose and goal in God’s wondrous exercise of glory — it is for the church; it is for you. Suddenly all of God, all of God in Christ, and all of salvation is handed over and placed in your lap. For you are the church; and it’s about you.

And “the church is his body.” Is this Paul, or another who writes? At least one thing is clear. Here in the image of the church as Christ’s body we are either venturing upon a fantastic new thought or a completely new departure from the image of the “body” as introduced in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (see 1 Corinthians 12).

There the body consists of “many members” whose diverse gifts are unified in care and support for one another. Here the “body” is an extension of the Lord, and, in a completely mystifying concluding phrase, described as “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (1:23). The doublet of both “fullness” and “all” is like taking “fullness” and “all” and pressing them to the nth degree by multiplying them by themselves.

It is perhaps an ancient way of imagining infinity, the biggest number, the most magnificent reality that can be imagined, and then ascribing it to the church into which now all the glory of God in the resurrection of Jesus Christ has been poured. Are the “eyes of your heart” ready to even try to imagine what that might mean?