Lectionary Commentaries for May 12, 2013
Ascension of Our Lord

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 24:44-53

Mark Tranvik

As a pastor I used to dread preaching assignments on Ascension Day.

The texts seem so fantastic and otherworldly. How could I help people relate to the story of Jesus being taken away from his disciples and being lifted up into heaven? Would it not be better to move quickly past the Ascension and on to Pentecost and the founding of the Christian church? But this might be a bit rash. Properly considered, the story of Christ’s ascension can lead to a powerful proclamation of the gospel.

Lost in Space
Many interpreters get stuck on Luke 24:51 where it says Jesus “withdrew from them (his disciples) and was carried up into heaven.” This seems to imply that in order for the Ascension to make sense we need to embrace the three-story universe of the Bible. This reminds me of the Soviet-era cosmonaut who returned successfully from a mission in space and declared that he didn’t find God “up there” and thus all religion must be false. If we insist on operating within this framework, then our preaching on the Ascension will limp along and have very little impact on our listeners. 

It seems this text will make sense only when we shift the focus from a Jesus floating away on the clouds to what these verses are now saying about the relationship between Jesus and God. This implies a new understanding of heaven. Heaven is not so much a “place” but rather the human expression for where God resides. In other words, the meaning of the Ascension is wrapped up in the significance of Jesus now being with God. Just what are we saying when we affirm that Jesus is “sitting at the right hand of God” (Mark 16:19)?

Jesus and God
It can even be said that a new view of God is emerging in the biblical texts describing the Ascension. This is hinted at in Luke 24:52 where we read that the first act of the disciples was to worship Jesus after he was taken away to heaven. These followers of Christ, all pious Jews, know that God alone is to be worshiped. There is obviously a strong hint of the Trinity here. But for our purposes, it means it is no longer possible to talk about God without talking about Jesus. Our lens for thinking about God must always include a crucified, risen, and living Christ.

Most people (Christians included) seem to naturally lapse into a view of God that makes “sense” from a reasonable point of view. That is, God is imagined to be perfect in the sense that God is beyond all limitations of time and space. God is unchanging and all-powerful. God is majestic and sovereign and eternal. Of course it is possible to find Biblical passages to support these claims about God. It is not that they are wrong but rather they are incomplete. The God now being worshiped by the disciples in our passage is also one who knows loneliness, betrayal, rejection, thirst, and even death.

The ascension of Jesus into heaven alters our picture of God. We can no longer define God in a way that leaves God completely detached from human experience. The ascended Jesus, who sits at God’s right hand, reveals a God who is vulnerable and even approachable. When we turn to God in times of distress or temptation we are not addressing a deity aloof and unfamiliar with our struggles. God knows our trials intimately well and not only comforts us by identifying with our pain but also assures us that affliction will not have the final word because it is the risen and ascended Christ who intercedes for us and nothing can separate us from his love (Romans 8:34).

A Word of Forgiveness
Finally, a strong emphasis on forgiveness is implicit and explicit in our texts on the Ascension. Let us not lose sight of the fact that the very appearance of the resurrected Christ to his disciples is first and foremost a message of forgiveness. The ones who fled and denied Jesus are not reminded of their cowardice and faintness of heart. Rather his first words to his confused and bewildered followers are, “Peace be with you” (Luke 24:36). Moreover, this is not a word meant only for his closest companions during his earthly ministry. This radical word of mercy is to inform the entire mission of the disciples for he tells them “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:47).

And the ascension of Christ himself underlines this mission of mercy. It is often overlooked at the actual way that Jesus took leave of his followers. We are told that Jesus and his disciples go to Bethany where “…lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:50-51). Jesus’ departure to heaven is accompanied by a blessing of lifted hands. These are the very hands that still bore the wounds of one who was murdered on a Roman cross. He has commissioned the first witnesses of his ascension and then he provides them with a remarkable message of forgiveness. Let us remember that these witnesses themselves were complicit in his execution. But the last image of their betrayed leader is a dramatic sign of mercy.

First Reading

Commentary on Acts 1:1-11

Brian Peterson

The Ascension seems like the poor cousin among church festivals: often overlooked, passed over without being missed.

A few congregations will worship on the Thursday that comes 40 days after Easter. More congregations will observe the Ascension on the following Sunday, thus bumping the seventh Sunday of Easter from the calendar. Most, I suspect, will simply not observe it at all.

This seems like poor treatment for one of the great ecumenical feasts, and an event that the writer of Luke-Acts thought important enough to narrate twice. Perhaps the scene of Jesus ascending on a cloud is a bit too reminiscent of Peter Pan. Perhaps we just can’t tolerate too much worship spilling into the week. More likely, I suspect, we really don’t like good-byes, and we don’t know quite how to celebrate this one.

The author of Acts, as any master story-teller, narrates the ascension without stopping to explain its theological significance, but there are at least three claims narrated here that are worth homiletical attention. The first is that the ascension is the narrative portrayal of Luke’s pervasive claim that Jesus is Lord. This point becomes more explicit later in Acts. In 2:33, Jesus’ ascension is the reason that he can send the Holy Spirit. In Acts 5:31 it is because of his ascension that Jesus can give repentance and forgiveness.

The cloud in our text is not a heavenly elevator; it is, as often in the Bible, a sign of God’s presence (consider the pillar of cloud in Exodus, or the cloud that comes at Jesus’ transfiguration in Luke 9). If we ask “Where did Jesus go?” perhaps the only adequate answer is that Jesus went to the Father — not to a place “up there” somewhere — but to be with the Father in love and in power. The ascension into the cloud is Jesus’ welcome into the Father’s presence.

This is not, however, simply a return to the way things were before. The world has changed, because now Jesus is its enthroned Lord. That means that Caesar is not, nor are any of the powers, pursuits, or promises that vie for control of our lives. In the accounts of both the ascension and the empty tomb, we hear about two men in dazzling white robes, asking “Why are you looking…?” Thus there is good exegetical reason to turn to the claim of the ascension in our Easter season. The writer of Luke-Acts ties the two events together, because the ascension clarifies what the resurrection means.

It doesn’t mean that there is life after death; it isn’t even a promise that we’ll go to heaven when we die. To proclaim Jesus’ resurrection is to claim that God has exalted him — the same Jesus who welcomed the sinners, who suffered and died in shame and rejection by this world — as Lord and Messiah (2:36). Jesus is God’s promise and plan for the whole world, and neither death nor any of its minions are able to stop that.

The second theme highlighted in the ascension story is that the stage is now set for the giving of the Spirit. Jesus’ going to the Father means that the Spirit will be poured out on God’s people (see, again, Acts 2:33). For now, the disciples must wait to receive “power when the Holy Spirit has come upon” them (verse 8). The language here is reminiscent of Gabriel’s words to Mary in Luke 1. Both the Gospel and the book of Acts thus begin with God’s Spirit moving in the world to bring something new: in Luke 1, the birth of the Messiah, and in Acts 1, the birth of the church and its witness.

For such things, we must wait and trust in God’s promise. Perhaps, as is so often the case with us, the disciples see no need to wait. They ask if “now” is the time to restore the kingdom to Israel. Luke’s Gospel, particularly the joyous outbursts by Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon in the first two chapters, makes clear that what happens in Jesus will truly be the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel. But perhaps “restore” indicates a hope that is too small. What God has in mind is not just bringing Israel back to the “good ole’ days,” but bringing Israel to its yet-unrealized goal of being light to the whole world. The disciples may have thought they were on the verge of inheriting an old-style kingdom, when in fact they are at the edge of God’s mission to redeem all nations, a mission that will consume the rest of their lives (and ours).

Finally, this text is about the absence of Jesus (see 3:19-21). So, how do we live as Jesus’ followers without his visible, physical presence? The disciples have to be called away from staring up, in expectation and wonder, at where they last saw Jesus. They aren’t looking for the wrong thing (or, rather, the wrong person), but simply in the wrong place. “All that Jesus began to do and to teach” (verse 1; not clearly translated by NRSV, but see NIV or NET) doesn’t end with the ascension. The church continues to proclaim, to teach, to love, and to serve in Jesus’ name.

In the work of the Spirit (“the Spirit of Jesus”, 16:7) we encounter Jesus and what he continues to do. We aren’t left staring at where Jesus used to be (whether in history, or in our own life experiences, or in our supposedly settled opinions and interpretations). Not just although, but because he ascended, we continue to encounter Jesus through the preaching of the Word and the Sacraments, through the fellowship of the church, and through ministry with the poor and the oppressed. And because Jesus has ascended as our risen Lord, none of the other departures we experience (departures of relationships, of health, or of life itself) can harm us or rob us of God’s good promise. For that, we can and should celebrate The Ascension with praise and thanks.


Commentary on Psalm 47

Nancy Koester

Since ancient times Psalm 47 has been used for worship.

It is plain to see why Christians have used it on Ascension Day. “God has gone up with a shout” (47:5) brings to mind Jesus’ ascent into heaven. “The early church used the psalm to celebrate the ascension of Jesus, a practice that is commonly followed still in the liturgy of many churches,” observes biblical scholar James Luther Mays.1

Long before Easter, Psalm 47 had a place in Israel’s worship. It is an enthronement Psalm, not for an earthly king but for God. In Psalm 47, the LORD reigns. Psalm 47 proclaims that God is in heaven, ruling over earth.2 The Psalm summits in verse 5: “God has gone up with a shout, the LORD with the sound of the trumpet.” Some scholars have supposed that 47:5 envisions the entrance of God into the sanctuary, symbolized by the procession of the holy ark of the Covenant. In any case Psalm 47:5 “expresses the theological heart of the psalter, God reigns.”3

Psalm 47 may be divided into two sections. Verses 1-4 begin with the cue (or command) to clap, shout, and sing. Then we hear the reason for all this joy: God “subdued peoples” and “nations” and “chose our heritage” for God’s people. God made Israel into a nation with a name and a land to dwell in. “The pride of Jacob” (verse 4) refers to the land that God gave to the people, land which once belonged to other nations. In the New Testament, we find a similar expression: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy”(1 Peter 2:10). There is a before and an after, defined by the mighty acts of God.

Next comes the (literal) high point of the Psalm, verse 5 in which “God has gone up with a shout.” This may refer to a processional in worship, demonstrating that God is enthroned in the heavens. The theological meaning is that that God rules over all nations — indeed of the entire universe. Israel rejoiced in being God’s people, but also in knowing God as LORD of all, not just some local deity.

The second section of the Psalm, verse 6-9, continues the joy. In verse 6 alone, the people are told four times to sing. Here’s why: God is Lord over all the peoples. “God is king over the nations.” The kings and princes — those who wield power on earth — gather to worship God. If only we could hear this psalm instead of just read it, our ears would ring with a royal fanfare of trumpets, and the clapping, shouting and singing would be like waves crashing on the shore.

Above the joyful din come the clear notes of God’s mercy and power. In particular events in history, God is at work delivering and saving Israel. Yet in those specific acts of God, the general mercy and power of God are revealed for all nations. Since God rules overall, all who join in the worship become partakers of God’s blessings.

With this background in mind, it makes perfect sense that churches use Psalm 47 on Ascension Day. The obvious connection is that Christians applied “God has gone up with a shout” (Psalm 47:5) to Jesus being “lifted up” into the sky (Acts 1:9). But there is a deeper theological meaning, for “Jesus of Nazareth connected his career with the announcement of the reign of God (Mark 1:14-15),” observes James Luther Mays. Jesus’ whole life—his incarnation—embody for us the reign of God. The story of Jesus up to and including the ascension became for Christians a new point of reference for “celebration of God’s rule.”4

Likewise the text from Ephesians speaks of Christ “seated at God’s right hand in the heavenly places, far above all” earthly power. God has made Jesus’ feet “the head over all things for the church” (Ephesians 1:20-22). Therefore, the first Christians, though a small and endangered band, spread the Gospel with boldness. Christ’s ascension empowered them.

In the Gospel text the risen Jesus promises the disciples that they will be “clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). Luke says that Jesus was “carried up into heaven,” and the disciples “worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the Temple blessing God” (Luke 24:52). Perhaps the disciples used Psalm 47 to bless God in the Temple.

On the Ascension of Jesus, Psalm 47 imparts joy and confidence in God. The Psalm may be spoken or sung, and it can also be preached. Psalm 47 includes “the memory of the past, experience of the present, and hope for the future.”5 Here is a natural outline for a three part sermon.

Move 1: proclaim what God has done for us in the past, including the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Move 2: work with our present experience as people who seek to follow Jesus, but who do not always see his reign and therefore must live by faith. But by joining in worship we “say and act out the reality that our lives and our world have been shaped by God’s loving rule.”6 Move 3: is to face the future with hope, trusting that one day the world will see the glory of God shining from the face of Christ.

Hymns that express the faith of Psalm 47 for Christian worship:
“Lift High the Cross” 660 (A processional, just as Psalm 47 is a processional)
“This is My Father’s World” 824 (proclaims God’s rule over nature and history)
“Rejoice for Christ is King ELW 430 (expresses joy in God’s reign)

1James Luther Mays, Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994), 188.

2James Limburg, Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000), 156.

3New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IV (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 868.

4Mays, Psalms, 187.


6New Interpreter’s Bible, 870.

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 1:15-23

Lucy Lind Hogan

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

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.