Ascension of Our Lord

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).

Ascendit Christus
"Ascendit Christus," Capitoline Museum in Rome. Image by Lawrence OP via Flickr licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

May 29, 2014

First Reading
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Commentary on Acts 1:1-11

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.