Commentary on Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
The most obvious preaching text for Ascension Sunday is Acts’ account of Jesus’ ascension itself (Acts 1:1-11). But because the opening of Acts is the lectionary text for the church’s mid-week Ascension Day celebration (May 13th), the Ascension Sunday preacher finds herself grappling with a less familiar set of verses.
Less familiar or not, these verses are relevant to the moment. They don’t describe the ascension; instead, they deal with the implications of it. They show a church grappling with the what, why, and how of communal life in light of Jesus’ bodily absence.1 These are significant ecclesial matters, and they deserve the preacher’s attention. More than this, they point to the significance of Jesus’ ascension in the first place.
The what of ecclesial life:
“…a witness with us to his resurrection” (verse 22):
Even in these early, pre-Pentecost days, Peter has a sense of purpose. The designation of “witness” has already been spoken by Jesus (verse 8), and the term will surface again in Peter’s Pentecost sermon (Acts 2:32). The role of the early church is to live into this “witness” vocation, even at the cost of its life.2 The replacement of Judas, therefore, is not primarily about the church’s self-maintenance. It is about the church’s urgent need to be witnesses to Jesus’ risen person.
The why of ecclesial life:
“…the scripture had to be fulfilled” (verse 16):
The lectionary framing removes Peter’s exegetical work with the Psalter (Psalm 69:25, 109:8b), but his understanding of the church’s life as being part of a larger divine promise and fulfillment grounds his use of scripture. There is a “divine necessity” to the actions that are being taken by this small, growing community.3 This reading of the biblical text not only connects the early church’s self-understanding with the narratives and history of Israel; it also stresses the agency of God. It is God’s faithful action to God’s promises that fuel Acts’ narrative. For all of the church’s participation in this new resurrection reality, God’s leading is primary.
The how of ecclesial life:
“…show us” (verse 24):
Discernment in a community is no easy thing, but this passage gives us a snapshot of a particular community doing that brave, provisional work in a particularly fraught time. Preachers needn’t get distracted by the “casting lots” method; Beverly Gaventa notes, “Acts depicts the communication of God’s will to the community in a multitude of ways, no one of which appears to be normative.”4 The point is not the method; the point is the posture. The community leans into its trust of God’s goodness. They search the scriptures, and they commit to communal practices of prayer. They acknowledge their limits and decide criteria for moving forward that center their “witness” vocation. And then, they cast lots—reframing the lots cast for Jesus’ clothing, an act meant to humiliate (Luke 23:34), with lots cast to strengthen the witness of his disciples, honoring his final command (verse 8). To follow the example of the early church is not to commit to a rigid practice of decision making or a particular structure. It is to recognize our own need to lean on divine guidance, to trust God’s ability to speak, and to faithfully act in response.
All of which brings a preacher to why the ascension matters for the church. In Acts, the ascension keeps Jesus from being boxed into human strictures, lineages, and practices. It keeps this early faith community dependent on Jesus’ present-tense action—which is finally what allows believers to be witnesses to Christ’s resurrection in our own day and time. Devon Singh argues that at the heart of the church’s imperialist project was an inability to face the implications of the ascension. It was easier to replace Jesus with rituals, institutions and political structures.5 But Acts 1 describes a church that knows it is not in the driver’s seat, even as it actively embraces its call. This discernment work might look ordinary, but it is holy ground.
Willie Jennings notes that “a common thing, a selection process, has been placed in an extraordinary setting, in the upper room before Pentecost.”6 No one had any idea what was coming next. When churches put the what, why, and how of their identity in service of Jesus’ resurrection-witness work, there is a similar hallowing of the ordinary. Committee meetings and Bible studies can become upper rooms where the Spirit waits to fall.
- For a deep dive into Jesus’ body as both absent and present in Acts, see Brittany E. Wilson’s The Embodied God, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021).
- The Greek word “witness” is related to the word “martyr.”
- Carl Holladay, Acts: A Commentary, The New Testament Library (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016), 88.
- Beverly Gaventa, Acts, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 71.
- Devon Singh, “Fragile Belief and the Empty Throne: Theology and Politics after Ascension.” Invited paper for Australian Catholic University Rome Seminar, Rome, Aug 2018.
- Willie James Jennings, Acts, Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2017), 27.