Seventh Sunday of Easter (Year A)

Unfortunately, Jesus’ ascension has become easy to overlook. Therefore it’s easily considered irrelevant.

June 5, 2011

First Reading
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Commentary on Acts 1:6-14

Unfortunately, Jesus’ ascension has become easy to overlook. Therefore it’s easily considered irrelevant.

Creativity-impaired liturgical traditions keep it hidden from plain sight when they insist we observe it on Thursdays. But even more damaging is the widespread ignorance of what the ascension might mean for our knowledge of who Jesus Christ is and our understanding of what Christians are supposed to be doing with themselves. Because so many churchgoers struggle to figure out how to relate the Easter confession of “Christ is risen” to the post-Pentecost challenges of “real life”–again, it’s the infamous disconnect between Sunday and Monday–this ignorance is really a shame.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not asking preachers to use their sermons as opportunities to lecture about arcane doctrinal or historical ruminations on the ascension. Rather, by imaginatively taking congregations into the drama of these early verses from Acts, preachers will help them discover how the ascension connects Jesus to life in the here and now. It establishes Jesus as Lord of all and calls Christians to participate boldly–yet attentively–in his ongoing presence among us.

A Scene Rife with Expectations

Context really matters for understanding this passage. A sermon will benefit from accentuating the high degree of anticipation that suffuses the text. The Acts of the Apostles begins where the Gospel according to Luke left off: with grandiose expectations (see, for example, Luke 22:28-30; 24:46-49), all fueled by an emerging recognition that God changed everything on the original Easter morning.

Before Jesus departs to an other-worldly existence, he lays out a few additional promises. After reaffirming that his followers “will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come,” he declares that God will empower them to be witnesses across the Roman world, beginning right where they are. In time they will move throughout the broader Roman province of Judea, northward into Samaria (a region not exactly on good terms with the kind of people who constitute Jesus’ current followers), and ultimately to points unknown, “the ends of the earth.”

Everyone–the people in the story and readers, too–expects God to do something: to clothe Jesus’ friends with power and to call them into action. The apostles also understand the messianic import of what lies ahead; their question to Jesus about the restoration of Israel is perfectly reasonable. The Messiah is expected to purify the land and rule over the nations. Is this finally the time?

The Ascension Begins a New Chapter and Expects Others to Come

Jesus’ promises affirm that his ascension is not the end of a story; rather, his departure initiates the next chapter in the story of God’s salvation. While his words include a command (to remain in Jerusalem for the time being), their dominant thrust is descriptive, almost matter-of-fact: he tells them what God will do, and what their lives will look like as a result. No requests. No orders. No threats. No exhortations.

Power, Holy Spirit, testimony about Jesus and forgiveness of sins, participation in God’s reign, expansion across cultural and geopolitical lines, opposition (implied by the judicial connotations of the word “witnesses,” and stated clearly by Jesus back in Luke 12:11-12 and 21:12-17)–God has impressive things in store for these people as soon as Jesus moves on.

Jesus’ ascension takes him to the right hand of God (see Acts 2:32-35). But what does that mean? “The right hand of God” is not a place, as if we could find Jesus and his Father sitting in a throne room somewhere, or sharing a booth in a heavenly tavern. The reference is not so much to location but to status: Jesus receives power and authority. Call it sovereignty, glorification, or whatever.

By virtue of his elevation to this status, Jesus reigns over all creation. Creation is his. He has a role in everything. Therefore he is present throughout all creation through the Holy Spirit. Contrary to some popular assumptions, this event does not put Jesus out of play until the end of all things. He and the kingdom he inaugurated are not on an extended break.

If our images of Jesus ascending contribute to a sense of Jesus’ removal from human society and our daily experiences, then we’ve missed the point of the ascension, at least as Acts 1 describes it.

Don’t get caught up in parsing the symbolic sights and imagery of the ascension narrative. Acts, operating out of its own cosmological assumptions, resists our questions of Where? and How? What Acts insists is that Jesus departs from his followers so that he might exercise his authority and influence over all things, places, and powers. The ascension does not mean the cessation of his ministry. It does not mean Jesus’ absence. It does not mean the suspension of God’s activity to reclaim the world. Quite the opposite.

The Ascension Leads Us to Be Expectant, Not Frantic

As I mentioned, the verses preceding the ascension turn our attention toward what God will yet do, even as they claim that Jesus’ followers will play a part in God’s plans. And the plans are ambitious.

This makes verses 10-14 especially interesting. When the two messengers in robes, those angelic figures, call Jesus’ cloud-gazing apostles back to their senses, they do not order them to get to work. Although there is urgency in the admonishment to stop staring slack-jawed into the sky, the moment’s urgency does not result in immediate action.

The first great act of the apostles occurs when they hike back to Jerusalem . . . and wait.

Indeed, in time the apostles and the rest of Jesus’ followers will be moving outward and bearing witness to Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit. But not yet. In time the realities about which Jesus spoke–the kingdom of God, forgiveness of sins, release from the things that bind people–will come into clearer view.

We may find the waiting period at the beginning of Acts easy to skip over, as a brief narrative interlude building suspense for the eventual coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. Yet the interval makes an important point about how God will interact with these people. Presumably the Holy Spirit could have come immediately after Jesus’ ascension; but God waits. Rather, God has Jesus’ followers wait. I like to think that in this waiting they learn, or begin to learn, that they are to be a responsive community, a community that waits upon God to initiate. Whether they walk back to Jerusalem from the ascension with eager energy or paralyzing fear we do not know. All we know is that they have to wait.

The waiting has an active quality to it, going beyond merely sitting around and contemplating the past and future. The apostles wait secluded in a “room upstairs,” where they are “constantly devoting themselves to prayer” along with others who followed Jesus, both men and women. The group remains sequestered, yet expectant. In their waiting they obey Jesus’ recent commands; but, even more, they also express a readiness for the wild stuff yet to come.

The waiting period conditions them to be attentive to God, so that they might respond when the time is right.

They wait in a context of enormous and not fully explained expectations. They live in uneasy anticipation of the new realities that Jesus has initiated. Living like this requires just as much courage as if Jesus had told them to go out immediately and change the world using their own brains and muscles.

They wait, not because they see it as their only option, but because they expect big things to come from God–things in which they will be privileged to play important roles.