The Gentle Shepherd: Reading and Message for Ascension Sunday 2022 – May 29, 2022

Today’s reading is from the Jerusalem Bible version of the Book of Acts, Chapter 1, verses 1 to 11:

In the first book, Theophilus,
I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught
until the day he was taken up,
after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit
to the apostles whom he had chosen.
He presented himself alive to them
by many proofs after he had suffered,
appearing to them during forty days
and speaking about the kingdom of God.
While meeting with them,
he enjoined them not to depart from Jerusalem,
but to wait for “the promise of the Father
about which you have heard me speak;
for John baptized with water,
but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

When they had gathered together they asked him,
“Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
He answered them, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons
that the Father has established by his own authority.
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,
and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem,
throughout Judea and Samaria,
and to the ends of the earth.”
When he had said this, as they were looking on,
he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.
While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going,
suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them.
They said, “Men of Galilee,
why are you standing there looking at the sky?
This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven
will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

We now understand that the author of the Book of Acts also wrote the third Gospel, the Gospel of Luke. That author is traditionally associated with Luke the physician, but we do not know for sure his true identity. The authorship of today’s passage becomes significant when we begin to place this Scripture into context. Acts 1:1-11 connects the story of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel to the story of the early church in the Book of Acts. This kind of connection is powerful. It shows us that important transitions in human history do not happen all by themselves. They are connected to the past and often serve to empower those in the future.

The opening verses of today’s reading summarize Luke’s Gospel. Theophilus, who is addressed in the both Luke’s Gospel and the Book of Acts, might well have commissioned and supported the writing of both books. However, at the same time, it is possible that the name “Theophilus,” which means “lover of God” or “beloved of God,” refers in fact to any reader of the text who is a righteous person. When we look to the literal translation of Acts 1:1, we should note that Luke’s Gospel covered what Jesus “began both to do and teach.” This implies strongly to us that Jesus’ work in fact continues through his apostles’ in their teaching and ministry.

Establishing these links between the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, and between Jesus and the disciples becomes really significant once we consider the imminent departure of Jesus in his bodily form. To the theology at work in Luke and Acts, Jesus’ Ascension means that he is not absent from the church, but rather that he provides us with the Holy Spirit as our risen Lord. Ours is a glorious Triune God, after all, who is perfect in faithfulness and in righteousness.

Verses 6-11 describe the Ascension. This description includes the question about the restoration of the kingdom to Israel that the disciples ask Jesus in verse 6. This question was a fair one, since Jesus had been teaching them about God’s kingdom in the forty days after his resurrection. Yet, without denying the possibility that it might be true, Jesus makes an important point. He reminds the disciples that it is not for them to know God’s schedule or God’s plans. Rather, through the divine grace of the Holy Spirit, they will soon receive power that transforms them from passive observers, who are focused upon narrow nationalistic aims, to active witnesses to, and participants in, his ministry on a global scale. Even though he was fully human as well as fully divine, Jesus was not limited to our own personal preoccupations and concerns. He was able to open the eyes of his disciples to expand their horizons. Nothing, after all, is too big for God.

In this account of the Ascension, we are reminded of other biblical scenes where great prophets are seen in vivid terms to transfer their authority to their successors. After being lifted into heaven, Elijah passes both his mantle and his spirit to Elisha. When Joshua takes the responsibility of leadership from Moses, he becomes: “full of the spirit of wisdom” after Moses has laid hands on him. Indeed, I think this is not something which happens by chance. It is probable that the two men referenced in verse 10, who appear after Jesus is taken up into heaven, should be understood to be Moses and Eljiah. Their white robes remind us of their appearance in Christ’s transfiguration. Meanwhile, the depiction of Jesus being taken up in a cloud points to his identity as the Son of Man of Daniel 7:13, who came to us with the clouds of heaven. Indeed, and based upon the expectation set within verse 11 that Jesus will return “in the same way” as he departed, cloud imagery featured prominently in early Christians’ expectations of Jesus’ second coming.

The “event” of Christ’s Ascension is one of the great transitional moments in the Bible. Transitional moments can be thrilling and terrifying. At the same time, they can be the fertile ground for new beginnings. In a short space of time, the disciples had endured the crucifixion of their leader, experienced him anew as the resurrected Lord, and now they were being ushered into a new phase of relating to Jesus not in body but through the Holy Spirit. At the present time in our own modern world, we find ourselves moving into a world that has been battered by a global pandemic. Our communities have experienced rampant gun violence and a political class that is unwilling to address it. We see total war being waged in different parts of the world. We suffer the everyday affront of racial injustice. We have mass media, bought and paid for by wealthy elites and weaponized by plutocrats, to divide the have-nots into the have-even-less. We see wider economic and healthcare disparities that are ignored, or are dismissed by condescending references to “trickle down economics,” or are used as fuel in an ethno-nationalist culture war that continues to concentrate the dwindling resources of our planet in the hands of so few. We have melting glaciers, rising sea temperatures, and mass extinction events.

So often, we have seen the teachings of the church warped by the manipulative to seduce the needy, denigrate the other, and to glorify the idolatry of sin. Indeed, when we read today’s passage, and when we reflect upon the transitional moments of our own time, we should ask the following question: What is the church’s role in such a time as this? In today’s reading, we clearly see an intentional connection between the work of the disciples to Jesus’ life and teachings. To me, then, Acts 1:1-11 calls the church and its members to discernment. Indeed, it calls all of us Christians to question whether our own responses to the challenges of today reflect Jesus’ teachings on the reign of God.

More generally, I submit that Acts 1:1-11 requires us to think again about our limited, human conceptions of power, authority, and leadership. Our risen Lord did not simply overthrow the Romans and re-establish God’s sovereignty as his disciples had anticipated. This is because God’s vision is greater than our own, looking beyond the short term. Indeed, Jesus tells the disciples that the divine power of the Holy Spirit will be given to them for the long term. Over time, that power will need to be wielded faithfully beyond the life of our own personal witness.

The succession narratives behind the Ascension scene feature great prophets of Israel readily passing the baton to someone new. Moses transferred the mantle of leadership to Joshua. Elijah literally gave his mantle to Elisha. How can these transitions help us to model the transfer of power and leadership in our church communities? How can we be ready and willing to distribute leadership responsibilities faithfully, noting Spirit’s presence in others’ contributions? How can we move past the tests and traps of our own transitional time into a world that makes manifest the Kingdom of Heaven across all of the Earth? Amen and Amen.

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