|Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at|
Acts 1-1-11 Jesus sends the apostles
Ephesians 1-15-23 -- Eyes to see the risen and ascended Christ
The Lutheran provisional Renewing Worship #8: The Church Year, contains this rubric under 7 Easter: "If it is not practical to celebrate the Ascension on the previous Thursday, it may be observed on this day."
So I offer some comments on these final verses of the Gospel of Luke, in this "Year of Matthew," while we're reading through John during the Easter Season.
Culpepper (Luke, NIB) outlines these verses as:
A. Interpretation of Scripture & the Commissioning of the Disciples (vv. 44-49)
B. The Departure of Jesus (vv. 50-53)
Many of Luke's themes are wrapped up in these verses -- anyone of which could be a sermon by itself.
Jesus as the fulfillment of scripture. Culpepper notes: "Luke, however, emphasizes the fulfillment of Scripture in the resurrection appearances more than does any other NT writer." [p. 486]
If, as I believe, Luke is writing to a Roman official, he stresses the fact that Jesus was very Jewish in his obedience to the Law and in fulfillment of the Jewish scriptures. It is possible that Gentile believers may have had some prejudices towards Jewish believers (and vice versa). Another of the themes throughout this writing is the inclusivity of the Gospel: men and women, rich and poor, Pharisees and sinners, Jews and Gentiles.
However, the proper understanding of scripture requires an "opening" of one's mind by Jesus. This word, dianoigo, is used not only in our text at v. 45; but also in the previous story about the two on the road to Emmaus. After the breaking of the bread, their eyes were opened and they recognize (epiginosko) the risen Jesus in their midst. Then they say to each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us ... while he was opening scriptures to us?" (24:31, 32)
Jesus presents three aspects of what has been written (all have similar grammatical construction in Greek):
1. that the Christ suffered
2. that he rose from the dead on the third day
3. that it* was proclaimed in his name
* "it" is defined: "repentance for the forgiveness of sins to all the nations beginning in Jerusalem."
"was proclaimed" is passive -- Luke doesn't tell us who did the proclaiming (although Acts recounts the proclamation by many different people that began in Jerusalem). This could indicate that what Luke is doing by his writings is to continue to fulfill the scriptures.
The theme of repentance and forgiveness of sins is emphasized in Luke. The Greek words for "repent" and "repentance" occur in Luke 14 times. In the other three gospels combined, they occur only 10 times. Although Luke/Acts compose about 25% of the NT, 45% of the times the words "repent" or "repentance" occur are in these two books.
The word "forgiveness" occurs 17 times in the NT -- 10 of those are in Luke/Acts. Every time hamartia (= "sin") is used in Luke, it is with "forgiveness."
I wonder if we have so concentrated on the "Great Commission" at the end of Matthew, that we have overlooked this commission in Luke. We become so concerned with baptizing and teaching that we fail to proclaim repentance and forgiveness for everyone.
I've been around churches who have very good education programs -- teaching everything Jesus commanded; but they fail to offer God's forgiveness for people who come looking for new life.
An ELCA pastor I know, Chuck Hazlett, has issued the following declaration in a newsletter about "Who Is Welcome Here." I think that he captures well the "all nations" to whom we are to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins.
I want it to be of public record that those of different skin colors and heritage are welcome here.
I want it to be known that those who suffer from addiction to drugs and alcohol (whether they are recovering or not) and their families are welcome here.
I want it to be known that women and children are welcome here and that they will not be harassed or abused here.
I want it to be public record that in this congregation you can bring children to worship and even if they cry during the entire service, they are welcome.
I want it to be known that those who are single by choice, by divorce, or through death of a spouse are welcome here.
I want it to be known that if you are promiscuous, have had an abortion, or have fathered children and taken no responsibility for them, you are welcome here.
I want it to be known that gossips, cheats, liars, and their families are welcome here.
I want it to be known that those who are disobedient to their parents and who have family problems are welcome here.
I want it to be of public record that gays and lesbians and members of their families are welcome here.
Let it be public knowledge that we take seriously that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). The young and old, the rich and poor, all of the broken are welcome here.
I want it to be public knowledge that "we are justified by the grace of God, which is a gift through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 3:20).
We offer welcome here because we believe that "while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly" (Romans 5:8). That's us. Christ did not die for us after we showed signs of "getting it all together." Christ loved and still shows love to us while we are yet sinners.
Sinners are welcome here. Sinners like you and me, and like our neighbors. Let us not condemn the world, but let us proclaim to a broken and hurting world, God's forgiveness and grace. I want it to be of public record that since we are a sinful people that we will not always be quick to welcome as we should. Let us be quick to admit our sin and seek forgiveness.
May God give us the grace to welcome and forgive one another as Christ has welcomed and forgiven us.
I presume that "these things" refers to Christ's suffering, his resurrection, and the proclamation of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As witnesses, we not only know these things, but we are to speak about them to those who don't know.
I think that the rest of this passage is concerned with our witnessing.
Culpepper notes: "There is no previous reference to 'what my Father promised' in Luke, but various references to the Spirit, especially at the beginning of the Gospel (cf. 1;15, 35, 41, 67; 2:25-26; 3:16, 22; 4:1; 10:21)." [p. 488]
Note also that "Spirit" is not mentioned in these verses -- but "power (dynamis) from on high".
John the Baptist came in the "spirit and power of Elijah to prepare the people for the Lord (1:17).
The power of the Most High came upon Mary (1:35). (Hopefully the presence of this power does not always result in a pregnancy <G>).
Jesus returned from his temptation in the power of the Spirit (4:14).
Jesus exhibited authority and power over the evil spirits (4:36)
Jesus heals by the power of the Lord (5:17; 6:19; 8:46)
Jesus gave the Twelve power and authority over demons and diseases (9:1)
The enemy also has power, which the Twelve have been given authority over (10:19)
Jesus does deeds of power which produces praise from the multitude of disciples (19:37)
The disciples received power when the Holy Spirit came upon them (Acts 1:8)
The disciples are able to perform healings and miracles by this power (Acts 3:12; 6:8; 8:13; 19:11)
They preach boldly with this power (Acts 4:7, 33)
I think that the gift of power is related to being witnesses of these things -- not only to experience them, but to spread the experience to others.
Culpepper: "Luke records not one but two ascensions, one on Easter day (24:51; Acts 1:1-2) and one after forty days (Acts 1:9-11). The ascension both closes the period of Jesus' ministry and opens the period of the church's mission, so both accounts are appropriate."
Just as Luke tells us that John has been locked up in prison (3:20) before telling us of Jesus' baptism (3:21-22), thus making a clear break between the ministry of John and the ministry of Jesus; so Luke tells us of Jesus leaving the scene before the ministry of the Church begins in the power of the Holy Spirit. The time of Jesus on earth has ended. The time of the believers living, speaking, and acting in the power of the Spirit has begun. If the ministries and the salvation offered by Jesus is to continue, it has to come through the believers who have been empowered from on High.
Culpepper states it well:
Where the Lord's physical hands and feet are no longer present, the ministry of the hands of countless saints in simple and sincere ministries continues to bear witness to the Lord's living presence. Although he may not appear in our midst to eat broiled fish, his presence is tangible in soup kitchens, around the kitchen table, and around the altar table. We see him "in the breaking of bread." As in the first century so now the most convincing proof of the resurrection is the daily testimony of the faithful that the Christ still lives and the work of his kingdom continues.
... The believer who affirms that the Lord is risen, therefore, should consider next what it is that the Lord has sent him or her to do. The uniqueness of the Easter message is that it invariably changes the lives of those who find themselves touched by it. [p. 490]
Luke's story of Jesus ends as it began. The infant Jesus is brought to the temple. Simeon, guided by the Spirit, comes in and praises (eulogeo) God (2:27-28). Now the disciples are in the temple, blessing (eulogeo) God after having been blessed (eulogeo) by Jesus.
In some ways, the response of the disciples is ironic -- would we be happy if our leader was leaving us for the second time? The sadness of Jesus' death was overcome by the joy of his resurrection. My guess is that the emotion at the time of the ascension would have been more sadness than joy. Jesus is leaving again. Jesus is making them responsible now.
A few weeks ago when we looked at Luke 24:13-35, I noted that the only supernatural act in that story is that Jesus disappears. I then quoted from Loving Jesus, by Mark Allan Powell. He has a chapter called "Presence and Absence." The quotes are worth repeating as we hear about Jesus disappearing for a long time. Our lives are lived in the absence of Jesus.
Powell first writes about experiencing the presence of Jesus: "Authentic Christianity is always a reality to be experienced, not just a collection of facts or doctrines to be learned and believed" (p. 52).
And, "The thing is, we don't just admire Jesus: we claim that he is still alive and that we are in an ongoing, living relationship with him" (p. 53).
He summarizes the "real presence" of Jesus as "a reality capable of surprising us" (p. 53) -- something that certainly happened to the two on the road.
He begins the second part of the chapter with:
The Bible teaches that while Jesus may remain present with us in all of the ways we have described, he is no longer with us as he once was, and he is not now with us as he will be. Living with the ambiguity of recognizing this "absence of Jesus" even when appreciating his continuing presence holds an important key for spiritual formation. (p. 54)
A page later he metaphorizes:
Somebody once asked me, "What does it feel like to be a Christian?" That seemed like an odd question, but I tried to answer. I said, "It feels like being in love with someone who has gone away." They said, "That can't be very pleasant." Well, no, I don't think it's supposed to be pleasant, but it is pretty powerful. I am in love with my wife, and when she is gone, I think about her constantly. I perk up at any news of her and I am energized by the slightest connection (a letter, a phone call). That's what being a Christian "feels like." Of course, it is a confident sadness, and we'll get to more of what that means in the next few chapters, but for now let's just admit this much: we love Jesus as a bride loves her groom, but our bridegroom has been taken away from us, and that makes us sad. The love can be real and powerful and overwhelming, but the absence is real too. And, sometimes, it's just hard. (p. 55, italics in original)
He quotes Luke 22:15-16, 18, 19; Matthew 26:29; 1 Corinthians 11:26 and notes that they all "call attention to the ways in which Jesus will not be present with his disciples when they gather to eat this meal. ... We know that he is risen, but when we eat this meal -- a meal that he once shared with us when he was here on earth and will someday share with us again in the kingdom -- we notice his absence and are more aware of his death than we are of his resurrection. That's how it will be, the Bible says, for people proclaiming his death 'until he comes'." (p. 57).
Using another metaphor:
In the liturgies of many churches, Holy Communion is celebrated explicitly as "a foretaste of the feast to come." the purpose of a foretaste is not to satisfy one's hunger but to make one long for the feast. It seems to me that the more often Christians take Communion, the more impatient they should become. I've been taking Communion almost weekly for about forty years now and my attitude is becoming "Enough with the appetizers! I want the feast!" Of course, we must be grateful for what we have. Grateful, but not satisfied! One purpose of Communion is to feed our impatience, simultaneously reminding us of our Lord's absence and allowing us to experience just enough of his presence to increase this longing in our souls. (p. 58)
Perhaps we do ourselves a disservice by not recognize the Ascension of Our Lord -- and the feeling of absence that brings. We, Lutherans, (and others) often stress the "Real Presence" of Christ in the sacrament. The Ascension reminds us that it is also a disappearing presence -- perhaps an even more painful event than the crucifixion -- unexpected and inexpressible hope and joy is restored only to have it fade away again.
I don't think that I can only talk about the presence of the risen Christ in the sacrament. We also experience his absence. He is present, but not as intimately as he once was with his disciples. He is present, but we do not see him as he is (1 John 3:2) or know him as fully as he knows us (1 Corinthians 13:12).
While our experiences of the absence of Jesus is real and it should sadden us, it is not all we have to go on. There is the promise of his coming again, we are anxiously waiting that day. There is the promise of the Spirit's power being with us now. Jesus may be absent, but God continues to be present through the Spirit.
My guess is that these concluding words are what Luke would like to see happen to Theophilus (and to all readers of his works) -- to be blessed by Jesus and to respond by worshiping Jesus and blessing God (and "blessing" those who curse them [6:28]). This word (eulogeo) may also have the reader recall that Jesus "blessed" or "gave thanks for" the food at the great feeding (9:16) and at the Emmaus house (24:30). (Although this particular word is not used by Luke in the upper room -- he uses eucharisteo -- it is used in that context by Matthew (26:26) and Mark (14:22)). What might it mean to be told that Jesus blesses us as he blesses the bread in Holy Communion? If the sacramental blessing results in "This is my body" -- a real presence of Christ -- could not the same be expected of the people who are so blessed -- we are the body of Christ: the real presence of Christ in the world?
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