Speculators or Witnesses? Reflections on Ascension Sunday

Lectionary Reflections
Acts 1:1-11
Ascension Sunday
May 20, 2012

You would look long and hard, and high and low, to find an Ascension Day greeting card. Our card merchants, always on the lookout for another way to lure the great American buyer into the shops (shoppes?), have yet to discover this dramatic occasion as a source of increased sales. And how have they missed Ascension Day balloons, an obvious tie-in, or Ascension Day climbing gear? "Follow Christ into the clouds" might be an apt slogan for a Christian climbing firm. Well, maybe not.

As you can see, Ascension Day, especially for us Protestants, is a hard sell, or perhaps better, well past its sell-by date. We hardly know what to do with the thing and hence we do very little at all. Well, I come not to bury Ascension Day but to praise it, unlike Anthony who in a darkly ironic way claimed only to bury the recently murdered Caesar, but in fact had come to praise him and to damn the murderer, Brutus. There is much to admire in and learn from this day. The text, as always, is our key.

Luke begins his second volume of his two-volume "history" of the origins and spread of early Christianity with a salutation to an apparent benefactor, Theophilus by name, "God lover" in Greek. He reminds this unknown man that his "first book was about everything Jesus began to do and teach up to the day he was lifted up" (Acts 1:1-2a). For Luke this "lifting up" is the hinge that holds his two books together. At Luke 9:51, following the event of Transfiguration, Luke warns that "the days drew near for him to be taken up" (analempsis in Greek). This "taking up" is in fact Jesus' "exodus," the object of the discussion that Moses and Elijah were having on the mountain at Luke 9:31. In short, Jesus' ascension, accomplished in Acts 1, is nothing less than his exodus from the earth, mirroring Elijah's own mysterious ascension in a fiery chariot in 2 Kings 2:9-11. Luke thus connects the events of Jesus' ascent to God with a similar experience in the Hebrew Bible and joins Jesus with the quintessential prophet of justice, Elijah. By so doing, Luke in his unique literary way uses the ascension motif as a way of preaching to us a sermon about the true identity of Jesus Messiah, recalling his many roots in the sacred past of Israel's story.

This is the reason that I placed quotation marks around the word "history" in the previous paragraph. Luke speaks in the first verse of his gospel about his attempt to write "an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us." Luke's phrase "an orderly account of events" has mislead many readers through the ages to imagine that his goal was to compose some sort of modern history of Jesus, and later, of the early church. But the phrase "fulfilled among us" should have been our clue that this is no history; it is an "orderly account," written by a man of faith, who has been convinced by that faith that the events he is describing to us are "fulfillments" of previous and ancient claims. For example, just as Elijah was "lifted up" to God, so was Jesus "lifted up" to God. This is not history; no recording of the event, dropped onto YouTube for our ready viewing, will be forthcoming.

The church has spent far too much of its time and energies focusing on the wrong things when it comes to reading these Lukan accounts. Luke is preaching, not reporting; he is sermonizing, not summarizing. His truth is not rooted in when or where, but in what it means and why it is important. There is more theological poetry in Luke than historical postulates.

And so it is with the event of the ascension of Jesus. As the Messiah floats above them, ready to be drawn upward into a cloud on the way to heaven, he warns the assembled apostles not to leave Jerusalem, the center of all divine activity for Luke, but await the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which will follow, as promised, John's earlier baptism by water. To their question about the possibility that at last the "kingdom of Israel" is about to be restored, Jesus retorts tartly, "The times and the seasons that the father has reserved to his own authority are not yours to know" (Acts 1:7). Even after the resurrection it is apparent that the earliest followers of the faith are in danger of asking the wrong questions! God has God's own time for restorations, says Jesus. We have other work to do, as will now be made clear.

Jesus then gives them, and us, our marching orders. "You will receive a power from the Holy Spirit, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth" (Acts 1:8). And Luke follows that general geographical outline as he tells his series of dramatic tales, beginning with the Spirit's fall in Jerusalem (Acts 2) and ending with Paul's open preaching in Rome (Acts 28), the "end of the earth" of the Roman world in which Luke lives.

But do they, or we, head off to fulfill the command? Hardly! We are too enamored of the ascending Jesus, our necks strained as we peer upward, hoping for a further sign, for a magic act, for a cloud spelling out "I love you." Suddenly, two men "stood near them." Just as in the gospel where two men attempt to explain to the women who are looking for Jesus' dead body that they are looking in the wrong place, since living beings are not to be found in graveyards, so now two men tell the stiff-necked (in more ways than one!) apostles that their eyes are not looking in the right place. "Why do you stand looking into heaven?" Did you not pay attention to him just a few moments ago? He said, 'Go,' and you are rooted on this spot, looking longingly for some further word from him. He will come back in the same way that he went, but you need ask no further questions about when, they imply. "When" is simply not the right question to ask.

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