The Ascension of the Lord
First Reading: Acts 1:1-11
When things change, we often look back and wish that they wouldn’t have. Change, even good change, can be hard to stomach. Repetition, familiarity, and predictability make us feel comfortable. But Jesus does not want us limited to our “comfort zone.” Instead, he challenges us with an exciting, dynamic, yet change-prone mission: to proclaim his message to the ends of the earth.
The first reading for this Sunday, the Feast of the Ascension, comes from the very beginning of the Book of Acts (1:1-11). The book is addressed to “Theophilus” (lover of God), as is the Gospel of Luke. Theophilus may be a historical person, perhaps a patron, the high priest named Theophilus, or a general title for any Christian. At this point in Luke’s narrative, Jesus has risen from the dead, appeared many times to his disciples, and now is returning to the Father. The scene unfolds at the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem. Jesus offers his last words to the apostles before leaving them.
Clinging to the Past
This reading gives us a taste of the apostles’ desperation to hang onto the past. Jesus’ number one instruction to them is, “Wait!” Clearly, this is not what they have in mind. Once Jesus departs, they will be tempted to go back to Galilee, forget about the whole Messiah thing, and settle back in to a life of fishing. It would be very easy for them not to wait, but to return to the past, to what is familiar and comfortable.
Restoring the Kingdom
Their question, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” reveals their difficulty grasping who Jesus really is. It seems that they are asking whether Jesus is finally going to go about reestablishing the Davidic monarchy, complete with a kingly throne, palace, armies and political power. The messianic hopes of the time sought a military king, who would overthrow the Romans and bring back true Jewish kingship. While Jesus does fulfill the promise of an everlasting throne, which God granted to David, he does not do it in the way that was expected. He reigns forever from heaven and the apostles will serve as the ministers of his kingdom, not as royal bureaucrats with princely authority, but as humble servants and proclaimers of the truth. They will be on mission, not in a palace. They will die as martyrs, not retire to live in peace.
At other times, the apostles had asked and even argued about their roles in Jesus’ kingdom (Luke 9:46) and he had promised them that they would sit on thrones and judge the tribes of Israel (Luke 22:30). Even though Jesus has taught them for three years and died and risen, they still can’t quite understand who he really is. He tells them that the Father has established the time of restoration by his own authority and they are not yet privy to the secret. The apostles almost unwittingly are to be agents of establishing the kingdom of God, not on the soil of the Holy Land as a political reality, but in the hearts of men. Jesus is about to send them out with the power of the Spirit to extend the boundaries of his reign.
Baptized in the Holy Spirit
Though Jesus is leaving his friends behind, he will continue to work through them by the power of the Holy Spirit. In fact, Acts 1:1 indicates that Luke’s gospel was about “all that Jesus began to do and teach” (RSV). Therfore Acts is about what Jesus continues to do through his followers. His work is not yet done. Jesus asks the apostles to wait for the Holy Spirit. Indeed, he says they will be “baptized” with the Holy Spirit. This prophecy comes to swift fulfillment on the day of Pentecost, narrated in Acts 2. The power of the Spirit both instructs and empowers the apostles. In the first role, Jesus even teaches/commands the apostles through the Holy Spirit, and Acts shows many examples of the early Christians listening to and obeying the Holy Spirit’s promptings. In the second, the Holy Spirit gives the apostles special graces to heal the sick, raise the dead and work powerful signs which confirm their message. Once they receive the Holy Spirit, Jesus forecasts that the apostles will spread the Gospel in an outward progression to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. This patterned proclamation plays out in the rest of Acts.
Angels Ask a Question
The two men wearing white clothes that appear to chide the apostles for staring at the sky are clearly angels. They are there to help the apostles let go of the past and press on toward the future. The Eleven would be sorely tempted to feel bereft. Their risen Lord has just been taken away! But he gave them a commission, a purpose. They are to spread the gospel and do the works of Jesus so others may come to believe in the good news of the kingdom of God. Soon the power of the Holy Spirit will arrive to help them in their mission. As much as I’d like to see an angel, having one question my current behavior would be more than terrifying!
The whole scene of the Ascension gives us an important episode in the life of Jesus, but I think it also holds two lessons that must be held in tension. On the one hand, we might be tempted like the apostles to get ahead of God and try to make things happen on our own, when sometimes his message is simply to wait. Waiting can be tough. We often want God to act now, but his timing is mysterious and beyond our understanding. On the other hand, we might want to dwell on the past and cling to the comfortable, when Jesus is inviting us to a dynamic life of mission. Mission involves change. Sticking with the familiar might feel good, but it is not necessarily what God wants for us. Our hearts need to be open to the change he brings, whether in interior conversion or outward mission. The apostles had to undergo a dramatic change at the moment Jesus ascended, but they did not mope in being bereft, but stepped out in boldness. May our hearts be as open to the Lord as theirs.