For freedom, Christ has set us free

Easter 7C19 / Ascension
Gospel Commentary
for smart phones and tablets

2 June 2019


Stacks Image 53
Gospel
Luke 24:36   While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37 They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence.

Luke 24:44   Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Luke 24:50   Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

Initial observations
The first couple of verses are not given in the lectionary, but as they seem essentially part of the scene they are included in italics. The endings of all the gospels are especially significant (even Mark 16:8, the original, disconcerting “non-ending”). There is a special flavour to the ending in Luke because it bridges a two-volume work, synthesising comprehensively yet unobtrusively the themes of the third gospel and leaving the reader in a mood of anticipation. Chronologically, the readings today are the wrong way around—it would make more sense to hear this reading first and only then to move to the one from Acts.

Kind of writing
This is the last scene in the gospel narrative, so it conforms to the functions of a peroration—to summarise, to engage the reader one final time, to intensify the emotional impact. The passage summarises both the ministry and the Lucan interpretation of it, by means of the typical themes and vocabulary of this gospel (words, written, fulfilled, open, Jerusalem, taken up). The potent vocabulary of the early Christian mission (messiah, suffer, rise, repentance, forgiveness, proclamation, witnesses) will speak directly to the intended readership. Finally, to the inherently emotional scene of separation (“while I was still with you”), the writer adds intense expectation (“until you have been clothed”), “great joy” and the warm devotional atmosphere of Luke 1-2, evoked in the very last verse.

Old Testament background

(i) By the time Luke was writing, Christians were accustomed to reading the Jesus story in the light of the First Testament. From our historical-critical point of view, they faced a huge task because the messiah, God’s anointed and the agent of final salvation, is not mentioned as such in the Hebrew Bible. To grasp the expectation of the time, today we turn to the writings “between the testaments”, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Psalms of Solomon and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. However, the first generation could find patterns like the Jesus story in prophets (especially in the Servant Songs of Isaiah) and in the psalms (especially Psa. 2, 22 and 69). Hence, Luke can summarise by saying “everything written about me”.

(ii) “When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces. He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.” (2Kings 2:9-14)

New Testament foreground

(i) The scene invites comparison with the closing moments in Matthew 28:16-20 and John 20:30-31 (the original ending). Continued presence and mission are the themes.

(ii) Within the Lucan narrative, the text reminds us of the tableaux of Nazareth (4:16-30, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”) and of the road to Emmaus (24:13-35, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”), the two great theological bookends of this gospel. In between, you have the “passion predictions” (9:22, 43-45; 18:31-34). The preaching in Acts echoes the same theology of the suffering Messiah.

(iii) There seems to be a “pre-echo” of ascension itself, which comes only after 40 days in Acts 1:1-11.

(iv) The Holy Spirit, already the impulse behind Jesus’ ministry, becomes in the Acts the energy driving the expansion of the Way from Jerusalem to Rome itself, from the heart of the Jewish world to the heart of the Gentile one.

St Paul
Who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us? (Romans 8:34)

Brief commentary

Verse 44 God’s word illuminates the ministry and person of Jesus. Notice the threefold contents: the Law (Torah), the prophets (Nevi’im) and the writings, (Khethuvim). Jews often refer to the Bible as the Tanakh, an acronym taken precisely from Torah, Nevi’im and Khethuvim.
Verse 45 A straight echo not only of Nazareth (4) and Emmaus (24), but also of the intriguing story of Philip and the eunuch (Acts 8:26-40, “Do you understand what you are reading?”).
Verse 46 Echoing the passion predictions and Emmaus, once more.
Verse 47 As usual, “repentance” is better translated “conversion”. Very important in Lk-Acts as noun (2-1-5+6 [Mt, Mk, Lk, Act]) and as verb (5-2-9+5). The NRSV is wrong in talking about conversion and forgiveness. The Greek text speaks of conversion for forgiveness.
Proclamation (kergyma) occurs only here in the gospel, but the verb to proclaim is more common (9 in Lk, and 8 in Acts). See Acts 2:28 and 1:8. Jerusalem is symbolically important in Luke-Acts: the ministry moves to the city and the mission sets out from it.
Verse 48 Witness (Greek, martyr) is important as noun (2-1-2+13) and as verb (1 in Lk, 11 in Acts). See Acts 1:6-8, 22.
Verse 49 Father promised: used again for the Holy Spirit in Acts 1:4-5, 8 and 2:4, 17-18, 38. “Clothed” is not used again, but comes up in regard to Christ in Rom 13:12, 14; 1 Cor 15:53-54 and Gal 5:27. “From on high” takes us back to “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us” (Luke 1:78 NRSV).
Verse 50 Blessing in important in this gospel (5-5-13-2). Bethany was the point from which Jesus planned his messianic entry into Jerusalem (19:29); he departs from the same location.
Verse 51 The departing Lord leaves his blessing (and power) behind, just like the departing Elijah.
Verse 52 Joy is the special mark of this gospel, both as noun (6-1-8+4) and as verb (6-2-12+7). Great joy: Luke 2:10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: Acts 15:3 So they were sent on their way by the church, and as they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, they reported the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the believers.
Verse 53 Just like Simeon and Anna in Lk 1-2. The Temple remains a place of prayer of the disciples throughout the Acts.Verse 44 God’s word illuminates the ministry and person of Jesus. Notice the threefold contents: the Law (Torah), the prophets (Nevi’im) and the writings, (Khethuvim). Jews often refer to the Bible as the Tanakh, an acronym taken precisely from Torah, Nevi’im and Khethuvim.
Verse 45 A straight echo not only of Nazareth (4) and Emmaus (24), but also of the intriguing story of Philip and the eunuch (Acts 8:26-40, “Do you understand what you are reading?”).
Verse 46 Echoing the passion predictions and Emmaus, once more.
Verse 47 As usual, “repentance” is better translated “conversion”. Very important in Lk-Acts as noun (2-1-5+6 [Mt, Mk, Lk, Act]) and as verb (5-2-9+5). The NRSV is wrong in talking about conversion and forgiveness. The Greek text speaks of conversion for forgiveness.
Proclamation (kergyma) occurs only here in the gospel, but the verb to proclaim is more common (9 in Lk, and 8 in Acts). See Acts 2:28 and 1:8. Jerusalem is symbolically important in Luke-Acts: the ministry moves to the city and the mission sets out from it.
Verse 48 Witness (Greek, martyr) is important as noun (2-1-2+13) and as verb (1 in Lk, 11 in Acts). See Acts 1:6-8, 22.
Verse 49 Father promised: used again for the Holy Spirit in Acts 1:4-5, 8 and 2:4, 17-18, 38. “Clothed” is not used again, but comes up in regard to Christ in Rom 13:12, 14; 1 Cor 15:53-54 and Gal 5:27. “From on high” takes us back to “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us” (Luke 1:78 NRSV).
Verse 50 Blessing in important in this gospel (5-5-13-2). Bethany was the point from which Jesus planned his messianic entry into Jerusalem (19:29); he departs from the same location.
Verse 51 The departing Lord leaves his blessing (and power) behind, just like the departing Elijah.
Verse 52 Joy is the special mark of this gospel, both as noun (6-1-8+4) and as verb (6-2-12+7). Great joy: Luke 2:10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: Acts 15:3 So they were sent on their way by the church, and as they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, they reported the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the believers.
Verse 53 Just like Simeon and Anna in Lk 1-2. The Temple remains a place of prayer of the disciples throughout the Acts.

Pointers for prayer

1. The Ascension of Jesus was an important growth point for the disciples. Jesus would be with them in a different way from now on. Painful though it was, it was necessary for them to let go of his physical presence and adjust to the new reality. Perhaps you have known similar transition points in your own life.
2. Jesus invited the disciples to be witnesses to the good news they had learned. The way we live, speak and relate to others speaks of what we have learned about life. We all are witnesses. How have you been a witness to the goodness of life?
3. In particular, Jesus invited them to be witnesses to the good news of forgiveness. Recall people who have been witnesses to you of forgiveness and reconciliation. What effect did they have on your life? Have you been able to be a witness to the good news of forgiveness in your life?
4. In v. 49, Jesus instructs the apostles to wait patiently for the moment of grace. What been your experience of waiting for a moment of grace? What are the moments of grace that you particularly recall (a friendship, a new opportunity, birth of a baby, etc)?

Prayer

God of majesty, you led the messiah through suffering into risen life and took him up to the glory of heaven.
Clothe us with the power promised from on high and send us forth to the ends of the earth as heralds of repentance and witnesses of Jesus Christ, the first-born from the dead, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.

Thought for the day

As the Easter season draws to a close, both the liturgy and the lectionary point us towards the clothing with power from on high. In these days, our prayer is “Come, Holy Spirit.” Each year, this prayer is of greater urgency, as we all try to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Our future being as Christians, as community, as church, all depends on our own deep attitude of listening and of openness. The future church will be a church of the Spirit, energised and exuberant, faithful and on fire.

Prayer

Breathe into me, Holy Spirit, that my thoughts may all be holy. Move in me, Holy Spirit, that my work, too, may be holy. Attract my heart, Holy Spirit, that I may love only what is holy. Strengthen me, Holy Spirit, that I may defend all that is holy.
Protect me, Holy Spirit, that I may always be holy. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. Amen

Pope Francis