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Bible Commentary / Bible Study

Exegesis of Ascension Lectionary Passages - Acts 1:1-11, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53

Scripture Readings:

Acts 1:1-11
Ephesians 1:15-23
Luke 24:44-53


Acts 1:1-11

It's obvious that the Book of Acts and the gospel of Luke are from the hand of the same writer. They begin in much the same way. Both are addressed to someone named "Theophilus" (a name meaning "friend of God" or "lover of God.") Was this an actual person to whom Luke is writing? Some think so. Others suggest Luke is writing to anyone who is seeking to be friends with God or to love God, that is, any seekers of God. It can be said that many who have read this wonderful story Luke tells so well certainly has come to find in the main character a friend, one who reveals God, who shares God's love as no other.

All of us are seeking something greater than ourselves, some meaning, some ultimate purpose to it all. There is within each of us this longer for that which is eternal. It is a longing for God. Luke tells us where we might find God - in the one in whom God came seeking us!

Theophilus may have been a lawyer or teacher. He was a cultured Greek man. Greeks loved wisdom, knowledge, philosophy, seeking new truths. They were seekers.

No matter how educated or materialistically wealthy we become, there is still this deep need for seeking, for God. I think sometimes we wonder what we have to offer those who seem to have everything (I believe William Willimon once wrote a book on this very topic). But the truth is that they do not have everything. They may think they do, but in their quiet, honest moments, they look deep inside and know something is missing. There is an incompleteness, an emptiness, a hole in their soul which nothing - fame, fortune, wealth - nothing is able to fill.

I see this everywhere - this spiritual hunger. I see it in the plethora of new age religions that seem to spring up overnight. Check out the internet sometime and see some of these. One such movement is itself called "Ascension," the seeking of the exaltation of the self through physical spiritual energy or something like that. People are hungry for God and are seeking God.

The whole background theme for this passage is that we must not be shy or reluctant to share or give witness to our faith. Luke does so through his writing. In his words here we see the Risen Lord specifically telling his disciples (you and me included) to await the filling of the Spirit so that we can be his witnesses everywhere.

A witness is not someone who imposes his or her faith or beliefs on others, but one who has been a seeker of God and has been found by God in Christ. A witness is someone with fresh experiences of God and who shares that with others whenever the opportunity arises.

Don't Worry. Wait and Witness (vss 6-8). The disciples still did not get it. They though the kingdom was coming fully right then and there. That way they would miss out on all that daily discipleship stuff - you know - the actually living and serving and dying parts. Who can blame them? "When will you bring in the kingdom?" they ask Jesus. They may still well be in that "who's the greatest among us?" mode, thinking of themselves reigning and ruling with Christ on his cabinet in the new administration.

Jesus pretty much ignores this question and tells them not to worry about it. That 's not for them to know. That knowledge is reserved only for God - for God's eyes only! God knows the days and seasons. Let God worry about the future. The only thing you need to concern yourselves with is seeking the empowerment of the Spirit so that you can be my witnesses.

Jesus has already told them he was going away and that this was best for them (see John's Gospel). Why? Because then the Advocate or Comforter - the Holy Spirit would come. Jesus, in the flesh, could not be with them always. But through the Spirit, he could dwell within them, empowering them for the task ahead. He was going away and yet he would still come to be with them.

My father died about six years ago. I have never known a finer man. I loved him dearly. You know what? I still feel him with me. In fact, I feel him with me in a way like I never did before. In some ways I feel even closer to him. Do I need counseling? I don't think so. For at critical times in my life and even at other times I have felt his presence, almost heard his words to me. From him I continue to draw great comfort, encouragement, and strength.

If this is true with a mere human being, and I suspect it's true for someone like my father for each of you, then how much more so can Christ, through the Spirit, be present with us always! The Spirit is as near to us as the air we breath. Like air, the Spirit fills us, enables us to serve, to witness, to live as disciples of Christ.

The Spirit is there each day to teach us, to give us new insights, to nurture us in the faith. The Spirit also every day gives us opportunities to share our story with others - which we see happening throughout much of the rest of the Book of Acts. The Spirit is our intimate connection to the ascended Lord and also seeks to connect us to one another in the body of Christ and to others, like Theophilus, who are seeking God. We have the Spirit. We already have everything we need to serve God, to be witnesses for Christ.

Up, Up and Away (vss 9-11). This is Luke's second account of the Ascension (the first one we see in today's Gospel reading). In many ways this story reminds me of the Transfiguration. Both involve a mountain. Both involve clouds. Both show witnesses to something marvelous. That marvelous something is who Jesus really is. The Transfiguration reveals for the first time who Jesus is or will be - the glorified, risen, exalted Lord. Now, in the Ascension, we see this coming about. It is fulfilled.

To me, this story has at least four essential things to teach us.

First, Christ now rightly assumes his place of honor at the right hand of God. It's very much a coronation. Jesus ascends the throne. Jesus is Lord. Jesus is King of kings. All the earth now is literally beneath his feet or under his authority (as Paul says in the epistle reading).

Second, Jesus does not leave us through his ascension. He comes back to us through the Holy Spirit of Pentecost. But even more than this, he sits at the right hand of God, the place of power, the place where he can watch over us, provide us his presence, guidance, strength, encouragement. He also sits there as our mediator or intercessor with God. "Consequently he is able to save for all time those who approach God through him (Jesus), since he always lives to make intercession for them" (Hebrews 7:25). Jesus has the ear of God. Jesus fills the ear of God with our names, with requests for that which we need. Nice to have such a friend in such a high place.

Third, the Ascension means that now we are called to continue the mission of Christ. As we have seen already, the underlying theme of these passages is that we are now to be the empowered witnesses for Christ to all the world. We have work to do. We are now the body of Christ in the world. We are his hands, voice, feet, heart, eyes. Through the Spirit, he lives within us, empowering us to continue his saving work in the world.

Fourth, he's coming back to finish what he started (see vs 11). We do not know when, where, or even how really. So we cannot stand around with our heads in the clouds. In stead, we wait for the Spirit and when the Spirit moves, we work, we witness, we serve Christ each and every day and in every way we can. That is the best way to be ready for when he returns.

Ephesians 1:15-23

This marvelous passage is a really a prayer or even song of thanksgiving to God for all the blessings God has given in Christ, which the Ephesians were fully accepting in their lives. It's also a prayer that God might continue to do bless them, that they might continue to grow as Christians. The major theme here is that they might grow in their "knowledge" of God, be "enlightened." Paul is praying for nothing less than they grow ever closer to God, daily knowing and experiencing the depths of God's power and grace in Christ. God is not remote and unknown. God has come to be revealed and to know us in a person - Christ. And we find that the closer we grow to Christ, the closer we are to God.

What greater prayer could anyone pray for us than this? What great prayer could we pray for others than this - to be ever growing closer to God? Surely that is what God desires.

Do you pray for your church? For other churches? For God's people all over the world? Here we find a model for such prayers.

I know a church that every Sunday prays by name for another church in that community and in another country. The minister is mentioned by name and always the laity. Just that act alone has broadened the compassion of the people of that church and made them aware of the global nature of the church. Surely one of the clearest signs that we are growing is that we love more and more each other and all people.

Paul is also saying that being a Christian is not something that happens to us or happened to us one day. It's not a standstill life. It is one of ever growing, of being nurtured in the knowledge and grace of God. We are becomers, ever growing in our walk with God through Christ; in our understanding of what it means to be the people of God; in our power to live out the mission God has given us in Christ.

Paul prays for all of this for the Ephesians, though he seems to have never known or met them. He had "heard of" their faith. He knows them by repetition. They are a body of believers who truly loved God and one another.

One of the things that stands out here is that they also love other Christians outside their own circle "love toward all the saints." There is a tendency in the church sometimes to think that charity begins and ends at home. I see this sometimes around budget time when there is a strong feeling that we should keep our money "here at home." Our Lord is exalted - the king of all the earth. Our Lord loves the whole world and so should we. When any church turns in completely on itself, neglecting to give, to love beyond its own community, it begins to die. I have seen it too many times. But even a church that is poor in terms of materials things becomes wealthy spiritually when its heart is open to the needs of others beyond their own four walls.

Paul then talks about the power of God. This is no where seen more clearly than in the resurrection and exaltation of Christ (vs 20). Just as God raised Christ from the dead, so God raised Christ now to sit over all the earth as Lord and king, with all peoples and all spiritual forces under his feet, that is, under his command and authority. It is an echo of the some of the last words of Christ in Matthew: "All power is given unto me in heaven and on earth" (28:18).

But Christ is also head of the Church, Paul reminds them. The church is his body and he serves as the head. The head directs and controls the body. Christ and the church are united, just as we saw Jesus speaking of being the vine and we the branches. The love and power of God flow through us, so that we experience the "fullness" of Christ. The church has the awesome privilege and responsibility of being filled with Christ. This is what empowers us, what gives us our purpose, our reason for being. We do not offer doctrines or creeds to the world but the Christ. Through the church, the body of Christ, he continues to live and work in the world, bringing wholeness and salvation.

Luke 24:44-53

This is the third appearance of the Risen Lord in Luke. In many respects it is very much like the story in John 20:19ff. But for today's reading, we concentrate on how the Jesus' death and resurrection were in fact in accordance with God's plans as revealed in the Scriptures (vss 44-47); how they are commissioned, as witnesses, to preach forgiveness in his name to all nations in vss 48-49 (Luke's version of the Great Commission); and finally the mini-version of the Ascension (vss. 50--53)

The eleven and others are apparently in the upper room again, perhaps to try to take in all the recent events. Who exactly was there beyond the eleven we do not know, although those who had walked on the way to Emmaus may well have been in the number, as well as the Mary's who had been the first witnesses of the resurrection.

While they are no doubt discussing things among themselves, suddenly Jesus appears or is made visible (John' account has them behind locked doors for fear of those who had crucified Jesus). It was as if Jesus had been with them anyway but chooses now to let them see him. After assuring them is is alive and well, even eating some fish, he assures them that the cross and the resurrection were not just happenstance. What had happened was in accord with the saving purpose of God all along as demonstrated in the Scriptures.

Indeed, the Scriptures are understood as teaching about these things, about Christ, how he was to suffer, die, and even arise. Notice that throughout Luke's Gospel (and the others as well) he makes regular contact with the Old Testament teachings. From the very beginning, Joseph and Mary follow the teachings of the Law 2:21-40) and Jesus sees himself as fulfilling the Law, completing it, bring redemption, salvation which is why the Law was given but was unable to do on it's own. Early Christian preachers drew heavily upon the teachings of Scripture in their preaching (as we see in the sermons in Acts). In other words, what God had done now in Christ was in accord with all that God had been doing and planning. It is new and wondrous in many ways but a fulfillment of ancient promises. They did not understand this at this point so he "opened" their minds to the Scriptures, helped them understand, see how all that had happened was the culmination of God's saving work as seen time and time again in the Scriptures.

Surely, the one great thread running throughout the Bible is this steadfast love of God, a love that refuses to let us go. A love even willing to die if it will bring us to our senses, bring us back to God.

Vss 48-49 sound very much like what Luke will say again in Acts 1. They are given this commission but lack yet the power to carry it out. That will soon change. The Power is coming. They must wait. They are waiting for Pentecost which is next Sunday.

Sometimes I find myself and our church ahead of God, you know, making all kinds of plans and striking out on our own without even consulting God. This passage reminds me that most often it is best to wait, to pray, to seek God's direction and empowerment before striking out. It's no wonder that so many of those plans then do not seem to be fruitful. "God, here's what we want to do. Bless it." That's how we often go about things. Better to begin, "Lord, we kneel before you. Show us who we are. Show us what you desire, what you plan. Then we will await your empowerment."

One of the wonderful assurances we can count on is that whenever God calls, God empowers. When God asks something of us, God always provides all we need to do it - all but our faith and courage to believe that (though God even provides those if we ask). Look throughout the Bible, what stands out is God calling ordinary people and then empowering then to do extraordinary things. I think this is at the heart of the Ascension - Christ is at the right hand of God, the side of power, in order to provide for us what we need to continue his work in the world.

Our proper response then to all this? The same as the disciples - joy, worship, humility before Christ, and waiting for the empowerment (vs 52-53).

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