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Introduction (2) To The Scripture For Ascension Day - Year A B C
Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47 or 93; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION (2) TO THE SCRIPTURE	
The Ascension of the Lord - Year A B or C

     These readings are provided for those who celebrate the 
     Ascension of the Lord on the appointed day or in place 
     of the Seventh Sunday of Easter.  This introduction varies
     in many places from John's introduction to the same texts 
     in 2004

ACTS 1:1-11			Many anomalies exist in the post-
resurrection activities of the apostles.  In this passage they are 
specifically instructed to stay in Jerusalem.  During this time, they 
witness many appearances of Jesus.  Naturally, they begin to question what 
purpose Jesus had in mind, and even more naturally, they got it wrong.  
Then came to moment when they received their final marching orders.  They 
would be empowered to witness to the ends of the earth to what they had 
seen and heard.  They also received the promise that Jesus would come 
again as some unspecified date.  


PSALM 47   			This psalm celebrates the absolute 
sovereignty of God over all nations.  It may have been used as a jubilant 
hymn in the liturgy for the New Year festival when God was enthroned as 
Israel’s sovereign.

PSALM 93 			(Alternate)  This is another psalm 
proclaiming the sovereignty of God over all creation.


EPHESIANS 1:15-23 		Using the traditional Hebrew *berakah* or 
prayer of blessing as his model, the apostle presents his majestic vision 
of humanity in God’s universal plan of salvation.  Through the death, 
resurrection and ascension of Christ all things in heaven and earth have 
been brought under the reign of God’s sovereign love.

 
LUKE 24:44-53			In an unusual alternative to the passage 
from Acts 1, Luke presents another version of the ascension of Jesus.  
First he instructed the apostles so that they would understand the Old 
Testament scriptures fulfilled by his teaching and ministry.  Then he gave 
them their mission as witnesses and told them they would be empowered to 
carry it out.  Finally, he led them out to Bethany on the far side of the 
Mount of Olive and from there was carried to heaven, leaving them to 
return to Jerusalem to worship in the temple.


A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS:

ACTS 1:1-11   Many anomalies exist in the post-resurrection activities of 
the apostles.  In this passage they are specifically instructed to stay in 
Jerusalem (cf.  Matthew 28:16; John 21:1; Luke 24:49).  During this time, 
they witness many appearances of Jesus.  Naturally, they begin to question 
what purpose Jesus had in mind.  Even more naturally, they got it wrong.  
In this instance they merely gave voice to the traditional Jewish view 
that the Messiah would free Israel from foreign domination and restore 
Israel’s monarchy.
	
Rather than rebuke their misunderstanding, Jesus reminded them of the 
future God intended was not for them to know.  Instead he gave them a 
mission and their final marching orders.  They would be empowered to 
witness to the ends of the earth to what they had seen and heard.  They 
also received the promise that Jesus would come again as some unspecified 
date.  

The disciples’ amazement at Jesus’ departure from them in a cloud recalls 
the dramatic ascension of Elijah in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11-12).  But a 
more probable influence was the numerous references to ascension of other 
religious heroes in OT apocryphal literature.  In the Hellenistic world, 
the ascent of a king, prophet, hero or holy person had become a well-known 
symbol of divine status.  

More significant than the specific details, however, is the theological 
significance of the event.  Christ’s ascension not only demonstrated his 
divinity but signaled the inauguration of his messianic kingdom.  The new 
age of victorious redemptive love had begun.  The empowerment of his 
disciples for their mission as witnesses would carry forward this new 
spiritual reality.  The sovereignty of Christ at the right hand of God now 
extended over all the demonic powers that controlled human life and all of 
creation.  Those who believed and accepted the symbol of new creation in 
baptism would now share in this new life.


PSALM 47   This psalm celebrates the absolute sovereignty of God over all 
nations.  It may have been used as a jubilant hymn in the liturgy for the 
New Year festival when God was enthroned as Israel’s sovereign.  Several 
other psalms (Pss. 93, 96-99) also expressed this theme.  Some scholars 
believe that the returning exiles brought the practice came back from 
Babylon.  The Babylonians also had a similar liturgical custom of 
enthroning their deity, Marduk, at the beginning of a new year.  

The thought of God as king is found in other parts of the OT (Ps. 44:4; 
48:2; 74:12; 1 Sam. 12:12; Isa. 41:21; 52:7-10).  In this instance, the 
sovereignty of God is universal.  All peoples are summoned to render 
homage and praise.  The image is that of a Middle Eastern potentate 
receiving the homage of subject peoples.  The scene so described 
foreshadows an eschatological time when the kingdoms of the world would 
become the kingdoms of the Lord.  Thus the psalm serves appropriately as a 
hymn of praise for Ascension Sunday.


PSALM 93   (Alternate) This is another psalm proclaiming the sovereignty 
of God over all creation.  Like its counterpart above, it may have formed 
part of the New Year enthronement ceremonies.  Whereas the previous psalm 
celebrated political sovereignty to some extent, this one celebrates God’s 
dominion through nature (vss. 3-4).  It emphasized the way in which at the 
beginning of each new year enthronement rituals reasserted divine 
sovereignty in the cycle of the seasons and the produce of the land.  
Echoes of the creation myth of Genesis 1 echo through the roaring floods 
and thundering seas.


EPHESIANS 1:15-23   Using the traditional Hebrew *berakah* or prayer of 
blessing as his model, the apostle presents his majestic vision of 
humanity in God’s universal plan of salvation.  Through the death, 
resurrection and ascension of Christ all things in heaven and earth have 
been brought under the reign of God’s sovereign love.
 
Whether Paul authored this letter or not, the issue addressed throughout 
is the division between Jew and Gentile.  As Prof. George Caird put in his 
study, *Paul’s Letters from Prison*, (Oxford, New Clarendon Bible. 1976. 
54) racial and religious distinctions had been exacerbated by pagan 
godlessness and immorality on the one hand and Jewish superiority and 
exclusiveness on the other.  A new unity had been created by Jesus Christ 
which removed all previous barriers and legalistic traditions.  He had 
brought into being a new humanity which the common love of Jew and Gentile
empowered by the Spirit of the risen Christ would bring to all the world.  

The idealism of this passage remains as the charter of the church to this 
day.  Neither Jewish nor Gentile tradition, but Christ alone would bring 
all humanity into God’s commonwealth.  The church as this new creation 
would represent the living Christ who reigns supreme.  Bound by 
institutional prejudices, we have difficulty recognizing this universal 
aspect in the modern church.  Indeed, to use Bishop John Shelby Spong’s 
metaphor, Christians wishing to adopt such a vision of the church 
universal must become “Christians in exile” from contemporary 
denominational bondage.


LUKE 24:44-53   In an unusual alternative to the passage from Acts 1, Luke 
presents another version of the ascension of Jesus.  First he instructed 
the apostles so that they would understand how the Hebrew scriptures had 
been fulfilled by his teaching and ministry.  Then he gave them their 
mission as witnesses and told them they would subsequently be empowered to 
carry it out.  Finally, he led them out to Bethany on the far side of the 
Mount of Olive and from there was carried to heaven, leaving them to 
return to Jerusalem to worship in the temple.

The actual words attributed to Christ in this passage seem somewhat forced 
as if the author was trying too hard to end the gospel with something 
paralleling the concluding words of Matthew’s gospel.  Various early 
manuscripts of the passage have alternative readings for specific words 
and actions of the departing Lord.  Some scholars see the passage a 
closely resembling the original ending to John’s gospel (John 20:19-29) 
and believe that a simple account has been amplified by interpolations 
from John.  The author’s purpose was the reiterate the absolute identity 
of the risen Christ with the flesh-and-blood Jesus of his earlier 
narrative.  This contrasted with the late 1st century heresy called 
Docetism which denied the humanity of Jesus which asserting that his 
divine nature descended upon him at this baptism and withdrew before his 
crucifixion.  It is possible that elements of this heresy had already 
crept into the teachings of some Christian leaders by the time Luke’s 
gospel was written in the 80s CE.

Furthermore, the passage narrates the commissioning of the disciples for 
their apostolic mission.  This provides a transition from the gospel 
narrative to the Acts of the Apostles where the witness of the apostles is 
elaborated in greater detail.  

Another aspect of the passage highlights the typical attitude of the early 
church toward the Spirit.  The church did not have a true doctrine of the 
Spirit until the 4th century.  Rather, the Spirit was regarded as divine 
power to be received through faith to motivate the witness of believers.

The final words of the text remind us that those first believers were 
faithful Jews carrying on their traditional religious practices and 
seeking to understand who Jesus is and what his death and resurrection 
meant by worshipping in the temple and re-interpreting their scriptures.  
A strong argument can be made that the New Testament as a whole and the 
four gospels in particular are a carefully designed reworking of 
traditional Hebrew theology as expressed in the Hebrew scriptures.


copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these sermons.


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