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Introduction 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 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. 
     
ACTS 1:1-11              The author of the Acts of the Apostles,
traditionally believed to have been Luke, intended his work to be the
completion of the story he had to tell.  The main character, however, was
not Jesus but the Holy Spirit.  In order for the narrative to continue, the
hero of the gospel had to leave the scene.  Not fully understanding the
messianic message, the disciples wanted to know what lay ahead.  Jesus had
to repeat his counsel that the future was known only to God.  Their role
was to wait for gift of the Spirit and to be witnesses to what they had
seen and heard while he had been with them.  They stand amazed as the risen
Christ ascends to the clouds symbolizing his sovereignty. 


PSALM 47 or PSALM 93     Both of these psalms came from a small collection
celebrating the sovereignty of God.  They were probably used at the annual
celebration of the enthronement of God as Israel's true monarch.


EPHESIANS 1:15-23        This is the heart of a typical Hebrew *berakah,*
or celebratory prayer of praise and thanksgiving.  Here Paul, or some other
author writing in his name, celebrates the sovereignty of God represented
by the redemptive work of Christ. 


LUKE 24:44 53            Jesus' final appearance to his disciples included
a slightly different account of the ascension.  Before leaving, he taught
them how the Jewish scriptures told of his messianic mission for which he
now commissioned them.  Before beginning their witness, they were to await
the gift of the Spirit. 

************

ACTS 1:1-11   As the first paragraph points out, the author of the Acts of 
Apostles intended his work to be the completion of the story he had to
tell.  The main character, however, was not Jesus of Nazareth, as in the
Gospel of Luke, but the Holy Spirit.  In order for the narrative to
continue, the hero of the gospel had to leave the scene. 

It should be noted, however, that the details in this passage differ from
those in the concluding paragraph of the gospel.  In the latter instance,
the departure took place immediately after Jesus' final appearance.  In
this instance, there have been many appearances over a period of forty
days.  According to this narrative, the apostles had to wait several more
days before being baptized by the Holy Spirit.  Jesus' instructions to wait
in Jerusalem until they received the Spirit provided the necessary linkage
between the two versions. 

Ever wishing to know what lay ahead and still thinking in earthly terms,
the disciples asked if this was the time for the restoration of the
Israel(s kingdom.  The messianic message had still not fully dawned on
them.  So Jesus had to repeat his counsel that the future was known only to
God.  Their role was to receive the Spirit and to be witnesses to what they
had seen and heard while he had been with them. 

In vss.7-8, Jesus further stated the inclusive, universal nature of their
mission.  As Galileans, most of the apostles would have recognized this
when he named Samaria.  But the hyperbole (to the ends of the earth) would
have been stretching their minds to a considerable extent.  Are we even yet
fully aware of what that commission means?  Does it mean merely telling of
Jesus and preaching the gospel in distant lands?  That was the evangelical
goal at the beginning of the 20th century when the slogan (winning the
world for Christ in this century) was bruited throughout North America.  We
definitely failed to do that, didn't we?  So what does the mission look
like now that our missionary evangelism has brought a resurgence of other
traditions of faith?

As in these opening paragraphs of Acts, this is no time for standing gazing
at the clouds.  We have work to do between the ascension of Christ and his
promised return.  Of this we can be certain, this incident is all the
assurance we need that Jesus Christ is sovereign Lord over all.


PSALM 47   This psalm is often included with Psalms 93 and 96-98 as Psalms
of Yahweh's Enthronement.  Just as in the Babylonian liturgy, the god
Marduk was installed to exercise dominion over the nations at the beginning
of the new year, so also post-exilic Israel adopted a similar liturgical
celebration for the new year's festival.

The psalmist celebrates the sovereignty of Yahweh over all nations, but
supremely over Israel whom Yahweh loves.  The opening verse summons all
peoples to join Israel in rejoicing.  This has been interpreted as a
triumphal song of victory over the Canaanite gods whom Yahweh displaced
after the conquest of the land by the Israelites.  The supreme Canaanite
god, Ras Shamra, also received the distinction of being called the Most
High.  The term quickly became a significant designation for Yahweh in the
Israelite ideology.

In vs.5-7, the image of Yahweh 'going up' amid a fanfare of trumpets
described a procession of Yahweh as represented by the monarch amid
enthusiastic applause of the multitude.  The pageantry of the coronation of
the British monarchy follows a very similar pattern.  Even the monarchs and
heads of state of the world's many nations gathered when Elizabeth II was
crowned in 1953.

The last image of vs. 9, 'the shields of the earth', symbolizes the role of
the nations' monarchs as the protectors of their people.  In like manner,
the psalmist claims that those shields for Yahweh, Sovereign above all
others.


PSALM 93   This alternative psalm belongs to the same group of enthronement
psalms identified by the early 20th century German scholar Mowinckle.  The
idea of the kingship attributed to the chief god had a long and well
established history in other near Eastern traditions.  The New Year
festival of enthronement provided a necessary reiteration of this myth.
Israel adopted this myth early in its religious history, hence the
references to creation in vss.2-4.  The concept came to the fore in the
post-exilic period when the human monarchy no longer existed.  This psalm
reflects both periods.  In vs.5, the reconstructed temple of Yahweh and the
Torah displaced the human monarch as the symbolic representative of
Yahweh's sovereignty.


EPHESIANS 1:15 23   According to one scholar, John C. Kirby, the first
three chapters of the letter take the form of a typical Hebrew *berakah,*
or celebratory prayer of praise and thanksgiving.  This passage forms the
heart of the prayer.   Here Paul, or some other author writing in his name,
celebrates the sovereignty of God represented by the redemptive work of
Jesus Christ.  Some of the psalms follow the same pattern and contain the
same basic ingredients: God as creator and deliverer of Israel. (Cf.
Ps.105)  Similar prayers have also been found in the Dead Sea scrolls from
Qumran written in the 1st century CE with which Paul may well have been
familiar.

Primarily, the faith of the apostle and the Ephesians in the absolute
sovereignty of Christ finds expression in this prayer.  On the other hand,
there is a narrative aspect to the passage.  It is addressed not to God,
but to the recipient community.  As Kirby pointed out, what may have begun
as a liturgy and a sermon for baptismal candidates at Pentecost was later
re-written as a formal letter in somewhat traditional style.  This would
account for the narrative of vss.15-16 where the apostle speaks directly to
his intended audience.  The succeeding verses of the passage give the
content of his prayer for them lifting up his essential message of absolute
divine sovereignty exercised through Christ.

Many scholars have noted the similarities between this letter and the
Letter to the Colossians.  Colossians 1:4 has an almost identical phrase to
the phrase in vs.15, "your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all
the saints."  Eduard Schweizer wrote that this can only mean that faith
must be lived out as love in the same way that Jesus lived and died.  This
characteristic distinguishes the church community from its secular
environment.  "Knowledge of Christ is characterized so emphatically as
something that must be lived out in an ethical way....  Christ is the place
in which the community lives, the atmosphere in which it thrives, and which
doe sin deed permeate it." (Schweizer, Eduard. *The Letter to the
Colossians: A Commentary." Augsburg, 1982)

The special gift Paul prays these Christians receive through their faith
and the love they embody is the wisdom and revelation of God, a knowledge
of God, the source of all life and truth.  Significantly, the Greek text
uses the word *sophia* rather than *gnosis*thus distinguishing the true
Christian revelation from the Gnostic mysteries that so plagues the church
during the 2nd century CE.  Yet the apostle does claim that an
"enlightenment" does occur, but in the heart, not merely the intellect. 
The knowledge received comes in the form of a hope and an awareness of the
future inheritance to which God's power destines the believers.  This power
is evident in the resurrection and ascension of Christ to the right hand of
God - i.e. to the place of divine sovereignty.  Being now in Christ, as his
body, Christians can be assured of sharing in the same inheritance of their
Lord and Saviour.

The power of faith is not only oriented to the distant future ro even to
life beyond death for each one of us.  The gift is also for living in the
present.  It is as if the future had already happened.  In Christ, the
apostle is saying, it already has happened for those who have been
baptized.  In a very elaborate way, he reiterates exactly what baptism
symbolized for him: to die and be buried with Christ then raised with
Christ to live entirely committed in love for God and for others.


Luke 24:44-53   In this passage, Luke tells us that as he took his final
leave of the disciples, he did several things.  He confirmed what the
Hebrew scriptures had prophesied about him.  He taught them what those
scriptures meant in reference to his messianic mission of revealing God's
love for all humanity.  He commissioned them to undertake this same mission
in his name.  He bid them wait in Jerusalem until they had been empowered
for their mission.  He gave them his blessing.  While waiting, the
disciples engaged in their traditional worship in the temple (vs. 53). 

It is obvious that as late as the 80s CE when Luke's Gospel was written,
Christians still regarded themselves as a part of historic Israel.  On the
other hand, they had no scriptures other than those with which they were
familiar.  So it was natural that they should look to the sacred literature
of Judaism, whether in Hebrew or more probably in Greek, for a
foreshadowing of what they had witnessed and were now commissioned to
spread throughout the world.  Not only the words of Jesus of Nazareth whom
they now called the Messiah/Christ, but the wisdom of the ancient writings
of the prophets of Israel, the Psalms and the Torah were to guide them in
their witness.

The ascension receives only a brief sentence in this account.  It is no
more than a quiet exit with a prayer of blessing.  Did the author already
have in mind the sequel to his narrative and keep the more dramatic
departure for that story?  Professor George Caird noted that this quiet
leaving has a close resemblance to the account in John 20: 19-29.  Some
manuscripts of Luke were even amplified by interpolations from John.  The
stress on witness and the command to remain in Jerusalem provide a
significant link to the more expanded version in the early chapters of
Acts.  The apostolic witness remained centred in Jerusalem until the
Sanhedrin undertook a severe persecution after the martyrdom of Stephen. 

Note also the absence of any mention in this passage of the Spirit.  For
the early church, the Spirit was not a doctrine or a person as the later
Trinitarian creeds stated, but to quote Caird "an access to power to be
received (cf. Acts 19:2, 1 Thess. 1:5,  Heb. 2:4). In effect, Luke's
narrative ends with Jesus having departed to heaven and the disciples in
the temple, the same place where the narrative began in 1:5.


copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006, 2004
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.


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