Most scholars agree that the same person wrote both the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, the only two books with an uncontested account of Jesus’ ascension. For the writer of these texts, this event was so important it was included in each and, narratively, provides a kind of “hinge” moment between all that comes before and all that comes after.
In the Gospel, the ascension of Christ completes the narrative – it is the fulfillment of the glorification of Jesus, the event that symbolizes the vindication of all he did and said leading up to that moment. Just as he did with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus opened the disciples’ minds by walking them through the law, the prophets, and the psalms so that they could finally understand that his suffering was not an indication of failure but intricately interwoven in the new thing that God had accomplished in him. As Jesus lifted his hands and blessed his disciples, they became witnesses not only of the in-breaking reign of God through signs, miracles, and the resurrection of their beloved teacher but of the Risen Lord in all of his glory. No longer is Jesus simply their Rabbi – he is God, worthy of worship and praise. Now, with their eyes opened to the true identity of Jesus Christ, they no longer have to hide in fear. The days of trembling in confusion and uncertainty are gone – no more locked doors, no more dodging religious leaders in the streets. Boldly and continually they go into the temple , blessing God!
From a literary perspective, this seems like a good ending. So why did Luke feel the need to retell this story and do so at the very beginning of his next writing? In the book of Acts, the ascension begins the narrative, it is the foundation of all that comes after. Its implication is not solely adoration but of adoration and praise that compels action. The vindication and glorification of Jesus is not the completion of Christ’s ministry – it is the seed of the reign of God that had been planted and taken root, and now must grow and spread across the nations through the proclamation of the gospel by followers of the Way. The rest of the book of Acts traces the movement of this proclamation. The ascension narrative grounds this movement not in the disciples’ own devices but in divine empowerment for the mission of God.
Jesus’ ascension is the hinge of Luke’s narrative, providing not only a transition between Jesus’ earthly presence and ministry, and the work of the apostles as they preach the good news, but also providing the ground of continuity between the mission of God embodied and carried out in Christ and then continued in the Spirit-empowered ministry of Christ’s followers. Jesus’ story, begun in the gospel, does not conclude with his ascension. It continued in the lives of those who were promised the empowerment of the Spirit and sent to tell the world about Jesus. And it continues in each of us today, as we take up the mantel of Christ’s ministry of reconciliation.
We too are called to bear witness not only to the subversive ethics that characterize God’s reign but to proclaim that Jesus is the Son of the Living God, worthy of our worship and praise. We are called to proclaim him as Lord, to live the kinds of lives that bear testimony to his presence and that invites others into the wholeness that God lovingly offers to the world. We are called to testify, with our words and with our actions, that the power of God in Jesus Christ really does fill all in all.
And, just like the disciples, we are not left to our own devices in this work. The blessing that Jesus offered his disciples on the day of his ascension carries on in each of us. We too have been marked by divine favor, we too have received the promise of continued divine presence. Liturgically, this day also marks a hinge-moment for us as we make the final turn in Eastertide and enter the last leg of our journey toward Pentecost. These next ten days marks another period of preparation for us as we wait with the disciples for the promise of the Spirit.
If we read a little further in the Acts story from where our lectionary stops today, we see the disciples return to the upper room. This time, rather than hiding away in fear, they hunker down in prayer and anticipation. They have no idea what will come next or when – but they know that what Christ has promised they can count on. Today, as we make this turn toward Pentecost, may we each be bold enough to pray with faith and certainty and anticipation for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit.