Grace Presbyterian Church
May 28, 2017, Easter 7A
Acts 1:1-14; Luke 24:44-53
Ascension Deficit Disorder
Before we go any farther: the title comes from a comic strip.
In the strip the disciples are seen (backs to us viewers) looking up at the sky, some pointing, as Jesus ascends into heaven (we see him disappearing into a cloud). One disciple, however, is crying out “Where? Where? I can’t see him!” And of course, that one disciple is labeled “Ascension Deficit Disorder.”
Such deficit of attention has been typical of the occasion for quite a while now, even in some of the church’s most liturgical quarters. Part of the issue is that, technically, the feast day doesn’t fall on a Sunday – Ascension Day was actually this past Thursday. As well, the event doesn’t really feature prominently in much of the church’s liturgy and practice – its “public theology,” if you will. Let’s face it, the most attention any of us ever pay to the Ascension is when it appears in the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, in a terse four-word phrase. For example in the Nicene Creed we read:
On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
And, really, that’s about it for the Ascension.
To be fair, it’s not as if scripture makes that big a deal of the Ascension either. Only one New Testament author takes the trouble to mention the event, but interestingly that author feels compelled to describe it twice. Luke includes a brief account of the event at the end of his gospel, but then returns to the event at the beginning of the book of Acts. And if we look closely, the two accounts…well, they’re not exactly the same.
The Ascension is described, not surprisingly, at the very end of Luke’s gospel. It shares the twenty-fourth and last chapter of that gospel with the visit of Mary Magdalene and other women to Jesus’s tomb, now found empty; Luke’s lengthy account of Jesus’s appearance to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus; and Jesus’s subsequent appearance with the larger body of disciples back in Jerusalem afterwards. The account we read from Luke earlier picks up directly after that event, after Jesus has asked for something to eat and been given a piece of fish, which he ate in front of them in a way a ghost would not be able to do.
Luke doesn’t give us any indication of time lapse in chapter 24; so far as we know all of the events in this chapter take place on the same day – including Jesus’s opening of scripture to the disciples and their trip to Bethany, where he was lifted up to the heavens in front of them.
At the beginning of Acts, however, Luke offers some different details. For example, in verse 3 Luke adds the noteworthy detail that after his resurrection, Jesus appeared to the disciples over the course of forty days – quite different from the seeming all-in-one-day approach at the end of the gospel. The words Luke records from Jesus are slightly different as well, and Acts also adds the two men in white robes who chide the disciples for standing around looking at the sky.
While there are churches in this country, and probably in this town, who would accuse me of some sort of heresy for pointing out what looks like inconsistency from one biblical book to another, the explanation here is pretty simple. At the very beginning of his gospel Luke declares to his intended reader, the otherwise-unknown Theophilus, that after noting how many others were seeking to write down accounts of the gospel story as they had been handed down by eyewitnesses, that “I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you” (Luke 1:3-4). In short, Luke is telling us from the very beginning that these two substantial volumes are the products of careful and thorough research. To put it in scholarly terms, Luke has taken up the task of gathering material from primary and secondary sources (eyewitnesses and those who had received the stories from them). When, by the time of writing down Acts, he had gathered information that he didn’t necessarily have at the time he wrote his gospel, Luke duly and diligently updated the record, so that “most excellent Theophilus” would be more completely informed about all these things that had taken place.
Would that we would be so diligent.
We have, particularly in this country and in the church’s more evangelical quarters, been subject to some fairly horrible instruction about reading scripture. We have far too many so-called Christians who are convinced they have the Bible licked. Because they heard it from some big-time preacher or read it in some old commentary or book by one of those big-time preacher they know everything there is to know, they know the only possible way to understand what that scripture means, and they consider themselves authorized to go out as heresy hunters and beat down those who commit the crime of coming to different conclusions about the scriptures they know.
That is one of the more damnable (in the most literal sense of the word) errors a so-called Christian can commit.
You can read scripture through five thousand times, and if you’re doing it right – if you are doing it to be led by the Holy Spirit instead of to confirm your own preconceived conclusions about the Bible – you’re going to be surprised and caught off guard by something the five thousand and first time you read it. You don’t have it licked, I don’t care how many times you’ve read it. You haven’t gotten the whole story, and you haven’t gotten it right. Like our friend Luke here, go back to the sources and read it again. Really, folks, we live in far too dangerous a world for anything other than constant immersion in the scriptures, over and over again, under the constant prodding and pulling and leading and shocking of the Holy Spirit. No, you don’t have it licked. Go back and read it again.
As to today’s story itself, maybe two points need to be reinforced. In both accounts Luke records Jesus reassuring the disciples that even as he is leaving them, he is not leaving them alone. Actually, though, the fulfillment of this promise is pretty much next week’s scripture, so let’s leave that until then, shall we? (You didn’t expect a sermon cliffhanger, did you?)
The other striking point that we might easily overlook is almost buried in Luke 24:49, and reiterated in Acts 1:4. Even as Jesus is telling the disciples that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem,” (or in “Jerusalem, and all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” in Acts” Jesus’s first instruction to the body is to … go back to Jersualem. Go home. Wait.
Wait “until you have been clothed with power from on high” in Luke. Jesus “ordered them not to leave Jersualem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father” in Acts.
Even as we have a worldwide call, we also have a mandate to wait upon the Lord. We are to go into all the world, but not without being made ready by the moving and shaking of the Holy Spirit. We are, in short, to hurry up, and wait, to be open and receiving and ready for the leading of the Spirit to prepare us to witness to the world.
And maybe that’s the Ascension Deficit Disorder we need most to be worried about.
For even the highly neglected days on the church calendar, Thanks be to God. Amen.
(p.s. I’d love to be able to give credit for that cartoon, if anybody knows…)