First Thoughts on Year A First Reading Acts Passages from the Lectionary

Easter 7

William Loader

Easter 7: 24 May Acts 1:6-14

Luke begins his account of the beginnings of the church by recapitulating some of what he had reported in Luke 24. There he had indicated that Jesus gave the disciples instructions that they would be witnesses, adding: "And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high" (24:49). He then ascends to heaven (24:51), though some manuscripts lack this, perhaps because it does not sit altogether well with how Acts begins where he ascends only after 40 days. If we turn to Acts, the 40 days serve a symbolic purpose, as does dating the coming of the Spirit to the harvest festival, Pentecost, the 50th day after Passover. Luke, who alone dates these things in this way, is making a statement about continuity with Israel. It is a way of saying: this new movement is no novelty or new invention, but stands in continuity with the ancient traditions of Israel and more importantly: with God's action in the world from the beginning.

The connection with Israel is evident in the first verse of our reading. The disciples are concerned with Israel's future. Its kingdom is God's kingdom. When will God again reign in Israel? It is another way of saying; when will good news for the poor - Israel in its brokenness - happen? For those familiar with Luke's first volume we hear echoes of the faithful Jews at Jesus' birth who were awaiting the restoration of Israel and jesus' annopucement of good news for the poor (4:16-20; 6:20-21). Volume two begins as had volume one, but, more significantly, Luke is in this way reaffirming Israel's hope.

The hope of the Jewish people to live securely in its borders in justice and peace is a continuing preoccupation. The crucial issue has always been: how? At whose expense? From the prophets onwards there have been competing visions, from Israel's peace by extensive possession of land, dispossessing if not annihilating others, to Israel's peace in harmony with all peoples and radically inclusive so that no person or race, of whatever gender or state of fallenness, etc, is deemed beyond God's love. In this sense Jesus was offering just one among the many "solutions" to Jewish hope.

One might have expected Jesus in 1:7 to round on the disciples and rebuke them for still hankering after Israel's hope, but Luke tells us nothing of the kind. That hope is no more out of place at the foundation of the church than it was at the foundation of his ministry. If there is a rebuke, it is in the form of telling them not to worry about timing: leave that to God. They are, instead, to go and tell people what has happened. Luke's understanding of Israel's hope is one that is a blessing for all peoples. That is why it makes sense to tell the story to all: to the uttermost ends of the earth (we could have told him there was an Australia and a New Zealand!). The Spirit, God's inspiring presence, like a breath and a wind, would energise them to tell the story everywhere. Good news for Israel and its poor becomes good news for all peoples and their poor everywhere as they are invited to believe the story and join the expanded people of God and share its blessings. Luke does not do, as we usually (and rightly) do: claim that what Jesus preached to Israel is now to be preached to all. He stays within the framework of Israel's hope, as do most New Testament writers. The good news remains Israel's good news. It blesses others as they join with the true Israel. That is the invitation.

Having said this, Jesus departs. Luke has us imagine Jesus ascending into a cloud and presumably from there to God's immediate presence. This is symbolic narrative of much the same kind as we find in Luke's account of Jesus' baptism where he has the Spirit appear physically as a dove and of Pentecost where has a real wind and real fire. He and his hearers would know the game. It is a profound and celebratory play with images. So the story of the ascension should not have us pondering the possibilities of Jesus in orbit, nor should we be imagining that for 40 days Jesus resided somewhere in suburban Jerusalem. He didn't. He appeared and disappeared. Luke's neat symbolism creates problems for Paul, whose encounter has to be categorised differently - he would not be pleased. The rest of the New Testament - and Luke elsewhere - speaks of the resurrection as the moment when Jesus ascended to be seated at God's right hand. The point was his vindication, the affirmation of his ministry, God's ownership of who and what he was and is.

Ultimately - in the end - God matters and therefore Jesus matters and so history's future must be an encounter with that truth. Luke neatly has Jesus go with clouds and come again with clouds. The latter was a tradition reflected in images of Jesus' coming in Mark 14:62 and 1 Thess 4:13-18 and elsewhere. The issue is not meteorology but mystery. Our gospel reading last week showed how authors might play with the concept. indeed the coming of Jesus in the Spirit into the life of the believer is the greatest promise. :John has the traditional notion (14:3), the immediate resurrection appearance for the then disciples (14:18-20) and the divine indwelling (14:21-24). What counts in the end is not the events, but the life and hope which the coming of the Spirit of Jesus brings for all, as attested already by Jesus himself in his statement of mission in Luke 4:16-20. That is now the mission of the disciples and of us all.

Gospel: Easter 7: 24 May John 17:1-11
Epistle: Easter 7: 24 May 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11