"Life is not so much beginnings and endings as it is middles, middles that don't measure up -- and our happiness depends on how we come to terms with the pale reflections of our dreams. (Paul D. Zimmerman, "Middles and Muddles," review of film "Sunday Bloody Sunday," Newsweek, September 27, 1971, 106)

Gospel for Ascension of the Lord (8 May 2016)

Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
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(Jesus) said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.

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.”Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God. (Luke 24:46-53 – NRSV)

Introductory notes

This text – beginning at 24:46 – is preceded by an account of one of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances and the following statement: ”Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled’. Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, .... ” Luke is making it clear, as he concludes his “account of the events that have taken place among us” (Luke 1:1), that Jesus represents the fulfilment of all that God has promised to the people and that, what the apostles are passing on to the community, comes directly from Jesus himself.

Timothy Luke Johnson says of the opening sentence to our text (Luke 24:46): “Luke now makes the decisive turn toward his second volume. Having shown how the prophecies of Scripture and the prophecies of the Messiah about himself have reached fulfillment, Luke has Jesus now utter a ‘programmatic prophecy’ .... that anticipates the narrative to follow and places it, too, under the guidance of the Scripture.” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, The Liturgical Press, 1991, 402-403.)

Johnson notes that, in this one sentence, we have five key themes struck, themes that will be developed in the Book of Acts:

1. the proclamation (kērysso) – see Acts 8:5; 9:20; 19:13; 20:25; 28:31
2. of repentance (metanoia) see Acts 5:31; 11:18; 13:24; 20:21; 26:20
3. and the forgiveness of sins (aphesis tōn hamartiōn) see Acts 2:38; 5:31; 10:43; 13:38; 28:18
4. in Jesus’ name (onoma) – see Acts 2:38; 3:6, 16; 4:7, 10, 12, 30; 5:28, 40–41; 8:16; 9:15–16, 27–28; 10:43, 48; 15:14, 26; 16:18; 19:5, 17; 21:13; 22:16
5. to all the nations (panta ta ethnē), Acts 9:15; 10:35, 45; 11:1, 18; 13:46–47; 14:16, 27; 15:3, 7, 12, 14, 19; 17:26; 18:6; 21:25; 22:21; 26:23; 28:28.

The call to repentance is central. Luke refers to repentance on sixteen different occasions in his Gospel. He tells us, for example, right at the beginning that John the Baptist “proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3. Mark 1:4 and Matthew 3:2 have similar references). Luke cites the Prophet Isaiah in speaking of John the Baptist: “A voice cries in the wilderness, prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight ....” (Isaiah 40:3-5).

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the notion of repentance is particularly rich, carrying multiple meanings, implicitly and explicitly:

  • Israel is a pilgrim people; the journey out of Egypt and through the wilderness, initiated by Yahweh, is deeply symbolic of a spiritual pilgrimage; unlike the geographical pilgrimage, the spiritual pilgrimage never ends;

  • This ongoing spiritual pilgrimage is a journey in the way of the Lord; through this journey the Covenant relationship develops; it is a journey in and into love;

  • The people are constantly deviating from the way of the Lord; they must be called back; they must turn and return to the way of the Lord – hence the Isaiah’s reference to “the way of the Lord”;

In the Hebrew Scriptures “the notion of repentance follows from the notion of sin. It suggests that sin is an act or attitude which can be corrected by some change in the person”. (J P Healey, “Repentance”, in D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 5), Doubleday, 1992, 671.) Repentance is linked with forgiveness, the implication being that God’s mercy will be shown to those who repent.

“The basic Hebrew word which is used to express this change is šwb, the root of which means simply ‘to turn’. It is a particularly instructive word because it reflects the notion of journeying and pilgrimage, which exemplifies in a very fundamental sense the attitude and relationship between Yahweh and Israel (Deut 26:5–11).” (Ibd.)

God’s people are a people-on-the-way and it is God’s way. They are a pilgrim people.

Israel’s religious calendar is built around the pilgrim feasts of Passover, Booths and Pentecost. “It is this notion of walking and journeying, then, that illumines the meaning of šwb .... The relationship with Yahweh is envisioned as an ongoing journey requiring constant attention and vigilance, and a sense of purpose. To deviate from the way is, at the same time, to lose sight of the objective”. (Ibid.)

This theme is particularly evident in the prophets, especially Jeremiah, where there is a strong emphasis on God’s mercy – “Come back disloyal Israel .... I will frown on you no more since I am merciful” (3:12) – and a faithful remnant – “Glean, glean, as a vine is gleaned, what is left of Israel” (6:9). The Covenant is kept alive by God, through that faithful remnant: “With everlasting Love have I loved you, therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you” (31:3). This will in fact lead to a renewed Covenant: “This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (31:33)

The returning pilgrim will always find mercy. This not only motivates the return – the repentance – it transforms the pilgrim. See for example the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son in Luke 15. Mercy is at the heart of the kingdom.

“Repentance in the prophets, then, is an act of the heart. It is more than mere words. It is defined by clear actions that lead to justice, mercy, and fidelity. But repentance was also a cultic act. It is a liturgical function in Israel. There are a number of passages which point to the liturgical act of repentance (Isa 63:7–64:11; Hos 6:1–3; 7:14; 14:1–3; Joel 2:15–18). These cultic expressions apparently included acts such as rending garments, throwing ashes, wearing coarse garments, and as in the liturgy of the yôm hakkippurîm, symbolic acts (Leviticus 16). These cultic acts attest to a widespread belief in both the necessity and the possibility of repentance and forgiveness. Though the prophets often excoriate such rituals because they are performed without a change of heart (Jeremiah 7), they are important indicators of the faith of Israel in the continuous mercy of Yahweh.” (Op cit, 672.)

In the Christian Scriptures, the primary Greek term normally translated as “repentance” in English, is metanoia. The notion – either as noun or verb – occurs 58 times. The English rendering has perhaps been colored by the Latin background of concepts like penance and penitence.

John does not use either the noun or the verb in his Gospel or his letters. Though, in John, Jesus identifies himself as the “way” (see John 14:1-7). Believing in the “way”, following the “way”, remaining in the “way”, are all crucial themes in John’s Gospel.

Similarly, St Paul hardly uses the term – for exceptions see Romans 2:4, 2 Corinthians 12:21 and 2 Timothy 2:25. Though, in Acts 26:20 and 17:30-31, Paul is clearly seen to be calling his listeners to repentance.

The Synoptic Gospels are emphatic about the call to repentance. We have already noted Luke’s reference to John the Baptist’s message, with the further reference to the Prophet Isaiah, and the two parallel references in Mark and Matthew. “Here the basic flavor of intellectual change in metanoia is evident. It is also clear that behavioral ‘fruit’ (i.e., a changed life) is expected to flow from repentance.” (A Boyd Luter Jnr, “Repentance”, in D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 5), Doubleday, 1992, 674.)

“In his early ministry, Jesus’ own message was expressed in similar ways. Like the Baptizer, he proclaimed, ‘Repent, for the kingdom ... is near’ (Matt 4:17). His mission focused on calling ‘sinners to repentance’ (Luke 5:32). What that meant is clarified in Mark 1:15: ‘Repent and believe the good news’. Any conception of repenting (metanoeō) not wedded to faith in the gospel falls short of the full biblical message. .... Thus, it can be concluded that, in the gospels, metanoia stands for the entire response bringing about eternal life, including faith when it is not stated. Accordingly, the Great Commission statement which concludes Luke’s gospel reads, ‘Repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations’” (24:47). ....

“The letters to the churches in the Roman province of Asia in the book of Revelation contain eight uses of ‘repent’ (2:5 [twice], 16, 21 [twice], 22; 3:3, 19). The glorified Christ’s command to repent was directed at a lukewarm church in Laodicea (3:19), but also at the great church at Ephesus (2:5), which had ‘forsaken its first love’ (2:4). All these sinful churches needed to change their minds and bring forth the fruit of repentance (Luke 3:8; Acts 26:20), turning again to Christ.

“Sadly, the last mentions of ‘repent’ (metanoeō) in the NT picture an unrepentant mass of humankind as God’s climactic wrath is poured out on the earth (Rev 9:20, 21; 16:9, 11). Instead of turning to the Lord in repentant faith through his longstanding patience (2 Pet 3:9) or to escape his righteous judgment, these sinners continued with their abominable acts (9:20, 21) and cursed God instead of glorifying him (16:9, 11).

“In conclusion it can be said that repentance in the NT is always anchored in a change of thinking (metanoia), ..... Repentance must not be separated from its flip side of faith (Mark 1:15; Acts 20:21), or from the realization that it sometimes stands for the package of human response to the good news of Jesus Christ (2 Pet 3:9; cf. Acts 2:38). True repentance, whether by an unbeliever or a believer (Acts 26:18, 20; Luke 17:3–4), receives the gracious forgiveness that God continually offers all humankind in Christ (Luke 24:47).” (A B Luter Jnr, op cit, 673-4.)

We should remember that “knowing” and “thinking” in the cultural world of the Gospels were understood in very different ways to the way we understand these concepts in the wake of the Enlightenment. This is perhaps best indicated by the theme in the prophets that this change of mind is in fact a change of heart.

You are witnesses of these things: The Greek word, translated here as “witnesses” is martyres. The “martyr” is the ultimate witness. Luke uses the word in Acts to describe those who proclaim the Good News – see 1:8 & 22, 2:32, 3:15, 5:32, 10:39–41, 13:31, 22:15 & 20 and 26:16.

clothed with power from on high: We find this same reference to “power” in the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, when the Angel Gabriel says to Mary, “the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow” (1:35). And Jesus is “filled with the power of the Spirit” (4:14) when he returns from the desert to commence his mission – see also 4:36, 5:17, 6:19, 8:46, 9:1, 10:13, 19:37, 21:27 and 22:69. We will hear it again in the beginning of Acts: “You will receive power” (Acts 1:8). “The ‘power (dynamis) from on high’ refers to the Holy Spirit, as Luke’s use in 4:14 and especially in the sequel, Acts 1:8, makes clear. The phrase is exegetical to ‘promise of the Father’ as in Acts 2:33.” (Johnson, L. T. (1991). The Gospel of Luke. (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Liturgical Press, 1991, 403.) Luke calls to mind the words of Isaiah: “until a spirit from on high is poured out on us.” (Isaiah 32:15) Similarly the words of the book of Wisdom: “Who has learned your counsel, unless you have given wisdom and sent your holy spirit from on high?” (Wisdom 9:17)

he was carried up into heaven: This is repeated by Luke in Acts 1:9 & 12. See also Mark 16:19. Neither Matthew nor John make reference to this.

with great joy: “As so often in Luke, “joy” (chara) signifies a state of messianic exaltation and peace (1:14; 2:10; 8:13; 10:17; 15:7, 10). (The disciples) show their obedience to Jesus by returning to Jerusalem.” (Johnson, op cit, 404.)

Reflection

Jesus tells the disciples: “stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high”. The Greek word – kathizō – translated as “stay”, has a fixed, definite tone to it. It literally means “sit”. The disciples – whom we are told are filled with joy – are keen to get going. They have amazing news to announce to the world. The sooner the better, right? But Jesus says, “Wait! Stay in Jerusalem, where your dreams were shattered! Stay there until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

If the disciples rush off in their enthusiasm, there is a high likelihood that they will proclaim some version of themselves, rather than be witnesses to what God is offering the world through Jesus. They must learn to wait.

Jesus waited for the disciples throughout his months of ministry. They were so obtuse. Mary waited for her son and the unfolding of the promise. She was in the wilderness all that time. The father of the prodigal son waited for his return. God’s willingness to wait for us is one of the most beautiful themes of our faith. It is put nicely in the Catechism in the context of prayer: “‘If you knew the gift of God!’ (Jn 4:10). The wonder of prayer is revealed beside the well where we come seeking water: there, Christ comes to meet every human being. It is he who first seeks us and asks us for a drink. Jesus thirsts; his asking arises from the depths of God's desire for us. Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God's thirst with ours. God thirsts that we may thirst for God.” (#2560.)

When we wait we are not in control. That distresses us. We like to be in control. This may prompt us to be busy – yes, busy (ostensibly) about the Kingdom. But that busyness is not fruitful because it is in fact flight. Such busyness is the very antithesis of how the Kingdom works. It is God’s Kingdom, not ours. It is God’s work, not ours. We must learn to wait for and upon God.

No doubt it would have been a challenge for the disciples to “sit” and wait when they were so full of the Good News. It is also a challenge for us. On top of the normal human resistance to waiting and yielding control, we are the children of an electronic age that easily seduces us into thinking that waiting is not necessary. Waiting – waiting well – is necessary for our very humanity. It is also necessary for our being faithful disciples. St Augustine reminds us: “The lame get on better on the right way than the swift on the wrong way.” (Sermons on the New Testament, 169, 15, 18.)