Gospel for Ascension Day, the Seventh Sunday of Easter (2 June 2019)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
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)
Apart from Luke, Mark is the only other Gospel writer who makes reference to the Ascension – see Mark 16:19.
This conclusion to the Gospel is “intended to serve literary and religious purposes and not simply historical ones” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991, 405).
The story of the disciples continuing the mission of Jesus is signaled here. Luke is to develop this in the Book of Acts: “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:
c) for forgiveness of sins (aphesis tōn hamartiōn), Acts 2:38; 5:31; 10:43; 13:38; 28:18;
d) in Jesus’ name (onomati autou), 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;
e) 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” (Luke Timothy Johnson, op cit, 402-403).
The call to repentance – radical change of mind and heart in accord with the demands of the kingdom – is understandably central to all four Gospels. 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 concept of repentance is particularly rich, carrying multiple meanings, implicitly and explicitly:
• It is therefore an ongoing journey of surrender; however, 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 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)
“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.
It is almost impossible to speak without ambiguity of metanoia because it is both gift and task. Hans Kung reminds us: “The cross is not only example and model, but ground, power and norm of the Christian faith.” (Hans Kung, On Being a Christian, Doubleday, 1976, 410). Thus, the merciful presence of God not only motivates/enables the return of the straying pilgrim, it actually transforms/reconciles the pilgrim.
See for example the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son in Luke 15. The metaphor of “lostness” forces us to focus on God, the one who seeks out what is “lost”. God is the primary agent.
There is therefore a difference between repentance as understood in the Hebrew Scriptures and repentance as understood in the Christian Scriptures. In a word, the difference is Jesus. We are brought back into the Covenant through Him, with Him and in Him. St Pauls’ references to reconciliation affirm this: “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life” (Romans 5:10); “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Corinthians 5:18-20).
John does not use the term metanoia in any of its forms, 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. In this he is expressing the very heart of the process of metanoia.
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.
witnesses: The Greek word 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.
sending: The Greek verb is exapostellō, meaning “send away”, “send out”. Luke has already mentioned Jesus’ “being sent” as prophet by God (4:18, 43), and of his “sending” his those who will bear his teaching (9:2, 48; 10:1, 3, 16; 11:49). The concept of “send” – the Latin is mittere from which we get our word “mission” – is at the heart of Christian theology. The Church is, by its very nature, missionary. Every Christian, through Baptism, is missionary. For the Christian, to be is to be sent.
power from on high: The theme of “the power from on high” – first introduced in the Infancy Narrative when the Angel Gabriel is announcing the birth of the Messiah – see Luke 1:35 – is reiterated here again. It will become the focus again in Acts 1:6-11 when the Ascension is again noted. The Greek word is dynamis. As Luke 4:14 makes clear, “the power (dynamis) from on high” is the Holy Spirit. This is even more clear in Acts 1:8.
One major source of the “hellfire and brimstone” style in Christian history, is the moralism – often accompanied by totally unwarranted claims to power over the consciences of people – that has dominated much of our thinking in the Catholic Church. That moralism could be summed up as follows: Conform, and God will love you, God will reward you, fail to conform, and God will not love you, God will punish you. Apart from the destructive effects of such preaching and teaching – for example, the fear rather than love that tended to become the main driver of the Christian life – it is simply not a fair presentation of Divine Revelation as given in the Bible.
In today’s Gospel – Luke 24:46-53 – we read: “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations”. A misreading of this text easily leads into the destructive morass indicated above. However, a careful and more accurate reading, points to the core message of the Bible, where we hear God asking each and every one of us repeatedly: “Will you let me love you?”
Before we address the precise words on repentance and forgiveness, look carefully at the next two sentences: “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.” The disciples are witnesses to the saving death and resurrection of Jesus. They have walked with Him and listened to him for three years. They have heard him say: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). They were also there when John the Baptist’s two disciples asked Jesus if he was the Messiah, and Jesus replied: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (Luke 7:22). They were with him when he ate with tax collectors and “sinners” and they heard him tell stories about the good Samaritan and the prodigal son. They were also with him when he confronted the religious authorities for their moralism, their oppressive reward-and-punishment ideology.
Jesus tells the disciples to wait in the city until they are “clothed with power from on high” – that is, the Holy Spirit. All of which suggests that the message of repentance and forgiveness is essentially about saying “Yes!” to God’s question: “Will you let me love you?” When we say “Yes!” to that question, we begin a never-ending conversation. God keeps reminding us: “Let me love you into freedom! Let me love all the people in your life through you! Let us transform the world starting with you!”