The Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles, also by Luke, are sort of a two-volume story. Luke’s Gospel tells the story of Jesus from his birth to his Resurrection. Then Acts of the Apostles takes over and tells the story of what happened next.
The Church happened next. After Jesus ascended into heaven, Luke tells all about the coming of the Holy Spirit and everything that followed. The preaching of the Apostles and the spread of their message throughout the world. The debates and conflicts that had to be worked through right from the beginning. The appointment of more leaders in the role of the Apostles, like Matthias and Paul, continuing the Apostolic ministry. And the coming of Jews and Gentiles to believe in the name of Jesus, ready to serve Him by life or by death.
If you put yourself in Luke’s place as the story-teller, that’s a big shift, from the singular focus on the singular person of Jesus … “and then Jesus said this, and then Jesus did this, and then Jesus went there…”… to the age of the Church. And this shift, this change of focus that happens, pivots on the Ascension of Jesus.
So let me ask you: if you were Luke, and you were choosing how to structure your telling of this story, where would the Ascension go? I know what seems most natural to me: it seems like the Ascension belongs most naturally at the end of the Gospel. We’ve told of His birth, life, death, Resurrection, and His subsequent appearances to His disciples. That story ends with His Ascension.
Well, sure enough, Luke does end his Gospel exactly that way. The end of the Gospel of Luke is the Ascension. But when he starts volume two, the Acts of the Apostles, he tells it again. The beginning of the Acts of the Apostles is also the Ascension. As if to make sure we know that the Ascension isn’t only an end, it’s a beginning. I know, I sound like a graduation speech. But maybe that’s not surprising. Maybe the Ascension is a sort of graduation of the disciples of Jesus. School’s out. The teacher has taught. The teacher has shown. Now the time has come for the teacher to open the door and send the pupils out into the world.
So Luke puts the Ascension both at the end of the Gospel and at the beginning of Acts. But he tells the story much more fully, in much more detail, the second time, at the beginning of Acts… as though he’s telling us that the weight of this event falls mainly on the side of what is beginning. The Ascension is mainly, for Luke, about the beginning of the Church.
If you don’t think about it from angle at first, well, neither did the Apostles. There’s this funny moment right after the Ascension where they’re all just standing there sort of staring. I mean, I can relate, that’s exactly what I’d be doing. So it takes a pair of angels to show up beside them, back at ground level… “ahem… men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking up at the sky?” The angels promise that Jesus will return, but the proper response is not to stand there waiting. There’s work to be done. This is the beginning of Volume Two.
The Ascension of Jesus is not an abandonment. It is, along with Pentecost, an empowerment.
They do have to wait just a bit for the empowerment of Pentecost, and I’m not 100% sure why, but think maybe it was to show beyond any doubt that the power of the Apostles is not their own. They are helpless and ineffective between the Ascension and Pentecost. We need to know that it’s still God’s power, it’s grace, that really matters. Without Pentecost we’re nothing. But there can be no Pentecost without the Ascension. Class dismissed. Graduation day. Get going.
Of course Jesus actually put it a little more inspirationally and a little more specifically than that. What he said was: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
And taking those words to heart, the Apostles walked away full of joy and they walked away knowing that the story of Jesus had not just ended… it was only beginning. Once the angels snapped them out of it, they walked away and started putting into practice what they’d learned, what they’d seen. They weren’t abandoned. Jesus promised to be with them always, and He was, and they knew it. Acts isn’t the story of ‘after Jesus,’ it’s the start of the next chapter, and we should be excited about that because this is the chapter that we’re in! All of our names belong in this chapter. All of our lives contribute to it.
Jesus is here, and we are His body.
That’s just too big to even talk about, how do you even deal with that? Jesus is here, and we are His body. Well, stay tuned for Pentecost. Pentecost is how we deal with that. And the Eucharist.
But one more thing, and if you’ll bear with me, it’s another point of literary analysis. I already talked about how Luke’s Gospel begins and ends, and we heard how Matthew’s Gospel ends, and we’ve considered how Acts of the Apostles begins. What about how Acts ends? What are the super-memorable and dramatic final words of Luke’s second volume? I honestly couldn’t remember and had to check. We just finished a Bible Study on it recently, and I’ll be no one who attended that could tell you how it ends either. It’s entirely unmemorable. It doesn’t really have a conclusion; it just sort of stops. It had to, I mean Luke couldn’t keep writing forever. But I think there’s a deeper reason. Acts of the Apostles, the story that it tells, it hasn’t ended. You and me, this is the chapter we’re in. This is the mission we have. This is the Gospel we preach. This is Jesus’ promise to us. The ending of Matthew is the astounding, memorable Great Commission and the Ascension of Jesus. The ending of Luke’s Gospel is similar. The ending of the next chapter is yet to be written, though we have some pretty compelling previews.
Right now, though, there’s a page somewhere in the middle of that story that’s yours to write. What is the story of Jesus in southeastern Illinois in 2017? Is he healing the wounded? Is he freeing the captives? Is he preaching boldly and powerfully? Are his teachings and commandments changing lives, or being set aside?
Make disciples. Baptize them. Teach his commandments. And believe, and never doubt, and don’t hesitate to stake your life on this: he is with us always, to the end.