The Ascension of the Lord, May 25 or 28, 2017
The evangelist Luke wrote two books aiming to educate pagan converts to Christianity about their new religion and its roots. This is the introduction to his second book.
Many early people believed that a complex hierarchy of angels and spiritual powers stood between God and themselves, both mediating and interfering. The author of Ephesians wants his audience to feel confident of their access to God in Christ, and in Christ's superiority over all other powers.
This is the absolute conclusion of Saint Matthew's gospel. It does not describe the ascension of Jesus, but it tells of a mission and frankly describes the disciples' lingering doubts.
The Literary Background: The "first book" mentioned here means the gospel of Saint Luke. "Theophilus" means "lover of God;" There may have been a real individual named Theophilus, for whom Luke wrote, or this may be a literary device by which Luke addresses anyone who loves God.
In any case, the original audience for both the gospel and Acts were Gentile converts to Christianity, in cosmopolitan Greece, after the deaths of the apostles. These new members needed information about the origins and the spread of the community they were joining. In particular, it must have comforted them to learn that even the first, closest followers of Jesus misunderstood his intentions ("Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?") The book of Acts will go on to explain the early spread of Christianity among Jews, then rejection by mainstream Jews, successful outreach to pagans, then conflict within Christianity between members of Jewish origin and members with pagan roots. In other words, for its intended audience, the book puts everything into context.
Today's passage explains why the risen Jesus is no longer directly observable in the young church, but how that church is still carrying out his mission. Jesus hints at the gift of the Holy Spirit, which the Christians were going to use to explain their ongoing sense of purpose and direction.
Proclaiming it: Emphasize the sentence about waiting for "the promise of the Father, ...[to] be baptized with the Holy Spirit." That enables your hearers to relate this reading with the coming feast of Pentecost.
Jesus' last words, which you should emphasize appropriately, set the agenda for all of the book of Acts: "and you will be my witnesses ... to the ends of the earth."
The Literary Background: The ascension is a kind of enthronement of Jesus. The author of Ephesians describes God seating Jesus at his right hand, above all other authorities, in the second half of this reading. Each "principality, authority, power, and dominion" was thought to be a kind of spiritual power exercising some control and mediation between God and humanity. Whether they exist, and how many they are, is unimportant to the author of Ephesians. What counts is that Jesus is in charge.
Your Proclamation: The first half of the reading is about what can happen to us when God gives us the Spirit (another Pentecost reference). The promised benefits are wonderful. But, as you've seen, the grammar of this monstrous sentence is more than challenging. So in preparing to proclaim it, divide it not into sentences (subject, verb, object) but into images. Think of reading not a sentence but a list of phrases, like chapter titles in a book's table of contents. Some of the chapter titles refer to God:
Your Proclamation: If the preacher in your congregation asks you to proclaim this passage, apply to your reading the same method suggested above. Let the images flow distinctly, making their impressions one by one, without trying too hard to make it sound like a single, structured, grammatical sentence.
The Historical Background: The letter to the Hebrews was written for Jewish converts to Christianity who were missing the rituals and institutions of Judaism. One of those was the annual entrance of their priest into an innermost part of the temple for a ritual sacrifice. For all the ceremonies and functionaries that the converts forfeited upon their conversion, the author shows that Jesus replaces and surpasses what they lost.
The Literary Structure: Now the style of argumentation here will seem odd to those formed in Western traditions. It's the style of first century rabbis, a logic familiar to its original audience, but seeming tortured to most of us now. In this instance, it's a series of contrasts: "The Jewish priest does this, but Christ does that." Except to us the relationships between their respective accomplishments are not so clear. Perhaps a table will clarify them:
|Old Way (in Judaism)||New Way (in Christ)|
|Priest enters a man-made sanctuary||Christ enters heaven|
|The next contrast is not between Old Way and New, but between all other humans and Christ|
|Priest offers sacrifice annually||Christ appears once before God at the end of ages, to take away sin by his sacrifice|
|All men and women die once, then appear for judgment||Jesus was offered once, and will appear bringing salvation|
|Priest enters sanctuary with lamb's blood||We have confidence of entry into heaven through Jesus' blood|
|Priest enters sanctuary through a veil||We enter through the veil that is Christ's flesh|
|He's just a priest||Christ is "a great priest over the house of God"|
Fascinating, isn't it? How shall you proclaim it? Of course, you have to make the contrasts clear. Use one tone of voice for the clauses about the ancient Jewish priests and their work, another for Christ and his work. Alternate between the two voices. In verse 24 (first verse of the reading) contrast the sanctuary made by hands, a mere copy, with heaven itself. Then contrast "repeatedly" with "once for all," and "repeatedly from the foundation of the world" with "at the end of ages." Contrast human beings appearing for judgment with Christ appearing a second time to bring not judgment but salvation.
Make your own the author's purpose, which he makes clear in the second paragraph of this selection (chapter 10, verses 19-23), to give confidence to his (your) audience. Few among your listeners would think themselves bereft of Christ, if you put it in such stark terms. But depending on the character of renewal or retrenchment in their parishes, or how closely they've been affected by scandals in their dioceses, they might feel lost or abandoned, to some degree at least. Help them see a bigger picture.
Credit for the picture at the top:
The Ascension, by an unknown Ottonian artist, working in tempera colors and gold on parchment, in Mainz or Fulda, Germany, about 1025 - 1050. Courtesy of The J. Paul Getty Museum.
This page updated March 31, 2017