Sermon - 8th May 2016
Ascension and Transformation
Scripture - Luke 24: 46-53
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
We have reached the point in our Easter story where we encounter transformation. Everything that the gospel writers have shared with us since the death and resurrection of Jesus points to profound change, new beginnings, new experiences, and a new perception of the power of God in the lives of the disciples.
A 19th century French philosopher called Ernest Renan described the Gospel of Luke as ‘the most beautiful book ever written’. Scholars throughout the centuries have praised the sheer poetic grace and charm with which Luke tells his stories. And language experts have confirmed that the literary style of the Greek in which the original was written is of a very high quality and reveals a truly gifted author behind the words on the page.
When we listen to Luke weave his stories together into a unique interpretation of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we are carried along by the spirit of a powerfully persuasive author who brings his episodes vividly to life in our imaginations. And like all good writers, Luke uses certain techniques to engage his readers with the events he is portraying - techniques which really come into their own when the author is preparing his readers for a sequel.
Bible scholars generally agree that around 50 or 60 years had passed since the death of Jesus before whoever it was that we call Luke compiled his material into a coherent piece of writing. Much had happened, there was much to record.
The ‘Jesus effect’ had become a significant movement: some of what had been happening was of solid, lasting value; some of it was short-lived, rather eccentric, and served little purpose - the movement had its crackpots as well as its geniuses. Faced with these competing traditions, Luke concluded that he must write two books to cover the breadth of what he understood to be the Good News of Jesus.
His first book will be about the life and teachings of Jesus; his second will be about Jesus’s legacy to the world - the formation and early shaping of the Christian church. In Luke’s mind, you can’t have one without the other:
there seems little point in taking your readers to the point where they believe that the resurrected Jesus lives, and then fail to show how Jesus lives - through his church. So Luke needs to choose a point in his narrative where he can create a bridge between the two books - and he chooses an event which is unique to his tradition among the gospel writers: he chooses the ascension of Jesus.
And just to make sure that this bridge will carry his readers convincingly from his first book into his second, he ends his first book, the Gospel, with a brief description of Jesus’s ascension, and begins his second book, the Acts of the Apostles, with a longer version of the same event. This is how Luke, as the gifted writer we know him to be, makes Acts the sequel to his Gospel.
Today’s reading came from the final paragraphs of Luke’s first book, his Gospel. In it we see Luke’s tradition bringing to a graceful and poetic end the physical appearances of the risen Jesus. Luke is placing us alongside the apostles us as they journey through an experience of closure, into a time of waiting and expectancy, and eventually - in Luke’s sequel - into an experience of great empowerment to enable them to continue the work which Jesus began.
All the gospels, except one, reach the point where Jesus’s earthly ministry comes to an end with some kind of expectation of his followers.
- Matthew’s Gospel contains the Great Commission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.... I am with you always, to the close of the age.”
- John’s Gospel includes a final exchange between Jesus and Peter, where on three occasions Jesus asks Peter to “Feed my lambs” then to “Tend my sheep” then to “Feed my sheep”. And the conversation ends with Jesus saying “Follow me”.
- Only Mark, in its most authentic versions, ends with a sense of uncertainty. Three women find the tomb empty and are told by a young man in a white robe that Jesus is risen. He tells them to go and tell Peter and the disciples that Jesus is going ahead of them to Galilee as he said he would and that they will see him there. But the women flee from the tomb in great fear and say nothing to anyone. And so the Gospel of Mark leaves us with a suggestion of something about to happen in Galilee, but no confirmation of any further encounter or final commission from Jesus.
When we see how Luke uniquely handles this stage in his narrative, which we could describe as ‘the end of the beginning’, his natural gifts of interpretation come to the surface. Before we cross that bridge into his sequel, Luke brings his story full circle by placing the disciples in Jerusalem - and, more importantly, daily in the Temple praising God.
It is no coincidence that the first characters at the very beginning of Luke’s story appear in the Temple - with an elderly priest named Zechariah burning incense in the Temple while he was serving on duty there. An angel appears to him to announce that his wife Elizabeth will bear a child and that they are to call him John. And now at the end of Luke’s gospel, after everything that has happened to them, we read that the disciples of Jesus are daily in the Temple, embracing the tradition out of which Jesus came and within which he taught.
Here we have Luke saying, ‘everything from first to last in my story - starting in the Temple and ending in the Temple - is the working out of God’s will and the fulfilment of God’s promises. Truly, God is at the heart of my tradition which I offer to you in these pages’.
And this is now our time of waiting and expectancy as next Sunday we will commemorate the great empowerment of Jesus’s disciples by the Holy Spirit, and we shall cross Luke’s bridge into his sequel and see ordinary people do extraordinary things.
Perhaps this is also the time to reflect on the closures we have had to handle in our own lives: the times we’ve had to let go and recognise that old patterns have changed, past experiences have run their course, and new beginnings are called for.
As Luke takes us by the hand and leads us from a life with the living Jesus into a life with the living Spirit, perhaps we can reflect on our journeys from former lives into new beginnings. For some of us those journeys will have involved escape from countries and cultures which persecuted us; for some they will be about moving on from beliefs which imprisoned us in guilt and self-hatred; for some they will be about finding the courage to celebrate openly our sexuality as part of God’s diverse creation; and for some they will be journeys of transition into the person we knew we always were.
At this point in our journey through the church’s year, we are approaching the end of what the church defines as the Easter season. The gospels which explore this period of time are full of movement, activity, and change. This should be the season where a sense of continual movement and change in our own faith becomes the hallmark of our personal discipleship in our own times.
This should be the season where we do more than listen to familiar scriptures and simply confirm what we already know: this is the time when we should be aware that God’s dynamic power is at the heart of what we do, and is the motive force for where we are going, because so many of the core features of our faith have been defined and brought into focus in these recent weeks.
When we next meet, Luke will be guiding us again as we marvel at the dynamic power of God among the followers whom Jesus left behind to continue his work. They will certainly not be simply confirming what they already know: their mission will be to be transformed by the Spirit of God, and to transform others by the gifts of that same Spirit.
Our challenge is to be open to that same transformation as we cross Luke’s bridge from the confines of Jesus’s earthly life into the boundless experiences of life in the Spirit, where we too shall see ordinary people do extraordinary things.