Luke’s Ascension accounts give different messages

By Glen Argan

St. Luke sees Jesus’ Ascension into heaven as the turning point of world history. Why else would the evangelist tell the story twice – once as the conclusion of his Gospel and the second as the launching point of the Acts of the Apostles? Both versions are included among the readings for this Sunday.

Why wouldn’t just one telling of the Ascension story get the point across? However, Luke tells two different stories about the same event, each with its own central theme.

In the Gospel account, the focus is on Jesus. The Ascension takes places on Easter Sunday and is an integral part of Jesus’ glorification. Jesus tells the disciples, “everything written about me [in the Old Testament] … must be fulfilled.” He lets them know they will receive “power from on high,” leads them out to Bethany, blesses them and is established as king and messiah. Instead of being despondent, the disciples worship Jesus and joyfully return to Jerusalem to praise God in the Temple.

AscensionIn the account in Acts, the focus is on the disciples’ continuation of Jesus’ prophetic ministry. The Ascension here occurs 40 days after Easter, a symbol of the exodus. Twice, Jesus tells the disciples they will soon be baptized with the Holy Spirit. The Ascension comes after Jesus spent the 40 days preaching about the kingdom, a kingdom which will not be established now, but only when the Father decides. Instead of leading the disciples to Bethany, Jesus orders them to stay in Jerusalem. Jesus is taken up in a cloud, as was Elijah, but will one day return.

The Gospel story shows the disciples experiencing joy and praising God because while Jesus has returned to the Father, his living presence remains. It is a fitting end to the story of God’s glory revealed in Christ.

However, in Acts, the allusions to Moses and Elijah and the emphasis on the Holy Spirit reveal that Christ’s ministry of building God’s kingdom will continue by the Spirit working through the disciples. Acts has often been called the Gospel of the Holy Spirit. So, the Ascension is depicted in Acts from the perspective of the disciples who will be the Spirit’s agents. They are the successors to Jesus just as Elisha received a double portion of the Spirit as Elijah’s successor and just as Moses passed on his leadership role to Joshua.

So too are we endowed with Christ’s prophetic spirit 2,000 years later. Like those first disciples, the Holy Spirit works through us to bring forth God’s kingdom.

Luke’s dual account of the Ascension shows an artistry which refines the details of the event to fit the differing contexts. One is the glorification of Jesus as redeemer, the other the launching of the Church through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Readings for Sunday, June 2, 2019, the Ascension of the Lord
Acts 1.1-11 | Psalm 47 | Ephesians 1.17-23 or Hebrews 9.24-28; 10.19-23 | Luke 24.44-53

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