Ascension Day: The Same Story Five Ways
By: The Rev. Steve Pankey
On three different occasions before his death, Jesus taught his disciples about what was to come. He didn’t leave much up for debate or interpretation either. Just after Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus flat out told the group that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priest, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Despite this very clear teaching, the disciples never seem to quite get it. Twice more, Jesus has to remind them that the future they imagine – power, privilege, prestige – is not what God has in mind for the great reversal and the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Despite three clearly articulated opportunities for the disciples to hear and understand what was to come, they each seem totally caught off guard when Jesus is rejected by the powers-that-be, undergoes great suffering on the cross, and is killed. In fact, they seem so clueless, that when it all goes down, their only reaction is to run and hide. For three days, they hide in fear. Once the Festival is over, they begin to plan their next steps. Two of them, one named Cleopas and the other unnamed disciple decide to cut bait and head home. At some point on the seven-mile journey back to Emmaus, the resurrected Jesus came alongside the two dejected disciples. He listened as they talked about all that had happened, and how they had hoped that this Jesus might have been the Messiah, but those hopes were dashed when he was rejected, crucified, and died.
Here again, Jesus takes the opportunity to teach them about God’s plan for salvation. Beginning with Moses, Jesus used all the prophets and the psalms to, for a fourth time, show them how his rejection, suffering, death, AND RESURRECTION, were all necessary components of the restoration of the world. For the fourth time, Jesus showed them how God’s ways are not our ways and how love, grace, and mercy – not power and might – were the way to redemption. Still, despite a whole day walking alongside the yet unrecognizable Jesus, Cleopas and his companion didn’t realize that it was Jesus until they stopped for dinner and he broke the bread.
Off they went, sprinting back to Jerusalem to share the Good News that Jesus Christ was, in fact, alive! Back in that upper room, the door locked behind them out of fear, they told of their encounter with the risen Christ when he appeared before the crowd. With a mix of terror, confusion, and belief, they listened as Jesus, now for the fifth time, recounted what he had told them all along, “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.”
In Luke’s Gospel, it is with this that the fifth teaching on the mission of Jesus; that his ministry on earth, finally comes to an end. After five distinct opportunities to hear that his life, death, and resurrection were all a part of the larger plan of salvation, it will be up to the disciples to figure out what that means going forward. They won’t be alone, however, for God has promised to send help. In Luke, it is called “the power from on high.” In the second ascension narrative from Acts, it is called the Holy Spirit. In John, it is the Advocate. No matter the name, the promise is that someone else will come in the place of Jesus to lead the disciples in truth, to guide them as witnesses of the Gospel, to encourage them in their proclamation, to help them interpret the Good News that they were unable to hear and comprehend; that God’s plan of redemption came to life through the cross and grave.
With this final teaching complete, Jesus led the disciples out of the city and to the mountain village of Bethany where he offered one final blessing before being carried up into heaven. Exegetically, things get a bit dicey here. We believe Luke and Acts to have been written by the same author, and the fact that the details of the ascension are a bit different between the two texts can feel a bit problematic. In Luke, the ascension seems to happen on Easter Day. In Acts, it is said to be forty days after the resurrection. In Luke, they run back to the city with great joy. In Acts, the disciples are left stupefied by the sight of Jesus’ ascension and two men robed in white have to motivate the slack-jawed crowd to return to Jerusalem. In Luke, they run to the Temple to praise God. In Acts, they gather in the upper room and await the Holy Spirit. Both lessons are appointed for Ascension Day, so what is the preacher to do? Do we ignore the differences? Do we admit them and attempt to explain them away? Do we Jesus Seminar them out of existence?
I’m one who believes that the variety of the Biblical story offers richness and depth. After all, Jesus had to teach the disciples about his death and resurrection at least five different times. What is constant in the ascension stories is a) that Jesus had to return to the Father, b) that the disciples would not be left alone, and c) that the Spirit’s task was to turn disciples into apostles and evangelists. The good news of the ascension, whether it happened on day one or day forty is that the Gospel could now be spread from Jerusalem to all of Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. As inheritors of the promised gift of the Holy Spirit, Ascension Day is our chance to give thanks for fullness of God’s plan for salvation – from the Annunciation to the Ascension – as we await the Spirit’s arrival with power and might in just ten short days.
 Luke 9:22
The Rev. Steve Pankey is the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Steve holds an MDiv from Virginia Theological Seminary (’07) and a DMin from the School of Theology at the University of the South (’17), but the degree he seems to use most often these days is the BS in Business Administration he earned at Millersville University (’02). As a disciple, a husband to Cassie, a father to Eliza and Lainey, and now a Rector, Steve struggles to keep it all in the right order, and is constantly thankful for forgiveness and grace. You can read more from him at his blog, draughtingtheology.wordpress.com.