Ascension: “Stay in the City”

Somewhere I got the idea—have you heard this?—that from the time of the Ascension until Pentecost, the Apostles were “hiding” in the Upper Room for fear of the Jews.  The point of Pentecost, then, would be to overcome their fear. 

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Now, it’s true that in John’s Gospel, he does say that on Easter night, when Jesus first appeared to them in the Upper Room, “the doors were locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews.”  But John’s not talking about Ascension and Pentecost, he’s talking about Jesus’s ability to get through locked doors (as well as another theme about how the people of Jerusalem—not “the Israelites,” but specifically “the Judeans”—were opposing Christ). 

Ascension and Pentecost are uniquely themes of Luke-Acts.  John talks about the coming of the Holy Spirit, but not Pentecost—and in John, when Jesus gives them the Holy Spirit on Easter evening, it’s to forgive sins, not to be courageous.

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For Ascension, our first reading is the beginning of Acts (written by St. Luke), the Ascension.  And each year we read the last verses of the Gospel for the year.  In Matthew, it’s the Great Commission, with no mention of the Ascension.  Mark’s version of the Great Commission includes tongues, snakes, and poison, as well as the Ascension.  And this year, the Year of Luke, we get the Ascension story proper.

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An interesting detail of Luke is his insistence that they stayed in Jerusalem.  In Matthew, the angel tells the women, “Tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead; and, behold, he goes before you into Galilee; there shall you see him,” and for the Great Commission it says, “the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.”  (Galilee is the far north, where Jesus and most of the disciples come from, whereas Jerusalem is the far south.)  In Mark, too, he tells them to go to Galilee.  In John he meets them twice in the Upper Room in Jerusalem (the second time a week later, for Doubting Thomas), but the whole last chapter is fishing on “The Sea of Tiberias,” one of the names for the main lake in Galilee. 

But Luke emphasizes something different: The Road to Emmaus is about seven miles from Jerusalem, and when they recognize him they return to Jerusalem; then as they tell their story there he appears again in Jerusalem, and it is there that Luke says he ate fish with them.  In Luke, the Ascension is at Bethany, less than two miles from Jerusalem, where the Mount of Olives is. 

(I don’t know when the disciples were where, but I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to figure out that the four Gospels are just telling different parts of the same story, and they can all be true.)

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More important, in Luke Jesus commands them, in his last words: “I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high,” because “repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”  Again in Luke’s Acts, “he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father”; “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” 

The disciples are not afraid.  They are not running away to Galilee, or locking themselves away.  To the contrary, they are staying in the middle of it all.  The last words of Luke are, “they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.”  In Acts 1 they go to the Upper Room not to hide, but to pray, and then to attend to business: “one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection,” to replace Judas. 

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A couple of thoughts on staying in Jerusalem. 

First, Luke-Acts is very much like Paul in its theology.  A central theme is that Christianity is not a different religion, but the fulfillment of the religion of the Old Testament.  On the one hand, Luke and Paul insist, it’s wrong to remain a Jew and to seek religious fulfillment in the cultural limitations of the pre-Jesus religion.  But on the other hand, it’s wrong to dismiss Judaism, because it is Judaism that Christianity fulfills.  Above all, it is the Law that Jesus finally brings to its fulfillment, so that Christians offer the true sacrifice in the true temple, and Christians are finally able to live to the fullest the Old Testament’s love of God and neighbor, with all its social and natural-law implications.  The Church is the true Israel, and so the Church begins in Jerusalem.

Second, Christianity is not about heading for the hills.  It is not about fear of men or building an enclave.  Jesus commands the disciples—and he commands us—to go into the city, and then go forth from the city of Jerusalem to the cities of the world.  Christianity is about missionary advance, not retreat.

Our second reading, from Ephesians, sums it up with overwhelming riches.  The Spirit of Pentecost is “a Spirit of wisdom and revelation, resulting in knowledge of him”: Jesus and his Spirit complete the Old Testament revelation.  We are “enlightened” to “the hope that belongs to his call,” “the riches of glory in his inheritance,” “the surpassing greatness of his power,” which is “far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion.”

The Spirit of Christ sends us into Jerusalem: into the fullness of Revelation, and in mission to the cities of the world.

Are you running away to Galilee to hide?

eric.m.johnston

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