This Ascension Day Gospel reading opens in the middle of Jesus’ conversation with his disciples after appearing among them. According to 24:37, the disciples were “startled and terrified” by his appearance until he showed them his hands and feet and ate a piece of broiled fish.
As a pastor tasked with the responsibility of proclaiming the gospel, I pay close attention to passages like this one where the message of the gospel is stated clearly and succinctly. What did Jesus take time to teach? How did the author of Luke condense it for his readers? Verses 46 and 47 are a simple, concise restatement of the good news that we proclaim:
“Thus it is written, 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.”
Throughout the New Testament, the themes in these two verses emerge again and again:
The centrality of suffering to both the life of Christ and in the lives of his followers.
The future hope of resurrection for believers and our belief in Jesus as the pioneer of our faith, the first to be raised from the dead.
The miracle of the possibility of being freed from the power that sin holds over humanity.
The good news that this is for all people (both Jews and Gentiles).
This is the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As pastors and teachers we must keep this message always before us.
It is worth noting that the formula referenced by Jesus in verse 44 (“law of Moses, prophets, and psalms”) spans the breadth of the Old Testament. Even today, the Jewish scriptures are referred to as the Tanakh, an acronym of the letters T, N, and K, which stand for Torah (law), Nevi’im (prophets), and Ketuvim (writings). We see this threefold reference to OT scriptures again in the opening verses of the book of Hebrews, where the author references Deuteronomy, 2 Samuel, and Psalms—again, the “law of Moses, prophets, and psalms.”
The book of Hebrews also opens with a powerful description of Jesus as “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” The author goes on to say that, “When [Jesus] had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high…” (v. 3) The opening of Hebrews is a restatement of this same gospel that Jesus articulated and again set within the context of the Old Testament Scriptures.
Ascension Day offers us the chance to make the movement from Easter to Pentecost, from the resurrected Jesus who lived among his disciples to the ascended Jesus whom we proclaim is seated “at the right hand of the Majesty on high.”
This space between Easter and Pentecost offers us the chance to dwell on the significance of the resurrection for believers today. Were it not for Jesus public, horrific death on the cross, we might be skeptical of the resurrection. And were it not for the resurrection, we might be skeptical of ascension.
And were it not for the power of him who was resurrected and now sits “at the right hand of the Majesty on high,” we might be skeptical of true forgiveness of sins.
All too often, we preach an anemic gospel that involves neither power nor forgiveness. Our “forgiveness” is dependent upon our ability to live a morally upright life. And our “power” consists of some vague belief in an afterlife reunion in the sky with the few people we liked enough to want to see again. But this passage in Luke brings the gospel message of forgiveness and the power of resurrection and ascension together.
This is not the first time Luke brought the good news of repentance and forgiveness of sins alongside Jesus’ power over death. In Luke 5, we read about Jesus’ shocking words to the paralytic: “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” The Pharisees questioned this blasphemy, and Jesus’ response was a question followed by a powerful statement:
“Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say ‘Stand up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home.” (Luke 5:23-24)
Ascension Day presents us with the opportunity to proclaim Jesus’ message of forgiveness of sins, his power over sin and death evidenced in the resurrection, and his ongoing power at work in our lives and our world as he is seated enthroned in heaven. Our gospel message must be a proclamation of both forgiveness and power. For, forgiveness without power is meaningless, and power without forgiveness leaves us without hope, stuck in our sinfulness forever.
The gospel we preach is foolishness. A God who takes an interest in us humans held captive by the power of sin and death? A God who willingly suffered and died to save us? A God who, after being resurrected, appeared to a few people and then floated up to heaven? It’s crazy! The Ascension is just one more crazy story to end the whole business. But it is also at the heart of the hope that we have: that the one who provided purification for sins now sits at the right hand of the Majesty on high and by the power of the Holy Spirit continues to set us free even today from the power of sin and death.
No wonder the Gospel of Luke ends with Jesus’ disciples, “continually in the temple blessing God.”
Praise be to God.