Scripture: Acts 1: 1-11; John 14: 25-27 Nigel Bunce
Ascension to Pentecost
This Sunday we move from Ascension Day to Pentecost next week. At this season of the Church year, I am always struck by the fact that Luke was the only Gospel writer who had any interest in what happened after Jesus left the disciples for the last time. Let me try to explain.
Why Luke is unique among the Gospel writers
Matthew‘s Gospel ends with the “Commissioning” of the disciples [Matthew 28: 16-20]. Jesus told them to make disciples of all nations and baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This has to be a later addition, because the concept of the Trinity did not exist till at least two centuries after the life of Christ.
Mark records that the resurrected Jesus told the disciples to preach the message of salvation to east and west [Mark 16: 8]. That’s it. Someone else must have added verses 9-20 later. In the same way, John’s Gospel ends after the episode with Thomas [John 20: 19-29] in which Jesus said, “Receive the Holy Spirit”. Then John “signs-off” concerning his agenda in writing the book [John 20: 30-31]. Chapter 21, which describes the “barbecue on the beach”, is clearly also a later addition.
So we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Luke, not just for the Gospel that we associate with his name. Because the first words in ‘Acts’, Chapter 1 make it very clear that ‘Acts of the Apostles’ and Luke’s Gospel have the same author. ‘Acts’ is therefore Luke Book II.
Only Luke tells us about the earliest history of the Church
Imagine, for a moment, what the New Testament would look like without ‘Acts’. No mention of Pentecost, and nothing about the earliest history of what would become the Church. We wouldn’t know that St. Peter became the leading figure in the earliest Church. Nor would we know about St. Paul’s missionary journeys to establish churches all over the Middle East. We’d only have the letters that he wrote to them.
New details from today’s recapitulation of the Ascension
We learn other things from Acts, Chapter 1. First, Luke tells us that the Ascension of Jesus happened forty days after the Resurrection. Then he reminds us, the readers, that Jesus had told the disciples to remain in Jerusalem [Luke 25: 49; Acts 1: 4]. Also, that John had baptized with water, but the disciples would receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit [Acts 1: 5]. This would happen in just a few more days.
Then Luke recapitulates the story of the Ascension [Acts 1: 8-11]. But he adds a significant detail. While the disciples gazed upwards into the skies, two angels in white appeared and spoke to them. This is like the Transfiguration, when Moses and Elijah were present when Jesus disappeared into a cloud. Also, of course, the great prophet Elijah’s ascended into heaven in a fiery chariot.
Luke’s Gospel and Acts are like a TV series
Luke, I’ve often said, is the best story-teller of the four Gospel writers. He knew how to maintain our interest in the “Jesus-story’. I think that if he lived today, he’d have no trouble getting a job as a TV script writer. Imagine Luke and Acts not as Books I and II, but instead as Seasons 1 and 2 of a TV series. Season 1 ends with the cliff-hanger. Jesus ascends and tells the disciples that they must wait in Jerusalem for his reappearance.
Then Luke starts Season 2 in typical TV fashion. This morning’s reading is the first episode of Season 2. It’s a recap of the end of Season 1. Next week, we will celebrate Pentecost. After that, the story will unfold of how the disciples, now Apostles, began to spread the news of salvation. First, Peter is the main actor, then in Chapter 9, Luke introduces new characters, Saul/Paul and Barnabas. I am in awe of how skilfully the author weaves the story.
But those of us who are regular churchgoers already know what will happen in Season 2 before we finish Season 1 (Luke’s Gospel). In order to appreciate Luke’s brilliant exposition, we have to pretend that we are meeting the story of Jesus and what happened afterwards for the first time. In that sense, it’s unfortunate that we know the New Testament too well.
There isn’t a real build-up to Pentecost
There are three great seasons in the Church year; Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. We prepare for Christmas with four Sundays of Advent, and for Easter with forty days of Lent. But there seems to be almost no build-up to Pentecost. Today is just considered to be part of the “Easter season”. Yet this time from the Ascension to Pentecost ushers in the whole story of Christianity leading to our own times.
This morning, we look forwards as well as backwards. Luke’s recap of the cliff hanger looks back to the disciples’ last experience the Risen Christ. We find them in a sort of limbo as they wait for the Holy Spirit to come. What, they must have wondered, will that look like?
The Holy Spirit as Advocate
John’s Gospel, Chapter 14, tells us that Jesus had previously told the disciples that he must go away to return to the Father. But they did not understand. They asked where he was going, and how they could get there too. Jesus told them that the Holy Spirit would come in his place. He described the Holy Spirit as an Advocate or in some translations, a Comforter or Guide.
An advocate is someone who speaks or writes in support of another person, often in the specialized sense of an advocate in a court of law. Jesus promises the disciples that the Advocate will come after he returns to the Father (as John puts it) or ascends into heaven (in Luke’s words). Luke’s words are more poetic, but rely on the unscientific view of heaven as a specific location above the skies.
Pentecost is the disciples’ graduation day
As an Advocate, the Holy Spirit inspires, or animates us to follow Christ now that his earthly ministry is over. Pentecost fulfils the work begun at Easter, when the ministry of the earthly Jesus gave way to that of the eternal Christ. Pentecost always occurs in May or early June. In our world, it’s when students graduate from high schools, colleges, and universities. At least, in normal times.
Pentecost is the disciples’ Graduation Day. Graduates keep learning, but act without supervision from teachers. The disciples graduated from being Jesus’ students to independent Apostles. They went into the world to proclaim Jesus on their own. But today is the Sunday between the Ascension and Pentecost. The disciples were still waiting for the Holy Spirit. They couldn’t have known what to expect.
Yet we too are called to be advocates for Christ. Like the disciples, we don’t know what that advocacy might involve. And like them, we wait as we move from the Ascension to Pentecost, next Sunday. So I leave you with a question. Are we ready for graduation, to act as Apostles, to graduates? Or do we still feel like disciples, not yet ready to receive the Holy Spirit? Because next week is Graduation Day.