Jesus’ Ascension: waiting for the Advocate


Scripture: Acts 1: 6-11; Luke 24: 44-53; John 14: 15-28

Luke Chapter 24; a busy day

Today, I want to start with a bit of Biblical interpretation before addressing the question of waiting for the Advocate.  It was an issue for the disciples.  It is an issue for us today.

Our appointed Gospel passage is Luke’s account of Jesus’ Ascension. Many of us have probably never read Chapter 24 of Luke’s Gospel straight through. It has four sections which all seem to take place on Easter Day. These are: Jesus’ Resurrection; the Walk to Emmaus; the Risen Jesus’ appearance to the disciples; and finally, the Ascension.

After the Resurrection, the Walk to Emmaus begins, “Now, on that same day …” The two disciples hurried back to Jerusalem after supper to tell the others what happened at Emmaus. That was seven miles, so by then it must have been very late. The next section has echoes of John’s story of Doubting Thomas, which also begins on Easter evening. Jesus interpreted Scripture in a similar way that he did on the Road the Emmaus. ‘Then’ he led them from Jerusalem to the village of Bethany, where the Ascension took place. If all these events occurred one after the other, the Ascension must have happened either in the middle of the night, or possibly early next morning.

The Ascension is the ‘cliffhanger’ between Luke’s Gospel and Acts

Most Biblical scholars consider that the author of Luke’s Gospel also wrote Acts of the Apostles. This makes Acts Luke Book II. In modern TV terms, today’s reading from the end of Luke Chapter 24 is the ‘cliffhanger’. We have to wait to read Acts to see what happens next. Acts Chapter 1 begins like a TV drama.  It recaps the cliffhanger. But there is an important difference. Unlike the Gospel account, Acts says that the Ascension happened 40 days after the Resurrection. Its version of the Ascension gives more detail, and makes a clear parallel between Jesus and the great prophet Elijah’s ascent to heaven.

Acts 1: 9-11: As they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’

Did the Resurrection and the Ascension happen on the same day, or were they almost six weeks apart?

Acts 1: 3 tells us that Jesus appeared to the disciples over the course of forty days after the Resurrection.  But .  Liuke 24: 51 reads, “While he was blessing them [on Easter Day], he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” However, many ancient manuscripts omit the key clause, and was carried up into heaven. Did later scribes add them? We cannot know. But if you leave out those six words, the Gospel and the Acts accounts become compatible with each other.

The sweep of the Ascension story in Luke’s Gospel follows up parallels with Jesus’ encounter with the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus. On both occasions, Jesus interpreted Scripture for the disciples and ate (this time, broiled fish) with them. Then he told them to proclaim his message to the whole world, and left them for the last time. Did they watch a physical Ascension or did Jesus simply disappear as he had with Cleopas and his friend on the previous occasion? To me, that is not the point. What is key is that this was the last time they saw the resurrected Jesus. From now on, they were on their own.

Returning to the Father or ascending into heaven?

John’s Gospel tells us that earlier, Jesus had told the disciples that he must go away to return to the Father [John 14: 15-28]. Jesus also 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.  Their task was to be ready and waiting for the Advocate to come.

An advocate 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 (to use John’s words) or ascends into heaven (as Luke puts it). Luke’s words are more poetic, but rely on the ancient world’s view that heaven is a specific location located above the skies.

For the disciples and for us, waiting for the Advocate is two-sided

In one sense, the Holy Spirit calls us, or inspires us, or animates us, to follow Christ, now that his earthly ministry has ended. Yet in another sense, the story of Pentecost, which we shall read next week, explains how the disciples became inspired or animated to be advocates for Christ in their own right. By extension, advocacy for Christ is exactly what we are all called to do in our daily lives. This is part of what our baptismal covenant is about – advocating for compassionate treatment of other people, and advocating for care of God’s Creation – the environment.  We are not waiting for the Advocate.  we are to be advocates ourselves.

Advocacy and plastic waste

Today I want to be an advocate for an environmental issue. It is top of mind for me because an article in Monday’s Globe & Mail addresses ideas that have been in my mind for some time.  Recently, I have heard several people say that we must ban plastics (especially single use plastic packaging) outright because of the waste and pollution that they cause. I have a problem with that position (and not because I am a chemist!). Plastics are useful. Plastic containers are lighter than glass or metal. On the down side, they are harder to recycle, especially in the face of cheaper virgin materials.

The Three R’s of recycling are Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Clearly, there is room for reduction in our use of plastic packaging. We do not need bubble packs for six screws or plastic-wrapped broccoli crowns. The food industry has justifiable health concerns about re-using plastic containers. But Michelle and I find many of them to be almost indefinitely reusable at home.

How to begin fixing the problem

A major problem exists with recycling. We need to move towards a circular economy in which materials are reused over and over again. Problems in the way of this include the myriad of different waste plastic streams and the expense (to taxpayers) of sorting the recyclables from our blue boxes or carts.

There is a solution, however. Look to the beer industry. Over 90% of beer bottles and cans are not just returnable, but actually returned. Why? Simply because there is a deposit on each bottle. The solution: First, place a deposit on every plastic container. Second, make the manufacturer or the retailer responsible for accepting the (clean) containers for refund of the deposit. Third, negotiate or require manufacturers to standardize the type of plastic used for food containers – e.g., the PET that is used for pop bottles. This would make it viable to recycle the returned material.

Advocacy for God’s Creation: the Holy Spirit in action

There would, of course, be outrage by industry and intense lobbying against such a proposal. That’s what happened the last time there was a more limited proposal (by the Peterson government in the late 1980s) to require deposits on soft drink containers. Consumers would certainly resist having their 24 bottles of water for $1.99 have a 24 x 20 ¢ deposit on top. But the Globe article reported that last year Canada sent $7.8 billion-worth of plastics to landfill. To reverse this wasteful trend, manufacturers, retailers, and consumers will all have to step up. And we Christians, who claim to care for God’s Creation, should all be Advocates, the Holy Spirit in action. Scotland has just launched a scheme of this kind. Why not Ontario?