44Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
50Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
In his gospel, above, Luke does not give a time frame for these events; it would seem that they occur almost immediately after the resurrection and his first appearance to them. But if you compare to Acts, Chapter 1, where the story overlaps, he tells us that the ascension occurred 40 days after the resurrection, and that he appeared to many of them during that time, and taught them. Here, the Risen Christ explains to the disciples how his crucifixion, death, and resurrection fulfill the words of the Torah (the law of Moses), the prophets (esp. Isaiah), and the Psalms (see Psalm 22, and 110, among others). And he opened their minds so that they could understand. In the scriptures, he tells them, it is written that the Messiah was to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day. Here, the emphasis is on continuity – these are the words he spoke to them while with them, and they are fulfillment of the scriptures. Luke reminds us that God is faithful, his Word continues, his plan is fulfilled through Christ.
The next words from Jesus are a commissioning – They are to tell the story of the Messiah, as witnesses to all that has happened; they are to proclaim the message of repentance and forgiveness in his name, to all nations, starting in Jerusalem. And then he promises them the power to fulfill this commission. He tells them to return to Jerusalem and wait for the power from on high.
The early church must deal with two major issues: a Messiah who was crucified, and the inclusion of all, Jew and non-Jew, in the new church. Luke’s description of the ascension of Christ after the resurrection, his words about how the crucifixion and resurrection fulfilled scripture, addresses the first issue; his words about taking the message to all nations, the second. We struggle even today with these issues – we have an empty cross to symbolize the resurrection, but do we lose the impact of the brutality of crucifixion? Let me suggest that if we do not take the time to participate in the solemn worship of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, letting the significance sink in, we do not appreciate truly the glory and joy of Easter. And the second issue? We do not struggle with whether to include Gentiles – we are all Gentiles; but we do struggle with inclusiveness. There are people still whom some would exclude. I would suggest that Jesus himself, in this commissioning, is saying to be inclusive.
And then Jesus led them out to Bethany and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them, and even as he did so, he was lifted up into heaven. And they worshipped him – I imagine them on the hilltop, lifting up their hands and praising God, as Jesus left them, perhaps singing a hymn before they turned and left the hill to go back into the city. And in Jerusalem, they were joyful, and went continually to the temple to praise God.
And so, we reach the end of the Gospel of Luke. We began in November, 2014.