In Acts, Luke assures us he is continuing his ‘orderly account’ of events concerning Jesus and the early church. For many of us, however, this ‘orderly’ account of the events surrounding the ascension of the resurrected Jesus into heaven is strange and disturbing. The Ascension probably ranks as one of the less than factual biblical happenings that turns progressive Protestants slightly green. I have even heard some very cynical remarks about Luke’s account, where it was observed that the story of the Ascension was necessary in order for Luke to remove the mortal body of Jesus.
Laying a post-enlightenment historical and scientific criteria over this text, however, is probably not helpful. Instead, we will look at this story from a first century viewpoint, and to ask questions that can lead us to fuller insight. What is Luke actually trying to say to us, if this is not meant to be an historical account?
Firstly, Luke is clearly marking the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. The Jesus part of Luke’s story has come to an end. But it is the beginning of another story—the story of the church. And while the spectacular coming of the spirit has not yet occurred, it is clear that this fledgling church is now called to do something and to not simply stand there, looking up at the departed Jesus. Instead it is time to get going with the work that Jesus began.
Secondly, Luke wants to connect what happens to Jesus with two great figures of the Israelite past, Moses and Elijah. The prophet Elijah “ascends to heaven in a whirlwind” in 2 Kings 2:9-22, in the sight of his successor, Elisha. And though the Bible does not speak of Moses’ ascent to heaven, the Jewish writer Philo in his Life of Moses depicts Moses ascending to God. Jesus cannot be seen to be doing any less.
In both the stories of Moses and Elijah, a common element is that they must be removed before their successors can carry out the ministry of their masters. In the same way, Luke physically removes Jesus from the scene so that the Holy Spirit may come upon his followers, empowering them to carry on the work begun by their master, Jesus.
Thirdly, Luke is being quite subversive in this story of the ascension.
Think for a minute what sort of messiah the disciples of first century Judaism might have been looking for. The most common belief was that the Messiah would restore Israel to the Jews, and end Roman rule. It was a type of kingship that was focussed on Israel, the chosen people, and would be established as an earthly kingdom in the promised land. The disciples actually ask, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” This would have been the normal expectation.
But Luke’s Jesus has said “No” to this question. Instead, the ascension is a radical affirmation of the heavenly-endorsed kingship of Jesus, a kingship that is available everywhere, to all. Not only does Jesus not answer the disciples’ question directly, he rejects it entirely. Instead, he says, “You will receive the power of the Holy Spirit coming upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the world.” The disciples focus is not to be on Israel’s kingdom, but on Jesus as king of everyone, everywhere.
It is at this very point that the ascension happens. Jesus disappears physically from their lives and their sight. From now on, the disciples, the ones who are witnesses to and followers of Jesus, will be the representatives of Jesus, and it is they who will initially respond to the power of the Spirit, the Spirit who will drive them into the world to spread the good news. From now, it is the Spirit they will rely on, not power or trappings of an earthly kingdom.
But there is a gap between the ascension and the coming of the Spirit. There is a waiting period ordered by Jesus himself at his ascension, where he instructs the disciples to go to Jerusalem and ‘wait there for the promise of the Father ‘.
So the disciples now enter a time of active waiting, where they do not sit there passively waiting for something to happen, but actively engage in prayer. This act of prayer lasts for ten days, and has the consequence of making them as of ‘one accord’ or ‘of the same spirit.’
At this point, most of our biblical translations fail us, and do not capture the meaning of the hugely significant Greek word that Luke is using here. Homothumadon is a word used only 12 times in the New Testament, with 11 of those occurrences in the Book of Acts, and one in Romans. Luke uses it to help us understand the uniqueness of the Christian community. Homothumadon is a compound of two words, homo meaning “in unison” and thumos “, temperament, emotion of the mind, the principle of life, feeling and thought, to rush along.” Larry Richards, a priest and Greek scholar, writes that there is a musical sense to this word, where it suggests notes being brought into harmony together, under the masterful hand of the conductor.
Homothumadon denotes the unity of a group who are of the same passion, the one persuasion, the same mind, of one accord, with one purpose. Homothumadon also suggests a harmony of feelings as well as singleness of purpose. However, while homothumadon refers to a group acting as one, it does not mean lack of diversity. It means cooperation in the midst of diversity.
The word first appears in the 5th and 4th cent. B.C.E. (Aristophanes, Plato, Demosthenes) and was used in the political sphere to describe the visible, inner unity of a group faced by a common duty or danger. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology emphasises that “the unanimity is not based on common personal feelings but on a cause greater than the individual”.
Our modern churches are not very good at homothumadon. We rarely find ourselves in a state where “unanimity is not based on common personal feelings but on a cause greater than the individual”. Common personal feelings and points of view are rarely put aside for a greater cause in our Western society, which is perhaps why there are so many troubling aspects about it. “Uniting for the common good” is not so important now that people can individually protect themselves, resource themselves, and determine their course in life for themselves. That we put our own individual wants over something like the health of our planet, our only home, is testament to the fact we have failed to grasp the importance of community over self.
Active waiting is not something that I suspect we are good at either. We live in a culture where instant gratification is the norm. We no longer necessarily save for things, preferring credit to doing without for a while. We want the newest gadget, the smartest phone, and a home at the right address. The common good tends to be outside of our concern apart from a few charitable donations and causes.
We are impatient and often anxious to rush ahead to the “next big thing,” in our lives, rather than to wait patiently and attend to the teaching of scripture and the empowering of the Spirit.
Why are we so easily led by fads and ‘every wind of doctrine’? Why are we so much more ready to have our ears “tickled” (as the book of Ephesians so colourfully describes) instead of having our hearts firmly grounded in following the gospel? Can we prepare the way for God’s uniting power to take hold among us, enabling us as one to work for the kingdom of God, through prayer, worship, and study?
Do we have the patience to wait actively and faithfully in this ‘in between’ time?
We all know what happens next in the story of Pentecost. The disciples are gathered together in a room, praying, and the Spirit comes upon them with power, and they find themselves prophesising in many languages to those diaspora Jews who have gathered in Jerusalem for the festival. Peter gives a speech which includes words from the prophet Joel, and proclaims the ministry, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus as the basis for those present to repent, or enact metanoia.
A call to metanoia is hard for some of us to hear or even understand. We hear those words, and may think it means to privately confess one’s sins, and ask for forgiveness.
While not discrediting the value of individual repentance for what one has done wrong, the word metanoia means to change one’s way of thinking or feeling, to commit to a new way of being. According to Luke then, God here is demanding a whole new way of living, and redefining what it means to live a life of faithfulness to God.
In fact, what Peter proclaims after the coming of the Spirit is a world on the brink of change. Peter talks of prophesising, visions, dreams, and a world of signs and portents. The change wrought by the coming of the Spirit is so profound that it is going to change the shape of the world’s history. In this vision, the world is going to be turned upside down by God. It is a chaotic vision of the future, where great change and great hope will recreate the people of God.
But before this great transformation comes upon the disciples and the faithful, they pray together in their upstairs room. They need to prepare, and unite, before they can transform the world.
In this in between time between ascension and Pentecost, there are some questions we should be asking ourselves. What do we mean when we pray for the Spirit to come? What do we want when we pray for the Spirit to transform us? More importantly, do we actually want the Spirit to come with power? Are we really prepared to accept what this would mean?
When the Spirit comes, it should be striking fear into our hearts. When the Spirit comes, it means that our way of thinking must be changed. When the Spirit comes, it means being galvanized into action. When the Spirit comes, it means being transformed in a way that will lead to the transformation of others, even though it is two thousand years later. When the Spirit comes, it means being of ‘one accord’, where the greater good is more important than the self. In this time, we stand at the edge at a place of renewal and transformation. We stand with Peter and the disciples in a liminal place between the security and familiarity of our past, and the kingdom of God on the other side of Pentecost. The ascension of Jesus and the ensuring events of Pentecost invite us to move to the future, and to change ourselves in a renewed commitment to our faith and our mission.
Throughout his gospel, Luke has insisted that when God enters human history, the status quo is never confirmed. Lives and traditions are turned upside down. In scripture, the first words spoken by God or any emissary of God to a recipient of a divine message is “Do not be afraid.” This is because where the spirit of God is found, we are not offered peace and goodwill, but chaos and the possibility of transformation.
These words from the book of Acts challenge us not to simply continue our present practices and beliefs unchanged, but to hear a new message and a new way of being. We are being asked to change ourselves, to let go of what we find reassuring, and step out in faith into the chaos represented by the Spirit of God. We are being asked to ‘act of one spirit’ and unite for the common good.
Are we willing to heed the demands of the gospel upon us? Can we emulate the faithful of Jesus’ time and be brave enough to pray for – and accept the consequences of – the coming of the transforming Spirit? Are we prepared to move forward after the ascension of Jesus and pray diligently that we will all become one in our diversity in the unity of the God we worship?
While the coming of the Spirit is a time for rejoicing, it should also be frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.
Let us hope then, and pray, that somehow the Spirit of God will break into our lives this Pentecost, turn us upside down and provoke us to action. Let us make ready, and prepare to be disturbed. Let us set before us a vision of the world radically reformed in the image of its Creator and Redeemer. Let us become the people God intended us to be.
THAT ALL MAY BE ONE Copyright ©2016 by Andrew King
May your people be one as the seas are one
though salting a thousand shores.
May your people be one as the wind is one
though whisper, though rush, though roar.
May your people be one as the birds are one
though they sing a thousand songs.
May your people be one as our prayers are one
though voiced in a thousand tongues.
May your people be one as the light is one
though made of the colours of the rainbow.
May your people be one as your love is one –
your love for all people, we know.
May your people be one as you are one:
you in Christ, and Christ in you.
May your people be one as the Spirit is one,
moving in us, moving through.
Written by Rev Elizabeth Raine
Elizabeth is minister at Tuggeranong Uniting, beginning her ministry here in December 2018.
Over the years, she has had a number of diverse and interesting placements, such as a school chaplaincy, a tenancy worker with UnitingCare, a congregational minister, a lecturer at UTC, a Presbytery minister, and as an Intentional Interim minister.More from Rev Elizabeth Raine