Yesterday, one of the lectionary readings was from Acts 1:6-11. My worshipping community typically practices Dwelling in the Word instead of having a sermon, and so Acts 1 was the text we all shared around. It’s Luke’s longer account (he has a brief account at the end of the gospel) of the ascension of Jesus.
The text stopped all of us at two points, both questions. “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” And, “Why do you stand looking into heaven?” I think this demonstrates both Luke’s narrative artistry and the good reading instincts of my worshipping community. Both questions focus your attention, and for us created puzzles we wanted solved.
The question about the kingdom tended to throw people around the inclusion of the word “Israel.” This seemed to some to be a nationalistic question by the disciples, a political rather than a spiritual reading. However, if you read Luke-Acts closely, this is just the right question. Lots of evidence to cite here. I’ll just give two examples, one from this very verse.
When Simeon takes the infant Jesus into his arms in the temple, Luke tells us he has been looking for the “consolation of Israel,” a reference to Isaiah 40 (and other texts in Is), in which the prophet imagines the end of exile and the direct rule of the Lord over a restored Israel. The coming of the Lord, Simeon proclaims, will be a “a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 1:32). A few verses later we meet Anna, a devout prophet who “began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (1:38). Restoring the kingdom to Israel under the reign of the Lord is what this story has been about from the very beginning.
Acts 1:8 provides the second clue: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Luke gives us more than a travelogue here. This is a geography of the kingdom restored to Israel. Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, give us a picture of a restored kingdom, north and south brought together again. To “the ends of the earth” restores to Israel the divine calling of being a blessing to all nations. The apostles have asked the right question. Jesus resists the question of time, but is responsive to the question of restoring the kingdom to Israel by showing the apostles how their being witnesses serves that very end.
This part of 1:6-11 I had already discovered. The text surprised me in putting together the puzzle of verses 10-11. Two men in white suddenly appear as Jesus is taken up into heaven and ask the apostles, “Men of Galilee, why do you stare up looking into heaven?” The detail of the two men in white grabbed my curiosity. There are plenty of angels in Luke’s gospel and they are named as such. They typically frighten those who see them, which doesn’t happen here. Instead, we have two men dressed in white, yet who seem to have heavenly insight into the story. Is there anywhere else in Luke featuring two men dressed in white?
Why yes, it turns out there is another place: the story of the transfiguration in Luke 9. As you remember, Jesus’ appearance is changed and “his clothes became dazzling white.” Two men appear, Moses and Elijah, and they too “appeared in glory.” Here’s the kicker though. While Matthew and Mark also have an account of the transfiguration, only Luke tells us that they were speaking to Jesus “of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” This story clearly foreshadows the ascension story in Acts, where we have Jesus’ departure and two men dressed in white. While the two men in white remain anonymous in Acts 1, the reader is clearly meant to recall the appearance of Moses and Elijah in Luke 9. I’m still thinking through the implications of this game changer.
Ok, let me just make a few observations here. First, each gospel is its own literary world. There are literary clues that tie episodes together in ways that don’t transfer between gospels. Don’t use Matthew and Mark to interpret Luke. Second, when we read with the historical question, “what happened?”, we often miss the literary world being created by the author. Third, a puzzling detail to us is 1) an invitation to get out our concordances and look for connections between texts, and 2) an invitation to suspend our assumptions for the sake of something new appearing.