This was a word passed on to me by a fellow letter carrier, ancient and long retired, now living on my own mail route. A hearty raconteur, he often regaled me with stories of mail delivery ages past - his bowed legs, curved back and slumping right shoulder lending a kind of comic authority to his words. "There's nothing more ancient than this," he would pronounce with a grin and in those words conjure a heroic ideal: a barefooted messenger running from town to town with impending news - a timeless solitary figure with a noble task. Or if you dare, one's vision is raised to Mount Olympus, where the same call is embodied by Hermes, the messenger of the gods. His mother; a Titan, his father; Zeus himself, it was Hermes who was herald of the gods to humans. My own outfit, with pouch and stylized wing on my shoulder and cap, echoes this archetypal figure. Although he never knew it, those words elevated the mundanity of my daily task through the evocation of a deeply human memory. It grounded me to the present, if even for a moment, and, with a little imagination, makes possible a hope-filled orientation to enter the future, "...a man on foot with a message".
As we look at this last chapter of Luke, we will see the author following a similar pattern. He connects Jesus to the ancient story of the covenant faithfulness of God in scripture, he provides perspective for these early believers on their present precarious situation, and then he orients them towards hope and promise for the future: the coming of the Spirit. This is a clue, I think, to seeing this last chapter of Luke: to have Word and Spirit transform the narrative structures of our lives.
Luke 24: 44-53
44 Jesus 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 from Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled." 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. 46 He said to them, "This is what is written: the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 Look, I'm sending to you what my Father promised, but you are to stay in the city until you have been furnished with heavenly power." 50 He led them out as far as Bethany, where he lifted his hands and blessed them. 51 As he blessed them, he left them and was taken up to heaven. 52 They worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem overwhelmed with joy. 53 And they were continuously in the temple praising God.
Luke commentator Joel Green summarizes the importance of this passage like this:
"In these verses one finds the seam wherein the story of Israel, the story of Jesus, and the story of the early church are sown together into a single cloth. Jesus first inscribes his own story, the story of the Messiah who suffers and is raised, into the scriptural story, and then inscribes the story of the early church into both his own story and that of the scriptures. He insures that the disciples grasp fully how the past, present, and future of God's activity belong to one great mural of salvation."
We are story-shaped creatures. We understand our place in the world through an inherited story of family and culture. Through relationships, typologies and vocation, among other things, we cobble together a personal mythology, a mural if you like, of who we are and how we are to function in the world. This narrative structure shelters us from what we most fear, creates justification for what we most desire. It gives us a place to stand, and when we don't have an integrative narrative in our lives, we give into despair, fracture, disintegration. Author Peter Rollins in his book Insurrection describes mythology as "a narrative that brings meaning, order and stability to our fragmented experience. ...It reassures us everything makes sense, everything has a purpose, and everything is in its place. When confronted by chaos and unknowing, a mythology is a story that enables us to cover the cracks."
First century Jews were shaped by the story of God's covenant faithfulness, of exile and return. They were consoled that, despite all appearances to the contrary vis a vis the current Roman occupation, God would eventually vindicate his people and usher in a new age of return. A handful of people were experiencing a powerful embodied story in the person of Jesus. He had a different way of communicating their shared story - the soil, the trees, the vineyards were animated into parables of this new Kingdom of God. More than mere ethnic identity, religious calendar or purity code, he became the embodiment of Torah wisdom. Surely this new age was near, they imagined, and this new King and Kingdom had arrrived.
When the disciples were with Jesus, they experienced that living story in themselves as well. The story was not an abstract concept, but an embodied reality. Fear was overcome, desires realigned. The poor, the outcast, the unclean, were not to be feared but welcomed. It was a powerfully inclusive counter-narrative to a culture divided by clean and unclean, shame and honor, rich and poor. It countered the law of the Pharisees and uncovered the true spirit of the Law - to love God and neighbor as thyself.
After the death of Jesus, the narrative structure of these early believers collapsed- there was nothing left to "cover the cracks." It came to a crashing end with the decisive and humiliating death of Jesus. The seam which held together their story of Israel with the story of Jesus (their mural of salvation) was ripped apart, not unlike the rending of the temple's curtain in Luke 23. By the time we reach Luke 24 there is a strong sense that all hope was gone: the women's breathless report of the empty tomb to the eleven disciples was dismissed as "nonsense", followed by a story of two disillusioned disciples leaving Jerusalem for Emmaus. "We had hoped that he was the one to set Israel free," they lamented. Those hopes died on the cross with Jesus, and in utter despair they were returning to the safety of home.
As 21st century believers, we are standing on the safe side of this gospel narrative. We already assume that the life of Jesus is continuous with the Hebrew scriptures because we are standing on this side of almost two thousand years of church history and tradition. We don't necessarily feel the anguish in this chapter and therefore feel no need for Luke to integrate these stories for us. We feel no pain or loss of all we knew, the fracturing of our stories, the god-forsakeness of the violent death of a friend, and with it the disintegration and fragmentation of all that knit our lives together. We haven't experienced, as Jesus did, the loss of God himself. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" We rush past the darkness of Good Friday and arrive painlessly at Easter.
Peter Rollins writes that the crucifixion "stands in opposition to mythology. ...the crucifixion speaks of an explosion that fundamentally breaks apart mythology in all its various forms, (spiritual, political, social). The crucifixion signals an experience in which all that grounds us and gives us meaning collapses. We witness here, in the starkest terms, the loss of structures that ground us and give us comfort that life makes sense. To participate in the crucifixion is to experience the breaking apart of the various mythologies we use to construct and make sense of our world. We are stripped of our stories, and the experience of nothing is less than the experience of the Real (not consolation, or self-creation). It is the coming of that which cannot be contained in our various mythologies, that which ruptures them all and calls them into question."
What is "the Real"? We thought our self-created stories were real. How do we live in post-crucifixion ambiguity? What happens when we strip away the mythologies that hold our lives together? What happens when they fail, when the mural of salvation is torn apart? If we look at the text, Luke is pointing out that in the face of chaos and ambiguity, it is Word and Spirit that transform and redeem our failed narratives.
"These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the Law from Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled. 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.
If Luke's audience thought that the story of Israel and the story of Jesus were hopelessly ripped apart, Luke is here to tell them that they were not only continuous with, but fulfilled by, the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The pattern of what we saw in the life of Jesus was a pattern already hidden in the scriptures. The "New" is really the "Old" dynamically set in a new context. The past is never truly dead because it has been intersected by eternity, and that timeless quality, a living memory, is really a reservoir of possibility waiting for a new expression. That expression was most profoundly revealed in the life of Jesus.
How do we recognize this pattern for ourselves? We see the pattern of the "old made new" by meditating on scripture. When we meditate on scripture we are actually participating in the wide-ranging experience of God with his people. We are reliving the kinds of feelings and responses that ancient people had, but they are transformed by being set in a new context - our own. The shape of the future is recognizable as that which has happened before, but is now coming towards us from the timeless future, not as fate or predestination, but as a pattern of relating that finds new relevance in a new frame. It is set in a new relationship, but we recognize it as a quality of God's dynamic timeless character.
Scripture also gives me a new repertoire of responses to the world. Intellectually limited and emotionally immature, I am tempered by a predictably small range of thought and feeling. In scripture I am encircled by a wealth of possible new relationships and responses. I am a finite person in a small world, but I can take into myself all the success and failure, the joy and suffering, the confidence and ambiguity, of all people who have had an experience of God. In the Psalms, for example, I find a broad range of emotion: anger, affection, envy, lust, hatred, comfort, peace. Our lives take on the shape of that which we desire, and scripture can shape our desire towards God's original intention for us to "walk humbly, love mercy."
Process theology talks about participating in the experience of God. When we reflect on scripture we are entering the experience of God with his people. We are enriched, but God too is enriched and even enlarged by the encounter with us. God is enlarged by the richness of our own responses, the circle of God's influence expands into the world of our relationships, into our own unique circle of influence. Where once our story set limits and secured ourselves within the palace of the familiar, we learn to welcome the stranger and the strangeness, the Holy wholly Other, the Thou.
"Look, I'm sending to you what my Father promised, but you are to stay in the city until you have been furnished with heavenly power."
The scripture gives us understanding and expands our experience of the possible, but we need more than insight. We are not related to ideas as much as to a person. Lived relationships help flesh out ideas into living realities. The early Christians may have asked, "What kind of relationships do we have now that Jesus has ascended?" The wisdom of God is that he removes himself so that our autonomy is not overwhelmed by his Presence. Too much presence leads to idolatry for some, passivity for others. Too much absence is a problem as well because we can despair, lose hope or think that God has abandoned us. Most times we fill that absence with ourselves rather than with prayerful waiting. Jesus has ascended, but has left instructions to "wait", a waiting that finds its fulfillment in the second chapter of the Book of Acts, the sequel to Luke by the same author. We are asked to wait for "heavenly power", for the Spirit of Pentecost.
Ascension and Pentecost are intimately connected events. The "absence" of Christ in Ascension inaugurates a dynamic new kind of Presence. We have to understand both absence and presence in a new way. N. T. Wright says that the ascension is an overlooked aspect of the Christian tradition, and comments that whenever the church has downplayed the importance of the ascension we get into trouble. If the risen Lord is not properly understood as the authority of the church "seated at the right hand of the Father", we fill that absence with ourselves and what we desire. We anthropomorphize God and then enshrine our human willfulness into our religious institutions. God becomes a God of empire, not of community. In other words, an un-sanctified imagination fills the absence by divinizing our own stories of power and self-importance. The new possibility of the Spirit's presence is then lost. The absence is meant to be filled by this Christ Spirit, but it requires a new kind of relationship from us. The command to "stay in the city until you have been furnished with heavenly power" suggests that they shouldn't fill in the gaps with what they already knew, acting out of habit and instinct. There is to be a new way of relating, one related to heavenly power in the form of self-emptying love, not earthly striving.
"...and a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem."
This new dynamic possibility of the Spirit is suggested by the innocent looking phrase "from Jerusalem." Jerusalem has always been the place of the sacred, the holy destination for God's people, the home of Yahweh, the place of sacred ritual and celebration. For example, Isaiah, in a universalist vision, imagined the wealth and people of the world coming to Jerusalem, but here, in this new vision, the world is to be encountered from Jerusalem. The sacred has been moved from Jerusalem and into the life of the world through the Spirit in community. It is now encountered "where two or three are gathered in His name" rather than in a Holy City.
Jesus as Spirit is no longer bound by history, no longer bound by ethnic identity, no longer bound by the limits of his physical body. Nor by the walls of a holy city. In the Spirit, Christ is everywhere, in all times, a possibility in every encounter, if we wait.
This suggests to me that the Christ Spirit empties herself into the story of the world with all its suffering and contingency. When I am living this story of self-emptying compassion, I die to the self-referential story of security and importance and enter the story of freedom and encounter. It is a story that is large enough to take into itself all the doubt, pain and suffering, failure and betrayal, sickness and even death, transforming it into something new. "Our spirit agrees with Christ's Spirit," Paul says in Romans 8, which suggests to me that the deepest pattern of my life takes the shape of the Human One. The deepest groanings of God are met with the deepest longings of my heart, and this meets the deepest need of the world. I am more aware of the other, more welcoming of the stranger and strangeness, feel more sharply the pain of absence and fragmentation. I am more willing to enter into the Real without denial, regret, shame or false piety.
In Crucifixion, we die to the old stories that define us. We die to the need to self-create a narrative to preserve us from chaos and unknowing. We are kindly given eyes to recognize the inadequacies of the stories out of which we are living. "...And a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem." We are genuinely forgiven for all the stories that are inadequate. And we are more than just forgiven: our failed stories are taken up, and enfolded into the new purposes of God, re-sewn into the mural of salvation. This means that those lost narratives are taken up into the new "plan from here". Resurrection tells me that nothing is lost in God. God holds all the roads-not-taken within himself, so those lost potentialities are still alive in him, providing a wealth of possibility to draw upon in the future. There is therefore no such thing as devastating failure or a hopeless story because seeds of new possibilities are sewn into the ground of all that went before. I see those possibilities through the storied lens of scripture, and am given power by the Spirit to live them out. I am given new eyes to recognize the old pattern arriving afresh from God's future. I see that as a blessing.
50 He led them out as far as Bethany, where he lifted his hands and blessed them. 51 As he blessed them, he left them and was taken up to heaven. 52 They worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem overwhelmed with joy. 53 And they were continuously in the temple praising God.