The risen Christ tells his followers: “Stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” And with that, the Gospel of Luke tells us, he “was carried up into heaven.”
The ascension of Christ is usually misunderstood or ignored. In our time a bland literalism meets with a dull skepticism. We are asked to choose between a Jesus involved in some sort of vertical lift-off—going “up” into heaven—and the impossibility of the same event.
But if we can set aside the concerns of “up” and “down” we find that with the ascension, things start to get interesting.
The ascension is a story for people who seek to follow in the ways of Jesus Christ even when Christ is nowhere to be seen.
The ascension is a story for people concerned about the use and misuse of power in the world.
This is to say that, misunderstood and ignored as it is, the ascension is a story for us.
About a year ago a number of articles started popping up in newspapers, magazines, and online addressing the sense of being overwhelmed by political events in our nation that many people had. Seven in ten Americans felt that way. A lot of the articles offered suggestion about how to cope with those feelings.
And then the articles pretty much started to fade away.
I don’t think it’s because those articles were so effective in relieving the stress people were feeling and that they were no longer necessary.
Instead I think that many moved from feeling overwhelmed to simply being worn out. At least that’s how I often feel at the end of the day or the end of a week.
Women’s reproductive rights and their control over their own bodies are under relentless attack.
Hard won rights of LGBTQ people are being stripped away.
Incidents of racial hatred become more common.
Religious intolerance breaks out into violence.
Each day a dedicated group of people in Washington, D.C. do their best to prevent any effective response to climate change.
The Christians that we hear about are usually those who are willing to set aside their principles for the sake of more judges.
The constant lies eat away at our souls and the soul of this nation.
We are quickly overwhelmed. The energy drains away and is replace by resignation. We need to do big things in a sustained, focused and intelligent way, but so many feel so powerless.
The great 20th century Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, helps us with our problem when he says: “Power abdicates only under the stress of counterpower.”
But what is the source of such power?
We find it in that story of the ascension.
Because the news can overwhelm, the 20th century theological giant Karl Barth famously urged ministers to prepare to preach with a newspaper in one hand and a Bible in the other.
From scripture we get a different sense of what is and isn’t possible.
Jesus responds to overwhelmed, questioning followers with the assurance that in the face of all that would work against them, they will find the courage, the strength, the love—the power—to make the healing mercy of God real in the world.
Cornell West recently distinguished between two kinds of power. “I think any time you talk about something as basic as power,” he said, “You’re talking about something that can either be very positive and liberating, or something negative or dominating. When people talk about women’s power, or black power, or workers’ power, it has to do with people from below, there’s no doubt about that.
“However, when you talk about monarchical power, or corporate power, or patriarchal power, or homophobic power, then that’s power from above being imposed on those below.”
Power is the ability to act. And each one of us has that ability. Our strength, our power, allows us to act in the world.
Here’s just one recent, local example:
When the powers from above decided that the Labor Center over at the University was unnecessary in spite of all that it did for students and for workers across the state—or maybe because of what it did for students and workers—Jen Sherer, the Director of the Labor Center and a member of this congregation didn’t say, “Well, that’s just how the world is,” and start shutting the Center down.
She acted. And she got many others to act using that power from below to confront the power from above. Following the advice of Martin Buber, she applied the stress of “counterpower” to save the Labor Center.
Power is the ability to act.
This is not the power of money—although we have some of that.
This is not the power of authority—although many here hold such power.
This is not the power of knowledge—although many here possess vast and impressive amounts of it.
This is not the power of white privilege—although we have it in abundance.
The power we seek—the power at our disposal, is a creative ability that lets us use our own wealth, authority, knowledge, and privilege for the good of other human beings and for the good of creation.
And while Jesus calls this “power from on high,” it is not the kind of “power from above” that is imposed on others. This power not so much descends upon us as it wells up within us when we take seriously what Jesus says and does.
He calls us to listen for the pain in the world.
He invites us to listen for the longing for the good within ourselves.
He even shows us how to get mad and use the power of anger when the injustice we encounter demands this.
Power from below is the ability we have and must continue to use so that we are not simply worn out by the daily news.
The ascension tells us what we already know. God is no longer present with us in Jesus, and yet we live in the power of the Spirit that Christ sends.
Listen again to the disciples. It is difficult for them to shake off their old concerns. Christ is risen. But they cling to their old hopes. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
Memories of faded glory still dance in their minds. Maybe now. Maybe now God will make the old kingdom great again.
You know how this is.
If you don't do it yourself, you know of people who just keep looking back. With no vision for the future, their only hope is in recovering the past. Maybe now things will be like they used to be.
This is the hope of too many people these days.
This is the hope of too many congregations these days.
Maybe now things will be like they were in the sixties or seventies. Maybe now we can go back to the past. Maybe now.
How does Jesus respond to hopes for the past?
“It's not for you to know. . .”
These are words to people who are setting out into new, unchartered territory. All expectations that the world will soon come to an end are renounced. All hopes for the past are put aside. The new task is to find a vision for the future.
We will do well to listen. Listen to Jesus as he tells us to move ahead.
The response of Jesus might not be what we want to hear, but it is a response that is typical of Jesus: “It is not for you to know the times.”
Still, the promise comes: “But you will receive power.”
You will receive the ability to act.
We discover in the midst of all our trials—
We are given the power to take charge of our lives, to change what needs changing.
We are given the power to be agents of God’s love in the world—to take risks for the good.
Jesus no longer with us is Christ powerfully present for us at all times.
Yes, the power of the resurrection takes us into the suffering of the world. In faith that the crucified Jesus is also the risen and ascended Christ we discover the ability to enter the places of suffering to offer the healing, the peace, the wholeness that God seeks for all creation. We discover the courage to hold to our conviction that each person is of great value and loved by God. We will even dare to stand up to power that puts down rather than sink into resignation.
We draw near to the end of our Easter celebrations. And we are reminded once more that resurrection changes everything. Christ is alive and that changes how we look at death. The final enemy is defeated, the destroyer has been destroyed. And because resurrection changes how we look at death, it changes how we look at life. Living in the power of the resurrection, we set aside old hopes and old expectations so that something different can rise up. We stop fighting old battles, nursing old wounds, dreaming old dreams.
The resurrection and the ascension keep bringing us back to here and now. Our eyes are not on the heavens but on earth.
If we take our theology to heart, it informs our actions. The power of the Spirit of God, the energy for life, is the ability to confront the principalities and powers of this world, to speak God’s “Yes” which sounds like a judging “No” to greed, to intolerance, to hatred, to fear, but which is also a resounding affirmation of the goodness of life, the strength of love, and the possibility of justice and reconciliation.
This “Yes” is the message of Easter.
Christ is risen.
The risen Christ who reigns in power gives us the ability to act in the world as agents of God’s new creation.
God’s “Yes” will be our strength and our power.
Christ is risen indeed.