The Feast of the Ascension of Jesus

Reflecting on our political pandemonium
through the lens of an ancient religious observance

Ken Sehested
Text: Luke 24:44-53

12 May 2024, Circle of Mercy Congregation, Asheville, NC

Invocation. “People killin’, people dyin’ / Children hurt and you hear them cryin’ / Can you practice what you preach / And would you turn the other cheek.” —Black Eyed Peas, “#WHEREISTHELOVE

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“I believe that I shall see
the goodness of God
in the land of the living.”
(Psalm 27:13)

Today we are marking what is called the Feast of the Ascension, the story in the New Testament about the conclusion of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to the disciples, where he is dramatically taken up into heaven. But only in Luke’s Gospel, and in the book of Acts (which Luke also wrote), is there mention of a period of time between resurrection and ascension.

Let’s review the basic elements of this narrative. Chapter 24 in Luke details several resurrection appearances, including the women’s encounter at the empty tomb; the appearance to two disciples on their way out of Jerusalem, Jesus’ identity hidden until the breaking of bread; then Jesus’s appearance to the disciples gathered behind a locked door in Jerusalem—which, as with the story of the Emmaen travelers, includes food, when after showing them his wounds, he suddenly asked: “Got anything to eat?”

Then, leading his disciples out of the city, up onto the Mount of Olives to the village of Bethany, he gives this strange instruction: It’s not yet time for you to launch your mission to declare the Good News not only in Jerusalem but “to all nations.” Wait here until you are “clothed with power from on high”—which is to say, power which you do not generate and may not manipulate, but use only in service to the coming Reign of God.

The repeated instances of Jesus consuming food during this time is extremely important. It underscores and reinforces Scripture’s insistence that faith is a bodified affair; that history, not heaven, is the pivot point of our calling; that we are not saved from the world but for it. As Scripture scholar Frederic Herzog insists, the question about being “born again” is not “have you found Jesus” but “Have you found your neighbor.”

Unfortunately, this clarity has been muddled because of a deeply flawed translation into English of one word. That word is “flesh.”

The Newer Testament is filled with negative images of “the flesh,” which is perceived as corruptible, as warped desire, as licentious (Romans 13:14; 1 John 2:16; 2 Peter 2:18). Flesh is “hostile to God” (Romans 8:7), and we are warned against walking “according to the flesh” (Galatians 4:23, 29), or “setting the mind on the flesh” (Romans 8:5), “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (8:8), and “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 15:50) contrasting “flesh” with “things of the Spirit” (Romans 8:4-13). Whenever you encounter those expressions, you need to translate “flesh” as “disordered, self-centered desire.”

But consider this: Scripture repeatedly locates the work of salvation in the flesh. Ezekiel predicts the day when a new spirit will be put into human creatures, a “heart of flesh” displacing a “heart of stone” (36:26). Joel foresees the time when God will “pour out my spirit on all flesh” (2:28).

The Prophet’s claim (Isaiah 40:5)—echoed in Luke’s rendering (3:6)—is that “all flesh shall see the salvation of our God.” The first imperative in Jesus’ own model prayer is “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). And John the Revelator (11:15) asserts “the kingdom of the world will become the kingdom of our God.”

And then there’s this text in the Psalms, surely my favorite: “I believe that I shall see the goodness of God in the land of the living.” [Line this out to be repeated by the congregation.]

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The second key factor in today’s text is this: The story is not simply about Jesus’ ascension into heaven. A descension is also happening, namely the giving of the Holy Spirit, with its powerful animation of those on the Jesus Road, inciting us into the far reaches of the globe with the profoundly unsettling news that a New Order is rising from the ashes of the old.

Throughout Scripture, the indwelling of the Spirit traffics in fleshly affairs. Getting saved means getting reordered. And the reordering work takes a lifetime of practice, and is often discomforting because we have become so conformed to the way things are.

The clarification of this confusion requires the community of faith to revisit the passion to which we are bound, living open-eyed in a world predicated on and subject to violation—and doing so without resort to in-kind response.

The scuttling of this disorder comes by way pathos, where we learn that God is more taken with the agony of the earth than with the ecstasy of heaven.

The Feast of the Ascension’s insistence is that God has not constructed a co-dependent relationship. The covenant is relational, not despotic. Faith entails participation, not consumption. Jesus is not our mascot, but the “pioneer of faith” (Hebrews 12:2) who bids us follow.

The threat he faced could very well be ours. But also the enduring power of joy, our buoyancy in the face of trouble.

The Feast of the Ascension is the seal of heaven’s safeguard: Not from the bootleg world, but in it, for it, on its behalf, for the blessing of Creation has not been annulled. Next Sunday we will observe the Spirit’s deployment in power as we commemorate Pentecost, the birth of church, the occasion when God’s resurrection moment turns into a resurrection movement.

Repeat with me the credo for today, this time in plural form: “We believe that we shall see the goodness of God in the land of the living.”

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Hymn of lament. “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?” —“How long, Lord?” translated lyrics from “Eela Mata Ya Rabbou,” hymn adapted from Psalm 13 of lament over the Israeli massacres of Palestinian protestors in the Gaza Strip, performed by Fairouz

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But there is, as they say, a fly in this ointment, so I want to close with a confession and, possibly, a word of absolution.

Politically speaking, I am more pessimistic that at any time in my life. Ever darker clouds gather, more ominously that I can remember.

There is a wide range of threats, of course. Climate collapse, wars in Gaza and Ukraine, stubbornly resistant racial animus, escalating wealth inequality, the growing assaults on the LGBTQ community and surge of misogyny, the epidemic of gun violence. On and on. But what troubles me most right now is the malignant growth of the militant MAGA movement, our former president being its ring leader.

You’ve heard the threats detailed: Trump’s promise to be a dictator, at least for a day—which is like saying, as you open a bag of potato chips, “I’m just going to eat one.” His pledge of retribution on all his detractors. The airways saturated with disinformation and outright lies. The Republic Party chair promising “four years of scorched earth policies” in a new Trump administration. A third of Republican party members who believe political violence may be necessary to gain control of the government.

Though I am loath to say it, there is a very realistic possibility of Trump being reelected. And to complicate matters, within the MAGA movement, there is a constituency that truly has been left behind by the brutal logic of our economy—people whose justifiable anger has festered into a wanton, burn-it-all-down rage.

The problem, though, is that I’m also deeply worried regardless of which way the election goes. It feels like a damned-if-he-wins-but-also-damned-if-he-loses kind of predicament. Other than the years leading up to and during our Civil War, I don’t think our nation has faced such a challenge to its most basic constitutional institutions, norms, and our commitment to the common good, upholding the equality of all under the law.

It’s not that the rising tide of malice and threat is new. Trump didn’t create these fractures. There is a long history of such malevolence from the beginning of our republic. Our original constitution sanctions slavery—though it was so unpleasant a thought that the document does not use the word “slavery,” but instead speaks of “other Persons.”

Because our virtues as a nation are considerable, we tend to think our vices unremarkable. Such is not the case. And if we are to rightly interpret our condition, we simply must take seriously the whole story.

What, then, are we to do?

The poet adrienne maree brown says it best: “Things are not getting worse. They are getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.”

It’s true, of course, that there’s a difference between pessimism and despair; as well as the obverse, between optimism and hope. The former, in both cases, are more like emotions. Which is to say, they’re like the weather . . . changeable . . . over which we have little control.

I remain deeply hopeful in spite of my pessimism. The vision of a new heaven and a new earth, of the day when lion and lamb will lie peacefully together, of the coming Kindom of God, of the Beloved Community, of the day when all tears will be dried—these images have taken root in my heart, and in your hearts, and I cannot imagine a power that would uproot them.

The absolution available to all who are seriously involved in the work of minding and mending and ministering (and often stressed out because of the fragmentary results of our efforts) is remarkably simple: It is not up to us, individually or collectively, to make history turn out right. The wisdom of the Talmud is concisely instructive: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” In the end, it is beauty (blossoming from the soil of a beatific vision), not duty, which sustains even in the midst of drought.

We most certainly need to hold each other tight as we peel back the veil, though I think we may need to do more. Things could get really dicey here, after the election, maybe after next January’s swearing in of a new president, maybe in the months that follow. To be clear: I am not predicting widespread political violence if Trump loses. Though I am predicting a campaign of ruthless vengeance from the Oval Office if he does win.

So, again, what are we to do, if anything?

I have no plan to offer, nor am I suggesting some particular outcome. But I am using this privileged moment to encourage our congregational leaders—our pastors and church council members—to initiate a conversation in the coming months, one that might later involve all our members, to ask ourselves whether we need to prepare for the highly volatile storm on the horizon.

Does this dangerous season require any special measures? What might our role be as a community? What might individual members be prepared to do? Is the fear I’ve described overblown? How does our “peace church” statement inform the living of these days?

Kindred, ours is a bodified faith, an enfleshed faith. Jesus has ascended, but the Spirit is descending. Heaven is not a spatial indicator of a realm behind what’s behind the clouds. It’s a way of talking about God’s intent for Creation. Heaven is forever intersecting with Earth. As Dr. James Forbes said, “Nobody gets into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.” And as that Proverb says, oppressing the poor is an insult to God” (14:31).

I’ll turn to another poet and another Adrienne—this one, Adrienne Rich—to sum it up: “My heart is moved by all I cannot save: so much has been destroyed. [Yet] I have to cast my lot with those, who age after age, perversely [or persistently], with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.”

We, too, are a community with no extraordinary power. But our midst is an Advocate, one who is hell-bent on emptying Hades of its treacherous deceit and it’s deathly sway.

Say it with me, this time in plural form: We believe that we shall see the goodness of God in the land of the living.

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Benediction. “. . . from the staggering account / of the Sermon on the Mount / which I don’t pretend to understand at all. / It’s coming from the silence / on the dock of the bay, / from the brave, the bold, the battered / heart of Chevrolet: / Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.” —Leonard Cohen, “Democracy” (Click the “show more” button to see the lyrics.)

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