God tells us what to do and helps us to do it

By The Rev. A. Wayne Schwab

 [Luke 24:50-53, Mark 16:19-20; May 15-16, 2010.]

This 7th Sunday after Easter in the church year is the Sunday after the Ascension of the risen Jesus into heaven to be seated at the right hand of God.  Luke 24:50-53 tells us that the astounding appearances of the risen Jesus to his disciples ended after 40 days.  “Then he led them as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them.  While he blessed them, he parted from them.  And they returned to Jerusalem with great joy.  And were continually in the temple praising God.”

The longer ending of Mark 16:19-20 reads, “So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God.  And they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it.  Amen.”

A technological mind says, “Hey, What?”  We do not know what actually happened.  We do know that we are in the world of faith language.  Mark and Luke are describing the faith experience of the first Christians.

As last Sunday, I continue sharing what the Holy Spirit currently leads me to see, to hear, and to learn.  Here my learning is about listening for the faith expressed in the Gospel stories of Jesus.  These accounts of Jesus being seated at the right hand of God are metaphors – picture language – of what the early Christians experienced.  They were seeing God in Jesus and they were seeing God’s power at work in Jesus.  To have “sat down at the right hand of God” is a picture way of saying God’s power is at work in Jesus.  To be at the right hand is to be at the place of honor and sharing of power.

And Mark adds that Jesus continued to work with them.  They could preach and heal in Jesus’ name.  This diverse set of people – some fishermen, one a former tax collector – this diverse set of people could preach and heal too.

So see this ascension story as the picture way our Christian forbears exclaim, “Jesus is walking with us and he’s sharing his power with us!”  We just heard that story from Acts – Paul and Silas cast out a demon, are put in prison, are freed by an earthquake and convert the jailer and his family.  Jesus’ power – God’s power – is at work in them – “in the name of Jesus Christ … come out of her.”

Do let go of scientific thinking and use your faith thinking – see Jesus powerfully at work today.

*    *    *

And this brings me to another basic, the most basic, learning.  The good news is that in Jesus we see God helping us to do what God wants us to do.  God wants us to be loving and just always wherever we are.  And God helps us to do it!

Our problem is that we need help to love and to be just.  Our love and justice are real – and weak!  We have our limits.  Many, many times we need help lest hard-heartedness and injustice win.  How we need help!

The good news – the Gospel – is that God gives us the help we need!  God’s power, Jesus’ power, the Holy Spirit’s power – however you know power coming from beyond yourself – always comes first.  It’s with help from beyond us that we love and are just when times are tough to love and to be just.

That’s the way to understand our Gospel story.  Jesus prays for us, his followers, to be united.  “I ask that they all may be one.”  All the words about unity in today’s gospel are about what Jesus asks the Father to do first or what he has already done.

“. . . may they also be in us . . .”
“. . . the glory you’ve given me I’ve given to them . . .”  and
“. . . may they be with me where I am . . .”

Whatever we do that’s good – that’s loving and just – God is helping us to do.  There is no “if.” “If” we do this, “if” we do that, God will help us.  There are no conditions.  God’s help is unconditional.  We are used to saying God’s love in unconditional.  God’s help is unconditional. God is always on our side to help us to be loving and just – always on everyone’s side – Buddhist, Muslim, atheist – when anyone is loving and just, God is helping them.

Beware of preaching and teaching that always puts an “if” on God helping us.

 . . . if we go to church every Sunday . . .
. . . if we believe . . .
. . . if we pray regularly . . .

Do all of these – sure – just remember that God is helping you already.  Going to church, believing, praying – these do not bring God’s help.  No, they open us to the help already there.

Each of us is here because someone – it may not have been our parents – cared for us without any “ifs.”  They – an aunt, a brother, a maid – someone started off loving us first.  We are here because someone loved us without any conditions – without any ifs.

The splits in the church tell us “it ain’t easy, Lord.”  Yet there is a basic unity at work.  We are working to get back together.  Our own Episcopal story is good here.  We have gotten back with the Lutherans.  We are about to seal unity with the Moravians.  We are working on unity with the Methodists.  We do this only with Jesus’ help!  And we will find our way through our splits.  God will do it!

You want to know what the Gospel is.  This is the Gospel.  God is on our side – on everyone’s side – believer or atheist – Christian or animist (an animist sees God’s spirit in everything – trees, animals, people).

It’s time for some stories of God helping first.

A Swiss pastor, Bloomhart, put it this way to someone who said, “I don’t believe in God.”  He’d say, “God believes in you!”  No wonder the great teachers of the last century – Karl Barth and Emil Brunner – went to him for help when they got tired.  “God believes in you.”  God is already at work in everyone – no “ifs” – God is already at work in every one of us.  God is always trying to break through to us.  “God believes in you.”  God is acting first.  No “ifs.”  God’s work is first.  When we are loving and just – when we believe – God has already done it in us.  God believes in us first!

“Media damages kids.”  So goes a headline.  Children and teens spend more than a quarter of every day using media – television, video games, computers, and cell phones.  All useful.  All harmful when they replace face to face time with people.

The American Psychological Association reports in a study that the violence in video games makes children and teens more aggressive in both their thinking and their living – less aware of how others feel, more ready to hurt others.  Britain’s Home Office has issued a report that sexual imagery leads men to be more violent with women. Did we not all suspect that?  What to do?  Parents, all adults, need to spend more time with children and teens.  We need to talk with them; to get them with people more than with the media.

We are doing it already.  A survey finds that from 1995 to 2007, parents have already doubled the time they spend with their children and teens.  We are on the way.  More is needed.  For what is, let’s say, “Thank you, Lord.”  In faith, we believe that this is God’s work among us.  The Spirit has opened parents up.  They want to do it and they make the time to do it.  Both are God’s work in them.  Whenever you see love at work, you are seeing God at work.

Closer to home.  A local school just offered an evening for parents on “What to do with your family at home.”  300 people came!  That was God’s work.  God led them to do that.  How can we say that?  We can say it because all love is a sign of God’s work in us.  Two truths.  God is working in those parents.  The parents are responding.  Two sides.  God acts.  We act.  God’s act is first; ours is second.  We say, “Thank you, Lord.”  No, “ifs.”  God is helping already.

A last, short story.  I happened to prepare Marcus for confirmation – by telephone.  I did my follow-up Tuesday night.  I asked, “Where have you seen God at work in life?”  He answered, “I don’t know.  I’m getting good grades.”  I said, “Marcus, that is God’s work in your life.  Can you see it that way?”  “Hmmm,” came the answer – Marcus is 16, cautious to be too positive – he savors things that might taste good.  He’s said a lot, but he doesn’t have to put it all together.  He needs to hear my faith.  I believe it’s God’s work and I celebrate it.  And he has a right to hear me say so.  And, don’t miss he named good grades on his own.

I say it sure does taste good, Marcus!  Do we rejoice whenever we see a good thing happen?  If you don’t, learn to do it.  Loving and just stories inspire me.  I hope they inspire you!  Let them give you goose bumps!

A friend teaches high school juniors and seniors to read.  The school pays for that coaching.  And there are coaches who want to do it!  Say, “Thank you Lord.”  If you don’t react that way when you hear something good, teach yourself to do it.  God will help you.

There’s the Gospel.  We can only do so much of what God wants us to do.  What we cannot do, God helps us to do.  God is always at work in us to help us to be loving and just.

God helps Bloomhart to say, “God believes in you.”

God helps the American Psychological Association and Britain’s Home Office to say media hurts children and teens.

God leads parents to double their time with their sons and daughters.

God led those 300 people to that session on what to do with their children.

God helps Marcus to do good work in school.

God helps schools to help their slow readers and the coaches who coach them.

Thank you, Lord.  Thank you for helping us to do what we are too weak to do on our own.  That is indeed good news – Gospel!  You are already helping us where we need help.  You even help us to respond.  Thank you, Lord.

Jesus prayed for God to act first.

            “. . . may they also be in us . . .”
“. . . the glory you’ve given me I’ve given to them . . .”   and
“. . . may they be with me where I am . . .”

And that is just what God does!  Thanks be to God!

[Rev. A. Wayne Schwab; Coordinator of Member Mission Network, Inc., President of Member Mission Press, Chair of the Spiritual Formation Committee for the United Church of Hinesburg, VT, Author, Speaker, and Workshop Leader.]