May 24, 2020
Sermon - Reverend Bob Phelps
Call to Worship
We gather today to worship God, made known to us in Jesus Christ, who sits above every ruler and authority—who sits at God’s right hand. Let us worship God
Prayer for the Day
God of power and majesty, you sent Jesus to bring us your Word of love and hope, and now he calls us to share that Word with all people, Lead us by the power of your Spirit so that we can be witnesses to this hope to which you call us, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Call to Confession
Let us be both honest and faithful as we confess our sin to God, who promises us new life through the power of his redeeming love made known to us in Jesus Christ. Let us pray.
God of life and love, we confess that our faith is too often weak, our love for others too often faint, our prayers too often timid, and our gratitude is nearly always insufficient. We stand and look toward heaven and we feel too far from you. We give you thanks that you come near to us to forgive us and to offer us power to be more faithful, courage to be more obedient, and love to find more opportunities to share with others. Refocus us, Good Lord, and fill us with hope as we move boldly into the future to which you call us. Help us to discern your will before we speak or act so that we might be faithful witnesses to the presence and call of Jesus in the world. We pray in his name. Amen.
Hear the Good News: God’s power to do all things is immeasurable. That means God’s power to forgive us and make us new has no limit, not even those we try to impose by our faithlessness. Let us tell this Good News to the ends of the earth: In Jesus Christ our sin is forgiven. Thanks be to God.
Now may the peace of Christ be with you all.
At God’s Right Hand
I’ve never been very good at handling goodbyes. When we were kids, my sister and I used to spend a lot of time in the country with relatives during the summer. I know now that that was mostly to avoid paying for babysitters while we were out of school, but there were always places with plenty of cousins and grandparents and aunts and uncles where we could stay. I had one cousin who was almost like a brother back then, and one of our aunts had six kids, so it was always fun to go and stay there. We’d sometimes stay a couple of weeks one place and then move somewhere else for another couple of weeks. That was back in the day when summer seemed to last forever, and we didn’t even care if we had to spend some of our time in the tobacco patch or the garden. Eventually, the day came when someone from home would come to get us, and we had to go home. I never liked those transition days. I was always fine once I got home and settled into the routine there—there wasn’t a tobacco patch, but there was always a yard and garden to tend to, so we never ran out of things to do. But there weren’t cousins there to play with or aunts and uncles to spoil us. Sometimes, going home day was so unsettling that we’d try to hide so we wouldn’t have to go. Some of those cousins were always willing to be our partners in crime and help us find places to hide. But the responsible adults always knew where they were so our plan never worked. When they finally dragged us out of our hiding places, there were sometimes tears and sometime mad fits, but they always ended in the back seat of the car for the trip home.
Saying goodbye didn’t get any easier when I was grown. When our boys went off to school and then off to the life that followed that, they always made fun of me for a while because I never liked to be outside when they drove away. I’d say my goodbyes in the house and Deanna was always the stronger one who would stand outside and wave them off and listen for that toot of the horn when they were just out of sight that meant, “We’re on the way, and all is well!” I’m not usually a softy, but I just couldn’t do those good-byes. I knew they were going where they needed to be and, usually, where they wanted to be, but they weren’t going to be at home anymore, and I didn’t want to deal with that reality. Once they were on the road, I got over it and life went on. I’ve gotten some better about all this, but I still don’t much like goodbyes.
Today is the day we remember and celebrate the Ascension of Jesus back to Heaven, from which he had come to us. The disciples find themselves in the position of saying goodbye to him again. This story is so important to the whole narrative of Jesus that Scripture tells it twice. Both the Gospels of Luke and Matthew say something about how Jesus left, and Luke tells it again at the beginning of the Book of Acts. Then the Letter to the Ephesians give us this reflection on Jesus’ Ascension we read together this morning.
The disciples don’t appear to be much better at saying goodbye than I am. When Jesus died, they all ran away, mostly for fear for their own safety; there had to be some apprehension about what was next for them. Jesus had been not only their friend, but their teacher. They had not always understood all he had said to them, but they knew he was leaving work for them to do, and they were not sure they were up to the task without him. They made several runs at trying to get on with life after he died, but then he came back, and they got accustomed to having him among them again. He had told them from the start that he had not come back to stay, and that his leaving was for their good so they could get on with the important work he had prepared them to do. They heard that, but they still weren’t ready to give him up again.
I said earlier that one of the things that always helps me pull myself together when our boys leave is knowing where they’re going, and that they are going where they want and need to be. I haven’t often had to leave one of them in a bad or even an unhappy situation so far, so it helps to know that where they’re going is a good place.
Even after all the things Jesus had told them, I’m sure the disciples still wondered where he was going this time. He had told them many times that he would return to God, but I’m sure they had as many questions as we do about where that is and what it means.
The writer of Ephesians gives us a helpful phrase to figure out how we are to deal with the Ascension. As if the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead is not a powerful enough image, this writer goes on to say that the same God who raised Jesus from the dead has now seated him at the right hand of God.
Any of us who have ever worked collaboratively with others know how important it is to have someone at our right hand. Most of my work in the church has been in what we Presbyterians call solo pastorates. I have worked in a few places where there have been additional staff people, Christian educators, musicians, and others, but most of the time I have been the only full-time person on the staff. That does not mean, however, that I’ve been the only one involved in doing the work of ministry. Our system of leadership is heavily dependent on the idea of elders and ministers serving together. In fact, the ecclesiastical term for my office is teaching elder, and I join a group of people called ruling elders to comprise the Session. The Constitution of our Church is clear that ruling elders don’t rule in the sense of lording power and authority over others, but that they serve alongside one another and teaching elders to promote the well-being of the Church. We serve alongside one another, we serve as right-hand men and women for each other, all with the goal of ministry in Jesus’ name.
Jesus at the right hand of God is a powerful image. We’ll have opportunity in a couple of weeks to explore the mystery of the Trinity together. This idea that God is so vast and so amazing that it takes three persons to contain who God is and what God does is foundational to our faith. The image of God as King and Jesus there at God’s right hand is powerful. Add the enveloping presence of the Holy Spirit, God’s everlasting presence in all places, to that image, and we see God as one who is both willing and able to care for us and to guide us to lives full of meaning and purpose.
To sit at the right hand indicates shared purpose and intention. As Christians, we believe that the three persons of the Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, are one and share one purpose and intention. God is no less committed to our well-being than Jesus is. Jesus does not sit at God’s right hand to hold God’s wrath at bay, to remind him not to destroy us when we go astray. God has always been graciously inclined toward us, and Jesus is the fullest expression of that grace we have ever seen or will ever see. But God didn’t call Jesus back to Heaven to keep God’s wrath in check. God loves us and sent Jesus to be the image of that love. Now that the Spirit has come to be our guide, the full power of God’s love is at work among us. This is the assurance the writer of Ephesians offers us: that we can continue to grow as disciples because of the power God has turned loose among us. He talks about the immeasurable greatness of God’s power and how God put this power to work in Jesus by raising him from the dead and by seating him at God’s right hand.
I’m not sure we have language to comprehend the perspective from which God, with Jesus at his right hand, sees us. We think of the throne of God as a high and lofty place, but it must be even grander than that. I think of pictures we have seen from space missions that show us this planet which is all of creation for most of us. Those pictures show us how small our world really is in comparison to all that is. Then we think about worlds we have not even discovered yet, and we believe that God is somehow both sovereign over and filled with compassion for those worlds, too. And Jesus is there, at God’s right hand, full of splendor and majesty and overflowing with grace and mercy toward us and toward creation we don’t know about.
Since the most recent royal weddings and all the other things that have gone on among the British Royal Family, there has been a surge of interest in those people and their lives. Every day, it seems, news outlets tell us things that are none of our business about the Royals. The pageantry of their lifestyles is something we don’t try to emulate much in this country, but there always appears to be a lot of interest in it. When those leaders of that nation meet with leaders from our country and from other nations of the world, there is always pomp and ceremony, protocol to follow, things that must be done and things that must never happen. As important as all that is, and as much as the media feeds it, the place from which God looks out over the world is even more prominent than that. And Jesus is there, at God’s right hand, taking it all in, ruling over it with all the power of God’s grace and mercy. As powerful at the leaders of the nations of the world understand themselves to be, God’s power is more vast, and we would all do well to seek to live within it.
All of my reluctance to see our boys leave turns out to be pretty foolish. Wherever they have gone, so far at least, they have always found their way back sooner or later. And we are always grateful to see them come.
Those disciples who stood mystified and fearful as they watched Jesus depart from them had the same experience. He left, but he did not leave them alone. In Matthew’s telling of this story, Jesus says, “Remember that I am with you always.” Luke says that Jesus blessed them before he left them. And when Luke tells that story again in Acts, he promises them that they will receive power when the Spirit comes. The writer of Ephesians, with the perspective of a few years after the emotional upheaval of Jesus’ comings and goings, sees the power of Resurrection hope among people striving to be faithful amid all kinds of adversity and promise. When Jesus returned to the right hand of God, the work of salvation was complete. We need not struggle to become God’s people. In Jesus Christ, we are. We need not strive to remain God’s people. In Jesus Christ, we always will be. We need not be ashamed to share what we have found in him with those still searching. What we have found is hope, hope grounded in the power of God revealed to us when God raised Jesus from the dead and seated him at God’s own right hand. This power is ours, both to know and to share. Thanks be to God! Amen.
Prayers of the People
Because God has seated Jesus at his right hand, we live in the power of God’s love and care, so let us pray:
We give you thanks, Loving God, today and every day for the healing power through which you work in Christ to fill our world with grace and mercy. Help us not to be distracted by the evil around us, but to strive to know your grace as the foundation for our own lives and as the gift we have to share with others.
We pray for this world, for its nations, its leaders, its people. Help those who lead us and us who follow to exercise a spirit of wisdom so that we might do what is good for all. Shield the many who suffer from violence and hate; bring them to the safety you intend for us all to know. Show us how to be one people united in your love and clothed in the power of your peace. Fill us with your power, Loving God, and show us how to use it for good. We pray for all who still long to know the power of your love in their lives. Use us as messengers to assure them that you are not far away and demanding, but as close as life and breath and willing to share hope and promise with all who will receive it. Hinder those who seem bent on preventing any from knowing your love. Give those who seek the security and wonder of your mercy. We ask that you show us how to insure that people everywhere can find food, shelter, care, employment and all the things they need to thrive and flourish. Give us hearts full of justice, and inspire us to do what we can to help everyone prosper. We pray for all who are sick and in need. We pray for those who wait on them and stand by them. We pray for those who are recovering with thanksgiving and for those who will not with mercy. Keep us mindful of the great power you have placed among us and help us to use it to offer healing to others. We pray for all who are weary of this time of confinement and confusion. Help us as we move toward the future to trust you above all to lead us. We pray these things in the name of Jesus who taught us all to pray when he said: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen.
Now may God’s glory give you opportunity to praise, may the Resurrection power of Jesus strengthen you for service in his name, and may the presence of the Holy Spirit fill you with peace now and forever.
Go in peace. Love and serve the Lord. Amen.
Pastor, J J White Memorial Presbyterian Church
110 Third Street McComb, MS 39648
church phone 601.684.4189