Do Not Be Afraid

April 16, 2017 – Easter Sunday
Matthew 28.1-10

Easter Sunday is a strange day. On the fact of it, it is a glorious day of celebration. There are beautiful decorations, the music is wondrous, our spirits are lifted up. Here in Kentucky we are far enough south, and climate change is moving our growing zones northward, to make seeing the evidence of spring all around us a usual part of our experience on Easter. At Central we have a delicious breakfast feast and we welcome family, friends and neighbors. So many signs around us point toward a magnificent day.

At the same time, the story whose message we celebrate, is set in a graveyard. The story in Matthew’s gospel takes place in a cemetery.

The location of our story is a place of death. Of endings. Of sadness. Of emptiness. Of hopes dashed against the rocks.

Mary Magdalene and the other Mary did not get up that morning and say, “Let’s go see what’s happened at the tomb. It’s such a glorious day to be alive.”

I imagine the two Marys went to the tomb that morning simply to be there—in the manner of the Jewish tradition of shiva—the seven days after a person’s death during which time friends and family sit together, acknowledging their grief, remembering the life of the one who has died—being present with the memories and the loss and with one another.

I suspect that’s what the two Marys were doing that morning when they decided to go back to the tomb. They wanted time together to remember their teacher, their friend. The One in whom they thought their lives—the lives of their people and the world—might really be different.

It’s really hard for us to hear this story and put ourselves in their place—because we have heard the ending—and we know what’s coming next.

But for Mary Magdalene and the other Mary sitting there in the cemetery, it is over. Death has had the last word. There is nothing more.

* * *

And is this not also where many of us sit—even on Easter morning?

– A friend wrote this week to ask for prayer for two teenage friends driving home from spring break—they were in a car wreck and the father, who was driving, was killed.

– Other friends and friends of friends have been diagnosed with cancer.

– Two friends who have experienced multiple miscarriages now grieve two stillborn babies.

– Friends whose mothers, whose fathers, whose spouses have died.

– We have seen the faces of Syrian children who have been gassed.

– We have heard about the murder of 45 Coptic Christians in Egypt in church on Palm Sunday.

– We have read the news of the US bombing in Syria and Afghanistan.

– We are experiencing the legacy of white supremacy that continues to dehumanize all of us.

And, we, too, wonder if the last word doesn’t indeed belong to death.

* * *

Back at the 1st century tomb, the ground began to tremble and shake. If you’ve ever been in an earthquake, it is quite a frightening experience. There is no place to go to get away from it. All you can do is wait for it to be over—and pray you are still able to stand up when it’s through.

Then an angel descended from heaven and rolled back the stone that was blocking the entrance to the tomb.

In the Bible, when an angel arrives, people tremble and shake. They wonder what terrifying event will happen next. And the first words out of the mouths of angels are: “Do not be afraid.”

From our vantage point, if we were Mary Magdalene or the other Mary, knowing what we know now, we might yell, “Yippee!! He’s done it! I knew it! I knew it!” and give high-fives all around.

But for the two Marys, this is a very disorientating experience. That Jesus should be raised from the dead was not what they were expecting at all.

The angel sends them back to Galilee and they leave the cemetery quickly, running to tell the disciples, filled with fear and great joy.

Fear and great joy.

Isn’t that also how many of us live? Maybe it’s the reality of human existence to live with both fear and great joy.

The news of the resurrection doesn’t mean everything is solved; that all suffering is eliminated. We live on this side of the resurrection, but we also know that death still deals us a hand we don’t want. We know that people we love still leave us. Addictions still wrestle us to the ground. Cancer still mutates our once healthy cells. We lose our jobs. We can’t pay our bills. Depression follows us around like a stray dog. We are falsely accused. We suffer the consequences of someone else’s actions.

We know the world is not yet completely transformed by the resurrecting power of God who raised Jesus from the dead.

And what is this resurrection? Sometimes we confuse it with being a belief in “life after death.” We mix it up with the idea of the immortality of the soul which is a theory about human nature that says there is something within us that cannot die. But resurrection is not about human nature. Resurrection affirms something about the nature of God—who acts even for those who are dead. Jesus did not raise himself. God did it. “He has been raised” the angel says to the women at the tomb. Christian hope is in the resurrection, not in immortality. It is hope in God not in ourselves.

The first line of the Brief Statement of Faith of the Presbyterian Church says, “In life and in death we belong to God.” The Apostle Paul writes in his letter to the church in Rome, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life…nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

What exactly does that mean about what happens to us after we die? We don’t know for sure. There are lots of ideas that come from the Bible and from Christian tradition and cultural speculation. No matter what the details turn out to be, what we can trust is that even in death we are not separated from God—and we don’t have to be afraid.

* * *

As the two Marys leave the cemetery caught up in fear and great joy, Jesus met them and he too, says, “Do not be afraid.” The root meaning of that Greek word that we translate as “met” means more than they just ran into each other on the road. It means Jesus “joins and accompanies them.”[1] He is with them in that place of fear and great joy and he promises that he will be with them and the other disciples in Galilee—when they all return to their homes and their work and the ordinariness of their lives.

If resurrection is a trustworthy promise about death, it is also a trustworthy promise about life: that nothing in life and nothing in death can separate us from the love of God. Resurrection then is also a promise that we are not alone. We are joined and accompanied by the risen Christ in the places of fear, in the places of great joy and also in the ordinary places of our lives.

The resurrection has not yet erased the reality of death but it has changed the reality of death. The resurrection has not yet erased the reality of suffering but it has changed the reality of suffering. The resurrection has not yet erased the reality of injustice but it has changed the reality of injustice.

Death and suffering and injustice are not the last word. As we often sing in the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

[God’s] goodness is stronger than evil;
[God’s] love is stronger than hate;
light is stronger than darkness;
life is stronger than death.[2]

Do not be afraid.

*  * * * *

[1] M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 102.

[2] Desmond Tutu, “Goodness is Stronger Than Evil,” in Glory to God, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), #750.

Easter’s Conflict – John 10.10b-18 & Acts 4.5-12

April 26, 2015 – 4th Sunday of Easter

The reading from John’s gospel comes near the end of five chapters of growing conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities. The religious authorities are seeking to kill Jesus and Jesus knows it. At one point in chapter 8, (v59), they pick up rocks to throw at him (that’s the traditional way to execute someone for blasphemy[1]) but Jesus is able to leave the scene without harm.

Chapter 10 is the conclusion of a pattern in John’s gospel that starts with a miracle, moves to a dialogue with the religious authorities and then ends with a discourse by Jesus. The miracle—in chapter 9—was the restored eyesight of a man who was born blind. What we’re hearing in chapter 10 is the last part of the discourse. In the discourse you won’t hear about the man who was born blind but you will hear Jesus’ critique of the religious authorities.

I’m going to begin with the second half of verse 10. I will alternate using “Father” and “Mother” as images of belatedness between God and Jesus which is so important in John’s gospel.
In this passage it is Jesus who is speaking. [READ John 10.10b-18]

There is lots of trouble in both of the readings for today. Trouble and conflict. In John’s gospel, Jesus is taking the religious authorities to task for acting as the hired hands rather than as shepherds. Jesus invokes an image of leadership and care that his first century hearers would have recognized right away. They were used to hearing the title of shepherd used for leaders. “God and kings were called the shepherd of their people,” All through the Hebrew scripture, God is called the shepherd of Israel, and Israel is called God’s flock.[2] In Ezekiel 34, a passage that Jesus’ listeners (and the religious authorities) would have known, “God the good shepherd cares for the sheep, rescuing them from the places to which they have been scattered, feeding them, and tending to the weak, the injured, and the lost.”[3] Ezekiel 34 also chastises the shepherds—Israel’s leaders—who have not taken care of the sheep and their negligence has resulted in the flock being scattered and leaderless.

So when Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd” he is saying he is the shepherd who meets the needs of the sheep. He is the one who is “fulfilling God’s promises and doing God’s work.”[4] And not to put too fine a point on it, Jesus means that he is the good shepherd, not the religious authorities, and that he is the one doing God’s work, not the religious authorities because they have gotten caught up in their own power and prestige and neglected what God called them to be and do.

Can you imagine why they want to get rid of him?

Over in Acts, we find more conflict. Peter and John have healed a man who had spent his whole life unable to walk. The people who see this are amazed and Peter and John use that opportunity to tell them about Jesus who was crucified and whom God raised from the dead.

The religious authorities are ticked off and they summon Peter and John. They don’t ask “How did you heal the man?” They say, “Who gave you the authority to heal him?” They knew Peter and John hadn’t been authorized by them and they knew they didn’t like people horning in on their religious territory. The religious authorities assumed they had an exclusive franchise and they didn’t want other people coming in and stealing their business.

Peter uses their question to speak again about Jesus who was crucified and whom God raised from the dead. The story goes on to say the religious authorities told Peter and John not to speak or teach about Jesus any more. But both men say they cannot stop speaking about what they have seen and heard about Jesus. The religious authorities are not happy about this but they cannot figure out a way to silence them because so many people have already heard about Peter and John and their teaching about Jesus.

This week I’ve been thinking about how odd these stories in John and Acts seem for the season of Easter. This is the time in the Christian year where we celebrate Christ’s resurrection. Of course, every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection but even more so during the season of Easter. Wouldn’t you think we’d have stories that are joyful and uplifting and inspiring? And there are part of these stories that can be heard that way: a man is healed by Peter and John, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” But both of the stories are set in the circumstances of conflict. And conflict that will continue to escalate.

It makes me think about the many friends I have, inside and outside the church, who say, “What’s the big deal about Easter? It doesn’t solve anything. I’m not sure it changes much of anything.”

We preachers proclaim that the resurrection of Jesus is about God having the last word over evil and estrangement, over death and destruction. That the worst the world can dish out is not greater than the love and grace with which God responds. It is, as we sing, “Goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death.”[5] But, honestly, Easter and resurrection doesn’t change that people get sick and die. Relationships deteriorate. Poverty degrades the lives and limits the potential of millions of children in our country and around the world. Hunger haunts more than 1 in 5 kids in the U.S. who live in homes that are food insecure.[6] Mass incarceration of millions of African-American men is the Jim Crow of our generation. “Today there are more African-Americans…in prison or jail, on probation or parole—than were enslaved in 1850.”[7] And each week there seems to be another death of an unarmed black man who has an encounter with the police.

How does Easter and the resurrection change any of that?

In the Acts story, the resurrection of Jesus has changed everything for his followers, including Peter and John. Their sorrow and despair at the death of their friend turns into wonder and amazement when they meet him risen from the dead. The disciples are made bold to speak about the transforming power of Jesus. And in the name and power of Jesus they teach and heal and set people free. They followed in the way he had taught them and they did what he had commissioned them to do.

In John’s story about Jesus who is the good shepherd, reading it after the resurrection, we meet again the shepherd who provides for the needs of the sheep, who cares for the sheep, even if it should cost him his life. But costing him his life is not the end of the story. There is something about this good shepherd Jesus who knows that the religious authorities want to kill him but he is not at their mercy. “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord,” he says. “I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” (10.18) “Jesus is not a victim in death or a martyr against his will, but is in control of his own death.”[8]

Those words we sing, “Goodness is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate” were written by South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Archbishop Tutu lived much of his life under the evil of apartheid. And he saw it end—which I can only imagine might have felt like the resurrection.

At the end of the 1986 movie “The Mission”—which is about a Jesuit missionary in 18th century South America—at the end of the movie the missionary and many in the mission village are slaughtered by the colonizing Portuguese. After the slaughter, the Roman Catholic Cardinal and the Portuguese Governor of the territory have an exchange. “Thus is the world” the governor says with a shrug of his shoulders. “No,” says the Cardinal. “Thus have we made the world.”

Recalling the story in John 20 where Jesus appears to the disciples who were in a locked room afraid of the religious authorities, Sara Miles writes in her book, Jesus Freak, Jesus “is handing over the greatest power of all: to forgive sins, to make peace, as he’s forgiven the friends and strangers who’ve betrayed and killed him. From this power, and from the practical acts of mercy he’s given every human being the authority to undertake now—feeding, healing, casting out demons, cleansing the ritually unclean—resurrection itself springs [forth]. Jesus has given us all the power to be Jesus.”[9]

The story of Easter and the resurrection invites us to live in a different way. Not resigned to the death-dealing ways of the world. But attuned to the God who invites us and gives us the power to re-make the world.

The conflict of Easter is that is transforms our lives to live in a way that is at odds with what conventional wisdom says.

At the beginning of the service this morning we affirmed our faith with words of resurrection hope. “Resurrection hope is a hope for the transformation of this world, not a hope for escape from it. It is the hope that evil in all its forms will be utterly eradicated, that past history will be redeemed, and that all the things that ever were will be made new. It is the hope of a new creation, a new heaven and a new earth, in which God is really honored as God, human beings are truly loving, and peace and justice reign on earth.”[10]

You can say that’s foolish and crazy—and you’ll be like the Portuguese Governor who looking over at all the death before him shrugs his shoulders and says, “That’s just the way the world is.”

Or you can say “resurrection hope is the way I want to live—even if there are days it seems impossible and so much of the evidence points in another direction.” And you’ll be more like the Cardinal who looks out over the carnage and says, “That’s how we have made the world”—with the implication that if we have made it in that destructive way, we can also remake it in a life-giving way.

Not because we are so good or because Easter makes everything easy, but because we follow the Good Shepherd who provides for our needs, who walks with us in the darkest valleys, who feeds us in the midst of our enemies, and who sends goodness and mercy to accompany us all the days of our lives, who comes to bring abundant life and who calls us to forgive and heal and feed and transform the world.

* * *
1.  John 8.59 note in The Access Bible, NRSV, eds. Gail R. O’Day and David Petersen, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
2.  James L. Mays, Psalms, (Louisville: John Knox, 1994), p117.
3.  Gail O’Day, “John” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol IX, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 669-670.
4. Ibid., 670.
5. Text by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, copyright 1995, Desmond Tutu.
6.  http://issuu.com/cdfweb/docs/2014_soac_child_nutrition/3?e=3139395/6445093, accessed 25 April 2015.
7.  http://www.npr.org/2012/01/16/145175694/legal-scholar-jim-crow-still-exists-in-america, accessed 25 April 2015.
8. O’Day, 671.
9.  Sara Miles, Jesus Freak: Feeding – Healing – Raising the Dead, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010),  x-xi.
10. Adapted from the PC(USA) Study Catechism, Question 85.

Peace – John 20.19-31

April 7, 2013 – Second Sunday of Easter

Introduction: Our story is set last Sunday evening—that is, on the evening of the Sunday morning appearance of the risen Jesus to Mary Magdalene. We’re in John’s gospel where Mary is the first one to see Jesus after the resurrection.

Also in John’s gospel Jesus calls God “Father” more than any of the other gospels. Here it is a term of closeness and intimacy. It is the language of a beloved parent and beloved child.

Peace

The first part of this reading always seems like an odd part of the Easter story. After our glorious Easter celebration with great music, great food, beautiful flowers and the multitude of ways we joyfully sing and say, “Christ is risen!”—we don’t expect the gospel stories to be so bleak. We heard last week from Luke’s gospel about the women who go to the tomb to properly care for Jesus’ body; who are told Jesus has been raised and they are terrified and perplexed and the story ends mostly with confusion.

In John, the disciples are not kicking back on Sunday night with a great feast to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. The disciples are afraid. They’d followed Jesus and now he was dead—although Mary Magdalene had reported she had seen him alive. But for all they really knew, Jesus was dead and had taken their hopes for the future with him to the grave. Now they cower in a room with the drapes pulled shut and the doors locked, wondering if the next knock on the door will be the authorities who will arrest, torture and kill them too.

Then through those locked doors, Jesus appears. He doesn’t scold them for cowering. He doesn’t ridicule them for their fear. He says, “Peace be with you.”

He showed them the physical evidence of his crucifixion—the wounds on his body—and the disciples rejoiced when they realized who this really was. And again Jesus says, “Peace be with you.”

And then he commissioned this cowering, fearful, hesitant bunch of disciples: “As God has sent me, so I send you. The ministry which God gave to me, I now entrust on to you.”

Jesus breathes on them and gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit which he had promised before his death. In John’s gospel, there’s no gap in time between Easter and Pentecost—between the resurrection and the gift of the Spirit. In the church now we follow the tradition of Luke and Acts where there is a fifty-day pause between Easter and Pentecost. We’ll celebrate Pentecost at the end of May. But when we read John’s gospel, celebrating Easter is also celebrating the beginning of the church’s mission1—our mission—one leads immediately to the other.

“Peace be with you. I give to you the work which God gave to me. Receive the Holy Spirit.”

Then the story turns to Thomas. Who gets a bad rap as a doubter. Despite our translations, the word “doubt” does not show up in this story. What gets translated “doubt” in verse 27 is really the word “unbelieving.” Jesus says to Thomas, “Do not be unbelieving but believe.”2 Thomas had already told the other disciples that he could not believe their news about Jesus unless he could see and touch the wounds in the hands and side of Jesus. Which is exactly what the other disciples needed as well. In verse 20, it’s not until the other disciples see Jesus’ hands and side that they rejoice.

Jesus does not shame Thomas or belittle his unbelieving. Jesus offers Thomas what he needs to believe—Jesus offers himself to Thomas. And Thomas believes and proclaims, “My Lord and my God!”—a confession of faith recalling Jesus’ words in John 14, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”3

In the Eastern Orthodox Church this day is sometimes referred to as St. Thomas Sunday which honors the tradition that says Thomas took the gospel to India in the first century. Thomas is remembered then—at least in one tradition—not because of his unbelief but because of his belief.4

But we tend to remember him as the guy who doubted. A guy who we’re not supposed to be like. Or at least not let anyone know we are like him.

Here’s the thing about doubt. In the larger church culture, we tend to treat the phenomenon of doubt on an individual basis, as if doubt is an individual flaw and then we leave doubters to figure things out for themselves. We don’t make room for doubt. Doubt is seen as failure and as a reason not to participate in the community of faith. I’m not supporting that position—I’m just saying that’s what generally exists out there.

I can’t count the number of people who confide in me that they don’t believe in whatever theological idea it is they think they are required to believe in order to be part of a church. There’s this mythology out there that being part of a church is all about a laundry list of beliefs to which one must ascribe. And, in some traditions and congregations, there is a big list you have to sign your name too. But not in most—and certainly at Central and among Presbyterians the list is much shorter than most people expect.

But here’s the more important thing we see in this story. We don’t know why Thomas wasn’t part of the first gathering of disciples who saw Jesus on the night of the resurrection. Did he have other plans? Was he at his in-laws’? Was he upset? Did someone say something to him and he took offense? Was he even more afraid than the others? We don’t know. But we do know he’s back in the community of the followers of Jesus the next week. And it is here—in that community—that Thomas meets the living Christ and is restored to a functioning faith (as opposed to a non-existent perfect faith that we think we’re supposed to have). Restored to the community, he is restored to faith. Thomas overcomes his unbelieving, not by the private ruminations of his own isolated heart and mind somewhere off by himself, but by meeting the risen Christ in the midst of the gathered community.5

This story in John’s gospel bears “witness to how we meet Christ in the community of faith that gathers to receive [Christ’s] living presence.”6 It shifts the focus off the perceived failing of one individual and puts it instead on the significance of the community where the risen Jesus appears and where faith is born and nourished—where is it sustained and supported.

It is to this community—this community that includes Thomas, with his unbelief and his belief—that Jesus is passing on his mission—the one he was given by God—Jesus is passing it on to them and passing it on to us. It’s clear we’re included because the writer of John’s gospel goes to great lengths to make certain we know that meeting the living Christ is not just for those first century followers who got to see Jesus in the flesh and who saw and touched the wounds on his body. The stories about Jesus are written down so that we too, 2000 years later, might also come to believe that Jesus is the Christ and through believing we may have life in Christ’s name. Not because we believe things about Jesus but because we have met the living Christ and set out hearts—our whole selves—after the way of Jesus.

And so it’s our turn now to do what Jesus did. To follow the way of the One who says, “Love one another as I have loved you.” That kind of love—loving one another as we have been loved by Jesus—reveals God to the world and “by revealing God to the world, the church makes it possible for the world to choose to enter into relationship with this God of limitless love.”7 So our work as the church is to bear unending witness to the love of God in Jesus.

That’s probably old news to most of you. But sometimes we need a reminder. A point to fix on the compass of our lives to set us true. Sometimes we get bogged down in the details of all our responsibilities that we forget the big picture and the mission to which we have been called.

And that’s why we gather week after week, year after year. Because we carry this mission together—holding one another together in our believing and our unbelieving. Together we watch for the presence of the living Christ in our midst. Together we tell the stories of Christ’s appearance that we might not lose heart when the road is steep and long. Together we gather around the table where the followers of Jesus have met again and again that we too, like those earliest disciples, might meet the living Christ in bread and wine.
* * *

1 Gail R. O’Day, “John” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. ix, Nashville; Abingdon, 1995, p847.
2 Ibid., p850.
3 John 14.9 (cf. John 14.7) Remember that in John’s gospel, John uses the language of Father and Son not as the language of patriarchy and domination but as the language of intimacy and relationship—of a loving parent and beloved child.See Gail O’Day, “John” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IX, Nashville: Abingdon, 1995, p496. I have briefly summarized some of O’Day’s work in my sermon, “Celebrate God’s Wildly Inclusive Love,” April 24, 2005.
4 Kenneth H. Carter “Living by the Word,” Christian Century, 19 April 2011, p21.
5 Thanks to my friend Dee Wade who share and succinctly summarized what Thomas Troeger wrote in Lectionary Homiletics, April-May 2013, inside front cover.
6 Thomas Troeger, Lectionary Homiletics, April-May 2013, inside front cover.
7 O’Day, p848.

An Easter Testimony – Luke 24.1-12

March 31, 2013 – Easter Sunday

Introduction: In the last verses of Luke 23, the women who had followed Jesus in Galilee, witness his death and burial. The last verse of chapter 23 says, “They went back and prepared aromatic oils and myrrh. And on the sabbath they rested according to the commandment.” That was Friday afternoon. The next verse in the story, Luke 24, verse 1 moves us immediately to early Sunday morning.

[Read Luke 24.1-12]

They were grieving, those women. The ones who had traveled with him through the cities and villages of Galilee, giving their resources to provide for Jesus and the twelve.1 The women, probably sleepless from grief, got up early to do the physical things they could do at the time of death. The sabbath had come quickly after the death of Jesus on Friday and there had not been time to prepare his body. I suspect their plan after they visited the tomb was to return and fix food–just like we often do–although no one was really that hungry.

They went to the cemetery expecting to find Jesus’ body just as it had been left on Friday afternoon. But there was no body and they were perplexed.

Because we know the end of the story, it is easy for us to make light of the women being perplexed as if they just needed a minute to remember than Jesus had been raised from the dead. But no such possibility was in their mind. “Mental confusion” is another way of saying perplexed.2 That disorienting experience of something that doesn’t line up anywhere near what you’re expecting and you don’t know how to make any sense of it. I can imagine it almost like a physical disorientation. You thought you were one place but you’re someplace else and you don’t know where you are or how it happened.

Not one of them was thinking “Jesus is alive!”

When the two angels appear, their confusion changes to terror. They thought they were coming to the tomb of Jesus to pay their respects. To leave some flowers, talk about what a great guy Jesus was and then go home to figure out how to get on with their lives without him. It turns out it’s nothing like that.

The angels say Jesus has been raised and then they say, “Remember” and they remind the women of what Jesus said when he was alive and then the women do remember and they return to tell the other disciples what they’ve just seen. Not surprisingly, the men think the women are making it up. That they are delirious3 with grief. Only one man goes to the tomb to see for himself. He too finds no body and he goes home wondering and amazed at what had happened.

Which is not exactly a ringing endorsement for the resurrection of Jesus. It’s not even clear if anyone in the story believes it yet. It may be that the three women and Peter are thinking about it but it still is too preposterous for them to be convinced.

Until. Until the risen Jesus starts showing up.

It’s not the physical evidence in the empty tomb that becomes Easter faith. The space itself doesn’t prove anything. It’s the testimony of people who have experienced the risen One in their lives. Walking with them on the road to Emmaus. Appearing to the eleven in Jerusalem. Encounters that changed their lives.

And it’s those testimonies that have been passed on and passed on until we are all here today, wondering at this peculiar story about an empty tomb and words that Jesus has been raised.

Each generation has added to the testimonies. Rarely are the testimonies about the physical remains of the tomb–the stones and the clothes. Instead we talk about the presence of the risen One in human experience. Our human experience. I was lost but now am found. I was sinking down but Jesus lifted me up. We pass on the stories of lives transformed, healed, forgiven, made whole. We tell about freedom found, liberation loosed, compassion charged.

You’ve probably heard some of those testimonies. Maybe you’ve given one of your own.

Or maybe you wish you had one to tell. You wonder what it would be like to have experienced this Jesus who people say is alive. Maybe you’re most skeptical that a 21st century thinking person could have such an experience but there’s little tiny piece of you that still wonders, “Could it be true?”

Nancy Mairs, reflecting on faith in her wonderful book Ordinary Time, writes, “It never occurred to me that one might go to church not because one believed in God but precisely because one didn’t, that in ‘going through the motions one might not be performing empty gestures but preparing a space into which belief could flood if it were going to.”4

That’s why we gather together week after week. One person shares their experience and others benefit. One person wanders in the wilderness and others hold them fast in God’s love. One person questions, others listen. Stories get told of the transforming presence of Christ and they become stories that belong to us, that we are part of, even if that exact experience didn’t happen to us. The story of Jesus being alive didn’t belong to one person in the early community of Jesus’ followers. It belonged to them all even as some doubted and some believed.

And they passed it on to us. And it belongs to us even as some doubt and some believe. And some will come to believe and some will come to doubt. And some at the same time like the man who cried out to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief!”

All through the season of Easter we will hear the biblical stories of the appearances of the risen Jesus and listen for the resonances in our own lives and in the lives of one another. And we will meet one another at the table, as we do this morning, opening ourselves to receive the bread of life and the cup of salvation that in our eating and drinking together we too, like those first disciples, meet the risen Christ in our midst.

Nancy Mairs grew up in the Congregational church and as an adult became part of the Catholic church. In her Catholic community she was included in communion even before she converted to Catholicism. Eucharist was freely offered to anyone who was famished; anyone who needed nourishment. She writes, “I don’t partake [of the Eucharist] because I’m a good Catholic, holy and pious and sleek. I partake because I’m a bad Catholic, riddled by doubt and anxiety and anger: fainting from severe hypoglycemia of the soul. I need food. ‘O Holy One,’ I pray as I savor the host, ‘as this bread nourishes my body, so may your spirit nourish my soul. Grow strong within me, I pray, and let me live my life in your praise.'”5

And so it is with us. We proclaim Jesus lives and tell the stories of how our lives have been transformed by his. Some of us testify and some of us listen. Some of us nod in understanding and some are amazed and some wonder. And then we eat together, not because we have earned it but because we need nourishment and strength.

Nourishment and strength to go into the places of our world that are consumed with death and suffering and to be alive with the life of Jesus. We need nourishment and strength to face the demons and pain in our own lives and communities with the confidence that the God who raised Jesus from the dead, can make a way where there is no way and can turn impossibilities into infinite possibilities.6 In your life. In my life. In the life of the whole world.
* * *

1Luke 8.1-3
2 Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991), p387.
3 Ibid., p388.
4Nancy Mairs, Ordinary Time – Cycles in Marriage, Faith and Renewal, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), p67-68.
5 Ibid., p89.
6 John Buchanan, “The Laughter of the Universe” preached at Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, IL, March 27, 2005.

An Easter Testimony – Luke 24.1-12

March 31, 2013 – Easter Sunday

Introduction: In the last verses of Luke 23, the women who had followed Jesus in Galilee, witness his death and burial. The last verse of chapter 23 says, “They went back and prepared aromatic oils and myrrh. And on the sabbath they rested according to the commandment.” That was Friday afternoon. The next verse in the story, Luke 24, verse 1 moves us immediately to early Sunday morning.
READ: Luke 24.1-12

They were grieving, those women. The ones who had traveled with him through the cities and villages of Galilee, giving their resources to provide for Jesus and the twelve.1 The women, probably sleepless from grief, got up early to do the physical things they could do at the time of death. The sabbath had come quickly after the death of Jesus on Friday and there had not been time to prepare his body. I suspect their plan after they visited the tomb was to return and fix food–just like we often do–although no one was really that hungry.

They went to the cemetery expecting to find Jesus’ body just as it had been left on Friday afternoon. But there was no body and they were perplexed.

Because we know the end of the story, it is easy for us to make light of the women being perplexed as if they just needed a minute to remember than Jesus had been raised from the dead. But no such possibility was in their mind. “Mental confusion” is another way of saying perplexed.2 That disorienting experience of something that doesn’t line up anywhere near what you’re expecting and you don’t know how to make any sense of it. I can imagine it almost like a physical disorientation. You thought you were one place but you’re someplace else and you don’t know where you are or how it happened.

Not one of them was thinking “Jesus is alive!”

When the two angels appear, their confusion changes to terror. They thought they were coming to the tomb of Jesus to pay their respects. To leave some flowers, talk about what a great guy Jesus was and then go home to figure out how to get on with their lives without him. It turns out it’s nothing like that.

The angels say Jesus has been raised and then they say, “Remember” and they remind the women of what Jesus said when he was alive and then the women do remember and they return to tell the other disciples what they’ve just seen. Not surprisingly, the men think the women are making it up. That they are delirious3 with grief. Only one man goes to the tomb to see for himself. He too finds no body and he goes home wondering and amazed at what had happened.

Which is not exactly a ringing endorsement for the resurrection of Jesus. It’s not even clear if anyone in the story believes it yet. It may be that the three women and Peter are thinking about it but it still is too preposterous for them to be convinced.

Until. Until the risen Jesus starts showing up.

It’s not the physical evidence in the empty tomb that becomes Easter faith. The space itself doesn’t prove anything. It’s the testimony of people who have experienced the risen One in their lives. Walking with them on the road to Emmaus. Appearing to the eleven in Jerusalem. Encounters that changed their lives.

And it’s those testimonies that have been passed on and passed on until we are all here today, wondering at this peculiar story about an empty tomb and words that Jesus has been raised.

Each generation has added to the testimonies. Rarely are the testimonies about the physical remains of the tomb–the stones and the clothes. Instead we talk about the presence of the risen One in human experience. Our human experience. I was lost but now am found. I was sinking down but Jesus lifted me up. We pass on the stories of lives transformed, healed, forgiven, made whole. We tell about freedom found, liberation loosed, compassion charged.

You’ve probably heard some of those testimonies. Maybe you’ve given one of your own.

Or maybe you wish you had one to tell. You wonder what it would be like to have experienced this Jesus who people say is alive. Maybe you’re most skeptical that a 21st century thinking person could have such an experience but there’s little tiny piece of you that still wonders, “Could it be true?”

Nancy Mairs, reflecting on faith in her wonderful book Ordinary Time, writes, “It never occurred to me that one might go to church not because one believed in God but precisely because one didn’t, that in ‘going through the motions one might not be performing empty gestures but preparing a space into which belief could flood if it were going to.”4

That’s why we gather together week after week. One person shares their experience and others benefit. One person wanders in the wilderness and others hold them fast in God’s love. One person questions, others listen. Stories get told of the transforming presence of Christ and they become stories that belong to us, that we are part of, even if that exact experience didn’t happen to us. The story of Jesus being alive didn’t belong to one person in the early community of Jesus’ followers. It belonged to them all even as some doubted and some believed.

And they passed it on to us. And it belongs to us even as some doubt and some believe. And some will come to believe and some will come to doubt. And some at the same time like the man who cried out to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief!”

All through the season of Easter we will hear the biblical stories of the appearances of the risen Jesus and listen for the resonances in our own lives and in the lives of one another. And we will meet one another at the table, as we do this morning, opening ourselves to receive the bread of life and the cup of salvation that in our eating and drinking together we too, like those first disciples, meet the risen Christ in our midst.

Nancy Mairs grew up in the Congregational church and as an adult became part of the Catholic church. In her Catholic community she was included in communion even before she converted to Catholicism. Eucharist was freely offered to anyone who was famished; anyone who needed nourishment. She writes, “I don’t partake [of the Eucharist] because I’m a good Catholic, holy and pious and sleek. I partake because I’m a bad Catholic, riddled by doubt and anxiety and anger: fainting from severe hypoglycemia of the soul. I need food. ‘O Holy One,’ I pray as I savor the host, ‘as this bread nourishes my body, so may your spirit nourish my soul. Grow strong within me, I pray, and let me live my life in your praise.'”5

And so it is with us. We proclaim Jesus lives and tell the stories of how our lives have been transformed by his. Some of us testify and some of us listen. Some of us nod in understanding and some are amazed and some wonder. And then we eat together, not because we have earned it but because we need nourishment and strength.

Nourishment and strength to go into the places of our world that are consumed with death and suffering and to be alive with the life of Jesus. We need nourishment and strength to face the demons and pain in our own lives and communities with the confidence that the God who raised Jesus from the dead, can make a way where there is no way and can turn impossibilities into infinite possibilities.6 In your life. In my life. In the life of the whole world.

* * *
1 Luke 8.1-3
2 Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991), p387.
3 Ibid., p388.
4 Nancy Mairs, Ordinary Time – Cycles in Marriage, Faith and Renewal, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), p67-68.
5 Ibid., p89.
6 John Buchanan, “The Laughter of the Universe” preached at Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, IL, March 27, 2005.