Closing 9000 churches in Canada – Why decline might still be a good thing in 2019

I have been writing about decline for a good while now… as a Millennial and a Pastor, the entirety of my life has been in a “declining” church. Church buildings that greatly outsize worship attendance, mostly grey-haired people sitting in the pews, budgets that are strained and a whole lot of grief about what we once were and anxiety about the future.

And yet, the deeper we get into this era of decline the more complicated the situation becomes. Or perhaps better said, the more aware of how complicated this situation is we become.

Still, the narrative we often tell is that the people have drifted away from church for a number of shallow reasons like laziness, sports, shopping, and a general lack of commitment.

Just this week, there was a CBC news article about the impending closure of 9000 church buildings in Canada over the coming decade.

Sounds very ominous.

The article interviews a representative of Faith and Common Good, a group working to preserve historic buildings in general. At one point the interviewee says,

“If you follow the statscan data you can see that since the late 1970s, early 1980s less and less Canadians attended faith services. I think, to some extent, that also has to do with the way families have changed. They’re off at hockey and soccer and this and that and it’s harder to have a set Sunday date to go somewhere. So, that happened slowly and then suddenly the congregation, there were very few of them and they were quite elderly and the amount of money they could contribute to the plate couldn’t keep up these often very large and historic spaces.”

I think that this situation is a lot more complex than this interviewee describes.

And honestly, I think this is a shallow and misleading narrative. Hockey and soccer are not responsible for keeping people away from church. Church attendance did decline in the 80s and 90s as immigration from European countries dropped. However it has since stabilized in the 2000s according to Reginald Bibby, Canada’s sociologist of religion.

It is also true that as the bulk of Canada’s current immigration from Asia and Africa is bolstering mainly Catholic and Pentecostal groups. The mainline in many cases continues to slowly decline, more or less depending on which denomination you look at.

But a significant piece of this “decline” that is rarely mentioned by anyone but Bibby is that it wasn’t until the 90s that the census allowed people to choose ‘no affiliation’ in the religion section. So lots of people were filling out censuses and checking off a box of religious membership despite rarely or never having been to church. The precipitous decline of the 90s was mostly about more accurate information.

The accompanying narrative about decline is usually that churches are mostly older members now, which implies young people not coming. And yes, it is true that attendance has declined through successive generations. But there are some real demographic realities in Canada that need to be acknowledged when it comes to current church demographics. In the 60s, families had 4.2 kids. Today the average Canadian family has 1.6 kids. And Canada has gotten older. In the 60s, the first baby boomers where leaving childhood for adolescence. Today, 50% of us are over 50 with all the baby boomers falling into that category.

So what does this mean for churches?

For every young family of four (2 adults, 2 kids) like mine, there will be two empty-nester households (4 older adults). Two grey-haired families for every young family. Expand that to the whole congregation, it means the best demographic you can hope for is 2/3 of your congregation will be “grey haired” households. The congregation that I serve is pretty close to that demographic spread. Of course, some churches out there are indeed trending towards mostly grey haired folks and that is problematic.

But the point is, all the young people that we often imagine not coming to church anymore are not who we think they are. In fact, all those young people we remember that used to come to church are actually the grey-haired family units coming now, and the new young people to replace them were never born – they literally don’t exist.

And the last demographic reality faced by churches these days, and the one that probably most accounts for the prospect of closing 9000 churches in the next few years, is the rural to urban demographic shift. Canada’s population has been shifting from the rural setting to the Urban one for decades. Churches in rural communities are closing at an alarming rate, but so are schools, hospitals, banks, grocery stores and on and on. Rural communities are losing people to support most of their local institutions, not just their churches. Rural depopulation is also coupled with people being as mobile as ever — many rural people are shopping, seeing doctors, going to school and to church by driving into urban settings.

Okay… so that is a lot of factors and complications added to the picture of the institutional decline of Christianity in Canada and by extension the United States. Clearly this is NOT about hockey and soccer being more appealing activities on Sunday mornings.

So what is it about?

Well, I think there are a few things that those of us who are trying to understand decline and continue to be church in the 21st century need to keep in mind.

1.We need to stop seeing the exception as the norm.

The current “shrunken” state of the church is far closer to the norm of Christianity over time than the bursting full churches of the middle 20th century. Rather than asking how we got here, we need to be asking what happened that caused such widespread church attendance in 1950s, 60s, and 70s.

2. We need to admit that the full pews did not translate in to widespread discipleship and faithfulness.

There was (and still is for many older people) a significant social and cultural aspect to attending church 50 years ago. Many societal norms simply slotted people into church during the golden age of attendance. Being a citizen of Canada or the United States also made one a Christian during that time. You had to be a good church going person to do business, to have a community, to get married and have a family, to navigate many day-to-day interactions in most communities. People came to church because of social advantages and social pressure.

But did they come to church because believing in Jesus and being a disciple was important? The answer has to be that for many the faith and discipleship aspect of going to church was not a significant factor.

3. We need to admit that before we can be healthy again, we need to shed our attachment to cultural and social Christianity.

While there is a lot of grief about decline and a sense of loss of what churches once were, there are also important truths to hold on to. By now, most people consistently showing up to church on Sunday morning are there because faithfulness and discipleship is important. Following Jesus and hearing again the Good News of God’s love, mercy forgiveness and promise of new life is why people are there. Sure some are stubbornly holding onto social/cultural Christianity, but I think most people in the pews most Sundays are present because the Holy Spirit has brought them in faith. We are becoming communities gathered around faith, rather than around societal expectation.

Decline is still all the rage in 2019, as evidenced by secular news articles about closing church buildings that emphasize their importance to secular communities. Yet, I am not sure decline is such a bad thing for Christianity. It is a common state of existence over our 2000 year history. It is a difficult adjustment but also a call to change, to find news ways to preach the gospel and encouraged faith in a 21st century world.

Decline is shedding baggage that we need to rid ourselves of… because cultural-social Christianity is not about the gospel nor about helping people grow in faith and discipleship. Yet a Church free from adherence to the norms and expectations around it is a Church free to proclaim the radical grace and mercy of God, free to proclaim the God of New Life and Resurrection to a world hellbent on dying.

And isn’t that not just a good thing, but the most important thing?

The future we cannot imagine

GOSPEL: John 5:1-9

6When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” 7The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up;… (Read the whole passage)

Six Sundays into Easter we are coming to the end of the great party of the resurrection. Sure, things have been winding down for a few weeks already, but now is the time when the hosts are letting everyone know that the kitchen is only open a few more minutes, its last call before hitting the road. We are close to being ejected from this celebratory season into the next thing. But the coming end of Easter isn’t just about moving to the next thing. Easter wraps up the first half of the church year where we tell the story of Jesus’ life, from birth to death to resurrection. On Pentecost Sunday we mark the beginning of the Church, the Body of Christ, of Jesus’ presence in the world in a new way and we follow that with about 25 Sundays of green where we hear the teachings of Jesus.

And so it is curious, that coming to the end of the portion of the church year where we tell the story of Jesus’ life we skip back to a moment earlier on. A scene from early on in Jesus’ ministry not long after his baptism and early miracles. In the light of Easter, this moment takes on different connotations than it might have before.

Jesus is making his way through Jerusalem and comes near the Sheep Gate and the pool of Bethzatha. It was believed that this particular pool was periodically visited by an angel who would stir up the waters, after it would heal those who bathed in it – the sick, blind and lame.

Laying there is a sick man who had been there for 38 years. Jesus sees this man and asks him a question, “Do you want to be made well?”

The man tells Jesus that there is no one to bring him to the waters when they are stirred up, and he cannot make it in time on his own.

At this point, the conversation should be feeling a little off. It is like when someone responds to a question that isn’t actually an answer to the question. We have all had these kinds conversations. “What time is it?” “Oh, well we haven’t had lunch yet.” Or “How do you get to the grocery store from here.?” “That’s a long ways, you will need to drive.”

Jesus asks a fairly straight forward question and the man answers a completely different one. And in fact, there are a lot of different answers that the man could have given that would have been closer to answering Jesus’ question. He could have said ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ he could have told the story of how he lost the use of his legs or became sick, he could have asked for mercy and help. But the man doesn’t respond in any of those ways…

Instead the man begins, “Sir, I have no one…”

The man begins with relationships or his lack there of. He has no one, no one in his community has been willing to help him for 38 years. But the man also claims no agency, he believes that his problem is that he has no one, and no one will make way for him.

And maybe after 38 years that makes sense in the man’s mind. He neither sees nor imagines any kind of alternate future. This is his life, the sheep gate with all the others in his community like him, just a few steps from healing, yet completely unattainable.

The man has also completely avoided Jesus’ initial question. “Do you want to be made well?” And that is significant.

It’s significant because it is the same kind of thing we do as well. The conversation that Jesus and the man have could have just as easily been one in our homes or work places, churches or neighbourhoods. It feels unimaginable that no one would have helped this many in nearly 40 years. Yet, how many of us live with pain and discomfort, frustrations or grudges for years upon years? How often when faced with the prospect of doing something about the problems we bear, we look around and say, “There is no one here to do the work needed to do.” As a community and society, how often do we simply accept or even encourage the suffering of an unfortunate few? “If only they could help themselves, if they did’t make the choices they did, what could I do about a problem so big and so hard?”

Our problem is that we find it so hard to imagine any kind of different future than our present. The man has become his story. He has no one to take him to the pool and when he tries to make it on his own, someone steps in his way.

And so too we become our stories…

I am too old to start over,

too set in my ways to learn,

too far gone to be be saved.

We are dying because there is no one to step up and do the work,

we are declining because sports and shopping on Sunday morning,

people just don’t care enough to give of their time and resources like folks did in the past.

Climate change is too big a problem.

Sexism, racism, and inequality are other people’s problems.

I didn’t do those awful things, why should I have to pay for the sins of my ancestors.

We too cannot imagine a future different than our present. It isn’t that we don’t want to be made well or not… its that we don’t know what being well even looks like. We believe that we are what we are.

Yet, Jesus shows up and asks anyways. “Do you want to be made well?”

And you see, before the man even answers, Jesus has invalidated the man’s story of himself. “Sir, I have no one…”

Except the One who has seen him and reached out to him and asked him if he want to be made well.

And even when the man cannot see it, even when he still does not realize that Jesus has broken through his isolation and solitude, and that Jesus has seen him not for his problems but for his humanity…. even when the man cannot see all that… Jesus stays present.

“Stand up, take your mat and walk.”

It isn’t that Jesus has fixed the man’s legs, or taken away his sickness. It’s that even when the man cannot recognize Jesus’ breaking through with a new future and a new story… Jesus hears the man.

It is as if Jesus is saying, “So you think your problem is that you cannot make it to the pool and no one will help you there?… Okay, how about now?” And the man has help, the man can get to the pool.

Jesus meets this man, see him for who he is, and hears who the man believes himself to be…. and Jesus breaks through it all. Jesus makes the man well with a future that only God could have imagined.

And for all the ways in which we cannot imagine any other future, in which we believe that our present is our future… God has a new future and new story in mind for us.

Each time we gather as the assembly, God greets us with a new story about us.

Forgiveness for sinners,

Healing for suffering,

Reconciliation for the conflicted,

Intimacy for the isolated,

Welcome for the marginalized,

Community for outsider,

Hope for the despairing,

Peace for the tormented,

Life for the dying,

Resurrection for the dead.

God greets us and this world with a Word that changes our present, and opens us up to a future we cannot conceive of or imagine.

And even when we cannot see what Jesus is doing, Jesus sees who we truly are in the waters of baptism, the new identity that we are washed and cleansed with in the waters.

And even when we cannot imagine what being well looks for us, when we cannot answer Jesus’ question for us, Jesus greets us at the table, welcomes us into God’s future, into healing relationship and community found in the Body of Christ.

It is as if Jesus hears all the stories about ourselves that we bring here, that we bring to this assembly, and Jesus says to us, “Okay, so you think that that is your story, that this is your future? Okay, how about now?” And we are forgiven and healed and reconciled and brought to new life.

Jesus meets us over and over again, from Christmas, to Lent, to Good Friday, to Easter and beyond. And Jesus keeps on asking,

“Do you want to be made well?”

And thankfully, our answer to this question doesn’t matter… because Jesus has already seen us, already sought us out and already has set us into God’s future.

And Jesus’ answer to us is, “Stand up, take your mats and walk.”

The Complications of Belonging to a Church

GOSPEL: John 13:31-35

31When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (Read the Acts text)

We are now into the latter half of the season of Easter. The Alleluias from Easter Sunday, or as it is formally called The feast of the Resurrection of our Lord, are not ringing as loudly as they were a month ago. Yes, it is still Easter but with 4 weeks of resurrection stories behind us we are coming into the questions that the early church community faced. Questions about what it means to be a community, what does it mean to belong, who exactly are we and where do we go from here? Sound familiar?

Even as we consider this new Easter world, John jumps us back to Maundy Thursday… to hours before betrayal, arrested, trial, and execution. Jesus is eating the Last Supper with his disciples, and he gives them a New Commandment – to love one another. On the night before Good Friday, these are the last instructions of a teacher to his followers. Yet, here a month into Easter, they speak of a different reality to a fledgling Easter community being birthed before our eyes.

In some ways we should have read story of Peter from the book of Acts after the gospel reading, because Peter’s dilemma is precisely how to live into the New Commandment that his teacher and master had given him.

In the days, months and years after the resurrection, the community of Jesus’ followers that continued on to become the church, had to begin dealing with a lot of questions. Questions about who belonged and what it took to become a member of the community. As Peter became the leader of the Christian community in Jerusalem, the question of who could be a part of the community quickly arose. Particularly, as small Christian communities began to sprout up beyond Jerusalem and into the Greek world, the early church had to contend with what new converts needed to do in order to join.

When Peter meets the community in Jerusalem, they are a Jewish group… all are circumcised. And they have been keeping to the tradition of Judaism not necessarily seeing following Jesus as a departure from the faith of their ancestors. Yet, Peter has been meeting with uncircumcised followers – gentiles. But not just meeting with them, eating with them. Of course, observant Judeans kept Kosher, so eating with gentiles would certainly mean breaking Hebrew purity laws. The circumcised believers question Peter’s actions… so Peter tells them a story. Peter was given a vision, a voice from heaven telling him to eat non-kosher meat. Yet when he dismissed the dream, it kept coming back.

Even then, Peter is not swayed… so the spirit sends him to the home of a gentile, Cornelius. And there Peter’s mind is changed.

Now some twenty centuries later, we don’t generally feel the same way about circumcision and eating non-kosher meat that the early christian community in Jerusalem did… yet there is still something extremely familiar about this debate.

Of course, we know on a technical level that the first step of becoming a Christian is to be baptized. In fact, the Greek word Cristos means anointed one, Messiah is the equivalent in Hebrew. And after being washed in the waters of baptism, we are a marked with cross in oil… we are anointed, we are named as Christians.

And yet, knowing what it means to become a Christian through baptism and anointing compared to belonging to a particular community… well those could very well mean different things.

In the first congregation that I served, an open country church on the corner of a quarter section of farmland, what it meant to belong had a complicated meaning. Belonging happened in a variety of ways: If your family had been farming the land for a few generations, you belonged whether you wanted to or not, whether you were in church every Sunday or once a year. And yet, if you were new to the community, meaning being the first generation to the land, you were always new. Some who had been faithfully attending for decades, were still considered “new members.”

In my second congregation, a very large congregation in a small city, belonging was very much tied to involvement and connections. You could quickly belong within months by joining one of the many groups active in the congregation, like knitters, musical groups, prayer groups, people interested in global mission and so on. Yet, you could remain a new person for years if you kept to yourself and just showed up for worship.

And at my last congregation, belonging was tied to one’s place in the community surrounding the church. Where you worked in town, what street you lived on and who your neighbours were, and how connected you were in town determined your status of belonging.

Of course, here at Sherwood Park, we have unspoken rules about what it means to belong too… they are apart of every church from Peter’s day to ours.

Circumcision and eating non-kosher meats, or having generations to stand on the shoulders of, or sharing a common interest like quilting or music or missionary work, or meeting by chance at the grocery store and again at the PTA meeting and again while shovelling snow… all of these things and so many more make up the complicated definition of belonging to a community, belonging to a church, of a church belonging to a denomination, of a denomination belonging to a religion and so on.

Yet, all of these complications of belonging are about more than checking off boxes and fulfilling requirements. They are ways that we deal with the same fear living within each of us. The circumcised ask Peter about his fraternizing with the uncircumcised because they are worried if they themselves are worthy, if they are acceptable, if they actually belong. All of our ways to defining who is in and out, who checks the right boxes and who doesn’t… they all have to do with our own fear of being good enough, of being worthy and acceptable.

Last week, we heard from Revelation giving good news to Christian communities living on margins of society and how the great multitude worshipping before the throne was God’s way of breaking down walls that divide and separate.

Today, is about God breaking down the same walls within our communities, within ourselves.

Even after being given the same vision three times Peter is not convinced… that is until he comes to the home of Cornelius.

It is when Peter must look Cornelius in the eye, in the flesh, and decide whether the good news of God’s forgiveness and love is also for this Gentile… The Holy Spirit breaks the walls Peter’s heart. The Spirit makes Peter realize something new…

All the complications of belonging… that is our baggage, that is our stuff.

But for God, there are no complications… there is simply belonging.

In Christ, we all belong. We all belong to Christ.

We all belong because of the one who crossed the chasm, who bridged the divide of Creator and creation, who joined what was separated in sin and death together in forgiveness and resurrection. In Christ, the one who is both our flesh and the divine, we are joined to the Trinue God of all.

And this same Christ, likes to keep reminding us of that. Not in the complications, but by meeting us in the flesh. Christ meets in human voices and bodies that read and proclaim God’s word, in prayer and song, in peace shared and praises given.

Christ reminds us that we all belong in the water that washes us and the oil that anoints us, and we are washed and forgiven by God, we are anointed and clothed by God, and we given the same family name – Christian.

And Christ reminds us that we are all one in the same body. As Jesus gathers at the table, as we share in Body and Blood of Christ, God makes us what we eat and drink – Christ’s body given for the sake of the world.

And all those complications, all those other things, all those reasons we find to say someone whether belongs or doesn’t… those things are pushed aside.

And instead Christ proclaims us that belonging isn’t up to us, not based on our worth or the worthiness of the generations that came before, not based on our ability to participate or contribute, not determined by our integration into the fabric of community, the number of connections to others we carry….

But belonging is determined by the One to whom we belong.

Today, Christ declares to Peter, to the early church, and to us… that we no matter who we are, we belong to God.

Worshipping before the Shepherd’s Throne

John 10:22-30

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.” (Read the Revelation Reading)

It is still the Great Day of the Resurrection! We are half way into the 50 day season of Easter. And for the past three weeks, we have stuck close to the events of the early days after the empty tomb. Jesus meeting the disciples and Thomas behind locked doors. And Jesus meeting Peter and others on the beach, calling Peter to feed his sheep.

Yet, the 4th Sunday of the Easter begins to move us along from the early resurrection moments. Traditionally, the 4th Sunday of the Easter has been observed as Good Shepherd Sunday… a day to be reminded of our Shepherding God calling us into God’s great flock. We hear familiar readings like Psalm 23 and we hear Jesus use familiar sheep and shepherd images in John. And as church folk, we love those quaint images of Jesus with a fuzzy sheep… usually on some oil painting found in a church basement or at grandma’s house… Yet, Good Shepherd Sunday has a deeper sense that it is moving us along in the story of resurrection. From resurrection moments to resurrection community.

And so we hear also from Revelation, John’s vision of the great multitude, the great flock before the throne of the great shepherd at the end of time.

A few decades on from the resurrection, and the first communities of Christians, of Jesus’ followers, were struggling in Roman society. They were social outcasts because they refused to follow the social order. It was essential in the Roman world to know where you belonged. Society was divided up by class, ethnicity, gender, occupation, citizenship, language, and religion. And those early church communities were marginalized because they had this inconvenient habit of declaring that under the One God of All, there was no Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free. They rejected a world that saw gods in everything, mountains and bubbling springs, the sun and moon and stars, in war and harvest, in nature and animals. They worshipped the one God of all things who died on the cross and rose again on the third day.

This was a threat to the Roman Military cult who believed the essence of their success at conquering new lands was that in each new place they came to conquer, they adopted and prayed to the local mountain gods or river gods or whatever kind they found for victory on the battlefield – and they go it.

For a community living under oppression, marginalized and ostracized, sometimes even sent to the coliseums to be eaten by lions, the Revelation of John provided a vision of God’s great promise of reconciliation… the unity of God’s people worshiping before the throne, the Shepherd’s one great flock.

This great unified multitude gathering before the One God’s throne is as counter-cultural today as it was for early Christian communities. We too live in a world that encourages us to look around for people who are like us, who resemble us, and to fear anyone who doesn’t. We constantly navigate the many and various divisions that categorize people. Whether it is which political party we support, what religion we practice, what education level we have obtain or job we do, what the colour of our skin is or the gender we identify as or generation we belong to, what sports team we cheer for or tv show we are fans of. Our world is just as divided and categorized as the ancient world. And the narratives, the stories that we are told push us to fear those who are different, those who don’t belong to the same tribes and groups we belong to.

The idea that we belong to one great multitude is one that goes against most of what we are told by the world around us.

And so it is no wonder that when we talk about Jesus the Good Shepherd, we hold on to the images of shepherd staffs and fuzzy lambs. We love those paintings of a kindly Jesus holding a little sheep in his arms. We want to be comforted, we want to hear that we are one of the sheep, one of the people who gets to be a part one of the most important groups we can think of.

Yet having just come from the cross and empty tomb, from Thomas seeing the marks in Jesus’ hands and side, from Peter’s shame being met by Jesus’ compassion over a breakfast of fish on the beach… is fuzzy sheep and kindly shepherds where we have been headed with all of this?

If we are honest, the radical inclusive of God’s kingdom is something we don’t usually want to imagine. The idea that those whom we fear, those who are different, those whom we often would rather keep out and keep away from, are actually a part of us can make us uncomfortable. A great multitude of people full of those who we struggle to imagine as being anything but other from us is hard to grasp.

So it is no mistake that the place and time that this great multitude comes together is not the end of time, but a moment that we know all too well.

My seminary internship was in Calgary, and I was placed in fairly affluent congregation in a neighbourhood just a few blocks from the University. Recently, the C-Train, Calgary Light Rail transit system, had just added a stop close to the church. And one of the consequences was that this sleepy neighbourhood was all of a sudden accessible from anywhere in the city. Many poor and homeless figured out that begging in the burbs was more profitable than downtown. And the church’s back porch and beneath the spruce trees in the yard became convenient places for homeless folks to sleep off a high. This also meant that from time to time, this mostly affluent congregation would welcome some of Calgary’s poorest to worship.

As the intern, one of my usual roles in worship was to serve the common cup at communion. Since most people chose individual cups, I often stood back and watched people coming and going from the altar rail. In those moments, it seemed like a glimpse of the great multitude. As people came to rail, there were oil executives and bank mangers next to retirees and school children. Ex-CFL players alongside teachers and retail managers. Homeless people next to engineers and nurses, people who had lived in the neighbourhood for 80 years next to new immigrants.

Despite all the ways in which we seek to divide ourselves, to find ways in which we are different, the veil between heaven and earth is pulled back as we all came to the table in the same way. Hands open and empty, we are given bread and wine… God gives us the Body of Christ to make us the Body of Christ. As a seminary prof once said to us, “Swirling around in the cup are all your brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Good Shepherd Sunday and the great multitude gathered before the throne tells us a story of God’s desire for us that is very different than any story we hear the other days of the week. It is a story rooted in this gathering that we belong to right here and now. It is the gathering of God’s people before the throne… it the story of God gathering us, and all creation before the word, before the waters, before the bread and wine.

Jesus the Good Shepherd is not just a gentle shepherd holding a fuzzy little sheep, but a God who is gathering us, all of us, all the varied and different kinds of us… gathering all of us up into the great multitude worshipping before the throne. Worshipping before the throne of the one who has come to die with us, and who shows us the way to resurrection and new life…

To new and resurrected life in the one great multitude, God’s great flock to which we now belong.

Peter, Do you love me? Yes Lord, I am your friend.

John 21:1-19

Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way…

He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep…” (Read the whole passage)

It is still the Great Day of the Resurrection. Two weeks into the season of Easter, and we meet the disciples again in the hours and day following Jesus’ resurrection. Last week, Jesus came to them in a locked room, breathing life and peace back into his lost disciples. And now we get to the denouement, the part of the story that comes after the drama and tension, the part that wraps it all up in a nice happy ending. Or at least that is how it is supposed to go.

For the first time in the Gospels the disciples know the end of the story, they finally have caught up to us, they now know what we have known since Christmas morning – that there would be crucifixion and resurrection. The disciples now know that the story of the Jesus ends with life despite death, empty tombs despite crosses. The disciples know this miracle, this Good News, but they are back fishing. Back to their old lives, back to what they knew before this Jesus guy ever came into the picture – Peter leading the way.

And still Jesus finds them, and tells them how to catch fish and they do. As if they needed more proof of who the Messiah is, Jesus gives them yet another sign. And then calls them over for breakfast.

In the early morning hours. The first pinks and purples of the sun are showing in the sky. There is a fire glowing on the beach, the smell of fish and toast. The sound of waves lapping up onto the sand. Its maybe the first peaceful moment in days. There are no words spoken, simply the smell of the fresh seawater, and the dancing shadows of firelight. And as Jesus and Peter lay on the beach, having eaten breakfast, still under the dark of night, Peter cannot help but be reminded of another fire in the dark that he visited.

Lost in thought and memory, Peter stares into the flames. Jesus is the first to break the silence.

“Simon son of John, do love me more than these?”

Its a question that snaps Peter back to the present, a question that cuts right through to the heart. We know this question, and we have asked this question.

Maybe it’s the question of a child to parent. “Do you love me mommy?” “Do you love me daddy?” Maybe it’s the question spoken into a cell phone well into the night, “Do you love me enough to come home from work?” Maybe it’s a question asked after a fight between a married couple on the edge, “Do you still love me?”

We know this question and we have asked this question, because it’s rooted in our insecurities. It’s rooted in the insecurities we see in others. Do I really love them? How can they love someone like me?

Without hesitation, Peter answers back “Yes Lord, you know that I am your best friend!”. Peter does not respond with the same love that Jesus asked the question with, instead Peter uses a lesser and different love.

Jesus simply says, “Feed my lambs”.

Peter keeps staring at the fire, he can’t bring himself to look at Jesus. He doesn’t know where this question is coming from, but in the glow of the fire he can imagine the look on Jesus’ face. A sad, disappointed look. A look that cannot forgive Peter. A look of betrayal and abandonment.

A second time Jesus breaks the silence, “Simon Son of John do you love me enough to lay down your life for me?”

The question cuts deeper this time. Peter knows why Jesus is asking. This is not the first time Peter has been huddled around a fire in the darkness. This is not the 2nd time that Peter has been asked this question, but the 5th. And the first three answers he gave to the sound of a rooster crowing, “I do not know this man.”

Jesus asks do you love me enough to give your life – agape in Greek, and Peter couldn’t even acknowledge that he knew him the first three times, and now he can only respond in friendship – Philias in Greek, not the deep love of self sacrifice, not agape.

“Do you love me?” It’s a question we don’t want to hear, and that is painful to ask. The answer can be frightening. It demands self examination and exploration of feelings we may not want to deal with, emotions we don’t want to experience. It also reminds us of our betrayals and the times we abandoned those around us. When we have failed to live up to promises, when we have failed to be anything more than self-centered.

And again, without hesitation Peter answers, “Yes Lord, you know that you are my best friend!”.

Jesus simply says, “Tend my Sheep”.

The wound is now as fresh in Peter’s heart as it was when the rooster crowed the first time. When that 3rd denial came out of Peter’s mouth, he knew what he had done, and now he is reliving it… reliving it in front of his teacher and best friend, in front of Messiah, the one that Peter could not bring himself to believe in when Jesus said, “I will be raised up on the 3rd day”.

Again, Jesus breaks the silence. Peter knows what is coming and it hurts to bone. “Simon Son of John, do you even consider me a friend?”.

It’s the last nail, the final blow. A last strike that we know and that we have felt. The final words of a friendship, the death of a relationship, the last words between two people who will not speak again. Without looking, Peter can see the face that asks this question. A face stoically set on concluding affairs. A face that is seared in our minds each time we have hurt a loved one beyond repair, beyond forgiveness.

This time Peter takes a breath, and staring into the flames, struggling to say something, struggling to find words for his teacher, “Jesus you know all things, you know how I feel about you, you know you are my best friend!”

Peter can’t help it anymore, he needs to see Jesus’ face, even if it’s set on ending their friendship. He knows he has abandoned his friend, he knows that he can’t forgive himself for it, but he still needs to look his friend in the eye one more time.

But when Peter looks up from the fire, its not the face of rejection, or disappointment, or stoic resolve. Its a face of compassion, a face of forgiveness, a face of tender care for a grieving friend.

“Feed my sheep”.

Jesus’ words are gentle and kind.

Despite the betrayal around that fire on Maundy Thursday, Jesus still loves his friend. Despite Peter’s lack of faith and return to his life before Christ, Jesus is there offering his friend the bread of life. Despite the hard questions and Peter’s luke warm answers, Jesus is giving Simon Son of John forgiveness… grace for an undeserving sinner.

The risen Christ has met his disciples on the Sea shore to remind them once again of who he is. Jesus welcomes Peter back into the community of God… welcomes him back home with words of Peace spoken in a locked room. And Jesus is there to forgive Peter what he cannot forgive himself — a betrayal around a fire in the cover of darkness. For as they eat and talk, the sun is rising and banishing the dark world of betrayal. And Jesus is there bringing fish and bread, just as he did for the 5000, to remind his disciples and friends, to remind his best friend Peter, where the bread of life comes from. Jesus is feeding his lambs, tending his sheep and feeding his sheep.

And the Risen Christ meets us too on the sea shore. Meets us to break into our questions, our insecurities, our suffering and pain, our self-centeredness and our inability to forgive ourselves. We know the questions that are asked today, we have heard them, we have asked them. But what we learn anew is that Jesus knows us.

That Jesus knows where we are and calls to us again and again.

Jesus knows us sinners.

Jesus knows our betrayals and abandonment, our losses and grief.

Jesus knows how we inflict these things on each other and still he says, “Follow me”.

Follow me, when we do not deserve to follow him out of the tomb.

Follow me, when we cannot forgive ourselves as Jesus forgave from the cross.

Follow me, when we return to life before Christ — having lost our faith.

It is still the Great Day of the Resurrection today, and even though it feels like this is the end of the story… it is in fact just the beginning.

The beginning of Jesus’ call to follow him into eternal life, into the love of God, into grace that forgives all sins. Jesus knows where we are and knows that this our beginning… and Jesus keeps meeting us wherever we are with the fish, bread and wine of New Life to give us strength for the journey.

Yes, it is still Easter

John 20:19-31

Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

It is still the first day of the week, it is still the day of the resurrection but it can feel like the excitement has already worn off. The drama of an empty tomb, the joy of the story: Christ is Risen! It all seems like a lifetime away.

Although it feels like we might be moving on, the season of Easter is seven weeks or 50 days long. The early church considered the 50 days to be one great day of the resurrection. And in fact each Sunday is understood to be the day of the resurrection, a mini-Easter so to speak. And despite all this, it is often our habit as modern Christians to move on and get back to normal.

This is something we do a lot in our post-modern world… we engage in the big moments for a time, and then we get back to business as usual, we go back to the routines we have always followed because they provide us comfort and certainty.

Our 21st century response to moments of significance is not that unlike the response of first century people. On that first Easter, it didn’t take long for the disciples to begin hiding away in a locked room. They hear that Jesus is alive and still they lock themselves away in fear. They have been told the good news by Mary Magdalene… but as far as they are concerned Jesus is dead.

And what else is there to do? Whether the story is true or not, Jesus isn’t there to keep things going. Dangers are as real as ever, life is now changed, but also must go on. And so quickly all the disciples fall into fear and hiding. The resurrection hasn’t changed anything for them, there is no New Life for this terrified group. Instead, they are packed away in a tomb of their own making, they are closed off to the world.

Like the disciples, we often go about our lives as if Jesus is still dead. We may not hide ourselves away in real locked rooms, but we are surrounded and entombed by apathy, by a world that simply doesn’t care about how the resurrection might change things. In times gone by non-Christians may have tried to make the claim that Jesus wasn’t real, or that he did not rise from the dead. But today, a non-believer might say “Jesus was raised from the dead? So what? Who cares? How does that make a difference in my life?” Jesus is worse than dead, he is ignored and made meaningless… at least that is what it can feel like to those of us who have gathered ourselves together on this second Sunday of Easter.

With the news full of floods and even more acts of terrorism and hockey playoffs and political maneuvers, this second Sunday can feel forgotten. Jesus’s resurrection is left behind by a world getting on with more exciting things. The world lives as though he is still dead and does not matter. And we too begin to move on, we just keep going with life, everything becoming the same after Easter as it was before.

As the disciples hide away and try to figure out what they should do now, something or someone appears in their midst. The words come first. Words that feel like wind.

“Peace be with you”.

Jesus doesn’t just make an appearance at the empty tomb. Jesus shows up right in the middle of his disciples. Right between them. Close enough for them to feel his breath.

“Peace be with you. As the father has sent me, so I send you.”

He breathes on them the spirit.

Until this moment Jesus seemed dead to the disciples. And until this moment, the disciples were acting as though they too were dead in a tomb, hidden away from the world. And yet Jesus walks right into their tomb and finds them. Jesus shows them that he is alive. But this is more than Jesus being alive, this is Jesus breathing life back into them. This is more than Jesus the man who has died and risen. This is God who has conquered death for all.

Jesus speaks like God in creation. Just as God spoke, “Let there be…” in the beginning. Now, Jesus speaks his followers into life. “Peace be with you. God’s Shalom be with you. The wholeness and completeness of God be with you”.

Just as God breathed Life into the Adam, Jesus breathes life into his death-like disciples. Jesus gives them the spirit, the sign that God lives in them and they in God.

Jesus breathes hope into them when the world seems too dangerous. And Jesus keeps coming, even when the disciples are still in the locked room. Jesus will not leave them. Jesus won’t let them keep falling into fear and hiding, into a life where there are dead men walking.

Jesus comes even though our world doesn’t want to believe that Jesus matters anymore. Jesus speaks words like “Peace be with you” even when we cannot see how they change us. Jesus breathes the spirit into us, even when we cannot feel it. Jesus comes when we cannot see why and cannot understand what this all means. And Jesus keeps coming.

Jesus comes gathering us each day, each week, each Easter, and Jesus comes in between. The faith that Jesus gives is not solid belief or concrete certainty that we can hold on to. The faith that Jesus gives is hope for a future that we cannot see. It is trust in things we cannot understand. Jesus brings us into the relationship of faith, a relationship that goes on, that exists in the in between times, between each day, between Sundays and between Easters. Jesus brings us into a relationship of faith that exists between us, between neighbours, friends and family. Jesus brings us into a relationship of faith that joins us together into One Body — the Body of Christ.

And so, even when we often continue to live our lives like Jesus is still dead. Even when we have heard the Good News, and are still hiding and afraid. Jesus comes into our midst. And Jesus keeps coming. Today, tomorrow, next week and in between.

Resurrection: Looking for the living among the dead

Luke 24:1-12

1On the first day of the week, at early dawn, [the women] came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? (Read the whole passage)

Just a short while ago, we stood on the mountain. The mountain called Golgotha, with the cross looming high above us, and the crucified God hanging there. That Good Friday moment spoke loudly and clearly about us. About humanity, about our desire to be God in God’s place, to be the ones in control and in charge, because human beings threatened by God in flesh tried to put God to death.

But now, we are once again down into the valley, the valley of death. A literal grave stands before us with the women who have come to tend to the body of their beloved teacher and friend.

This is always an awkward place to begin the Easter celebration. The church is already decorated, breakfast has already been eaten, the songs of praise with Alleluias have already been sung. But the story takes just a few more words to unfold, a little bit more to get there.

And so every Easter, before we can truly announce the good news of the resurrection, we have to begin with the women on their way to a tomb. It is easy overlook and to see this moment as part of the celebration. But going to a cemetery is not the most festive of experiences, especially going to see the freshly covered over grave of a loved one. It is an all together different feeling than coming together to celebrate the resurrection.

And yet, this is always where Easter begins. Just as from from Ash Wednesday with crosses marked on our foreheads, to the Lenten wilderness, and from the Palm Procession one week ago, to the last Supper on Thursday, and mostly clearly from the cross on Good Friday… there is always the promise of Easter peeking through the horizon, calling to us.

And Easter too, never leaves Good Friday completely behind, the path that leads us to the empty tomb always comes from Golgotha and the cross.

And so with these women, Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary the mother of James, we begin on our way to the grave. When they get there, they do not find what they were expecting. They do not find the body of Jesus. Instead they find a stone rolled away, divine messengers in white and an empty tomb. Still Easter hasn’t fully landed for these women, they respond first in fear.

Then the Angel asks them this question,

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

Seeing resurrection does not come naturally to the women, nor to us. There is always a bunch of other stuff obscuring the view. Even as we just made our way through the story of Holy Week, and the central story of the Three days, Last Supper, Good Friday and Easter Vigil… even though it is preferable to set aside most things and focus on observing this most important time of the Christian calendar, the world kept churning onward.

Along side Holy Week were the end of hometown hockey team’s playoff run and reports about presidential misconduct, there were hate crimes carried out in our own city and even this morning the bombing of churches in Sri Lanka as the faithful worshipped, and of course the great fire that seemed to burn down much of the world famous Notre Dame cathedral in France.

The world reacted in shock to the burning of the 800 year old church. Crowds gathered to sing and pray in the streets of Paris, people lamented online watching the flames in real time. The initial reports were of the worst, that the whole cathedral would be destroyed.

Even during the the most important week of the Christian year, when we strive to most clearly tell the story of Christ’s death and resurrection, all the other things have a great capacity to obscure our vision. Even at Easter, we cannot not see beyond death.

Resurrection is hard for us see. We are so used to looking among the dead, that we don’t know what the living looks like. Even when resurrection stares us in the face, we cannot help but focus on the dead things. The stories that captivate our attention almost always the stories of the cross, of sin and death… The stories of resurrection, of new life in the most surprising of places almost don’t register at all.

Of course hockey teams will have another chance at things next year, and politicians will continue being politicians, and the community surrounding the victims of hate crime in our city have already begun to rally… and the news of Notre Dame’s total destruction were greatly exaggerated, even as over a billion dollars was donated towards its repair. The artwork, the relics, much of the stained glass and the great organ were all saved.

But the part that is hard for us to see, even during Holy Week, even when we know the end of this story, when we know what happens Easter morning, is that all of that other stuff isn’t the point. The rebuilding of an 800 year old church or putting the donated money to another use isn’t the point.

The point of the the church building in the first place is to enable Christ’s story being told. The point is the story, the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Despite our habit and the habit of the women to look for the living among the dead, the Angel reminds Mary, Joanna, and Mary of what Jesus had told them – that he would be raised from the dead.

The empty tomb isn’t just the absence of a body or empty space… it is the symbol of life, the sign that death is not the end, that the cross on the mountaintop isn’t where human sin wins by putting God to death.

The empty tomb is the birth place of resurrection.

The empty tomb is the making of space for New life to grow and take root.

The empty tomb is the re-membering of the community broken apart on Good Friday.

The women are re-membered, re-connected, re-made into New Creations once they finally see the implication of the empty tomb. It is only then that they run off to tell the new to the other disciples.

And then then story of death and resurrection that we have been telling this week becomes more than just something we are trying to fit in along side all the other things happening in the world.

Cross and Empty Tomb become the new frame of life.

Cross and Empty Tomb become qualifiers to all the other stuff.

Cross and Empty Tomb become the one story the holds all other stories together.

And the Christ who hung on the cross just a while ago, becomes the first born of a new humanity… of a new us.

And this Christ who took all our stories on the cross, all of our failings and frailties, our suffering and sin, our dying…

This Christ finally brings us into God’s story.

And God’s story, our new story, is resurrection. If all we can do is look for the living among the dead, God will come and show us new life from death… God will come to us from empty tombs, and Christ will call to us to to come out of our graves too.

So yes, it is always awkward to begin the story of Easter by making our way to a cemetery with death on our minds… but we cannot help ourselves from always looking towards the dead…

But the Good News is that Christ is always looking for us.

Always finding us, even among the dead.

And from among the dead, The Crucified, Risen and Living Christ brings us too, into the Resurrection and New Life.

An iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church

%d bloggers like this: