Tag Archives: resurrection

Clinging to the Ghosts of the Past

Luke 24:36b-48

Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. (Read the whole passage)

Today it is the still the day of the Resurrection. Even though this is the third Sunday in the season of Easter, in keeping with the tradition of the church we treat this whole 50 day season as one great day of celebration. And so we go back once again to the day the resurrection, and we hear a similar story to last week’s story of Thomas… yet, this time it is Luke who tells it to us. 

It is situation that can be pretty hard to identify with. We may know the Easter story and believe that we encounter the risen Christ here in this place each time we gather for worship, but how many of us have witnessed the death of a close friend and teacher, only to have that person show up in our house a few days later? Don’t answer that…

Jesus’ moment with the disciples today comes as the third such moment where the disciples struggled to understand their encounter with the risen Christ. First it is Peter who runs to check the empty tomb, after the women from their group report back that the tomb is empty. And Jesus walks with other disciples on the road to Emmaus, who cannot see who they are walking with until he breaks bread with them. 

And now, with all the disciples in one place, Jesus shows up again. 

But of course, the group thinks he a ghost. 

And so Jesus goes through elaborate ancient tests to demonstrate that he isn’t a ghost. He shows them his hands and feet, invites the disciples to touch him, to see that he walks on the ground and doesn’t float in the air like a ghost. And he eats a meal with them, because ghosts don’t eat, people do.

Yet, the disciples still don’t understand what is going on. 

They are stuck, they are stuck back on Good Friday, back in Holy Week, back in the wildness of Galilee, back on all those dusty roads, small town synagogues, back among the crowds of people clamouring for a piece of Jesus. 

It us more than seeing Jesus as a ghost, they are clinging to the past. They still have not moved on from what once was, from the way things were, from the pre-crucifixion Jesus that they knew and loved. 

They are holding onto the ghost of what was before because they are afraid to move on. Peter was more than willing to run out into the world when he thought Jesus was dead, but once he found an empty tomb, he and the others are hiding in fear. 

They hide because it is easier to hold on to the ghosts of the past then to begin new life with new purpose. And so when Jesus shows up, they would almost rather that Jesus were a ghost than risen from the dead. 

The disciples are not much different than we are. 

Like the disciples, we too cling to the ghosts of our past. 

As our country continues to feel the pain and loss, the grief for the lives lost outside of Tisdale Saskatchewan a week ago Friday, we might have some insight into what it means to be in a mental and emotional state that can’t quite get past what has taken place. Because we know what it is to be driving on rural highways. Because we know what it is to send our kids, our loved ones, out into the world that we know is unsafe, where accidents happen everyday.

And so we we grieve and pray, we wear jerseys and put hockey sticks on porches. We cling to one another searching for hope and peace, much like those disciples after the tragedy that they had encountered. 

Yet,  ghost our pasts come in many forms not always rooted in grief and loss. They may have to  do with church, and with our memories of the past and wanting things to be like they were. To bring the young people back or perhaps really to ourselves the young people that we remember sitting in the pews. 

But the ghosts of our past can also be personal. We might cling to relationships that ended long ago, to times in our lives that we wish never ended, to jobs we once held, to youth we once enjoyed, to eras that we once understood. 

The ghosts come in many shapes and sizes, and the desire to cling to them is not anything but a normal human response to grief, loss and even change.

Yet, we know that refusing to accept change will not work. Staying stuck in the past, clinging to things as they once were, holding onto the ghosts of what once was, in the end, is impossible. 

Because the more stuck and unwilling to move on we become, the more like the ghosts we cling to we become… Like the disciples who found the tomb of Jesus empty, their response was to hide away from the world in a tomb of their own making. A tomb where they could stay at Good Friday, cling to the Jesus they once knew refusing to imagine to new life, the new Jesus that they sense is coming. 

And again, Jesus comes into their midst offering peace. 

Peace to the troubled hearts of the disciples. Peace to those who are stuck in the tense conflict of holding onto a past that is slipping away. 

Peace to our troubled hearts, peace to our grieving world, peace to those unable to let go. 

But Jesus doesn’t end with Peace. 

Once Jesus shows the disciples that clinging to ghosts is not possible, he takes things a step further. 

And all of a sudden the Easter moment, the resurrection moment extends beyond the empty tomb of Jesus and reaches into his hide away of the disciples. 

Jesus begins to transform these stuck and hopeless disciples clinging to a ghost of the past. 

“Everything you know, everything you believe in” Jesus says, “From Moses, to the prophets, to the psalms” or in other words the whole Hebrew bible, “has been fulfilled.”

And Jesus opens their minds, Jesus begins to transform these disciples giving them a new understanding and a new experience of their world. 

Everything that they thought they knew about God, about religion, about meaning and purpose in the world has been changed. The Messiah’s death on a cross and resurrection from an empty tomb changes everything. Everything moment in the story of God’s people that has come before has been leading to this moment… to this Easter moment. 

To this moment of the disciples’ Easter, to this moment of our Easter. 

“You are witnesses of these things.”

A witness is more than someone who saw something or experienced something. 

A witness is someone with a story. 

A witness is someone with a story to tell. 

Jesus transforms the disciples, transforms the world, transforms us. Jesus brings us into God’s story. Into God’s story of new life, new life given for the sake of the world, new life found in empty tombs where there should only be death. 

By making us witnesses of the Messiah, by making us witnesses to this story of God bringing new life into the world… we are given new life, we are given new meaning and purpose. 

Everything we thought we knew, everything we thought we understood has been changed by Messiah, by the death and resurrection of Jesus. 

And every week, every Sunday, every Easter morning, Jesus reminds us of this again. Jesus reminds us that that ghosts we cling to will not root us in past, and we no longer will be stuck. 

Jesus has made us witnesses. People tied inextricably to the story of God. People whose purpose is to tell that story to world. 

And Jesus continues to make us witnesses in the word of God that is proclaimed here, in the holy waters that we are washed and claimed in, and in the bread and wine, body and blood of Christ that we share together. Jesus makes us resurrection people, free from the ghosts and the past and given a story to tell. 

Today, Jesus says to us,

I have made you witnesses to resurrection and new life. 

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Thomas, Fake News and Resurrection

John 20:19-31

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” (Read the whole passage)

It has been a week since we released the alleluias from their captivity, since we gathered around the story of the empty tomb and pronounced that Christ is Risen, Christ is Risen Indeed! Easter has come after a long time spent in the wilderness of Lent, after a Holy week where we did holy things like wave palm branches, share in the eucharist and lament at the foot of the cross.

And even though we are now a week into the Easter seaason, we a reminded today of that first Easter day…. the whole 50 days of Easter have been long held up as one great day of celebration of the resurrection.

So we go back to day one, we hear a story from that first Easter day. And it is a familiar one.

Thomas… We always get Thomas on the second Sunday in Easter.

There must be something about this story that we hear it every year.

It begins on the day of the resurrection, the disciples have heard the news of the empty tomb so they are naturally hiding away in fear. To give them the benefit of the doubt, they did watch their teacher and master be executed by the state and now three days later to hear that he has risen from the dead. This probably seems like too much to handle.

So while they are hiding away, Jesus shows up in their midst. He offers them peace… peace after of the chaos of the previous week. He then blesses them and sends them out, reminding them of the mission that he had been preparing them for.

But Thomas wasn’t there.

Perhaps he wasn’t afraid like the others, or maybe he drew the short straw and was sent to the grocery store for some milk.

Regardless, when Thomas returns he hears the news, the story from the others. Jesus has appeared to them. The rumours are true, Jesus has risen from the dead.

But Thomas will not believe.

So often we portray Thomas as some kind of skeptic… almost scientist like. Thomas the crime scene investigator who needs some evidence, some DNA to put under a microscope, some unassailable proof that Jesus is indeed alive. But those are 20th century concerns… not 1st century ones. And in some ways our 21st century world has moved much closer to the Thomas’s 1st century one.

Thomas lived in a world much like ours. Political leaders or dictators ruled cruelly and with fuzzy relationships to the truth. People were desperate for hope, for salvation, for quick fixes. Jesus wasn’t the only healer and miracle worker around. They were a dime a dozen, messiahs on every street corner collecting followers with promises of salvation, promises of revolution, promises of a better life. And most were fake news.

Thomas had heard the crazy stories before, his world was full of them. He knew what fake news sounded like, stories or conspiracies or promises too good to be true.

And after the week that he had just lived through, one where his beloved teacher and friend Jesus had been crucified because of fake news, because of false claims brought against him by the religious authorities and mobs, because of the heartless Romans who knew very well that the charges were false yet executed him anyways… because of all the events of the previous week…. this news that Jesus was alive was probably too much to deal with.

Thomas wasn’t a scientist or crime scene investigator. He was a hurting human being. Someone who was too wounded and grief filled to get his hopes up again for story that was too good to be true.

Because what if he did believe that Jesus was risen from the dead and it turned out to be another false hope…

We have been living in Thomas’s world for a while now. Despite all our technological advancements and progress, we find ourselves in a society where truth and facts are largely irrelevant. Fake news is everywhere. Just the other day I saw a news story about a group of people in the United States who believe that mass shootings are conspiracies. Fuelled by internet conspiracies, this group travels around the country to confront the families of victims of mass shootings… to tell them that their loved ones were not killed and probably never existed in the first place.

Horrific

Of course, not all fake news is so extreme.

A recent survey of Canadians and their perception of climate change revealed that one third don’t believe that human beings have contributed to climate change, and only about half believe that addressing climate change should be a government priority.

And who among us hasn’t received a spam email from a Nigerian prince offering to give pass on a fortune to us.

Christianity isn’t immune from those who peddle fake news or false hope either. Turn on the tv and find any number of prosperity gospel preachers offering miracles, health and wealth all for a modest contribution to their ministry.

We know what Thomas’s world was like, we know that we cannot trust every story we hear out there. We know what it is like for those in power to twist the truth for their advantage, we know what it is like for those who lead our world to lie to us.

It is easy to see that Thomas might be distrustful of a story that seems too good to be true.

And we also know what it is like to have a lot invested in Jesus, to have all our hope and all our faith in the Christ.

Especially having just come through Holy Week ourselves, having been gathering together week after week proclaiming the importance of this story of Jesus’ resurrection… we too know the heartbreak that would come if it turned out to be just fake news.

That heartbreak is exactly what Thomas is guarding himself against. He knows that he just wouldn’t be able to handle getting his hopes up, only to have them crushed all over again.

So when Jesus shows up again, he does so to give Thomas exactly what he needs. Just as he came and stood among the disciples, he comes and stands before Thomas.

And both times, Jesus does something that is so opposite of how our world would choose to spread the news of someone back from the dead.

Jesus begins with peace.

So often Fake News declares, “Look at me!” “Be surprised!” “Be enraged!”

Yet Jesus speaks, “Peace.”

Peace, so that the disciples can see their Risen Lord.
Peace, so that Jesus can break through Thomas’s guarded heart.
Peace, to calm our troubled hearts that need to know Jesus.

And then Jesus offers Thomas his hands and his side.

It is easy to think that it is holes that are important for Thomas to see. The holes in Jesus hands and the holes in Jesus’ side.

But it is the hands that have shared bread with Thomas for years that reach out.
It is the body that has walked and sat and slept next to Thomas that is offered.
It is the flesh of the one whom Thomas loves and follows who breaks through to Thomas’s guarded heart.

Thomas wasn’t looking for evidence of crucifixion and death, Thomas needed to see that Jesus was alive.

And that is what Jesus gives him.

And is what Jesus gives us.

Because Jesus does the same for us. Jesus continually breaks into our fake news world offering peace and life.

Peace to our troubled hearts.
Peace so that we can be calmed down in order to hear God’s promise given to us.
Peace so that we see.

Jesus breaks through to us, through all the stories and people of our world that we are suspicious of, that we know are too good to be true, that we cannot unguard our hearts for.

And Jesus reaches out to us in the hands that share peace with us,
the hands that place the bread and wine into our outstretched hands,
the hands that welcome us here.

And Jesus offers his side,
his body given to us in the bodies of our brothers and sisters
who sing and praise and pray next to us,
the bodies who come to table and receive next to us,
the body of Christ that we eat and share,
the body of Christ that we become.

Jesus has been breaking into our world over and over again, from the empty tomb, to the upper room, to the waters of font, to the table of the Lord.
Jesus breaks through to us in order that our guarded hearts might know Peace.
Jesus break through in order that we see the Christ, God in flesh.

God in wounded flesh, Risen from the dead.

Do not be afraid… Christ has been Raised!

Mark 16:1-8

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint Jesus. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be afraid; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

 

“And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

This is not the ending of the story that we usually tell. In fact, nothing about the stories from the Gospel of Mark is usual. The Gospel of Mark has never done things the way we expect. Of all the Gospels, Mark is the shortest and perhaps the strangest, expecting things of us, expecting that we will put the pieces together and be moved to a deeper discipleship.

Mark’s Easter story is perhaps the strangest of all.  In the 3 other gospels, we normally here about Jesus appearing to the women and disciples at the empty tomb. Jesus speaks with Mary in the Gospel of John. He bring greetings to all the women in the Gospel of Matthew. In Luke, Jesus meets two of his disciples on the road of Emmaus.

But in Mark there is none of that. And it makes us uncomfortable. And not just us today, but Christians for centuries have been so uncomfortable with Mark’s ending, that they added to it. Hundreds of years later, shorter and longer endings to the Gospel of Mark were added just to try and wrap things up.

So what is it about the Gospel of Mark and his ending that doesn’t sit well with us?

“And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Failure.

Easter isn’t suppose to be a story of failure. The women hear the good news, they are given clear instructions to tell people about Jesus being risen, and they tell no one.

In fact, this is the story all the way through the Gospel of Mark. The disciples, the ones who are supposed to know and understand who Jesus is what he is about never do. And the people who do know are unreliable. It is unclean spirits and demons who recognize Jesus as God’s son. It is the blind man who never actually sees Jesus who knows he has been healed by the Messiah. All the way through the gospel of Mark, not a single reliable soul figures it out.

But here is the thing, Mark knows that we know that it didn’t end with the women being afraid. We all know the story of the resurrection. We are reading it in Mark’s gospel. We proclaim that Christ is risen from the dead every Sunday we gather for worship, Christians all over the world have been doing so for 2000 years!

So Mark expects that we can figure out that the women didn’t run from the tomb afraid… but Mark is also including us in the story, in the command to go and tell the world of the resurrection. Because if the women are too afraid to speak, that only leaves us, the reader. We are called to be ones who are not afraid to speak.

It is a big calling.

Because it was only on Good Friday that we stood below the cross and we proclaimed that this instrument of torture and violence, of humiliation and death is God’s transformed tool of life.

Because now today at the empty tomb with the women who are too afraid to say anything that we are just as afraid as they were. Afraid to announce this news to world. Afraid of that no one will believe our incredible, unbelievable story.

But this Easter morning and Easter story reminds us something else more than our fear and failure.

We are reminded that it is always in our fears and failures that Christ meets us. It is when we are too weak, too afraid, too focused on ourselves, when we are too much intent on our sin, on our selfishness, that Christ comes and meets us.

There is no Easter without sin and death, there is no resurrection without humanity’s greatest failure, without our trying to be God in God’s place.

And in the midst of our failures, big and small, the Risen Christ meets us. The Risen Christ reveals himself to us and brings us into the new reality of a world where sin and death are no longer the end. Yet still, our fear overcomes us and this new world that God is creating is too much for us. And like the women at the tomb we are too afraid to speak, too afraid to act, too afraid even look at how things are different.

“Do not be afraid, you are are looking for Jesus for Nazareth, who was crucified. Has has been raised.”

Do not be afraid.

Across the old and new testament, these words always precede good news.

Do not be afraid.

And even still the good news can be terrifying.

We stand before an empty tomb today, on this day of the Resurrection. And even when everything is supposed to be perfect, and when death is finally defeated, and Christ is raised from the dead. We are reminded that we still fail. We are reminded that we are still imperfect, sinful and selfish people who are frozen in the face of God’s amazing work in our world.

And we are also reminded again, that it is in our frozen failure that we are met by the Risen Christ.

The Risen Christ who has overcome the cross.

The Risen Christ who has conquered death.

The Risen Christ who has entered in our lives, our joys and our sorrows and has made our life his own.

The Risen Christ who has shown us a new reality, where death is no longer the end, where we are no longer defined by our failures, and where our sin no longer has control of us.

We are met today by the The Risen Christ and we are shown that God’s love for us is alive and there is no place we can go to escape it, and there is no way that would could fail and make God stop loving us.

Even when are afraid to speak a word to anyone, the Risen Christ meets us with the words “Do not be afraid!”

And the Angel said to the women, “Do Not Be Afraid”

Matthew 28:1-10

But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. (Read the whole passage)

Two women walking down a dusty road while the sun’s first wisps of colour begin to light the nighttime sky. Two women on their way to a tomb is an image that we remember from just two weeks ago. Martha and her sister Mary met Jesus on the road to the tomb of their brother Lazarus. It was the final Sunday of Lent, the last encounter in a series of encounters where Jesus wandered into someone’s life and the experience transformed them.

It began as Jesus wandered into the wilderness and met the tempter. And then Jesus found Nicodemus in his the darkness of his questions, the samaritan woman in isolation at the well of Jacob, the blindman who washed the mud from his eyes and could then see. And it finished with Martha and Mary grieving Lazarus.

But from then on, Jesus took a turn from uncovering the fears of these lenten people, and headed toward Jerusalem. Towards Holy Week, towards the confrontation between us, sin and death. And that detour ended on a cross… with God on the cross. And we finally realized what Jesus had been up to all along, even from the moment when the angels told Mary and Joseph that he was God’s son in Mary’s womb, the cross was where Jesus was headed.

But this morning, as these two women make their journey in the twilight hours to the tomb where Jesus had been laid 3 days before, they certainly did not know any of that.

All that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary knew was that Jesus, their friend and teacher had been put to death. But not just their friend and teacher, the person in whom they had discovered hope, in whom they discovered love and grace and mercy… love and grace and mercy from God.

Love and grace and mercy that was now dead. And along with it all hope.

These two women on their way to that tomb on Easter morning are the embodiment of all those people whom we have been hearing about all of Lent. They are Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, but they are also Nicodemus, the Samaritan Woman, the blindman and Martha and Mary from Bethany. All of them in their own have been making their way to Jesus’ tomb. And Jesus has unearthed their fears while showing them a new way to live… until Good Friday. Until Good Friday and this Jesus who had promised to transform everything was put to death.

These two women on their way to the tomb go knowing that they are putting that promise, that new hope to rest. They are carrying their last ounces of hope to add to the tomb. The only thing that have to look forward to on Easter morning is the possibility of having a few more moments with Jesus, even if it is just his corpse. They want to give him the smallest dignity of a proper burial after his undignified and humiliating death.

These two women on their way to bury their hope embody us too. Because we have been making our way to this grave as well. Because we too have had our fears unearthed and new ways to live shown to us by love and grace and mercy only to have them put to death. We too live a world where the powers that be love to kill off hope. It is hard to have hope in a world where nuclear war is now easily possible, where airlines can have passengers assaulted for sitting in paid seats and wanting to go home, where domestic shootings can rock close-knit communities, where the flood waters threaten to overwhelm, where jobs are dollars to be cut and hospitals are seen as wastes of money.

We live in a world where our sin, the sin of trying to be like God, to exercise control over everything around us brings death too often. Death to the hope that we try to carry, even if for just a while.

And then as Mary Magdalene and the other Mary approach the tomb, suddenly the earth shakes and angel appears like lightening from heaven. The guards shake and fall to the ground and the stone is rolled away.

And the Angels says, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised,”

And when the women were supposed to be going to a grave side, supposed to be consumed by the final act of separation from one that they loved… a messenger from God interrupts and says,

“Do not be afraid”

And we know what the women do not know. That the story of Jesus began just as it appeared to end. Way back at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, the very first thing that happens just as Joseph and Mary were looking at their own version of the death of all hope, the end of an engagement and the end of a future. And angel shows up and says to Joseph,

“Do not be afraid.”

And now again at what seems to be the end of story, an Angels shows up declaring the same thing.

And all those fears. The fear of Nicodemus who could only ask his questions in the safety of darkness, the fear of the samaritan woman who choose to avoid her community in shame, the fear of blindman whose community will not accept that he sees, the fear of Mary and Martha that their brother was beyond saving… the angel says to them, “Do not be afraid.”

And all of our fears. The fear of nightly news and the end of the world, the fear our humanity will be lost for the sake of corporate profits, the fear that our communities are not safe when tragedy hits too close to home, the fear that creation is far more powerful than we can handle and just might overwhelm us… the angel says to us, “Do not be afraid.”

And the ultimate of fears. The fear born in sin, that we are not enough, that we need to be more, that we need to be God in God’s place. The fear that we could not possibly be loveable, or given grace or shown mercy. The fear that we will lose control, that we cannot survive without power, that we are not safe, the fear of death… the angel says to us, to the the original sin within us,

“Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised,”

And just in case we have not heard it the first time from the Angel who spoke to Jospeh, or the second time from the Angel who speaks to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary….

Jesus meets the women, meets all the lenten people, meets us on the road to say,

“Do not be afraid.”

And like the women we take hold of and cling to the body of the very hope we were sure we had lost. We hold in our hands the Body of the One in whom all hope and life exists. We touch the One who makes all things new.

We hold Jesus on the road from that empty tomb.

We hold Jesus here at the altar rail as the Body and Blood of Christ are given to us.

We hold Jesus and the Body of Christ makes all fear to cease because the one who was crucified has risen.

This Easter morning, the most joyous of all mornings, the risen Christ gives us his very body to hold in our hands… and in our hands we receive the mysteries of God.

Mysteries like God’s love for unloveable, God’s grace given for the condemned, God’s mercy for the unforgiven. Mystery that along with Nicodemus, the Samaritan women, the blindman and Martha and Mary, has revealed our fears.

God’s love, grace and and mercy that died on the cross.

God’s love, grace and mercy that has risen from dead.

God’s love, grace and mercy that says to us,

“Do not be afraid”

Alleluia Christ is Risen. 

How the Risen Christ also Busts Sexism

Luke 24:1-12

I don’t know what pastors did before the internet, but this year a colleague asked a group of pastors on Facebook, “What gimmicks do you use to add that little extra something to Easter?”

Most of my life wasn’t spent in the pulpit, but in the pew, like you. So I’m here today to confess that there is something about Easter that makes pastors search for that little extra something. Pastors do the same thing at Christmas. I guess we pastors think those big church days need some help.

Maybe someone being raised from the dead isn’t enough, or maybe it’s the fact that pastors have to stand up at the front and try to explain in a way that makes sense this story of someone being raise from the dead… a story that, if you think about it too hard or too long doesn’t actually make all that much sense.

Now lucky me, I am the one at the front who gets to figure out what to say and how to make sense of all this.

But being uncomfortable with this story and who gets to preach it is not something new. In fact, Luke tells us that discomfort with the resurrection story and the ones telling it is as old as the story itself.

Three women have gone to the tomb early Sunday morning. It was only Friday, three days ago that they watched Jesus die on the cross. And because of the sabbath (on Saturday), his body hadn’t been properly prepared for burial. They were on their way to do this last thing, one final act of love for Jesus.

But they arrive at the tomb, and the stone is rolled away. Jesus’ body is gone. Luke says the women were perplexed, but perplexed hardly seems to describe what these women were probably feeling.

And then a couple of guys in dazzling white clothes show up and tell these “perplexed” women that Jesus has been raised from the dead.

This isn’t an “Aha” moment. This is more of a “Holy (you fill in the blank)” moment.

And in that “holy” moment the women are snapped out of their grief, their perplexity, their terror and are reminded of what Jesus had been telling them the whole time.

And they go racing back to tell the other disciples.

And it is at this point that Luke really starts to get interesting.

The women go back to tell their news to the male disciples. But the men think it is nonsense. Now what the english translation says is that the men think it is an “idle tale.” You know, the kind of inane chit chat of no importance that men think they can just tune out because it’s the womenfolk talking. But that is not what the greek says. The greek says the men hear the story as nonsense or crazy or nuts. The kind of story you hear some one tell and you respond by saying, “No way, that’s not possible, that didn’t happen.”

And then the english translation says the men didn’t believe the women, as if the men considered the content of their story. But the greek says the men didn’t trust the women. The story wasn’t believable because of who was telling it.

And then there’s this last bit about Peter. Peter runs off to check the tomb for himself. Why would he do that if he didn’t trust the women to trust the women and their idle chit-chat in the first place? Well, in most bibles there is a little footnote that comes at the end of this verse about Peter’s “checking” on things at the tomb.

The footnote that explains that verse 12 (this whole bit about Peter verifying what the women had reported) is not included in other ancient manuscripts. Or in other words, the verse is likely an addition to the story.

So here we have this story of the resurrection that is hard enough to make sense of on its own but the real problem with this story seems to be not with the story itself, but with the people who have been chosen to tell it. The disciples think the women’s story is nonsense because they are untrustworthy women. Recent English translators, who still have a problem with the fact that women are the first ones to tell the story, try to turn the nonsensical report into an idle tale – something not even worth being listened to by the men.

And to top it off, the early Christian community added this bit about Peter verifying what the women reported so that somebody credible would be the one telling the story of the resurrection. Because Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Jesus’ own mother Mary weren’t credible witnesses on their own?

Oh how things haven’t changed.

As much as it’s hard to makes sense of somebody being raised from the dead, our real problem is still with who gets to tell the story.

Christians have spent a lot of time and energy in the past 2000 years telling people who can and who cannot tell the story of Jesus. And it’s not just women. Christians at various times have told people of colour, LGBT people, poor people, uneducated people, and even lay people that they are not among God’s chosen story tellers.

For some reason our issue has been less with the content of the resurrection story itself than character of the ones chosen to tell it.

Because it’s hard to believe that of all the people to find the empty tomb, God sends the very people who were considered untrustworthy, and unreliable as witnesses.

But how would this story have been different if the disciples simply trusted the women?

When the women arrive at the tomb, early on that Sunday morning they were expecting to find the body of Jesus. Mary’s son, Mary Magdalene’s and Joanna’s friend and teacher. They expected to be anointing a body with spices and oils. They were expecting to finish the Jesus story for good, one last goodbye to the one they loved.

They most certainly did not expect that all that crazy talk that Jesus had been going on about for 3 years to be true. Betrayal, trial, crucifixion… and now resurrection. They did not expect to find the living among the dead, that Jesus had been raised.

But even more so, they would not have expected that of all the disciples that they would be the ones called upon to deliver this news – Jesus has risen. They weren’t the leaders, the gifted ones, the talented ones, the respected ones. They weren’t even considered trustworthy by the disciples who knew them well. They were just women. They were forgotten, unimportant, unworthy. They were not the kind of people anybody would expect to be called upon to carry out such an important task. They were the wrong people.

But just like everyone else, they forgot that Jesus was going to be raised from the dead… they also forgot that the “wrong” people are exactly the kind of people that God likes to work through. They forgot that God has been constantly using the ill-suited, unexpected, unworthy, wrong people to do God’s work in the world. From cowardly Abraham and laughing Sarah to stuttering Moses and dancing Miriam, from lustful David and foreign Ruth to stubborn Mordecai and vain Esther, from unmarried teen mom Mary and Mary Magdalene to bull headed Peter and self-righteous Paul. Throughout the biblical narrative we have story after story where God calls the wrong person after the wrong person.

And yet, even with all these ill-suited and ill-equipped people God establishes a pattern for how God will act in the world: through unexpected people, doing often unexpected, unpredictable, nonsensical things.

Now these women at the empty tomb were witnesses to God using all the wrong things to completely change the world. Betrayal and angry mobs to usher in salvation. A cross to forgive sins. Death to bring new life into the world.

And these ill-suited and ill-equipped women were being called to tell that crazy, nonsense Jesus-has-been-raised story.

And now we are the people hearing the story and being sent to tell others. And maybe we feel ill-equipped or ill-suited. Maybe we ARE ill-equipped and ill-suited.

Maybe, just like the women at the tomb, we are the “wrong” people being called to tell the story of God.

The story of God that completely changes our world and our reality, the story of death and resurrection that turns everything and everyone upside down. Because this is the story that tells us that God’s love is just as much for the wrong people as it for the right people, just is much for us as it is for anyone. This is a story that isn’t for the right people or the wrong people – it’s for ALL people.

And maybe that is crazy nonsense in a world like ours.

But it is not crazy nonsense for the God of New life.

Amen


 

*This sermon was co-written with my wife, Rev. Courtenay Reedman Parker who you can follow on twitter: @ReedmanParker

5 Truths we don’t want to admit about church decline

Last Sunday in my sermon, I wrote about Jesus overturning the tables in the temple, and noted that much of western Christianity is waking up the day after the tables have been overturned. Our prominence at the centre of society is long gone. Now we are dealing with the reality of numerical and financial decline. These days church leaders are looking to experts, programs,  and books that will help us figure out what on earth is going on, and why so many have just stopped coming to church.

As a millennial and a pastor, I regularly hear church people bemoaning the loss of young people. This is evident to me in the fact that I have been pastor to only a handful of people my age. The ‘Nones’ are the new buzz group that concerned church leaders want to reach. Church people want to understand why so many of my generation are opting for something other than church attendance and how that can be changed.

The other group current church people long for are the lapsed members I regularly hear church people wanting to “bring back.” Programs like Back to Church Sunday are popular. Mission and discipeship gurus are all over the place, helping pastors, church leaders and lay people figure out how to lead churches, how to figure out what on earth we are supposed to be doing as the Body of Christ.

And yet, with all the focus on our decline as Christians in the West, particularly, mainline Christians, important truths are rarely spoken about. There are realities that I think many of us can see, but we don’t want to admit are significant in our apparent “decline.”

1 Measuring decline by numbers causes us to lose sight of our mission. 

I admit, when I see a new face in church, or get asked to do a baptism, I am inwardly excited. New people, larger numbers of faces in the pews, increased giving. These are all easy indicators of success. Except they aren’t. Jesus didn’t say, “Go therefore and get bums in the pews and money in the offering plates in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

When churches measure our ministry by these numbers, our real purpose of preaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments becomes a selling feature. When our goal is full pews and offering plates, word and sacrament become the means of filling pew and offering plates.

“Success” takes on a different definition if we stop using numbers to measure it. Preaching the gospel is preaching the gospel whether it is to 2, 20, 200 or 2000 people. Oh, and yes, I have heard that accusation that this notion is just something that pastors of small dying churches cling to… yet if our success is measured by numbers we have lost sight of what the Gospel actually does in our lives.

2 Many of our sacred cows are causing our decline. (ie. Sunday School & VBS, Bible Study, programs, music groups, church committees)

There are always very important, very special things that churches do that we are simply unwilling to let go of. These programs or activities began as life-giving endeavours for congregations, but over time have lost their ability to meet the needs and purposes of congregations. I know churches full of seniors in communities that are populated with folks predominantly of retirement age who insist on having Sunday School. There are committees and programs that have become defunct or purposeless that churches refuse to axe, even though they become a struggle keep up and don’t achieve their founding goals.

As we cling to sacred cows we fail to see the unintended consequences that are hurting us. Sunday school was intended to teach kids the faith, but has allowed parents to abdicate responsibility of teaching faith in the home. Instead of empowering us to live out our baptismal callings, committees on Stewardship, Evangelism, Learning, or Support (among others) let us leave this important work to a committee that meets once a month. Programs allow us to turn basic practices of faith like studying the bible, evangelizing through relationship, ministry to children, youth, families or seniors into very compartmentalized sets of behaviour rather than natural activities of faith.

We so often hold onto things that are actually hurting us because of deep-seated senses of obligation or loyalty. We get so stuck wanting to not disappoint those who went before us that we fail to make our communities ready for those who will come after us.

3 God just might be calling us to die. 

So many churches (and people for that matter) live and behave as if they are going to last forever. We make choices as communities as if our current state is going to be our static condition for the rest of time. We don’t have urgency… or the urgency of our conditions causes us to respond with flight or fight or freeze responses. We freeze up and choose to do nothing in the face of crisis, even when we understand that doing something – anything – is necessary.

What if churches had “Bucket Lists”? What if we made decisions about what we choose to spend our time and resources on knowing that we will one day die? Instead of working so hard just to stay afloat in perpetuity, what if we looked at all the things we could do before the end. There are not many churches closing these days because they made bold choices, gambled their resources and failed. There are lots of churches slowly petering out, after years of just getting by.

Admitting that God might be calling us to die means changing the way we see death. We so often see death, especially the death of a church, as failure. What if we saw death as a natural part of life and ministry? What if death was expected for our churches? Maybe all those mission and vision, discipleship and evangelism gurus might not seem so important anymore.

4 Our problem isn’t lack of mission, it is wrong mission. 

Most mainline churches in North America were started less than 125 years ago. A lot were founded in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Communities of the faithful saw a need for a worshipping church in their midst. So they gathered members, raised funds to build buildings and call pastors. Energy was high, excitement was infectious, people came because the purpose and mission was clear.

And then buildings were built, funds were raised, pastors called and programs started.

But the mission didn’t change.

Most of the gurus or consultants that church leaders are seeking today have the same message: we have lost sight of the mission. If this were true, I don’t think there would be enough to keep the members that most churches still have from dispersing to the wind.

I think churches still have a strong sense of mission – build the building, raise the funds for pastors and programs. We accomplished those things decades ago, yet we still are trying to organize ourselves around them. Maybe it isn’t breaking ground, but it is making sure the carpets are new, and light fixtures clean, and shingles are replaced. Maybe it isn’t calling that first pastor, but it is making sure the budget can afford to pay for a pastor.

We are still trying to band together around those fledgling goals of starting a new church, even though we achieved them years ago. We don’t realize how people who want more than buildings and funds for pastors and programs are put off by our single-minded concern for those things.

5 We have let worship become entertainment instead of community forming. 

Whether it is mega-church contemporary worship or cathedral mass, whether it is a small community gathered for song and prayer or simple liturgy… our attitudes about worship have been transformed by the world around us. Our consumer culture has been turning us into creatures seeking to be entertained, distracted, and looking for things that appeal to our preferences.

I have heard many faithful church members, who are generally concerned about growing in their faith, slip into talking about worship as if it was a menu of food to choose from or different acts of a play. We enjoy sermons, we like music, we appreciate readings.

We have stopped participating in worship. We have stopped seeing the role of the congregation as integral to worship happening. While most church members wouldn’t agree if asked, we act as if worship could happen without anyone in the pews. We approach worship like theatre that doesn’t need an audience, but that no one would put on without an audience.

Worship should be the ritual action of faithful Christians. Worship should be a way to grow in faith as individuals and as community through prayer, song, word, and sacraments. The things we do and practice in worship prepare us for life in the world. We practice confession and forgiveness, we practice sharing God’s story and our story, we practice washing and feeding and tending to the world around us. We practice reconciliation and prayerful concern for the world around us. The things we do in worship should shape how we live out our faith. Our desire to be entertained should not shape worship.

Admitting the truth to our decline.

Admitting the truth of our decline is not an easy business. When the mission, discipleship and evangelism consultants come by to tell us how to fix ourselves, the hand-wringing that results is easy. But talking about these truths about our decline and how these realities shape us is not easy stuff… in fact, it is nearly impossible.

The fact is, more churches tend to slowly die, rather than truly change and find new life. This shows that admitting these truths in order to change them is harder than dying. Most of the time we will choose to die.

But that is okay.

The flawed ministry that we are doing despite of and in the midst of these truths is not unfaithful ministry. In fact, working with dying, flawed, wrong missioned churches and people is exactly the kind of work our God gets up to in the world. And that is also where we are in trouble. Whether we like it or not, admitting these stark truths about ourselves as we die, is all too often just how God chooses to bring us into new life.

And that is the most important truth of all.


Are churches really facing up to their decline? What other truths are we failing to admit? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

As always thanks to my wife, Courtenay, for her editorial help and insight. You can follow her on twitter @ReedmanParker