Last Sunday, Easter Sunday, was a day for joy; it was the day for joy. And although Easter is one specific day on the calendar, it is a day to acknowledge the timeless, eternal joy that underlies our while life and all of creation. I made it my only goal to help everyone share in it; and I felt the joy last Sunday. I hope you did too. There was more than enough joy to excuse my many screw-ups during the service.
We’ve got seven weeks to celebrate Eastertide, ending with Pentecost Sunday on May 15. We’re going to hold on to the joy that was first disclosed to Mary and the disciples on that original Easter day almost 2000 years ago; hold on to that joy, while we begin looking around at our life today, and at this church today in this world, today. The question I want us to ponder is, what might that resurrection life look like for us, today? And I hope by the time Pentecost arrives, we will be ready to receive the power of God to make that new life happen here and now.
We might have to begin with some of the questions I put off last week, questions that could cloud our joy. Just what happened at the resurrection? The question is hard to avoid– Even Thomas doubted—but especially if we want to speak about how to live a resurrected life here and now. I’ll repeat something I said last week: in this congregation, there is no official answer about what happened at the resurrection. How you think about the resurrection is never going to become a test for whether you belong here or not. Our weekly Bible study has confirmed my suspicions about us: we do not all think alike. Some of us are very scientific-minded and find miracles hard to accept; some are very comfortable with and attached to the old-time religion; some are well-informed by a variety of the world’s religions and would rather not narrow down our beliefs to one tradition only; and others are very new to Christianity and do not know what to think. That’s ok; in fact, it’s better than ok—more often than not, harm comes when a church thinks too much in lock-step with one another (or with the minister). There is so much we can do and that we can be without agreeing on even some very fundamental theological issues. All the more so, if we are all open to a journey of discovery and of learning from one another. When it comes to our freedom to think for ourselves, my only request is that our diversity of views does not become an excuse to cut off every interesting conversation with: “everyone is entitled to her own opinion.” Of course. But we are one body and we can only live as one body if we learn and grow together. //
You might know by now that I like mining the church’s long tradition for golden insights, even though those insights often require polishing if not heavy smelting. On the resurrection, I can honestly say that I have no strong opinions. But one thing is clear: something happened. Jesus’ death on the cross was not what the disciples expected; it looked like a dismal failure. His disciples should have just disbanded like those of the many other failed messiahs of that era, some of which are described in Acts right after today’s reading. But something turned the disciples of Jesus around. Something happened.
But what? What happened? The gospels report that Jesus appeared bodily to the disciples, and then his body was raised to God. That’s the classic Christian confession. Now if compare the four gospels, you’ll find that Mark originally did not describe Jesus’ appearance to the disciples, while the other gospels differ pretty significantly in their accounts of his appearance. Furthermore, Jesus also appeared to Paul, who thereby counted himself an apostle, although Paul freely admits that he did not see Jesus raised in the flesh, but that he had a vision of Jesus. Those are some interesting inconsistencies.
Still, something happened to Jesus’ body. What? Honestly, I don’t know. I think that God generally works through ordinary natural means, and ordinary human means—although let’s remember that human beings are very extraordinary creatures. Can natural rules ever be bent? Could there have been an exception in the case of Jesus, who surely enjoyed a relationship with God and a place in history like no other? I can’t myself dismiss the possibility that in Jesus, the mystery of God was so tightly bound to the human that even Jesus’ body was somehow taken up into the Godhead. But don’t ask me to explain it!
I’m going to go out on a limb and add that I don’t know what is in store for us, either. The first Christians clearly believed that the end was near, and at the end all the dead will be raised and their bodies resurrected. This is the traditional Jewish view, that the soul and body belong together, both being good creations of God. I affirm that hope, as do the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. But with each passing year, that hope seems more and more remote. And so after a few centuries, Christians began to adopt a more Greek view: that at death the soul floats away from the body and goes to heaven.
Are we immediately joined with God after death? Or is our body to be raised also, at the end? What does happen to us after we die? Again, we probably have a variety of opinions in this room. And again, I have no strong opinion. And it’s funny, that for such an important question regarding our personal destiny, I can’t remember anyone talking about it during my entire 12 years of theological education. There must be a widespread discomfort about the issue of our life after death; that is understandable, but points of discomfort like this can work like blockages in the arteries of our healthy communication with each other. I urge us to take courage and not fear seeking the truth openly and together; I’ve never once regretted openly questioning my faith and seeking a better understanding.
I don’t know what happens after we die. We naturally desire our lives to continue after death, although the ancient Israelites had no significant belief in life after death. But even my 3 ½ old son is already worrying about death and taking comfort in the idea of going to heaven. It is a topic we can return to in the future. For now, I am content to be open minded about it. Everything we hope for should be rooted in trust in God, not in certainties we can deduce. So I don’t think we should try to pin down answers; this is a matter of hope, not faith. Perhaps the future will surprise us. For instance, if we are perfected after this life by union with God, will we even recognize ourselves? Will I still be Bill Wright, with all my faults and—well, lameness? Will I still be distinct from you, as we are now? Perhaps the truth of what is to happen is utterly beyond our grasping anyway, although I am not about to “correct” my son. At this point in my life, at least, I am willing to be open to whatever God has in store for me beyond this life. And being at peace with that allows me to focus on today, on this life.
And that is what the disciples did, too. The promise of resurrection did not lead them to withdraw from this life and sit it out quietly until the end. It made them embrace this life more than they ever had before. It did not give them the self-satisfied attitude, as in “I know I’ve got a place in heaven; good luck to you.” The promise of resurrection bound them more tightly together and made them much less selfish than they had ever been before. The disciples found new life. They found a new energy in common. They instantly formed a powerful, new society among themselves, at the center of which was the crucified and risen Lord Jesus. They found great joy and love in that society, but also worked tirelessly in service to it, often at great risk and cost to themselves, even their very lives.
Look at Peter and the apostles in our reading from Acts. They had already been warned not to speak of Jesus by the Jerusalem Council, a group of Jews who controlled the temple by collaborating with Rome, to which they responded in the most upfront way: “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” Then they were thrown in prison, only to be miraculously sprung from prison by an angel. They went right back to teaching on the temple grounds. And so they end up arrested and brought back before the council again. Once again: “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (the Greek reads, “rather than men”).
Such boldness! If the current presidential campaign tells us something, it is that people are looking for boldness today. But the boldness we see in the news is often full of rancor and bluster and insults. There’s none of that in the apostles. They do not insult the council of Jerusalem. They pointed out very fairly that the council is at least partly to blame for Jesus’ death. But they don’t scream “murderers” at them or lash out against them in public. They don’t say, “We must obey God, not weasels!” And no one can accurse the apostles of being self-seeking: they knew very well that their boldness would not win them a high office, but almost certainly lead to their own suffering.
But neither were the apostles delusional religious fanatics, another character filling the news these days. While the apostles say, “We must obey God,” they are not talking about a voice they heard in their heads, telling them to do something outrageous. Nor are they fundamentalists, pointing to some inviolable scripture. (Actually, Peter’s odd reference to “hanging Jesus on a tree” implies that the curse upon one hanging on a tree, found in Deuteronomy 21:22, must be mistaken—Scripture, in other words, must be wrong.) No: the apostles are obeying God just based on the resurrection faith and the power of the Holy Spirit that they felt; and obeying God here means healing the sick, and proclaiming repentance and forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus.
If we had such a simple, bold, quite rational faith, what would obeying God look like for us, today? How could our Easter Joy translate into an energized, tightly-bound society of disciples here and now? And what human authority would we boldy shrug off?
I want us to think together about these questions in the remaining six weeks of Easter, as a way to get excited about what this church can become, or rather, as a way to discern together what God is calling us to become. Now I take it to be my job to lead us in this process; but we are a congregational church, and so I cannot lead where you will not follow. Besides, you know this community much better than I, and you have so many skills and passions that amaze and inspire me.
Let’s take those three questions in turn, and then we will come back to them in the coming weeks. What could obeying God look like for us today? What could we be doing in our community? I’ve argued before that we cannot avoid all politically relevant issues as a church; but we can avoid the pointlessly divisive hot-button issues and instead work on evident needs right around us. Who in Granby is honestly confronting the opiate epidemic and offering healing? Who is offering fellowship and direction for the elderly? Who is helping our community cope with dementia? Who is showing hospitality and building bridges to our neighbors subjected to suspicions—people like ordinary Muslims, or immigrants. Who is bringing dignity to those living in low-income housing in our neighborhood? Who is helping confused young people find bonds of love and meaning and direction? Could we be doing that—or something else? And how would we accomplish these great tasks?
Second: How could our Easter Joy translate into an energized, tightly-bound society of disciples here and now? Rest assured, the original church was not free of conflict; Acts six recounts how there was a dispute about caring for widows, and so the whole community gathered together to find a solution. How can we be a place where people come together in love to help each other? Where everyone feels bound in affection and mutual care? How can we be a place of peace, free from cliques, bickering, and grudges?—that’s not the stuff of Easter joy! How can we be a place where worship lifts you out of the petty limitations of your life, connecting you to something beyond yourself? How can we be the alternative culture that people need and secretly long for today: where people can feel deeply rooted rather than always chasing after fads, where genuine face-to-face communing provides the antidote to social media and virtual reality.
Finally, what human authorities will we shrug off, the way Peter dismissed the mighty Jerusalem Counsel? We spent Lent examining how we are caught up in ungodly forces in our society. How does our new life in the resurrected Jesus free us from these stifling and oppressive forces? How can God’s spirit liberate us from dead-end commercialism and consumerism, from self-interested politics, from regarding others as competitors or commodities, from religion that is either insipid or fanatical? How can we help overcome the legacy of racism and gender hierarchies?
These questions point us in the direction of becoming the New Jerusalem—the city of God where healing, love, justice, illumination, and praise and glory reign. We need to figure out how to channel God’s spirit to get us there, to be the church God wants us to be. That is what stewardship is all about. It’s much bigger than money, budgets, and pledges. What we need more than anything is not money, but simply to take seriously that we are a people of God. God is in our midst, being glorified and bringing salvation to the world. Just think about that for 10 seconds. The almighty, eternal, invincibly good God who raised Jesus Christ is here in this place. What would church mean for you if you took that claim really seriously? All we need to do is claim God’s good power for ourselves, and let it take us over.
And when we do, whatever people think about the resurrection, and the Trinity, and Jesus Christ, when they see what we are doing and how we are with one another, they will exclaim: “Something is happening here!”