He is risen!
He is risen, indeed!
I was visiting with a member of this congregation—who will remain
nameless—and she turned to me and said, “you’re not normal.” Actually, more
than one of you have said, “you’re not normal.”
And ALL of you are correct!
You’re hardly the first people to point that out, and I’m okay with it. I know
I’m not normal! Then again, I don’t think anyone who goes into ministry is really
normal. But right now, “normal” is what we’re all chasing after. The pandemic has
made everything weird and we just want things to go back to normal—to what we
think of as normal.
And that’s a problem, because everyone has a different definition of normal.
More on that, later.
Last Sunday, after a very long scripture reading, and a relatively short
sermon, I asked you a really important question: What do you see? Now, after
today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, I ask you again: What do you see?
I see us!
I see this congregation and I see the whole of the Church, with a capital-C.
I see a new reality. And I see some people who hesitate, who are a little
reluctant to believe in that new reality. I see people who want to stay in their
version of normal.
We know the story. On the day after the Sabbath, a group of women goes to
the tomb, to prepare Jesus’ body with spices and oil.
The tomb is empty!
The women are shocked to find the empty tomb, so they go back to report
this fact to the rest of the disciples.
And the men don’t believe them.
They need to see for themselves.
All of the Gospels agree on this: the men were absolutely unwilling to take
the women at their word. Mind you, the women were absolutely correct. But the
men were unwilling to believe this without seeing for themselves. Sure, Jesus had
been telling all the disciples—the men and the women—that he was going to die,
and then, after the third day, he would rise again from the dead. Jesus tells this to
the disciples, multiple times, and in all the Gospels!
Yet the men are unwilling to believe the women—even though Jesus
foretold his own death and resurrection!
This could be a sermon in and of itself, but I think this is also part of a larger
pattern that we need to see: we see the old thing, instead of the new thing.
Our reading this morning demonstrates that better than any of the other
accounts of the resurrection in the other gospels. In Luke’s Gospel, when the
women arrive at the tomb, they’re greeted by two men in dazzling white
clothes—the text doesn’t say angels, but I think it’s safe to assume that they are, in
fact angels. And when they see the shock on the faces of the women, the shock at
the empty tomb, they ask, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
That question only appears in the Gospel of Luke, and for that reason, it’s
my favorite version of the story of the resurrection. The women are grieving the
death of Jesus. They knew he was the Messiah, they probably heard him say that
he was going to die, and then be raised from the dead, but that was really hard to
believe, even after all the miracles, the healings, and the feedings.
All the disciples wanted to believe that Jesus was more powerful than the
Roman Empire, more powerful than the corrupt religious authorities who
compromised with the Romans. They wanted to believe that Jesus was more
powerful, and in powers that they could understand. That wasn’t just the women,
that was all the disciples. Even though Jesus had foretold his death and
resurrection, it wasn’t real until it actually happened.
“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
This is the Church, with a capital-C. We are looking for Jesus in the tomb, in
much the same way that we’re looking for the Church of our past. We’re looking
for Jesus in the way we expect to find him; we’re looking for Church as it was
thirty or forty or fifty years ago. We’re looking for people to walk in our buildings;
we’re looking for new. young families. And to be fair, we do have new, young
families in this church, but not in the numbers that we remember.
Let me say, I understand the trap of nostalgia. There was a great meme
going around on Facebook among my Baby Boomer friends. It said: “Someone
said ’30 years ago’ and my mind went, ‘ah, yes, the 1970s,’ but they meant 1992,
and now I need to lie down.”
For me, thirty years ago seems like it ought to be the 1980s.
But it’s not!
And we don’t get to lie down.
The Good News in this story is that Jesus rises from the dead; the Good
News is that the tomb is empty.
The Good News is that the women who went to the tomb told the story of
the risen Christ. Those women don’t sit around. They don’t wring their hands or
clutch their pearls. They don’t say, “Wait, 1992 was thirty years ago? I need to lie
down!” No! They go and tell the story, right away!
Later, the men tell the same story. It takes them a little longer to participate
in the grace, but they get there.
It’s not JUST that Jesus is risen! It’s ALSO that the women go OUT and tell
the story. In the same way, it’s up to us to continue to tell the story.
Yes, it’s more challenging than ever to go out there and tell the story. The
pandemic isn’t over—people are still catching and spreading COVID-19. Some
people are still reluctant to worship together. That’s perfectly understandable. And
let’s face it, we’ve forgotten how to tell the story.
It’s also more challenging because the world outside of the church has
changed. In the days when lots of new people used to walk in our doors, most of
those people were like us—they were like us culturally, and also, they knew the
story of Jesus. A lot of the young families out there today, as well as the young
single people out there, don’t really know the story of Jesus.
Most of us, myself included, haven’t been trained to have faith conversations
with people who don’t have any faith. There are also a lot of people who have lost
their faith, and most of us are uncomfortable with reaching out to the people who
have left the Church.
We don’t know where to begin the conversation.
We want to go back to “normal,” because that’s how we remember things.
Why do we look for the living among the dead?
We need to remember that lots of people left the Church back when things
were normal. We need to remember that “normal” wasn’t as good as we thought it
was. And we need to admit that what we thought of as “normal” didn’t prepare us
for the challenges of today. Our “normal” wasn’t particularly resilient.
We need to repair and reclaim the word, normal.
We need a version of normal that doesn’t carry so much baggage.
Or maybe we need to let go of it entirely.
The things that passed for normal in Jesus’ time were pretty awful. The
Jewish people hadn’t really ruled themselves in hundreds of years. The Jews had
some religious authority, but the religious leaders had to collaborate with the
Roman authorities. And Roman rule was pretty awful.
Jesus didn’t advocate for a violent revolution, like many people in Jerusalem
wanted. He didn’t offer a military solution. Or a political solution. Or an economic
Jesus offered relationship.
Jesus offered relationship with himself, and through himself, with God the
Father. Jesus offered the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God the
Father. Jesus accomplished this through his ministry, through his death, and
through his resurrection, which we celebrate today.
That’s not normal!
That’s not what any of the disciples expected to see when they put their lives
on hold and chose to follow Jesus. What they got was way better than normal!
They got reconciliation; they were connected to Jesus!
They got eternal life.
And, they got a call to service: a call to live and work and teach as Jesus had.
That’s our call, too.
And it’s not normal!
Maybe our desire for “normal” is what keeps us from living into Jesus’ call.
Over the last few months, several of you have commented to me about our
new neighbor over on Park Avenue, the new Evangelical congregation. Many of
you have said, “Wow! There are a lot of cars parked there! What are they doing
that they have so many people in worship?”
They practice relationship.
As I understand it, they started out as a house-church in Manalapan. That is,
they gathered in someone’s living room or dining room for worship.
Lots of new congregations start out this way: a few believers, gathered in
someone’s home. The members invite their friends and neighbors to join them for
worship. They leverage their existing relationships, and then they build new
relationships. Eventually, they have too many people to meet in one person’s
home, so they rent a room somewhere. If things go really well, they save their
money, and they buy a building.
That’s how the process works. I don’t know what the details were for our
neighbors down the street, but I guarantee that their story reflects that process.
This relationship stuff actually works! Admittedly, we’re a little out of
practice because of the pandemic. The practice of relationship works best when
we’re all actively engaged in it. All of us.
Today is Easter Sunday! Today is a day of joy and celebration. Today, we
have new people in worship—people you might not know. Go and say hello. Strike
up a conversation. Start forming new relationships with the people in this
congregation. If you’re new here, please come back! If you only worship with us
occasionally, please come back more often. And if you’re a regular, look for new
relationships inside and outside of this congregation.
Also, please participate in the worship and fellowship events with our
brothers and sisters in Christ at Old Tennent Presbyterian Church. Spend time with
them. Get to know them. Build relationships.
On this day, Easter Sunday, let us run from this building as our brothers and
sisters in Christ did, nearly two thousand years ago, as they ran from the empty
tomb; let us run from this building with joy and shout to all the world, “He is risen!
He is risen, indeed!” Thanks be to God. Amen.