On Easter Sunday, we heard how Mary went to the tomb, early in the morning, and discovered that the tomb was empty. She ran to tell the disciples, who in turn, ran to the tomb to see for themselves. Peter, and another disciple eventually looked in and found only the cloths that had been used bind the Lord’s body. Not knowing what else to do, they went home.
Mary, though, stayed. Stayed longer than the others. When she looked into the tomb, she saw two angels, and they asked her why she was weeping. Outside the tomb, she encountered Jesus, though at first she thought he was the gardener. She knew it was Jesus when he said her name.
Last week, we heard how the disciples were all gathered together except Thomas, and though the door was locked, Jesus appeared among them. He said ‘Peace be with you’, and they knew it was Jesus. Later that week, again all together, this time with Thomas, Jesus appeared to them a second time, also saying ‘Peace be with you’. Jesus encouraged Thomas to put his finger in the holes in his hand, to put his hand in the hole in his side. When Thomas did that, he knew it was Jesus.
Today, we heard how the disciples were traveling on the road to a place called Emmaus. On the way, they encountered a stranger. Their conversation turned to the recent crucifixion of Jesus, and the stranger talked about scripture, and how it was all related. When they had reached their destination, they invited the stranger to stay with them, and when they sat down to eat, when they broke bread, they knew it was Jesus.
If those of us who struggle to be the church in the 21st century hope to know Jesus, scripture gives us a few hints on how we might make that happen: we’ll have to wait around the empty tomb long enough to encounter Jesus, or we’ll have to be patient to wait until he speaks our name, or we’ll have to gather together enough times to share his peace with one another, saying ‘Peace be with you’ to each other, or, we have to be close enough to Jesus to put our fingers in the holes in his hands, or put our hands in the hole in his side, or we have to gather to break bread together.
The community that the writer of John’s Gospel was trying to reach was in a tough spot: they were cut off from their Jewish brothers and sisters due to their belief in Jesus as the son of God. They were cut off from their Christian brothers and sisters because of their particular way of being community. The author of John’s gospel was writing to a community that needed desperately to be reassured of their place in relationship to the sacred, in relationship with Jesus.
Oddly enough, the community that wishes to continue to be the church in the 21st century needs desperately to be reassured of our place in relationship to the sacred, needs desperately to be reassured of our relationship with Jesus.
So what are we to do? We need to be the church. We need to do what Mary did, and stay around long enough to encounter Jesus. We need to do what the disciples did, and gather often enough to share the peace of Christ with each other, and with others. We need to do what Thomas did, and get close enough to Jesus to touch his wounded hands and side. We need to do what the disciples did, and break bread together so that Jesus will be known to us, too. All these things are about being the church. About gathering together, about being present and ready for the presence of Christ. And they don’t seem that difficult!
But if we don’t gather, if we aren’t patient outside the tomb, and we go home, we’ll miss Jesus. If we don’t gather, if we aren’t together to pass the peace of Christ, or if we aren’t close enough to Jesus to touch his hands and side, we’ll miss him. If we don’t break bread together, we’ll miss him. And if we miss him, if we continue to try and be the church without gathering, what will we be?
In my home church, growing up, I remember interviewing a parishioner as part of my confirmation process. I had to ask a series of questions about their faith, their participation in the local church, and possibly, the wider church. When I asked about attendance, he told me that during the nicer weather, he worshiped at the altar of the 18 links.
Since then, I’ve had parishioners tell me that they will often worship when camping, fishing, doing laundry, going to the beach, skiing, or hiking.
And these things can very much bring us closer to the sacred, and they very well may be enjoyable and even spiritually fulfilling. But they won’t bring us to Jesus. To do that, we’ll need to be together.
Here’s an interesting thing: on the ancient maps, there is no place called Emmaus. In Hebrew, its meaning is something like ‘deep longing’. So in our scripture today, the disciples were on the road to ‘deep longing’, and were joined by Jesus, who was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Perhaps the answer to the steep decline in the health of our churches these days isn’t in recreating the successes of the 1950’s, ‘60’s, and 70’s, but instead lies in recreating the early communities that literally and symbolically feared for their very existence, and gathered together as much for protection and support as they did to worship.
Regular gathering for worship, regular gathering for passing the peace, and regular gathering for breaking bread together seems like a pretty good recipe for seeing Jesus.
Fairmount members might remember this story, but I’m going to tell it again: A little over 20 years ago, I became acquainted with a middle-aged couple named Tim and Cheryl. Cheryl was a special education teacher nearing retirement, and Tim was a retired auto worker who also happened to be blind. I had been bitten by the cycling bug, I loved riding my bike, and often, my conversations with Tim revolved around cycling. He told me that as a teenager, at his school for the blind, he had been taught to ride a tandem bike. He knew how to keep his balance, even though he could not see. We cooked up a plan to find a used tandem bike so that we might ride together. When we told his wife Cheryl, she looked at me like I was crazy, and she said, ‘Gary, are you trying to see Jesus?!’
I suspect what she meant was that another way to see Jesus is to be near death, which makes a lot of sense to me, but that seems like an awfully dangerous way to see Jesus. It seems a lot safer to just gather regularly, pass the peace of Christ, and break bread together, don’t you think?
The Johannine community, the group of faithful that the author of John’s gospel was trying to reach, didn’t worry about how many members they had, they worried about the quality of their interactions with each other, and with Jesus.
We could take a page out of their playbook: if we became more concerned with the quality of our faith interactions, and worried less about how many people are in the pews on Sundays, we just might survive these difficult times.
Focusing on our ability to live into our hopes, live into our faith, as opposed to living out of our fears, might just bring us to our Lord and Savior. Using Mary and the disciples as a template for our own faith practices may open up new ways for us to see Jesus. I still would like to get Tim on a tandem bike, just to see if we could ride together, but that’s just me. I’ve always been a bit of a risk taker…
We are an Easter People. At the very heart of our faith, at the very core of our understanding of our faith lies the process of death and resurrection. Jesus teaches us in his own way about the seed that must die and be buried before it can grow into a plant, our own seasons show us that after the death of winter, plants find new life in the spring. Over and over again, repeated cycle after cycle, there is death, and there is resurrection.
So why do we fear the coming death so much? When will we be able to accept that we won’t experience new life, resurrection, for the church until the old church dies away? When will we trust that the cycle, the process, is both natural, and necessary?
Gathering in Christ’s name to pass the peace, to worship God, and to break bread together puts an emphasis on our relationship with Jesus, and not on our survival. These things help us to see how the church can be stronger in order to do the things Jesus calls us to do for and with our neighbors, and even our enemies. It can also show us how trying to meet our own needs through the church can get us on the wrong path. Ironically enough, our survival will be guaranteed if we could focus on being the church again, for the sake of others, and be worried less about the church that meets our own needs.
It’s beginning to look like the church of the 21st century is more of a means to live out our faith than a way to serve ourselves. Like the disciples on the road to ‘deep longing’, the church of the future will be part of a journey, not a destination. When we try to make it a destination, we risk losing sight of Jesus.
On our own collective journeys of deep longing, if we are patient, if we can wait by the empty tomb long enough for Jesus to call us by name, if we can share the peace of Christ with each other, and with others, if we can be close enough to Jesus to touch his hands and side, if we can gather to intentionally break bread together, Jesus will be known to us, and we will be doing the work of the 21st century church. Let’s get to it. Amen.
Faith and Endurance
Have you ever wondered about the human capacity for endurance? I’ve always marveled at the various ways people can endure disasters and hardships: veterans enduring war, typhoon or hurricane survivors enduring homelessness, lack of food and water, being surrounded by death and disease, victims of domestic and sexual violence enduring their assaults, and finding ways to triumph over them. It’s almost like humanity was built for endurance and recovery.
I was read an article about human evolution once, about how we came to possess a brain that is comparatively larger in proportion to our bodies than any other animal on earth. Scientists believe that we developed a more upright posture so that we could pursue other animals for food. In fact, our ability to run long distances without getting tired is almost unmatched in the animal kingdom: certain animals can run faster than humans, for short distances, but few animals can match our ability to run 10, 20, even 30 miles at a clip.
As humans became more successful at enduring long distances in the pursuit of food, the extra calories that came as a reward were employed by the body to grow bigger brains.
It didn’t happen overnight, but the key components in our genetic make-up were already there.
When someone we know has heart surgery, by-pass surgery or valve replacement surgery, what is the most striking thing that doctors make them do just a few hours out of recovery? They have to walk around the unit. Their first faltering steps outside their room are just the beginning of a regimen designed to strengthen their heart and lungs. Because just hours after traumatic surgery to the heart and lungs, the human body is ready to build its endurance. You’ve probably heard the stories: first just a few steps, then once around the unit. Then several times around the unit, and by discharge time, maybe 10 minutes of walking.
Rehab consists of more aerobic activities that will strengthen the heart, because every fiber of our being is designed to improve when challenged: we are designed and programmed to excel at endurance.
Without one scientific article to refer to, Jesus understood that both literally and figuratively, we have been built to endure. Without anthropologists, without cardiologists, without psychiatrists or psychologists, Jesus knew that by our endurance we will gain our souls. That’s just a fancy way of saying that triumphing over our challenges helps us grow.
Biologically, we are programmed to heal. Psychologically, we are programmed to learn from our mistakes and grow from our failures. Spiritually, we have been given a resilience and a tenacity that makes new beginnings in the face of disaster a daily possibility.
Just think for a moment what each of us has survived in our lives, what we have endured. Health crises, the loss of loved ones, loss of jobs, financial disasters, we are a gathering of survivors. Our genetic predisposition gives us a head start, but we also have something many others do not: our faith. The faith that God walks with us when we are in the valleys of the shadow of death, that we will come through our most challenging times perhaps scarred, but not defeated.
With our faith, Jesus said, we can endure anything. With our faith, we don’t have to be afraid of anything.
Both our Hebrew Scripture and our Gospel Lesson make reference to what scholars call ‘The End Times’. A time when the end of the world is at hand, and Jesus is ready to return. The reward for enduring what Jesus described, the wars, the insurrections, the famines, the plagues, the persecution for our faith, is our very souls. Our reward described by Isaiah is a time when humanity prospers in peace, when life will be so good, when no one will remember the hard times.
Isaiah’s vision is compelling, nearly impossible to comprehend, especially in this day and age, when our world more closely resembles what Jesus described. But while Isaiah described the world that God will create, Jesus actually gives us some ideas about how to bring Isaiah’s vision to reality: The challenges put before us in our lives give us opportunities to testify about our faith.
The ways in which we endure the disasters of our lives, the ways in which we triumph over our losses give us opportunities to live out our faith. Jesus said to testify, but we don’t actually have to say anything, do we? We already know the people in our lives who are testifying about their faith by living their lives in the face of impossibly sad challenges. Some of us are testifying this very day, by bravely living our lives in the face of pain and loss. Some of us are testifying about our faith by simply getting up this morning and coming to church!
By our endurance, we will gain our souls.
By taking our first step after surgery, by refusing to let someone else define who we are, by owning our mistakes and learning from them, by mourning the loss of our loved ones, but living in spite of our losses, we will gain our souls.
God is going to create a new heaven and a new earth. But before that happens, we are going to be challenged to the very core of our faith. How we respond to those challenges will be our testimony. How we respond to the challenges of our lives is how we testify about our faith. And we don’t have to say a word.
The human capacity to develop endurance is a gift. It’s in our DNA. It flows through our veins. Each of us can develop endurance, no matter what level of fitness we might be in now. And I mean that physically as much as I do emotionally and spiritually.
We don’t have to be marathon runners to improve our endurance levels. It only takes a few steps each day, and in time, we can go from being out of breath after 2 steps, to walking for hours without a break. We don’t have to be Olympic athletes to have endurance, we only need to be faithful children of God, living our lives faithfully with Isaiah’s vision as motivation.
Jesus will come again. The end times will come when God decides. But in the meantime, we must endure. In the meantime, we are called to testify in the face of our fears, in triumph over our disappointments, and in spite of our losses.
What you endure might not be what I can endure. And what I endure might not be what you can endure. The details aren’t important. What is important is that we live our lives as God puts them before us, with faith and with gratitude. What is important is that we understand that the way we live our lives in the face of the world’s challenges is the way we testify about our faith.
Isaiah’s vision of the new heaven and the new earth is out there somewhere in the future. But before we get there, we’ll have to get through our Savior’s vision first. I thank God that we are so wonderfully made that we are designed to build endurance in the face of the world’s challenges, because I know that by our endurance, we will gain our very souls. Amen.
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