This sermon is dedicated to The Rt. Rev. David Colin Jones—for his tireless passion for evangelism, and his obedience to the Gospel, which has made him a living icon of God's love.
On Easter Day, I read the Resurrection story from Mark's gospel. I spoke about the women coming to the tomb, learning that Jesus had been raised, and then leaving the tomb terrified and unable to speak. I wanted to talk about the Resurrection as being a terrifying event, because I think the Church has lost some of the holy terror that thoughts of the Resurrection should produce.
Today, we read one of the accounts of Jesus' post-Resurrection appearances as recorded in Luke's gospel. As I was reading and praying and living with this text, knowing that I would be preaching today, I found myself returning to the most basic question one can ask about a particular text: "What is this lesson trying to say?"
It may surprise you that I, or any other person, would lose sight of that fundamental question when approaching the Bible, but it happens. Sometimes, when reading these sacred texts, we forget that they were written at a particular time to a particular people, and as such, there are subtleties of meaning that we might no longer know about.
One of the great contemporary preaching professors, Tom Long, has said that sometimes we listen to the Bible like it's an aging relative who always tells the same stories, and we just nod our heads and pretend to listen. I read this text for today, and nodded my head.
The risen Jesus appears to his disciples. Okay. They are terrified. All right. Well, of course they are. We dealt with that on Easter Day. Jesus did not just die of old age on some soft feather bed somewhere. It is terrifying to think of that body coming back to life after the crucifixion and all the flogging and abuse. And it is even further terrifying that when he came back to life, his wounds were healed.
Stop for a minute and really think about this. There are people who have died on operating tables—no pulse, no vital signs—and then bam! back to life, but they've still got the heart condition, or the wound. The body of Jesus came back to life and was healed. It's impossible, and therefore, terrifying. So I nodded my head at the disciples being terrified.
Luke writes that they thought they were seeing a ghost. What does that mean? Well, that's a very good question. It can simply be part of their terror. It can't be Jesus, they think, it has to be a ghost. Or is this an indication of how resurrected bodies look different—that we don't look in the next life exactly like we do now? I don't know.
Jesus tries to persuade them that he is who he is with three methods of proof. One and two are pretty obvious: "look and touch." "Look at my hands and my feet, touch me and see." And then he shows them his hands and feet.
Luke writes "While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering…" So—the third proof—Jesus takes a piece of cooked fish and eats it in their presence. Ghosts do not eat. Dead people do not eat.
Then Luke shifts the story from their terror and joy to Jesus opening their minds to understand the scriptures, by explaining to them that what happened in his death and Resurrection was a fulfillment—it was not all for nothing, as they perhaps believed. And then he says, "You are witnesses of these things."
I read this story and nodded my head. I wondered what, if anything, I could say about it that would help us understand it more deeply. And then I realized that this story forms the vital link between the Resurrection of Jesus and the forward propulsion of the Gospel out into the world through the disciples. The seeds of Pentecost are sown in these moments between Jesus and the disciples.
You see, before the Resurrection they could teach the morality of Jesus: care for the poor, the despised and rejected. Heal the sick, love of neighbor, yes, yes, yes… But the death and Resurrection of the man who taught all of that forms a gigantic exclamation mark at the end of those teachings. The one thing we fear the most—death itself—has died; and the man who taught us to care alike for all people is the one who has faced humiliating violence and death, and is now alive again. (Pause.)
This is the story of the Church's transition from Resurrection to proclamation. It takes us from just standing here confused and terrified to a living belief in the Resurrection such that we can be propelled out into the mission field—if we're willing to go there.
The irony is that the good news we have to share is the very thing that holds us back! Our proclamation is that death has lost its sting and that we are free from it's clutches. That we need not fear spending our lives—pouring out our lives, as Jesus did—because when our deaths come, so does our resurrection to an even better life.
What do we fear when Christ asks us to go into all the world and preach the Resurrection? What do we fear when Christ pushes us out those big red doors into Woodstock/Mt. Jackson, and says, "Go tell someone about me"?
The irony is that we still fear death. We fear that we will become so associated with Jesus that people will reject us. That they will label us as fanatics, or crazy people who have no credibility among decent, polite society—or even amongst those who are not considered polite or decent.
Being known as the person who talks about Jesus—even right here in the good `ole Shenandoah Valley—means rejection. And rejection means a loss of community—a loss of people who want to be around us. Somewhere in the hierarchy of fears, that loss of community sparks a fear that we might no longer be able to provide for ourselves.
And that fear of scarcity sparks the next fear, which is starvation and death.
Consciously or unconsciously, rejection means death. So we take after Peter. "Lord I will never deny you," we say. And before sundown, he denied him three times. Why? Death. They might do to me what they did to Jesus.
Our good news is the very thing that holds us back. It's not that we don't believe it; it's that we don't know how to believe it AND release the fear. We don't know how to let this Faith absorb our fear of what others may think.
And so we remain terrified, like the women at the tomb. Too terrified to tell anyone. Too terrified to believe that he really was raised and is healed. We—who are hopelessly in love with God, entranced by the beauty and mystery of Christ, filled to the brim and even overflowing at times with the Holy Spirit—remain terrified.
The Church has never really been very good at evangelism. Or, I should say, at pure evangelism. Quite often it has been sort of coupled into other aspects of belonging. Some time ago, Karin and I watched a PBS documentary called God in America, and it mentioned that the colonial settlers had to stay in community with each other because the frontier was wild, and if you strayed too far from the pack, you might not live for very long. You depended on your community; and if the community was very religious, you needed to be very religious.
I was raised in a church that sat on the campus of Bridgewater College where my father was on the faculty, and my mother was on the staff. The organist was the professor of organ; the choir director was the professor of choir. The professors of philosophy and religion, sociology, English, you name it—even the college president—
sat in the pews.
I still think of the sense of community that that instilled in me—but one of the downsides was that I never fully developed an appreciation for evangelism, because—and this is not an exaggeration—everyone in my world was a Christian, and everyone seemed to be devout. It was the culture. Not in some sort of oppressive or brainwashed way—and no one considered themselves to be more or less devout than anyone else. It was just sort of expected that you read the Bible and prayed your prayers.
I remember a friend in college asked me one day, "How do you talk about God so easily?" I said, "I don't know. I just assume everyone is a Christian." He said, "I never assume anyone is a Christian."
What I'm trying to say is that I'm no expert when it comes to talking to people who aren't already Baptized. I have the same catch in my throat that anyone else feels, when I'm right on the brink of saying something. But I keep praying that God will help me to overcome whatever fear is there.
I went to Virginia Seminary, and every morning we would go to chapel for Morning Prayer. And over the stained glass window over the Altar, the window that showed Jesus risen from the dead, commissioning his disciples… Over that window was written in big block letters: "Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel."
Every morning. There it was. Every morning. You'd come to chapel to ask God for an A on a test, or for healing from some kind of sickness, or for something else, and you'd look up at the Altar, and there it was: "Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel."
"But God!" I would say, "We're all Christians!"
And the response would come, "No…you are not all Christians." "Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel."
"But God," I would say, "Can't we just sit here and enjoy each other's company? I mean…c'mon now! You love me, and I love you, and we love each other. We've got all kinds of time for the mission field. And anyway…God…Christianity is the dominant religion in this country—people aren't suspicious or violent toward Christians. We'll get them all in time, you know?!"
And God would ignore me and say, "Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel." "Not everyone has heard. Not everyone is going to bed with a belly full of food and love." "Not everyone has grown up believing that I care about them, the way you have grown up believing. They're not going to know, unless you tell them." (Pause.)
On September 11th, 2001, I will never forget. You will never forget. I heard the plane crash into the Pentagon less than three miles away from the Seminary. We gathered in the chapel for a hastily devised liturgy of Noonday Prayer.
I will never forget singing "O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come" while in the background the fighter jets were patrolling the skies. No one knew if this was the beginning or the end. I was kneeling the pew and the only prayer I could think of praying was, "O God, make it stop. Make it stop. Make it stop."
We sang. We prayed the timeless Collects of The Book of Common Prayer. We cried. We were terrified. Afraid of death. Afraid that the world would swallow us up.
And even in the midst of that terror, those big block letters over the window over the Altar continued to push us out the door. They are the words of the risen Christ. Not of the terrified women, or of the scattered disciples, but of the man who carried all of our fears in his bosom, and bore them on the Cross.
"Not everyone knows. Not everyone has heard. Not everyone was raised with a belly full of food and love. There not going to eat, unless you feed them. And they're not going to know, unless you tell them, so… "Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel."
If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving to the church where you feel most at home.
The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.