Will We Live in Terror or in Life Giving Witness?
Or What does Easter Mean for Us? By June Fothergill
I understand the terror of the women. Who wouldn’t be frightened at such strange and mysterious goings on? We understand that feeling- when we get the call in the night and something terrible has happen to someone we love. When we walk into the darkness and a not sure where to go. When we are asked to do something new that we are afraid we are ill equipped to do. Julia Esquivel has a poem called “ Threatened with Resurrection”. I have often wondered about the title. Can Resurrection be threatening? Certainly, for it meant nothing would ever be the same again for those women, and for us?
Like the women in Mark’s story, I don’t understand the mystery of the empty tomb and the resurrection. I don’t understand it in the same way I understand when I see seeds that I plant in the earth grow into plants Or that measurements show the atmosphere of our planet is getting warmer. Yet, I trust the reports of my ancestors in faith that somehow, they experienced Jesus till among them. Although the women left in fear and didn’t tell anyone, somehow Mark’s gospel was written. Someone let go of their fear, found their courage and told the story. I wonder, in my own life, how do I let fear keep me from the witness to life and love God has given me?
I don’t understand the mystery of the empty tomb and the resurrection but I do know in my heart that Jesus is not dead. His Spirit of love and compassion, of justice and peacemaking, of gracious forgiveness and healing is still with us. I have never seen him as a bodily vision but I have experienced his word, his warmth, his forgiveness, his healing, his guidance in my life. I trust and know that his is a living Savior.
I decided once to become a Hindu because I was curious about the inner sanctum of a famous Hindu temple in Madurai India. They said that I had to be a Hindu to enter and so I asked what I needed to do to become a Hindu. It was extremely easy. So I became a Hindu and entered the temple with my offering basket. Later on as I reflected upon that experience I realized that I was not Hindu. The ritual I had performed meant nothing to me. I remembered then my baptism. I remembered Jesus and what he meant to me. I sensed His presence gently telling me- I have claimed you as mine. Will you claim me? And I knew the answer was Yes.
I don’t understand the mystery of the empty tomb and the resurrection but I do enjoy the message of hope it brings. It invites me to let go of fears about the future, especially the future we all face one day- our deaths. The resurrection of Jesus declares- there is life beyond death. Christ has gone before us and will take us to be with him with God. The reality of his love for us extends beyond the grave.
Yet, this is not just about after we die but how we are empowered to live. I hear in the ancient stories of Jesus resurrection an invitation to practice resurrection now. In my present reality, to let go of my fears and encounter the living God today.
For example, I read an article in Christian Century the other day titled “ Dementia and resurrection.” I was immediately interested. The author Samuel Wells points out, that we think of dementia in terms of deficit and decline and of course death, even death before one physically dies. Yet, Rev. Wells invited me to think about dementia differently. He starts with a greek word “luo”- which means to loose or to unbind. It was used by Jesus when he told people to unbind Lazarus and let him go. He suggests that maybe “ the path to resurrection lies in letting go. If death is starting now, maybe resurrection can start now too. “ p. 33
Could practicing resurrection be letting go of what we were and living into the new thing we are becoming? In our culture we have an idea of progress, we expect things to get better, to improve. This makes it hard for us to deal with things in life which seem to be about decline, deficit, dying. Yet, resurrection invites us to see a third way- a Jesus way. A way of honoring the moment and trusting the future. What looks like death and decline has the potential for emerging as life that is still life, but different.
For example, I knew a woman in Boise who had had a stroke that left her bedridden most of the time and unable to speak. Her friends from church visited her and experienced much sorrow about the loss of the woman they had known. It was hard for them to visit. Yet, I had not known her before her stroke, so for me, I enjoyed our visits. I noticed how her face lit up when I talked to her about her church family, how she smiled when we prayed together. How her eyes sparkled when I told her a funny story. I was blessed with appreciating her now- the new person she was.
Could it be that the resurrection of Jesus invites us to run with those women, run until we can let go of our fears and see and embrace a new now with all its potential. A new now in which Christ continues to enter our lives in Spirit and Truth and sets us free to live fully now and forever with Him.
EASTER Sermon Acts 10:34-43 Witness and Welcome BY June Fothergill
Peter was amazed at how much had happened since the women had first come to them with the incredible news- Jesus was alive. The tomb was empty. The angels said he was resurrected. He had been skeptical, like everyone else, but then he too had seen Jesus, had even eaten with him! He had been given a gift. He was a witness to this great and wonderful mystery- Jesus resurrection from the dead! At first, he remembered he’s been afraid to tell the story- who would believe it! But one day, he found himself standing up in front of a crowd explaining that the Holy Spirit had come upon them and they had good news to tell! The Jesus who had been crucified was alive and well! His power to forgive, to heal, to inspire was still active in their lives. The authorities, the powerful of the world, thought Jesus was finished but Oh my goodness, Peter declared- Jesus is just getting started! Repent- for his forgiveness, his kingdom of love is available to you- each one of you!
Peter was excited because many in Jerusalem had believed and decided to follow the Risen Lord. They had been gathering to learn from the disciples, pray and share their lives. It was wonderful. Peter was happy. Yet, there had been strange things too. Philip can come and reported that he had shared about Jesus with a man from Ethopia and even baptized him on the road. The jewish authorities hadn’t been too happy about this new movement and caused them some real trouble. Many people had fled Jerusalem and now there were groups of disciples in other towns around. Then one of the worst persons to persecute them had had a change of heart and now this Paul was eager to share the good news of Jesus even with the pagans! It made Peter’s head spin, so much happening, God . How could he keep up?
So one day when they arrived in one of those towns, Joppa, Peter decided to take a break and go up to the roof of his friend’s house to rest and pray. While there he had a strange vision. He saw a sheet filled with different kinds of animals and heard a voice telling him to eat them, even those he knew to be ritually unclean. Still pondering this dream, Peter received an odd invitation. The local Roman Centurion, Cornelius had sent someone to invite Peter to his house. This was very unexpected, for gentiles and jews didn’t normally go to each other’s houses or share in table fellowship. Yet, Peter knew that God wanted him to go to see Cornelius. So the next day he went to visit him and entered his home. He told them what he had learned from his vision- that God had shown him not to call any one profane or unclean. Cornelius shared with Peter that he had heard a vision from God too, telling him to invite Peter to come and listen to what he had to say.
Peter started his standard sermon about the good news of Jesus in a different way this time. He realized that Jesus resurrection meant even more than he had thought. He told this gentile family, “ I truly understand that God shows no partiality. But in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” He shared with them how Jesus had been resurrected from the dead and when you believe in him you receive forgiveness of sins through his name. As he preached he noticed that the folks were being filled with the Holy Spirit and praising God. He decided that they could be baptized. So he baptized these first gentile believers and stayed with them for several days.
How exciting! The work of God in Jesus Christ was expanding to the gentile world! He Peter, had sat at table and received the hospitality of a gentile soldier! As he rode back to Jerusalem, Peter could hardly believe it! “ Jesus, what in the world are you doing? Could it really be that the salvation of God he knew in Jesus was for everyone! That one day they would all sit at the same table- Christ’s table?
Giving and receiving hospitality had always been an important value in Peter’s jewish community but there were important lines one did not cross. It had been important over the centuries to be clear about who they were as people of the covenant, people of Israel. Jesus knew this, he lived his whole life in palastine. Yet, here in his name Peter was baptizing gentile, Paul was preaching to Hellenists, an Ethiopian was taking the good news about Jesus to lands Peter couldn’t even imagine!
In writing about his passage in Acts Willliam Willimon notes, “ Faith, when it comes down to it, is our often breathless attempt to keep up with the redemptive activity of God, to keep asking ourselves, “ What is God doing , where on earth is God going now?” (p. 99 Acts) Julia Esquivel has a poem called “ Threatened with Resurrection”. I have often wondered about the title. Can Resurrection be threatening?
Sure. Resurrection steps out beyond our status quo. It declares that God can make possible new life out of our deaths. New hope out of our disasters. A new world of peaceful community out of our alienations. We who would like to keep some control, who are benefiting from the way things are, who are comfortable- well resurrection shakes us up. For Peter, I have no doubt he would have loved to just hung out with his new friends in Jerusalem and build an ideal jewish community. That would have been so wonderful! Yet, resurrection meant something more. His witness of Jesus continuing work of forgiveness was needed in communities beyond his imagination! For this to happen, God first empowered a ministry of hospitality. To spread the word of Jesus and his forgiving love, the church had to learn to practice expanded welcome and hospitality
Yet, I notice two things about this story.
The first I notice is that God equipped Peter for the new thing he was being asked to do. Resurrection power provides us with the gifts we need for this expanded ministry.
There is a wonderful choir anthem that you will get to hear next week. One part of it affirms, “ In this very room there is quite enough hope, quite enough power because Jesus, Lord Jesus is in this very room.” This is one thing the resurrection of Jesus means to me. The Jesus we come to know in the gospels, the Jesus whom God raised from the dead is alive with us in Spirit. Here in this very room, then we are enough. We have everything we need to be in mission for Christ Jesus! Remember Peter was just a Galilean fisherman, a peasant, a country hick. Yet, the power of the Spirit, the power of the resurrection led him to speak to the crowds in Jerusalem! And when his witness to Christ’s resurrection was needed by God to expand the ministry- Peter received a dream and guidance for his journey. He was thus able to reach out to this gentile family with reassurance. He was empowered to defend his work when his peers questioned him later.
The truth is often we don’t feel empowered. We feel discouraged by life, by aging bodies, by sliding numbers, by intractable social ills, by continuing cycles of violence and fear, by diseases, by our own fallibility. Could it be that God would really use – us- for God’s work in the world? Could it be that God calls us to expand our circle to include all people, even the ones we don’t understand, the ones we’ve been taught to keep at arms length? Could it be that God is calling us to a racial hospitality, to become a truly warm and welcoming church community and space? How can we make this old building accessible to all? How can we truly welcome and include each person who comes to worship? How can we make those who come to our meals know they matter to us and to Jesus?
How can we? How did Peter? He opened himself to God’s spirit. He accepted the forgiveness and empowerment the Risen Christ offered him. He took the risk to step out on this adventure of faith.
He did so because he knew- In this very room there is quite enough of everything we need- because Jesus is here in this very room!
He was also able to do it because he soon discovered that Jesus was also at work beyond his boundaries.
The second thing I notice about this story is that God prepared the new people for the word they would receive. Cornelius and his family already had their own relationship with God. God was already at work in their lives. Resurrection power works beyond our boundaries and limitations.
I remember one time a Jail Chaplain who was teaching us about Jail ministry saying to us that the church was already in the jail. It was our job to find it and nurture it. He was reminding us that our Risen Lord through his Holy Spirit goes before us.
I remember one time in the first church I served in a very small rural town a group of Jehovah Witnesses came to town to do their visitation. They came by my house and we discussed how we did or didn’t do evangelism. It so happened that later that day I went out to do some of my own calling. I happened to stop by one young women’s house just after the Jehovah Witnesses had been there. I was so grateful to them! They had prepared the way for a much deeper discussion about faith between myself and this women. I was so grateful because several years later I walked with her and her family through the painful valley of her brain tumor and death. Yet, as we held vigil around her bed, Jesus was there with us, welcoming each of us as we released her into his welcoming arms.
You see, the resurrection of Jesus means that he is alive and well among us still through his Holy Spirit. He is in this very room and already in all the rooms where we might minister and witness for him. Our Risen Lord continues to empower and invite us to take part in his expanding circle of love; to truly become a church as welcoming as Jesus. Resurrection can threaten our status quo, our comfortable complacency. Resurrection declares- as long as there is evil and death, as long as there is needless suffering and injustice, as long as there is need for forgiveness and healing- Christ will be at work bringing in his kingdom and welcoming us all into his loving embrace. Jesus is here- in this very room! And flowing out like a River of lIfe to all the world.