He Has Gone On Before You

He Has Gone On Before You

If we place the Easter accounts of all four gospels side by side, we soon discover four very different stories. The gospel writers only agree on three details of what happened when the women arrived at the tomb in the early light of that first Easter Sunday. First, it was women who went to the tomb. The men were still in hiding. If anyone ever has any questions about whether or not women should be ordained, or why women are so important in the life of the church, we just need to remind ourselves that the first witnesses of the resurrection were women. Women were the first people entrusted with the best news of the gospel.

The second detail on which the gospels have agreement is that Mary Magdalene was among those first women to visit the tomb. In fact in the gospel of John Mary Magdalene was alone, when she went to the tomb at first light. We should also note that in the Gospel of Thomas, a gospel that was not included in our Bible, the other disciples were jealous of Mary Magdalene, because of the high regard shown for her by Jesus. Jesus is represented as respecting Mary as the equal of the male disciples. And this may explain the tradition that developed around Mary Magdalene that she was a whore, because any woman in those days who was not under the control of male relatives and who considered herself to be the intellectual equal of men was labeled a whore.

The third detail agreed upon by all of the gospels was that the tomb was empty. But an empty tomb by itself was not proof of a resurrection. Someone could have stolen the body. In the gospel of John that was Mary’s suspicion. When the Risen Christ appeared to her she first assumed it was the gardener and asked him, “If you have taken his body, please tell me where you have placed it.” In the gospel of Matthew the Temple elders bribed the soldiers who guarded the tomb to tell the people that Jesus’ disciples had stolen the body.

Some scholars even believe the empty tomb was a later tradition to explain the disciple’s experience of the risen Christ among them. They believe the disciples got out of Jerusalem as quickly as possible after the crucifixion and left for Galilee. There or even on the road out of town, as in the Road to Emmaus Story in Luke, they had experiences of the risen Christ that called them back to Jerusalem, where on Pentecost they experienced the Holy Spirit that propelled them to begin proclaiming the Resurrection. It was the experience of the Risen Christ energized by the infusion of the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost that was proof of the resurrection.

The key to the Easter experience then is the words of the angel, “he has gone on before you.” He is not dead, he is not in the tomb, he cannot be found where you think you have placed him, “he has gone on before you.” He is out there in the world beckoning us to follow him into the hard places of life ministering to the poor, the unemployed, the rejected, the sick, the powerless, the marginalized.

He is not a tame Jesus. We cannot carry Christ around in our hip pocket. So often on Easter, we focus on the empty tomb to the exclusion of the living presence of Christ in the world, because we would like to put him back into the tomb and seal it shut, because if we keep Jesus in the tomb then we can be safe from his call to follow him out into the world, where our faith can challenge us and lead us into difficult situations. And that is why it is so important to continue to welcome the world into our church. No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome here.

Two weeks ago, several of us attended a webinar about church renewal, and the presenter, Michael Piazza, offered us some statistics about declining church attendance in the United States. In summary the statistics show that church attendance in mainline churches, Methodist, Presbyterian, UCC, Disciples, etc., has been declining for thirty years. That is no surprise. What is surprising is that attendance in Catholic Churches has also been on the decline for the past twenty years, and now in the last ten years evangelical churches are registering a decline in attendance. In fact because Millennials, the generation from 18 to about 32, are so turned off by the evangelical social agenda, there is now being forecast by demographers an evangelical collapse in the next ten years. Churches across the spectrum are in decline.

The situation is even worse in Great Britain, where the decline has been longer and steeper. And if you will bear with me for a moment this really is related to Easter. First, we can see that the decline in church attendance has been precipitous.

Second we can see that even though a majority of people in Great Britain identify themselves as Christian, the vast majority of those people identify themselves as non-churched or de-churched.

And third when asked whether they can envision returning to a church, the vast majority of those folks said that it was “not likely, or not very likely.” And this may help to explain the spiritual but not religious phenomenon in the United States.

The conclusion of the people making the study in Great Britain was this.To sum up then it’s not Christ but the Church, that most Christians in the United Kingdom reject. It’s not a question of getting people to become Christians (evangelism), but that the Church in the United Kingdom is repelling Christians. It seems that Church in the United Kingdom is an unattractive place for most Christians.

SLIDE 14:

THE CHURCH HAS LEFT THE BUILDING

In response to the problem of the church repelling people who identify themselves as Christians but don’t attend, a new movement has appeared in Britain under the name “the church has left the building.” These people hold their Bible Studies in Pubs – “the Bible and a beer.” This movement meets in people’s homes to share a potluck and communion. And they organize mission projects and invite everyone to come who wants to help. They are seriously trying to follow the Jesus who goes before them into the world.

The problem isn’t Jesus, it’s the church. As Greg Kamback calls us to undertake a visioning process as a congregation, we need to take a good hard look at ourselves and figure out how we are going to follow the Jesus who goes before us into the world and then run to catch up.

We already have a significant relationship with Foodline, both raising money for them, bringing in food for the food pantry, and four or five members of our congregation who are volunteering at Foodline. That is following Jesus into the world. Jesus told us, whenever you reach out to people in need, the hungry, the naked, the sick, you have found me. We have people driving for meals on wheels, testing water in our streams, volunteering with habitat.

We also have a significant relationship with NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. We have several members volunteering with NAMI. And there is important work to be done right now as the Department of Mental Health in Alabama is facing massive budget cuts. The Department of Mental Health is losing over 20% of their budget, and closing the regional Mental Health Hospitals. I believe our congregation is especially aware and uniquely equipped to minister to the needs of the mentally ill. We can’t replace that kind of money, but we can serve as advocates for the fair and humane treatment of the mentally ill. We can also welcome the mentally ill and their families into the life of our congregation.

As we consider an Easter vision, let me close with this story. A little boy wanted to meet God. He knew it was a long trip to where God lived, so he packed his suitcase with Twinkies and a six-pack of Root Beer and he started his journey. When he had gone about three blocks, he met an elderly man. The man was sitting in the park just feeding some pigeons. The boy sat down next to him and opened his suitcase. He was about to take a drink from his root beer when he noticed that the man looked hungry, so he offered him a Twinkie. The man gratefully accepted it and smiled at the boy. His smile was so pleasant that the boy wanted to see it again, so he offered him a root beer. Again, the man smiled at him. The boy was delighted! They sat there all afternoon eating and smiling, but they never said a word.

As it grew dark, the boy realized how tired he was and he got up to leave, but before he had gone more than a few steps, he turned around, ran back to the man, and gave him a big hug. The man gave the little boy his biggest smile ever.

When the boy opened the door to his own house a short time later, his mother was surprised by the look of joy on his face. She asked him, “What did you do today that made you so happy?”

“The little boy replied, “I had lunch with God.” But before his mother could respond, he added, “You know what? God’s got the most beautiful smile I’ve ever seen.”

Meanwhile, the elderly man also radiant with joy returned to his home. His son was stunned by the look of peace on his face and he asked, “Dad, what did you do today that made you so happy?”

The old man replied, “I ate Twinkies in the park with God.” However, before his son responded, he added, “You know, God is much younger than I expected.”

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn our lives around. Jesus has gone on before us. He is out there in the world. We just have to have a little courage to venture beyond the walls of the church and the desire to run to catch up.

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