Christ is risen. Alleluia!
Christ is risen, indeed. Alleluia!
“You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.”
What a message to proclaim on the Sunday morning when we’re most likely to have new faces in our worship service! “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.” Whatever you came here this morning to find, it’s not here.
Oh, I suppose that’s not necessarily true. I suppose for some people, perhaps most people, coming to church on Easter morning is a way of digging up something from their past, dusting it off, checking it out to see how time has treated it, seeing if it still holds the luster of childhood memories. A bit of ritual. A nod to tradition. A way to keep family happy. Certainly not much talk of Jesus of Nazareth, a teacher, a healer, a prophet, a child of God, a crucified convict. Folks hope that by Easter morning we’re done talking about that part.
But we’re not. We’re not done talking about that part. In fact, that’s the part we’ve been talking about for the last two-thousand years, and that’s the part that makes us who we are, that gives us our name – Christians. A Christian is someone who makes a faith statement about who the human being on the cross was. We say he was Christ, we say he is Christ. Christ, which means “the anointed one” – the one chosen to do God’s work. That term, anointed, literally means to be covered with oil – the “oint” in “anoint” being the same root that is found in words like “ointment.”
Saying that Jesus is the one chosen, anointed, to do God’s work has been the essence of Christian proclamation from the first generation on. Paul writes to the Corinthians,
Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which you also stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you – unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures, and then he was buried. But then something happened. He appeared to Cephas, also known as Simon Peter, the one who denied Jesus three times on the night of his death. He appeared to the twelve – did you catch that? The twelve, so the eleven who abandoned him, plus who else? Judas, the one who sold him out? Matthias, his replacement, the one who got the job by luck of the draw? Who else? Paul says he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time after he rose from the dead. Where is that in any of the four gospels? It’s not! Jesus leaves the tomb, and all of a sudden people are seeing him everywhere…
I don’t know if many of you noticed this last week, but Newsweek’s cover story followed up on the American Religious Indentification Survey we discussed a few weeks ago. The headline read, “The End of Christian America.” The lead to the article teased, “The percentage of self-identified Christians has fallen 10 points in the past two decades. How that statistic explains who we are now—and what, as a nation, we are about to become.”
The survey is full of information about changes in religious and denominational identification, but the news that’s shaking the foundations of American assumptions about religion can be boiled down to the fact that the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has nearly doubled since 1990, rising from 8 to 15 percent.
People across the church are asking what this means for the future of religion as we’ve known it, and people are anxious. I can understand the fear – the church as we’ve known it has been the institution in which we’ve raised our families; where we’ve been nurtured and supported in our faith development, or just plain supported in the struggles of our everyday lives. We have loved our church, but all around us we see one beautiful church building after another turning out its lights, closing its doors, and heading into the grave. We who love the church, what we’ve been taught to call “the body of Christ,” have no trouble identifying with the women who rose early on that first Easter morning to anoint his body for burial – to cover Jesus’ body with oil as a sign of blessing for one they had loved. They came to the tomb with hearts full of grief and disbelief that the one they had followed had died a shameful, public death – surrounded by an indifferent, mocking public.
That’s what the death of the church can feel like. An embarrassing, public decline to a once proud institution – one that we’d had such high hopes for. One we thought, like those who watched Jesus marching into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, would transform the reigning culture with majesty and might. It certainly tried, didn’t it? People and religious institutions wearing the name of Jesus have tried mightily to take the reins of power in this country since its inception, but here at the start of a new millennium – a new administration – a new America, it seems that the country has lost its taste for the methods of the old religious elite.
But let’s not be too quick to imagine our beloved institution as the body of the crucified Christ. Unlike him, we have not always or often spoken for the rights of the widow, the orphan, the stranger. The hungry, the naked, the lost. The immigrant, the teenage mother, the street kid. Our religious institutions powered through the early part of the last century with the assumption that they spoke for everyone, even as they ignored those who differed from them in almost any way. They assumed that church, this big empty cavernous room, is where people would come to find God. But God is not here.
God continues to go where God’s people are. And if it happens to be the case that the number of people who do not use the name “Christian” has jumped from 8 to 15 percent in the last twenty years, then my guess is that God has gone ahead of us to Galilee, to the sea, to the lake, or the river. Wherever people are gathering to find community and draw strength from each other to face the trials of life.
God is at the sand volleyball courts on Lake Michigan, taking pleasure in the camaraderie of friends. God is in the factory, making sure the paints come out right. God is staying late at the office, plowing through mountains of tax filings to be sure they’re done by April 15. God is at the unemployment office, collecting a check. God is taking another child abuse report, investigating placement options. God is relocating to a different city, starting a new job, making new friends. God is waiting for the results of a biopsy, wondering what the treatment will be like. God is hoping to get through finals without losing her mind.
God is not here, because God has left the tomb to be part of the lives of living people. God, who cares for the living, not the dead, wants nothing more than to be a part of each moment of your life – whoever you are. God is not here.
But you are.
I don’t know what
the future of the church is, and on some level I don’t care. I grew up in the church and, when I was just a boy of 14 years old, I told my family that I thought God wanted me to be a pastor. My dad reminded me that God’s wants something for each of us. We are all called to be somebody in God’s world. We are all anointed, God’s chosen. After years of working with runaway and homeless youth, I came back to the church because I wanted the things I’d heard and experienced here, in a place like this, to become meaningful for all the people who aren’t here, in a place like this. So if we have to shut all these places down and find a totally new, totally transformed, totally resurrected way of living in order to embody the message of the living God, who is always going ahead of us leading us into the future – not behind us, holding us in the past – then that’s fine by me, because God is not here.
Hopefully though, what is here, what remains are the angels, those saints of God dressed in the white robes of their baptism, people ready to greet the visitor at the tomb with words of comfort and reassurance, “do not be alarmed… go, tell his disciples…you will see him, just as he told you.”
Maybe we can be those people, those angels, those guides. Maybe what we do here each Sunday, and throughout the week, is to fit people with the eyes of faith so that they can notice, name, recognize, rejoice in God when God is met ahead of us, out in the world.
Christ is Risen. Alleluia!
Christ is Risen Indeed. Alleluia!