The Sea Island Pulpit
Luke 24: 1-12
Welcome to Easter 2018! Even though Easter is early in the calendar, we see spring just around the corner as creation leaps back into life. The bulbs peek their heads out of beds, the gladioli are in full bloom, as with the dogwoods. Can the azaleas be far behind? Even the Master’s Invitational is just a week away. Spring and Fall are the two great seasons in the Carolinas, pollen not-with-standing!
Today we gather not to rejoice in the coming of spring, but to rejoice in the resurrection of our Lord & Savior, Jesus the Christ. Normally on this Sunday I talk a lot about God, Jesus and the resurrection. Not a bad idea for a Christian minister on Sunday morning. Jesus and resurrection go hand in hand.
However, this morning I wish to talk about us — we who are present. Who are we? How do we think? Take just a moment and look around at each other. Theologically, biblically, spiritually, educationally, and in all manner of ways our congregation has dramatic differences, as do all healthy congregations. So did the early church and so has the church in every age. The key to congregational unity is not that we all agree, but that we understand our differences and they ways in which they determine how we see, hear, and interact with one another and with our Lord. We each come on Sunday asking that age-old question, “Is there a word from the Lord?” It is a testimony to the presence of the Spirit of the Risen Christ that we each hear a particular word to our particular circumstances. Who are we and what is the Lord's "word' to us this Easter?
Some of us are “devoted followers.” We have a long, long life of faith and trust in God and Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. We no longer wrestle with the questions of miracle, of resurrection, of God and Jesus. Not that we minimize these or have all the answers; no, we have decided that faith is the way in which we orient our life as much or more than it is about what we understand fully. For devoted followers, faith is not as much believing without proof as much as it is trusting without reservation. We are are here faithfully, Sunday after Sunday, sharing, living, loving and doing all those thankless tasks without which churches and the Kingdom of God would not succeed.
What is the word from the tomb for us this morning? Rejoice – He is Risen! Celebrate and be assured that our faith is seen and our witness known; our life of discipleship and obedience rings to the highest of the heavens. Though we may think we serve anonymously, we do not serve anonymously to God. God sees and knows all the struggles, all the little (and big) sacrifices, and all the moments when we drop whatever it is we are doing and lead with our faith and love.
Rejoice and be assured that our faith is not in vain. Sometimes, elements of doubt sprout up in the garden of even the strongest believers. As years go by and we see those prosper who care not for the things of God while those who love and obey God seemingly fail, we can grow bitter and angry. That is the strategy of the Evil One – and we must resist with all that is within us. The Holy Scriptures bear witness that, regardless of whether we have financial prosperity or fame or fortune, the way of Jesus is the way to live. How is it the poet put it so well?
Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne,
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.
Easter proclaims that God has won the final battle. On Easter morn Evil was conquered once and for all time. Even today we can begin to live anticipating the complete presence of Almighty God living with us, as John relates to us in that grand vision we call Revelation:
“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
One-day tears will no longer be shed…one day. One-day anger will no longer swell up…one day. One-day bitterness will no longer eat us from the inside out…one day. One-day right will be right and wrong will be wrong…one day. One day the Lord will become the Righteous Judge…one day. Devoted Followers – Rejoice and be assured.
Some of us are Skeptics, unbelievers who just cannot bring ourselves to accept the truth claims of Christianity. Some of us come regularly, but we are still not sure about this Jesus thing or this Christianity gig. We may be of a scientific mindset and intellectually cannot handle all the miracles and other claims of scripture or creeds. Some of us just cannot believe that the death of Jesus, whom we admire, could have anything to do with us and our destiny. The resurrection represents a difficult hurdle to clear in the attempt to believe.
Some of us have been so damaged by the blows of the world that we exist in a tomb of our own making, having shut ourselves off from the love and care of others because we cannot abide a world as cruel as this. I have spent hours with those who have lost loved ones to the evil of this world; if we are not careful these events will harden us to the place where we feel soul-less. Some skeptics, having seen the sins of the church up close and real, reject any validity to the claims of Christ.
What is the word of Easter for you? Yes…but rejoice anyway. Yes, we live in a world where loveless power seems to defeat powerless love time and time and time again; but we also live in a world where powerless love wins enough to remind us of what the final outcome shall be. We also in a world where there is more to the eye than reason, logic and science. The spiritual and the mythic are just as real, just as powerful, and just as true as the laws of nature and science.
Yes, the sins of the church are real, but the love and service of the church is greater. Yes, the claims of faith often seem overreaching and irrational. Yet, time and again the church has proven that we do not have to suspend our mind in order to be persons of faith. None has to leave their brain at the door in order to worship, learn of and follow Jesus the Christ.
Too often I see skeptics who act like the disciples in our story: because what has transpired is beyond their frame of reference they will not or cannot listen, look, or believe. The height of intelligence is not skepticism but openness -- to new ideas, to new thinking and to new ways of seeing and understanding. Too often we close our eyes to what is before us so that we could not see if we wanted to do so. Blind disbelief is just as ignorant, disingenuous and dangerous as blind faith. If God had wanted us to live without question or examination we would not have needed a brain; a backbone would have sufficed. God gave us minds to think, eyes to see, ears to listen and tongues to express ourselves so that we could live thoughtfully, carefully, and purposefully.
One word of caution: do not look for the living among the dead. Jesus is not back there in a tomb in the first century. Jesus is alive and well, living and moving, caring and loving, out in the world where he can work through his Spirit. Do not venture back to dead creeds, dead cultures or dead churches looking for a dead Jesus. Live among people of living faith, of active witness and service and of genuine commitment and compassion for all people.
Go where you see the hungry fed, the naked clothed, the hurting healed and the prisoners liberated. Go and see that Jesus is alive and well on planet earth – see and look and listen and think before you make up your mind. Remember: Christ is a living presence, not a mere memory. He lives not in the past, but in the present. Celebrate this reality will all the joy you can muster; we will be amazed at the faith that begins to grow inside of us.
Then there are the Seekers. Though we believe we are not quite devoted followers; we seekers are still looking, asking, questioning and learning. We are defined not by age, but by the reality that while we have not come to where we understand it all, we have come to the point where we cannot walk away from it all. Like the father of the epileptic boy whom Jesus healed, we cry out, “Lord I would believe; do something about my unbelief.”
What is the word for Seekers on Easter? Rejoice...and don’t stop seeking. Keep looking, keep loving, keep asking and keep searching. Yours is not the easy journey to faith, but the long road home. For seekers this world is not Christ comforted but Christ haunted. We know all too well the gap between our faith and our action, between what we profess and what we accomplish. We who are on the inside know the faults of the church all too well; what keeps us up at night is that we might, because of our faults, keep one person from entering the Kingdom.
Yes, we live in a world in which at times humans are evil beyond belief. As a colleague put it, “We would never have crucified the best of us if first we had not crucified the best in us.” Our own failures are ever before us. Yet, behind and beyond those failures we know a love, a grace, a power, and a transformation that is so real, so vivid, so pure and powerful that we cannot walk away. Like moths to a flame we are pulled to the fire of faith and in due time we surrender to the loving inevitability of it all. Consumed or not we do not care; only that we walk in this incredible love that gets inside of us and will not let us go.
Ultimately Seekers are searching neither for a creed to be affirmed nor even a deity to be worshipped, but a person to be loved, a power which takes hold of us and will not let us go. Our following Jesus is not about us being smarter, or better, or ahead of anyone else in any shape, fashion or form. Our following Jesus is about our being grasped by the presence of this Nazarene, the true human so vivid, so real and so energizing that we would not leave even if we could. For it is in Jesus the Christ that we discover our true identity, the person we were meant to be, alive and exciting and wonderful.
All these words come together in what is the first and final word of Easter: Hope. If Easter proves anything, it proves that God has the final word, that goodness has the final say, that ultimately our Good Friday world will be transformed into an Easter world.
To accept the resurrection is to accept that hope is still alive, that evil has not won, and that we are called to live not in the past nor even in the present, but in the present/future, the now and not yet. Hope is to believe that even though evil seems to reign, God has not yet spoken the final word. Hope showed up on Easter morn when all of God seemed down, defeated, and trampled upon. Yet, in those early hours of dawn hope sprang to life as it had not since creation first rang out billions of years ago. With an energy and power far greater than countless atomic warheads God reached from beyond and within the far reaches of the universe and brought back to life upon our minuscule orb God’s Son and our Savior – even Jesus the Christ. In that moment hope was born anew, hope straight from the heart of God – and the whole creation sang this new and wonderful song of life, of love, of transformation, and of a gracious forgiveness.
In the early days of the former Soviet Union huge mandatory indoctrination classes were held to educate the populous about the truths of communism and the evils of religious belief. One such meeting was held in a tremendous Russian Orthodox Cathedral. It happened to be Easter weekend and the people had been preparing for their Easter celebration in their cathedral. The speaker was particularly harsh on the resurrection, proclaiming that such belief was ridiculous and childish. As he finished the old Archbishop who had been near the front walked to the podium, turned to the crowd, and shouted in firm voice their ancient Easter affirmation: “Christ is risen.” Hearing this the congregation leapt to their feet and shouted back, “He is risen, indeed.”
Can we all — Devoted Followers, Skeptics and Seekers — sing in harmony our Easter song of hope? Can our voice reach down to the depths of our soul and sing once more the song of Christ, the song of salvation, of love, and of eternal life?
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Rejoice!
Robert U. Ferguson, Jr., Ph.D.
Sea Island Chapel
173 Marshland Road
Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
April 1, 2018