So, about that Easter sermon…the one that asked, not if we believed in resurrection, but whether we want to believe in resurrection? I got some interesting feedback on that sermon. One person asked: “Do know what resurrection is?” Another person said, “Well, you could have mentioned death a few more times.”
Okay. So, it wasn’t the most joyful Easter sermon ever. But, as they used to say back home, it’s what God laid on my heart. So, if you have any complaints, take them up with God. 🙂
The point of the sermon–and yes, I understand it’s not the sign of a good sermon if you have to explain that sermon in the next sermon you preach…but this is where we are. 🙂 The point of the sermon was that, if we are to take resurrection seriously, we have to take death seriously, as well. And if we are to experience resurrection, we have to want to experience resurrection…which means we have to be willing to change. The sermon ended with a line about the world needing followers of Jesus to believe in resurrection.
Did anyone find that sermon depressing? If you did, I wish you could have joined me for a gathering I attended in Atlanta last week. Talk about depressing!
Twelve of us gathered with Chuck Foster. Chuck served as the doctoral advisor for all of us. We had gathered to celebrate Chuck’s life work. It ended up being a precious time of remembering and reconnecting. Unlike most doctoral advisers, Chuck intentionally formed us–a group of doctoral students–into a community. We all were struck by what a rare gift that is.
Only three of us are pastors. Everyone else teaches in a seminary. All of us are religious educators intensely interested in what’s happening in churches, concerned about the steep decline in mainline church-going.
The focus of the work of one of my colleagues is environmental theology. He confessed that he’s pretty much given up on the ability of Christianity to address the current ecological crisis. He finds hope in neither the rituals nor the texts of the Christian faith. I was stunned by what he was saying, but sat quietly.
Over the course of several presentations, it became clear that confidence in the church’s ability to address ongoing concerns in the world today has waned significantly. Everyone is wrestling with what to do in response to significant changes happening in the Christian church.
What do you think? Has the church lost its ability seriously to address what’s happening in our world? Ecological devastation? Rapidly accelerating gun violence, which is getting closer and closer to home? Surging hate speech and with it hate crimes? As theologian Karl Barth once said, preachers should have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. I read the paper and watch the news as much as I can. Sermons need to be grounded in the real world. But last week on vacation, I gave myself a break from watching the news. That might have been the most restful part of the vacation.
But following Jesus isn’t something we do in a bubble. Following Jesus is about engaging the real world we’re living in…and not just engaging it, but engaging it with good news. It is our role as followers of Jesus to wade into the painful, struggling places in the world and bring hope–yes, hope–to those places.
Through most of the presentations at the gathering in Atlanta, I sat quietly. It was more of an academic thing and I’m not in the academy. On the last day, though, when my environmental theologian friend said, “Christians don’t even believe in resurrection anymore! If Christians believed in resurrection, we could do something about ecological devastation. But they just won’t do it,” I’d had enough. I raised my hand. And preached.
“I need to tell you,” I said. “Y’all are sending me home very depressed.” They’d been talking about all the things churches aren’t doing. I talked about all the things churches are doing and the vast potential for so much more that they might do.
Then I told my friend Tim about the Easter sermon…that I asked the question, Do we followers of Jesus want to believe in resurrection?…and saying, basically, what he’d just said: The world needs followers of Jesus to believe in resurrection.
When I got done, everyone just stared at me. Not sure what that was about. I’m hopeful it got them thinking. After the session, Tim said, “Kim, you give me hope for the church.” Another friend emailed the next day, “Thank you for standing up for the church.”
I think they all want to believe in the church’s ability to live out resurrection in addressing the world’s needs. They’re just recognizing that the way we’ve done church in the past isn’t sufficient for dealing with the needs of the present. They are looking–as are we all–for a way, through the context of our Christian faith, to address what’s happening in the world.
Today’s story about Jesus’ resurrection appearance to the eleven seems an apt metaphor for where the church is today.
In the wake of a devastating event–the death of their beloved teacher–the disciples were at a loss. Not knowing what to do, they reverted back to what they’d always done: they went fishing. It’s human nature to respond to a crisis with familiar activities.
When Jesus shows up, though, even the most familiar rituals are transformed. Practices that have become flat and lifeless suddenly fill with new life, with abundance. Was anyone surprised to hear that Peter is the one who hauled the bursting nets to shore all on his own?
Wading into the world’s hard and harsh places to bring to those places good news, hope, resurrection…it takes work… It takes the work of reimagining old rituals so that they become sources of new life and abundance. Resurrection also takes another kind of work…the kind of work Peter does at the end of today’s story.
Joyous at the large haul of fish and another session with their beloved teacher, the eleven bask in the glow of their togetherness and a good meal shared. A bit later, Jesus and Peter have a conversation.
A reminder of the backstory. When Jesus was arrested, Peter had followed Jesus and the guards to the high priest’s residence. He joined others who were sitting around a fire outside Caiaphas’ quarters. Three times he was asked if he was a disciple of Jesus. Three times, Peter denied that he knew Jesus. When the cock crowed–as Jesus had predicted–Peter realized what he had done. In another Gospel’s telling of the story, it says that Peter “wept bitterly” when he realized what he had done.
So, in their conversation on the beach, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Three times Peter says, “Yes, Rabbi. You know I love you.” Three times, Peter confesses– professes– his love for, his deep connection with, Jesus…just as before Jesus’ death, he’d denied even knowing Jesus.
And maybe that’s where the real work of resurrection begins—in confession. Perhaps we can believe in resurrection only when we’re able to confess—profess—our love for Jesus.
I received the text about Paul Gillespie’s death last Saturday morning, just before the final session of the gathering in Atlanta. For that session, we met in a different room—the Grant Shockley Room.
Grant Shockley was an African American religious educator with whom Chuck and a couple of others present had worked. He also served as a mentor to James Cone. Dr. Shockley was the first African American faculty member at Duke Divinity School, Garret-Evangelical Divinity School, and Candler School of Theology. In the 60s, 70s, and 80s, no one did more for the cause of African American Religious education. He and Chuck did a lot of work together on racial justice, both believing that the best means of working toward racial justice is through the practices of religious education.
Having just gotten the text about Paul, he was very much on my mind and heart during that final session. I was sad. Then, as I listened to stories about Dr. Shockley, as Chuck talked about working with Dr. Shockley in the work of racial justice, I realized that Paul would have loved to have been there last Saturday morning. I have no doubt that he would have joined the conversation. He would have told stories about his own work for racial justice. He too would have advocated for education as a key means of working toward racial justice.
Paul believed in the church. Paul believed in the good news of the gospel. Paul believed in the church’s ability to address injustice in the world, especially the injustice to which he gave his life’s work, the injustice of racism. Paul believed in the power of confession and in the importance of love. Paul believed in the power of resurrection and in the world’s desperate need for followers of Jesus to believe in and live out of that power.
Today’s Gospel story is a call to all of us to follow Jesus. The world needs us to follow Jesus. The world needs us to love Jesus and do the work of resurrection. The world needs us to counter every bit of bad news we hear with the good news of God’s love and justice, which is what love looks like in public. The world needs us to act it into wellbeing in Jesus’ name.
Just like our beloved Paul did his entire life. As those of us who knew Paul try to figure out how live in the world without him, we will come closest to Paul when we engage in the same work in which he engaged—the work of resurrection, the work of justice, the work of love.
By giving ourselves to the work of resurrection, we’ll be honoring Paul, we’ll be following Jesus, and we’ll be creating the world of which God dreams.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan ©2019