Sunday, April 19, 2015

“Are We Pentecostal Enough?”

A Sermon Based Upon Acts 2: 1-13
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Third Sunday of Easter, April 19th, 2015

And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. (Act 2:2 NRS)

“Are you Pentecostal?”   
This is what a student once asked a well-known preacher during a question and answer break.  The preacher wanted to be sure about the question, so he responded, “Do you mean do I belong to the Pentecostal denomination?”  
The student continued, “No, I’m wondering if you are Pentecostal?”  
Still unclear about where this student was coming from, the preacher asked, “Do you mean, am I charismatic?”  
No, the student asked once more, “I just want to know whether or not you are Pentecostal?”  “Are you asking whether or not I speak in tongues?”   
No, the student retorted, “I just want to know whether or not you are Pentecostal?”  
The preacher tried to clarify once and asked: “I’m just not sure what your question is.”
 The student concluded, “Well, you evidently are not Pentecostal!”

Our text today is taken from the story of the birth of the church on the day of Pentecost.  Pentecost was day when ancient Jews celebrated the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai, but now God sends his Spirit to fulfill the law on the very day of that very important celebration.   Without a doubt, according to Luke’s account, God sends his Spirit on Pentecost as a  ‘rush of violent wind’ to shake things up, but what might this mean for us?   Should we want to be Pentecostal?
                                               
THE ABILTY TO SPEAK
For the first disciples of Jesus, Pentecost was even more than a ‘wind’ it was also a ‘fire’ and this fire is represented as ‘divided tongues, as of fire’ that ‘appeared’ among them and
‘rested on them’.  Clearly this was not a destructive physical fire, but it was a spiritual and theological and healing ‘fire’ that ‘filled’ them with ‘the Holy Spirit’ and ‘enabled them to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability’ (Acts 2:4).   I call this a ‘healing fire’ and not a ‘hurting fire’ because this fire is about the ability to share the good news of the gospel in the world.   It was a fire that is about the undoing of the curse of Babel (Gen. 11), to heal the world from its confusion of language and cultures through the saving message of Jesus Christ.

What we need to understand first of all, is that the gospel is not about destroying cultures or languages, but it is about learning to speak them, to appreciate them, to share good news through them.   The way to overcome cultural confusion always begins with learning or speaking the language of the other person, so that we can speak to each other, not past each other.  This is what Pentecost is, and should be about.   It is about language learning.  It is about cultural appreciation.  It is about being filled with the Spirit that enables you to have the ability to speak.  
This is in no way to diminish the ‘miracle’ of Pentecost, but it is to understand precisely what this miracle of tongues was about.   It was not simply a form of ‘tongue speaking’ for the sake of some strange gift of emotional ‘glossolalia’.   While ‘glossolalia’ is a gift of the Spirit, it is a gift that has the purpose of pointing the people of God to what we are supposed to be about---sharing good news with many cultures of the world.

When Teresa and I were commissioned as Missionaries back in 1990, the most moving part of the service was not as we pledged ourselves to mission.   We had already done that privately, long before.   For me, at least, the most moving part of the service was watching the parade of flags from every nation as they entered the sanctuary reminding us that the good news we have to share is a message of love that is to be spoken in every language and to every culture.  It is the love for people that motivated us as God’s Spirit moved within us.

Pentecost is about the church gaining the ‘ability’ to speak and witness to God’s love in a way that others understand. While the original day of Pentecost was an unrepeatable miracle that signifies what the church is to be about, we should not say that the miracle is over.   An even greater miracle happens every time we overcome differences in language and culture to share the gospel of Jesus Christ.

While Teresa and I were learning German, we went out ‘barefooting’ where we would take our new language skills out of the classroom and practice them.  Once I walked up to a German and asked him for directions to get so a certain part of town.  The man spoke German so quickly I didn’t understand a word he said, so I asked him, to please speak more slowly.  By then he picked up my American accent and he stopped speaking German and changed to English.  But unfortunately, English was also a challenge for him.   I stopped him with another suggestion.  “If you would speak your German as slowly as you are speaking my English, then I believe that I would be able to understand what you are saying.   At that moment, I realized that we both wanted to practice our language skills for the other, and that was the good thing that was taking place between us.

Everybody wants you to try to speak their language, and most every culture is happy when you try to speak and you try to understand.   Language is always the first barrier to sharing the gospel with the world.  It is also the barrier that we face, even when we speak the same language.  Even when we speak the same words, we can live in very different cultures and only God’s spirit can help us overcome barriers like this.

THE WILL TO SPEAK
But do we want to?   Do we want to overcome the differences of understanding, in languages, and in culture that we all experience still today?   Do we want to be Pentecostal in a way that we seek to try to understand what the other is saying or try to speak in a way that someone else can understand what we are trying to say?       

One of the most powerful stories of the clashing of cultures came out the conflict of the Bosnian and Serbia wars.   What made this war so tragic is not only the terrible slaughtering of innocent people, but it was also that most all of these people had lived separate lives in the same geographical areas, but did not really want to understand each other.   They preferred holding grudges, getting even, and getting rid of the other, rather than finding connections, learning to talk, and finding a way to make peace.  

It was during that terrible conflict, that a film maker made a powerful movie entitled “No Man’s Land” which depicted what could happen if both a Bosnian and a Serb, found themselves accidently strapped to the same bomb.   That bomb would indeed kill both of them, if either of them tried to let go, unless they found a way to help each other remove the bomb so that both of them would live.   In other words, they could not live, unless both of them lived.  They had to make peace to stay alive, because if they didn’t, both of them would die.

This movie was not a true story, but it was the truth about what had to happen, if both of their very different cultures would survive the conflict.  If they wanted to live, they both had to change their will to kill into a will for them to both live in peace with each other.   According to the film maker, this was the decision both cultures had to make.  They had to want to live together or they had to die together, but they could not have it any other way.

However you want to interpret Pentecost, you must come to grips that something like this is what God is still telling the church and the world through this miracle.   We cannot live with each other unless we are willing to talk to each other, and the only way we can talk to each other is to be willing to learn how to speak a language the other person can hear and understand.  

Sharing the gospel of Jesus is as much about our willingness to speak to each other as it is about what we say.  If you look in this passage, you will not find Luke telling us anything about what those first Spirit-filled disciples spoke about until the end.   We are told that they ‘began to speak in other languages’ (2: 4) and we are told that other languages could ‘hear’ in their own language (2.8), but we are not told exactly what was being said until the very end, when Luke has people saying, ‘we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power’ (Acts. 4.11).  Isn’t it rather incredible that the miracle of Pentecost was just as much about ‘them speaking in our own language’ (2.11) as it was about the message they were speaking?  

The heart of this miracle may be in the very reason why some ‘sneered’ and accused these ‘spirit filled disciples’ of being drunk (2.13).   I don’t think that speaking another language is all of the surprise that overwhelmed those strangers who were probably Jews who had come from other lands to celebrate Pentecost.  What I think was the really big surprise to them was that these disciples wanted to speak their language.  I’m thinking this because, when a person is drunk, you normally don’t understand them.  You don’t understand them, unless them unless the alcohol has loosened their tongue to do some things people don’t normally do or say some things people won’t normally say.   Could this not have been the real surprise at the heart of Pentecost?  It is not just that people are speaking in other languages, nor that people are hearing in other languages, but right in the middle of this miracle is the strange fact that some people had their tongues loosened to share what needed to be said?   But it was not wine that has loosened their tongues, Peter goes on to say, for it is indeed, too early for that (2.13).  It is something entirely different.

SOMETHING WORTH SAYING
What did loosen the tongues of those first disciples?  What does this mean?” is the question people were all asking (2.13).   This is also the question Luke wants us to ask so that we can hear Peter’s answer which comes next.

What Peter tells the confused and perplexed people is what is happening at Pentecost is something that God has been planning for a long time.   He says this goes all the way back to the dreams and visions of the prophets, like Joel who promised that ‘in the last days, God will pour out (his) Spirit upon all flesh…’ (Acts 2.17, Joel 2.28).   While many had read these words as words of judgment and terror, Peter now interprets these prophecies to be words of hope and promise.  This is the “Lord’s great and glorious day”, he says, ‘when everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved’ (Acts 2.21).

More than anything else, the miracle of Pentecost is the miracle of having something worth saying to the whole world.  Pentecost is still a ‘miracle’ of being able to say it, and it also a greater ‘miracle’ of wanting to say it.  But still, the greatest miracle of Pentecost is that we can say it at all---that we, as God’s people, here and now, not just then and there, still have something to say that is worth saying to everyone and anyone who is willing to hear. 

What do we have to say that the whole world needs to and is able to hear, even in their culture, their language, and maybe even in their religion?     While Jesus was a Jew and is supposed to be the Lord of all Christians, the saving message of Jesus is still bigger than Judaism or Christianity.  To be able to share the good news of Jesus with another culture or in another language is to communicate why and how Jesus can and does save us all, but how do we communicate it?   How can we be “Pentecostal” and have something to say so the spirit communicate God’s saving message through us?  How do still invite strangers to this salvation that calls ‘on the name of the Lord’ who is also our Lord?

Is this not the best answer?   The answer we need to enable us to speak and enables others to hear what we are saying is right here in the text and will also show up in what we are speaking.   Unless we live what this means and mean what it says, who could understand what we are trying to say?  Only when we call upon Jesus as our “Lord” will people understand, both in our language and also in their language, Jesus is, indeed, the “Lord” who will save.   This is my definition of what it means to be “Pentecostal.”   When the church lives what is says it can still speak about Jesus in a way that it can be understood—that’s Pentecost.   When this happens, it is miracle enough to get anybody saved and if this happens, that is always enough.  Amen.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

“Jesus Has Left the Building”

A Sermon Based Upon Acts 1: 6-14
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Second Sunday of Easter, April 12th, 2015

They said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven." (Act 1:11 NRS)        
When I worked with young mission volunteers in Germany, I would always try to reward them by taking them to the Restaurant of their choice in Berlin.   Even though I would suggest a cultural experience at a German Restaurant, they would, without exception, choose “The Hard Rock CafĂ©” in Berlin. 

I enjoyed going there too to have some American food.  What used to grab my attention in this particular Restaurant was not the food, but stained-glass window that was the centerpiece of the entire Restaurant.   This stained-glass window did not depict any traditional religious image, but it portrayed a larger-than-life image of Elvis Presley.  Presley was at height of his popularity when he was drafted by the US Army to spend two years stationed in Berlin. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elvis_Presley%27s_Army_career).

Elvis was so popular in those days, that after his concerts, fans would be waiting in the hallways for hours (and sometimes days) in hopes of getting an encore of his music or having a  single glimpse of him when he left.   In order to encourage those fans to go home, managers would come out to the star-gazing crowd and inform them, “Elvis has left the building”.  Those words became so legendary they became the title of a movie and today are often used to inform that a performer is permanently off stage. (http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/elvis-has-left-the-building.html).

In today’s Scripture, we could also say that “Jesus has left the building.”  Our text tells us that when Jesus ascended into heaven his disciples were not only ‘watching’ (1.9) but they were   ‘gazing toward heaven’ (1.10).    They appear to be “star-struck” as Jesus left so that angels had to help them cope (1.11). 

LORD OVER ALL
In his book, ON A WILD AND WINDY MOUNTAIN, Will Willimon tells of being in New Haven, Connecticut as a student at Yale in 1970 during the famous Black Panther Trial. Those of you who remember that turbulent era recall the strife and discord that tormented our society.

During the week that the crisis at New Haven reached its peak, Willimon attended a choral mass at a nearby Catholic Parish. A boy's choir was singing, "Deus Ascendit, "God Has Gone Up."   Willimon mused, "Just as I thought.  God Has Gone Up. And isn't that typical? Gone up, up away from New Haven and the angry shouts of the mob and the gunfire of the cops and the revolutionaries."   In other words, Willimon was saying to himself, "God has abandoned us."

As he continued to listen, however, the idea struck him that the choir did not sing, "Deus Abscondit." The boys were shouting "Deus Ascendit." God has gone up. "God has begun in heaven what is yet to be accomplished on earth.  Christ is gone, not to forsake us, but to continue to redeem us. He has gone to take charge, to rule, to put all things under his feet." Deus Ascendit. God has ascended.

While it is easy for modern minds to miss what is going on here, Luke’s point is not that Jesus was blasting off into galactic space, but that Jesus is ascending to take his rightful place of power at the father’s right hand.   The ascending Jesus is a powerful and potent theological picture of God’s vindication and validation of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.   In all that Jesus endured and suffered, he has earned the right to be ‘highly exalted with a name above every other name’. (Phil 2.9).

In one of the picturesque mountaintop villages Austrian Alps, a small stone chapel sets on an elevated ridge. The chapel is only 20 by 35 feet, but inside the walls are decorated with old, faded frescos from another time and another culture.   One of the frescos depicts Jesus as Christ the King over all the earth.   Imagine - someone came to the top of that mountain some 1,200 years ago to paint their conviction that Jesus is the ascended one who is Lord of all.   They did it then, but Luke did it first.

PRAYER AMONG ALL
Whatever it has meant to sing, preach, and witness to the world that Jesus is Lord  over not just Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and also ‘to the ends of the earth’,  the question we need to still answer is what does this mean for us today?   What does it mean not only to announce that Jesus has come and gone, but what does it mean to say he ascended to be Lord over all, because we still live in a world that lives and believes to the contrary?  

We can only answer what it means to proclaim Christ as Lord  over all in what we observe  happening after Jesus ‘left the building’ and  we find what those 120 disciples (Acts 1.15), including women, were doing next (1.14).   Luke says that after Jesus left, they came together to do exactly what Jesus asked them to do.  They did ‘not leave Jerusalem’ but they ‘waited’ there for ‘the promise of the Father ‘(Acts 1.4).    It is what they were doing, while they were waiting, that should most impress us.  Luke says ‘all these constantly devoted themselves to prayer together ‘ (Acts. 1.14).   This word ‘together’ is the event we must not overlook.   The King James and other translations follow the original more closely saying, ‘these all continue with one accord in prayer’.    What they were doing and who were becoming ‘together’ was the reason Jesus came to save.   In Jesus absence, the people of God are becoming the very kind of people God wills the whole world to be---one people together devoting themselves in common prayers and a united purpose.

Rebecca Manley Pippert, tells of a brilliant young college student named Bill who became a Christian.  He was a part of a generation who resisted dressing in conventional middle-class garb. He never wore shoes in rain, snow or sleet.  When he visited the local campus church he came dressed in his usual manner a tee shirt, jeans, and, of course, no shoes.  Since the church was packed, Bill walked down the aisle searching for a seat.  Not finding a better place to sit, he sat down on the carpet in front of the first pew. You can imagine the tension in this very traditional church when this young man, dressed in blue jeans, a tee shirt and no shoes, sat on the carpet right in front of the altar.

In the midst of that mounting tension, from the back of the church an elderly man began walking the aisle toward Bill. People looked at each other. They were certain that the gentlemen was going to ask the young fellow to leave the service. When the older man came to where Bill sat he stopped, slowly lowered himself to the floor, and the two of them worshiped together. There was not a dry eye in the church except perhaps for the two at the front  (Out of the Salt Shaker and Into the World,  Rebecca Manley Pippert,  IVP Press, 1979).

That is what church ought to be and how God wants us all come together.  It is not that we all have to look alike nor think alike, but it is that know we are all in this together.  This is the kind of love and acceptance that ought to exist in every congregation and it is the kind of unifying prayer we have to take to the world.   When we believe that Jesus is Lord, we don’t have to ‘lord over each other’ (Mk 10:42-43),  as Jesus said,  but there should be a bond, a cord, that binds us to one another that is bigger than our differences and this is what should make us ready to be church for the world.

But again, how and where do we find this kind of unity and oneness, in a world that is increasingly more complicated and more diverse?   People don’t even believe in Jesus the same way, let alone the fact that we live in the world where there are many religions, many beliefs, and more and more differences all the time.   Besides, we can even imagine that  “hippie” at that college church, probably won’t even walk into a church today, let alone, walk down front?   Can we even imagine a unity, a prayer, or a faith that could bring us together, not pull us apart?  

LIFE FOR ALL
What holds this entire passage together for me is not simply this incredible picture of the ascending Jesus, as beautiful as it is, nor is it also the people who wonderfully came together in prayer, as great as that is.   What holds this entire passage together is the purpose and the mission that brought the Lord to us in the first place.  

Notice that when the disciples came asking Jesus “when the kingdom would finally be restored” (1.6), Jesus responds that they, nor we, can know the ‘times’.   But what we can know is that we can be “witnesses….”  (1.8) to God’s powerful, redeeming presence in our world.   While we’d all like to have the answers to all our questions about how or when a better world might come, it is much better, that we decide to be part of the answer, than have all the answers.   It is also far better that we become ‘witnesses’ to the truth that brings us together in prayers of hope, rather than pull us apart in fear and hate.

Do you notice that Jesus did not say to his disciple, ‘you can be my witnesses’, nor did he say, “you may be might witnesses”,  but Jesus said, “you shall be my witnesses!   Jesus also did not say that ‘you shall be my witness’ only where you live, but he said, ‘you shall be my witnesses….to the ends of the earth’!   By giving us this command, Jesus is not simply becoming Lord of hope for us, but he is becoming the Lord of hope through us.   This may be the most important message of all!   Is this not why he is leaving?  Jesus leaves the world so he can return to the world through the spiritual power that is “received” by you and me.  When we are his witnesses,  we can , should, and will do ‘greater works’,  through his Spirit, than he ever did in his own flesh (Jn. 14:12).  Can you believe this?

Recently I’ve been reading a book about ‘The Threat of Islam” in our world.  Interestingly, the book I’ve been reading was written by an Islamic expert before September, 11, 2001.    One of the most powerful theme that keeps surfacing is that Islam is a religious movement built on the back of the failures, shortcomings, neglect and limits of both Judaism and Christianity, as well as, the West.   This was not only part of the reason Islam developed, but it also the reason that radical Islam continues to grow in the world.  While there are no excuses for the violence and crimes of radical Islam, part of the reason Islam has become radicalized as a religion is because of the failures of West and also the failures of Christians to be the ‘witnesses’ we were commissioned to be  to the ends of the earth’.

When Christianity is a faith just for me, or just for us, and not for them, it can do more harm than good.  When the people of God fail to take seriously Christ’s command to be his ‘witnesses…to the ends of the earth,’ these “ends of the earth” can come back to haunt us.  The message of Christ’s love, good will, hope and salvation is a message for everyone or it is a message for no one.   And this is not a message of God’s salvation in Jesus we can or should force upon the world.  Jesus did not say go and ‘win the world’, but he called us to be ‘witnesses’ and allow God’s Spirit to do the convincing, converting and the winning.

Today we live in the ‘significant pause’ (Karl Barth) between God’s mighty acts on Easter and the coming final restoration of God’s kingdom.   This interim time is the time for witness, for preaching, for sharing and for going into all the world with good news (Matt 24: 14).   This is also the time to wait, to pray, to receive God’s Spirit, and to work and witness to what God has done in us.  Yes, Jesus has left the building and the reason he has left the building is so that each one of us will be ‘witnesses’ of God’s love.  Does Jesus you have a witness in you?  Amen. 

Sunday, April 5, 2015

“HEARING EASTER”

A Sermon Based Upon  John 20: 1-18
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Easter Sunday,  April 5th,  2015

Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni!"
(which means Teacher).  (Joh 20:16 NRS)

If you are a Christian, or even if you’re any kind of hopeful person,  Easter is a day you certainly don’t want to miss.  “If Christ is not raised,” the apostle Paul wrote, “your faith has been in vain” and we are the most pitiful people  (1 Cor. 15: 14-19).  He continues: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, becoming the first fruits of those who have died…” (v. 20).

Easter is the foundation of the Christian faith.   We don’t just have faith in Jesus Christ as a great religious teacher, but we have faith in Jesus Christ as the Lord of Life who is triumphant over death and the grave.   To be a Christian you must find a way to agree with Paul that ‘in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead….’

But what are the ‘facts’ of Easter?   We have four gospels with four differing approaches, not one.   These stories have the same ‘fact’ in common, but they describe it from different angles and different perspectives.   For some people this is troubling, because it looks like contradicting details.   For others, these opposing particulars point to truth are not manufactured or manipulated by human heads or hands.   If Easter is a truth, based on the eyewitness testimony of different people who see things differently, then there should be differences, as there are.  

The resurrection of Jesus happened beyond any human envisioning or explanation.   It is important for us to realize that nowhere in any gospel story does anyone watch the resurrection happen.   What we do find in each of the gospel stories is a description of how Jesus’ own disciples struggled to come to grips with what Easter meant.   If something was happening that had never happened before there should be struggle to come to grips with it.  After we come to believe in the ‘fact’ of Easter, we still have wrestle with what it should mean for each of us in our own living, our own dying, and in our own hope of eternal life. 

SLOW IN GETTING THERE
No gospel brings us any closer to the heart of what Easter means than John’s.  Part of this may be because John has an advantage over all the other gospel writers.  He writes last, but he is certainly not least.   

John’s gospel is the highest theologically, is the most socially personal, and is the deepest expression of the meaning and the message of Jesus.   John starts on the grandest note,  “In the beginning was the Word…”  and then goes on to tell us how Jesus is the very ‘Word that became flesh and dwelt among us…”    John is also the one who gives us the great “I Am” sayings of Jesus; “I am the Bread…  I am the Living Water…  I am the True Vine…  I am the Good Shepherd, and I am the Resurrection and the Life.”   John is the gospel who gives us the great verse of John 3:16, which says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him, shall not perish but have everlasting life.”     When you get to the conclusion of John’s gospel, he reminds us that ‘world itself could not contain the books that could be written’ (21.25).   No other gospel begins or ends with any grander claims.
                                                                       
All this grander and glory built into this gospel makes John’s approach to Easter rather surprising.  John does not begin with an Earthquake rolling the stone away as in Matthew (28.2).   He does not have a bunch of women fleeing the tomb in terror or amazement like Mark (16.8).   Neither does John have Luke’s two men in dazzling white asking, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” (24.5).    No, John’s gospel starts out slow and messy.   You could say that it starts like an old, old car, with a great big engine that’s very difficult to get cranked and will take a while to get in gear even if it does.  But if it does ever get cranked up, watch out!   It will be different than anything else out there on the road.

I recall once, as a youngster, going with my mechanically gifted uncle Ray to try to start an old car that had been setting in the woods for many years.   I believe it was a ‘49 Ford.   After putting in fresh gas and a new battery, my uncle got into the old musty and rusty car and tried turning it over.  Nothing happened.  Then, he lifted the hood, took off the air breather, and started spraying ether into the carburetor.   Still, nothing happened.   He turned and turned the key and sprayed more ether without success.  “It’s not going to start!”  I said.  

John’s beginning to Easter doesn’t seem to crank up easily either.   Although the diethyl ether has already been sprayed into the carburetor, we don’t see any hard evidence to the contrary of defeat, death or destruction.   Mary is making all kinds of wrong assumptions that appear as the right assumptions---the ones we might also make.   Notice how Mary ‘came to the tomb’ but she never actually looks in.  Then she runs away with the wrong conclusion: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him”  (20.2).  A new day was dawning, but Mary gets it wrong.

Could we do any better?   What would you do if you found the grave of your loved one disturbed or opened and the body missing?   This is exactly what happened back in 1978, when grave robbers robbed the grave of the late silent comedian Charlie Chaplin.  Chaplin’s 4th wife had him buried in Switzerland because he could not get a visa back to the United States.  Chaplain had been a communist sympathizer during the height of the cold war, so our government would not let him come home.   He died in Europe.  But not long after he died his grave was robbed and the body went missing.   The culprits proved to be two eastern Europeans who had stolen the body in hope of getting rich off a ransom.   But they were finally caught and arrested and the body was recovered in grave not far from the first one.

Mary’s Easter begins with this kind of fear, but it doesn’t stop here.  The next wrong assumption is made when she returns to the tomb as second time.   We are told that she is standing outside the tomb weeping when she decides to have a look for herself.   But when she looks in, she doesn’t see the burial wrappings Peter and the other disciple saw, but she sees two angels sitting on the top of the burial slab.   They are just sitting there like the two angelic cherubs setting on the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant (Ex. 25.18), but Mary doesn’t get that either.   God’s mercy is being revealed, but she can’t see through her tears.   When the angels ask “Why” she is still weeping, she answers again, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him” (20:13).   John has us turning the same dead engine over again, but nothing is happening.  Easter just doesn’t want to get cranked.

Finally, the risen Jesus shows up.   Thinking again of that rusty, musty old ’49 Ford,  by raising Jesus God has sprayed  the dead engine with a combustible power, but Mary still doesn’t see it?  She mistakes Jesus for the gardener, not at all realizing that the curse of Eden’s first garden is being overruled and overturned.   When Jesus again asks, why she is weeping, he adds a hint, a clue, or an insinuation: “Whom are you looking for?”  Still sounding like that old car turning over and over again, without recognizing him, she now asks: “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”   Now Mary’s getting in real deep, over her own head.  It’s getting a bit ridiculous.  She couldn’t ‘take him away’ (20:15) even if she found him.   The Easter engine still won’t crank.

WHAT WE CAN’T SEE COMING 
Commenting on this passage, the great reformer of the 16th century, John Calvin wrote: ‘it is might be thought strange that John does not produce a more competent witness… for he begins with a woman…

While I don’t necessarily like how Calvin puts it, he does have a point.  John tells the story of Easter from the perspective of a close companion who can’t be consoled, no matter what new things have happened.   She doesn’t want to look straight into the grave.   She doesn’t see the meaning of the angels.  She can’t recognize the risen Jesus, even when he is standing right beside of her.   Mary doesn’t see the Easter that is coming and she keeps cranking, and cranking, and cranking this same old dead engine without success.  

No other gospel tries to start Easter exactly this way.   Why does John have us looking at Easter through the lens of this grieving Mary who can’t be convinced or consoled?   It may not be a coincidence that John’s gospel is the last gospel, written after most eyewitnesses are dead and gone.   The truth now must come not through the eyewitness, but it must come through the Spirit (Jn 3.33-36; 4:23; 16: 13).  It may also not be a coincidence that the early church, who along with Paul, thought that Easter would bring a new reality, realizes that even after Easter,  the world it’s not that different.  Troubles still come.  Kingdoms still rise and fall.  And people, even loved ones and believers still die (11.21).   It may not be a coincidence that from now on, the people who believe Jesus, must find the blessing even when they don’t see and they don’t have anything or anyone to give them proof (Jn. 20. 29).  Now, after the event of Easter has long come and gone, it’s not getting easier, but it’s getting harder, and harder to get this message through the grief, the loss, and the darkness of death that still hasn’t gone away.   Instead of resurrection, Easter seems to be more like a missing body report.  Easter seems to be more questions than answers.  Even Jesus, in the midst of our own grief is more like a stranger who doesn’t appear to understand why it is that we still cry.

Why does John see Easter through such a grinding, sputtering, stammering mess?   Perhaps this is how we too might experience Easter.    Perhaps we too will go through the same negative assumptions, the same unnerving confusions, or have the same nagging resistance to having faith when sadness or sickness looms or when loved ones are lost.  When darkness returns,  even this great big story of Easter just won’t  easily crank up any hope.  

A college acquaintance of mine, Bob Setzer, is pastor of a prominent church in Winston-Salem.   In a book on John’s gospel, he wrote about Mary’s difficulty in getting to the risen Jesus.   In speaking about Mary, he gives his own personal testimony, saying that he also once lost Jesus out of his life.  It happened in college, when he was taught like I was, that the Bible is as much a human book, as it is divine.   Because we were made to read, not just the affirmations and confessions of faith, but also the learn the critiques and skepticisms, he said he came to wonder whether or not the empty tomb was just an illusion, a myth, or a projection of great humans fears of death or perhaps nothing more than a strange hope for what might lie beyond the grave?   As he struggled with all the new ideas (I was a slower learner than him), the Jesus he once had at the center of his life---the Jesus of his childhood----was slowing disappearing as it was being dismantled underneath the load of all those new questions.  His life, he says, became a cry of anguish like Mary’s saying to his own soul,  “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they have laid him!”   (Encounters with the Living Christ,  Robert B. Setzer Jr., Judson Press,  1999, p. 148).
               
Have you ever lost Jesus under the load of life and wondered whether or not all this talk of resurrection is more than, as his first disciples put it,  an idle tale’ (Luke 24.11)?  This is how Easter can look, for any or all of us, when we have must see it through our own losses and tears.   Grief and death are not easy assumptions to overcome.    How can we see what we can’t see coming?   How can we get the Easter engine of hope up and running when we turn and turn the key, but it just won’t crank?

YOU’LL KNOW WHEN YOU HEAR HIM
There is only one way, says John.   There is only one way to find Easter in the midst of our own confusions, our own assumptions and our own struggles with grief.    Like Mary, we will not know the living truth of Easter, until we hear the living Christ speak our own name.  Only when she heard Jesus called her by name,  saying “Mary,”  did the light came on.   Only when she heard her name, did that old Easter engine finally get cranked.    When my uncle cranked that ’49 Ford one last time, it was like a ‘Boom!’ and with a blast of smoke,  the old car started to run.   It was then that I almost called out a few names too, but I can’t repeat them here.  Only after Mary heard the ‘boom!’ of her own name being spoken, by the very same Lord that she had loved, was she able to run back to the others and declare, “I have seen the Lord!”
                                                                                                                                                         
Earlier, in John’s gospel,  Jesus told his disciples that someday,  “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who will hear will live” (John 5.5.25).   No one will fully know all that Easter means until we too, hear the voice of Jesus awaken us from our own grave of death (5.28-29).   But Jesus doesn’t just say the hour is coming, he also says that the day is already here (5.25).   We can hear Jesus now.   We can hear our name called now.    We can already hear the “boom!”  

I love the genius of the commercial of the local lawyer, Timothy Welborn, who advertises that he can help you with your worker’s compensation or disability claims.    He doesn’t come right out and tell you that you need him, but he more subtlety and perhaps, even more authoritatively declares,  You’ll know when you need us!”   

Just like you’ll know when you need a doctor, or you’ll know when you need a plumber, or you’ll know when you need a lawyer, you’ll also know you need to hear the voice of Jesus.   One day we will all hear his voice, because only his voice can awaken the dead .   But if you are willing to listen, you will hear him now.    This is what John wants his church to know.  You can hear him now, because you know you need him, and when life has your number, or as they say,  ‘when your number is up’,  his voice will not come as a surprise, but his voice will be the one that can awaken you from all your own assumptions and calls you to back to faith and life.

You’ll know its Easter when you recognize his voice.  Can you hear the voice of the crucified, but now living Christ who also calls you by name?   You need no other argument, or no other plea, as the song says.  You just need to listen and hear the voice of one who died and who lives and calls you by name.   You only get to Easter, when you hear and recognize his voice.   Amen!