The Fifth Sunday of Easter for Year B (May 3, 2015)

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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Acts 8:26-40

When it comes to the task of discipleship, we are all basically committed to following Christ. In the words of an old gospel song, “I’ll go where you want me to go, Dear Lord….” (words by Mary Brown, music by Charles Prior. Listen to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir perform the hymn here.)

That task is easier said than done, though; Philip is sent down “a wilderness road.” This, of course, echoes the path of Jesus himself through the wilderness (where the Spirit had to drive him.) Philip had his own doubts when he saw that the place God was sending him was to a chariot occupied by an Ethiopian eunuch. Not your everyday candidate for conversion to Judaism or the Way of Jesus — then, or now! But, the essence of the scene is distilled by two moments:

  1. An angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go…” And he got up and went.
  2. The eunuch asked the poignant question, “What prevents me…?”

Not a thing, evidently.

Psalm 22:25-31

God is the God of all people and all things — past, present, and future. While Hebrew scripture does not have a well-defined sense of resurrection and life after this life, these verses certainly give one hope while Easter is still being celebrated.

“To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him. Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.” (vv. 29-31)

1 John 4:7-21

As my Bubba points out on today’s episode of The Lectionary Lab Live, in these 14 verses of scripture, some form of the word love is mentioned 29 times! You reckon there’s something here for us to notice? Love begins with God, comes to us, and through us, continues throughout the world.

John 15:1-8

We find our life in Christ, as any branch that dwells in the vine (and, by extension, to the ground, the soil, the water, the sun.) Also, the process of pruning — though sometimes painful — is part of the deal.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In June of 1977, in the auditorium at Methodist College in Fayetteville, NC, I and about 20 others were ordained as deacons in the United Methodist Church – in those days a first step toward possible future ordination as Elders.  Bishop Joseph Thomas preached that night and said something I have never forgotten. “Sisters and brothers in Christ, after this night, the Holy Spirit will lead you somewhere you don’t want to go.  If you wanted to go there, the Spirit would be unnecessary.”

I thought of those words when I read today’s Acts’ lesson about Phillip, one of the first seven deacons selected and set apart by the laying on of hands. (Acts 6:1-6) I’m pretty sure that hitch-hiking in the wilderness was not what Phillip and the others had in mind when they accepted the call to serve the Lord.  After all, the need presented to them was food distribution to the widows – nothing whatsoever was said about going on the road, preaching, baptizing or anything like that. But like the Bishop said, “The Holy Spirit will lead you somewhere you don’t want to go,” or at least somewhere you never expected to go, doing things you never expected to be doing.

“Get up and go,” the angel said, and Phillip “got up and went.”  He was told no more than that he should head south to the road between Jerusalem to Gaza, not even what it was he was supposed to do when he got there.  This is a recurring theme in the scriptures; this business of God saying “get up and go,” and people of faith “getting up and going.”  Let’s see, among many others – there are Abram and Sarai, told to leave Ur of the Chaldees and go to “the land that I will show you.”  There’s Jonah, who first “got up and went” the other way, but after that adventure with the fish, the second time God called he came around and got up and went.  And most famously, there’s Saint Paul who, after his experience of the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus was told to “Get up and go” to the street called Straight.

We are, I am, a lot more hesitant than Abram and Sarai, or Phillip, or Saul.  We are, I am, a lot more like Jonah – apt to run in the opposite direction, or at least to ask for specifics of the job and add conditions upon our participation.  “I’m available on Tuesdays.” “I’ll go anywhere – but no, not there, that won’t work for me.”  “I’m not sure I’m suited to working with those people – they push me too far out of my comfort zone.”  And do you know how God generally responds to all that hesitation and condition making?  Pretty much the way our parents responded when we explained to them why we couldn’t make our bed, or do the dishes, or mow the grass.  God stands there and listens, and then says, “That’s nice.  Now, get up and go.”

Truly, it’s a good thing that God does not fully explain things to us before asking us to respond to the call.  If God did, most of us would not say yes.  It would be too frightening.  And the reason it would be too frightening is that we would foolishly assume that God was asking us to do these impossible, over-whelming, out of our comfort zone things using our own reason and strength, our own ability and skill; and nothing could be further from the truth.  God doesn’t tell us what we’ll be doing because the main thing God needs from us is our willingness to be go, trusting that when the ministry need appears, the ability to respond to it will appear as well.

This is what happens with Phillip.  He got up and went to the south, to the road that runs through the wilderness from Jerusalem to Gaza.  And as he stood there, “an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians,” came along in his chariot.  Now, suppose God had said to Phillip, “I want you to go and talk about Jesus with one of the most powerful people in the world.  And by the way; he’s not Jewish, indeed he’s ritually unclean because of his sexuality, and he’s an African.”   How excited would Phillip have been about that?  On the one hand he might have felt overwhelmed and under prepared; on the other hand, he may have been like Paul and Jonah – unwilling to go because he didn’t want to be involved with one of “those people.”

But God didn’t give Phillip that kind of choice.  And he doesn’t give us that kind of choice either.

We are called to go where the Holy Spirit leads us – whether we want to go there or not.  We are called to open our doors, our arms, our hearts, and our minds, to all people – not just the people we happen to like and who happen to like us.  When God calls us to get up and go, the only faithful response is to get up and go.

In his telling of this story, Luke makes good use of questions.  Did you notice that?  When Phillip heard the man reading Isaiah, he asks, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” The Eunuch responds by asking Phillip, “About whom is he talking?”  These are good questions and a good model for us as we talk to others about Jesus. What would happen if – instead of trying to convince other people to see things our way – we simply asked questions and listened to answers and had a conversation with them about faith?

But here’s the question in this text that really matters for us today.  After hearing the gospel, the Ethiopian says to Phillip, “Look, here is water!  What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

In the story, he is saying “I want to be baptized.” After all, Ethiopia is south of Israel – and all Southerners have a habit of asking indirect, backdoor questions?  As when my wife says, “You’re not doing anything are you?”  What she really means is, “Please take out the garbage.”

But I think this question should be taken by us in a more direct manner.  Are we preventing others from being baptized, from coming to faith, from hearing the story of Jesus?  This is the question the early church had to continually ask themselves.  The book of Acts is the story of the first Christians learning to break down traditional boundaries between Jews and Greeks, slave and free, men and women, Romans and conquered peoples, etc. etc.  And the boundaries must continue to fall.  Every time we think we’re finished, every time we think we have finally gone as far as we can go, every time we believe we have opened our arms as wide as we can open them; the voice comes and whispers in our ear one more time, “Get up and go.”

And the question is, will it be said of us, they “got up and went?”

Amen and amen.

The Fourth Sunday of Easter for Year B (April 26, 2015)

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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

(reprinted by permission from The Lectionary Lab Commentary: Stories and Sermons for Year B)

Acts 4:5-12
Cheeky answer, wasn’t it?

Peter is standing — along with his accomplice, John — before the very seat of power in Israel of the first century CE. This is you or I being brought before our particular judicatories (synod, conference, presbytery, deacon body, etc.) and questioned about our ministerial practice. The fact that these men were “all” members of the high-priestly family added a bit more gravitas (if any were needed.)

“By what power are you doing these things? Who, or what, gives you the right to act the way you have been acting?”

It’s not a question one wants to answer lightly. They knew that they could get in real trouble. You or I might very well find our livelihoods on the line if brought up for questioning on a similar matter. (What if your entire pension fund were riding on the words that came next out of your mouth, for instance?)

“None other than Jesus of Nazareth — the one you crucified. God raised him from the dead and his is the only name that has been given by which we may be saved.”

Pretty specific; pretty well-defined. Not afraid to be gently, if firmly, confrontational. It’s an all-or-nothing response, when you think about it. 

Are we, who may have much less on the line, just as willing to proclaim our conviction as to the truth of the gospel today?

Psalm 23
The classic Psalm 23 provides background for the qualities of the “good shepherd.” We do well to have this passage in mind when Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.”

As you re-read Psalm 23 — and do take the time to re-read it, no matter how many times you’ve heard it, read it, or even preached it —  what quality (or qualities) of the good shepherd stand out to you? How have you experienced the presence of the Lord as your shepherd?

1 John 3:16-24
True love does a lot more than wait; it gives, it hopes, it perseveres, it trusts, it supports…and a whole lot more (refresh your memory at 1 Corinthians 13.)

Mainly, as the Elder Apostle writes here, it acts. Love is a very active thing to feel and do. Not just the words, lofty as they may be (love poems are among the highest literary achievements in human history.) It’s all about what you do, baby!

Don’t just tell me that you love me — show me! You don’t have to live in Missouri to subscribe to that kind of wisdom!

John says that we have not gone far enough when we have simply believed  in Jesus…we must also love (in word and deed) one another.

John 10:11-18
If you’re just in it for the paycheck, you probably aren’t too interested in sacrificing yourself for anyone at the place where you work. That’s just not a “normal” way to think, is it?

But Jesus says that living life his way is sort of like a shepherd in the old days — most likely, the shepherd had a literal financial interest in the welfare of the sheep. He was owner or part-owner of the flock, so it was in his best interest to deliver them to market (or to the shearer) in the best possible condition. Healthier sheep equals higher dollars.

But more than that, the shepherd shared a bond with the sheep. He knew them each by name (his own pet names for them;) he knew how they acted, which were prone to act up or skip out, which were prone to mind and follow in the way they were led.

The sheep also knew which was their shepherd; they got used to his (or her) voice. Even when penned with other flocks and other shepherds, only the voice of “their” shepherd would rouse the sheep to follow. The shepherd was sworn to protect the sheep, and — evidently — would put himself at risk in order to fulfill his duty.   

So, Jesus says, I am a lot like that; I know you, you know me, we’re really in this thing together. I have given my life for my sheep. All of them. Even the ones you can’t see in this fold. 

Trust me on this.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

My fourth grade teacher, Miz George, died a few weeks ago. (This was not Miss, for she was married, not MS. for though she was quite liberated, she wasn’t a modern feminist, not Mrs. – just good old-fashioned, general purpose, Southern Miz George.)  She was in her 90s.  Last time I saw her was at my Daddy’s funeral twelve years ago. She came with my second grade teacher, Miz Collins.  They taught the four oldest Chilton children at Redbank Elementary School in Claudville, VA, which is the reason none of us will ever end a sentence in a preposition or say “can,” when we mean “may.”

When I saw Miz Collins and Miz George at the funeral, I was reminded of how well they took care of us, their little flocks of illiterate sheep, of so many years ago.  They did more than teach us the rudiments of grammar and the building blocks of mathematics.  They also taught us to tuck in our shirts and to say “Yes Ma’am” and “No Sir,” and “Please” and “Thank you.”  They taught us to respect ourselves and to respect others.  They kept us safe, they lead us beside the still waters of knowledge; they created a space in which our minds could grow.  They were good shepherds.

That image of those tough, kind, independent, and bossy women as “good shepherds” was helpful to me in thinking about today’s Gospel Lesson, where Jesus says of himself, “I am the good shepherd.” For those of us without any direct experience of sheep and shepherds, this analogy falls a bit flat.  If we’re honest, we’re not exactly sure what being a shepherd actually entails, not would most of us be able to tell a good shepherd from a bad one without a lot of help from someone in the know.

It’s important to know that even Jesus is not directly referring to himself as a keeper of sheep; rather he is tapping into a long standing image used by the Hebrew people to refer to the kings, priests and prophets of Israel.  These people were seen as having been given responsibility by God to take care of the people, God’s flock.  And as many of them failed in this assignment, the Hebrew Scriptures are filled with tales of bad kings and false prophets.

When Jesus calls himself the “Good Shepherd,” he is contrasting himself with all those previous leaders who had been poor and incomplete shepherds, no better than hired hands really.  By contrast, Jesus identifies himself as the good shepherd, the one truly ready to “lay down his life” for the good of the sheep. Of course, that is what Jesus eventually did upon the cross, and it was that act of laying down his life for the sheep, all God’s people; which are, after all, all people from every time and every place – that created the new community, the new flock, that we call the church.  In this new flock, we are all both shepherd and sheep – called of God to care for each other and for the world.

Most of us have seen the Hollywood movie, “The Bridge Over the River Kwai.”  The movie only told part of the story.  Behind the movie is another, more important story.  In his book, “Miracle on the River Kwai,” Ernest Gordon says that Scottish soldiers, forced by their captors to labor on a jungle railroad, had degenerated to a level of barbarity, of animalistic behavior toward each other in a struggle to survive.

One afternoon, a shovel was missing.  The officer in charge became enraged.  He demanded that the missing shovel be produced, or else.  When nobody in the squad budged, the officer took out his gun and threatened to kill them all, there, on the spot.  It was obvious the officer meant what he said.  Then, finally, one man stepped forward.  The officer put away his gun, picked up a shovel, and proceeded to beat the man to death.

When it was over. The survivors picked up the bloody corpse and carried it with them to a second tool check.  This time – no shovel was missing.  There had been a miscount at the first tool check.

The dead man was innocent.  He had voluntarily died to spare the others.  What was it Jesus said, “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep?”

That’s not the end of the story.  The fact that someone had died to save for them worked a profound change on the prisoners.  As one of them said, “we wanted to be worthy of the sacrifice.” Rather than compete with one other in order to live, the prisoners began to treat one another as brothers, looking out for each other and taking care of each other.

When the victorious allies swept in and liberated the prison camp, the Japanese guards were terrified.  They fully expected to die, to be executed on the spot.  Their former prisoners, not little more than skeletons, lined up in front of the guards and began to shout. “No more hate.  No more killing.  What we need now is forgiveness.” The Japanese guards are stunned, and broke down weeping.

(Source: Phillip Yancey “Rumors of Another World”)

Sacrificial death had transformative power.  The death of an anonymous prisoner transformed the POWs from isolated and competing individuals into a community who cared about and for one another.  The sheep became shepherds to one another.

This one man’s sacrificial death also transformed the way the prisoners saw their captors.  When the war was over, they chose to treat their oppressors as lost sheep – not as ravenous wolves.  They saw them as the “sheep not from this flock,” that Jesus spoke of and decided to forgive them and love them.

We are invited today to reflect upon the sacrificial death our good shepherd died for us. We have an opportunity to open ourselves up to the transforming power of the gift of new life, letting our lives be changed by the Risen Christ living in us and in this community.  We are called to continue the work of the good shepherd, caring for one another, loving each other, dying a little for each other, opening doors and tearing down barriers, bringing everyone into the sheepfold, into God’s beloved flock.

Amen and amen.

The Third Sunday of Easter for Year B (April 19, 2015)

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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Acts 3:12-19

Peter sure loved to preach! (Maybe he just liked talking and couldn’t resist a captive audience.) Peter is pretty clear, when the gathered crowd is stunned and amazed at the healing of a lame man, that neither he nor John did this on their own. He immediately gives praise and credit to God — notably, “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” As his ultimate purpose is to point to Jesus, this is a significant effort to tie the life of Jesus to the ongoing work of God through Israel. Peter also works in the prophets, in addition to the patriarchs — you might say no sermonic stone is left unturned! Think for a moment of the ways your knowledge of  Jesus is tied to the actions and words of those who have come before you. Who are the “patriarchs” and “prophets” in your world?

Psalm 4

“You gave me room when I was in distress.” One of my favorite lines from the Psalms. Think of those times in your life when the “weight of the world” has been pressing down on you. Is there any gift more precious than “room to breathe?” God is the God who makes room!

1 John 3:1-7

John tells the Beloved Community of the church some important things about the ways we should “be” in the world — what we should “do” as children of God. (Listen to the Lectionary Lab Live podcast for Delmer’s crusty old joke about “Do-be-do-be-do!”)

Luke 24:36b-48

At some point, we who have heard and read the Easter story dozens (if not scores or hundreds) of times might be tempted to ask, “Geez, Louise! What does the man have to do to convince these disciples that he’s really alive and he’s really real?” After hearing from the disciples from Emmaus, Jesus shows up in the midst of the group and scares…well, the bejeezus…out of everybody! They think he’s a ghost. A few calming words and a piece of broiled fish soon prove that he is, indeed, a very real presence with them. It is, once again, Jesus’ opening of their minds to the words of scripture that finally brings understanding. He also gives them the command, “…you are witnesses of these things.” The idea is that they should tell others what they have seen and heard (that’s what a witness does, isn’t it?)

How important is our own willingness to gain understanding from the study of scripture? And, what will we do with what we know?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I served in the Atlanta area in the early 90s.  While I was there, a popular radio station went through a format change.  For many years a man named Ludlow Porch had a folksy, genial, call-in talk show that sort of reminded you of his name: as you listened you felt as if you were sitting on the front porch, sipping on a glass of sweet tea or lemonade, gossiping with your neighbors about this and that.

The station decided that although Ludlow was very popular with the older, native born southerners, Atlanta was changing and they needed a new style to attract newer, hipper, edgier listeners.  So they got rid of him and brought in a minor league “shock jock,” kind of like Howard Stern.  He was rude, crude and obnoxious.  His daily topics were things like “Should Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses be shot of sight for disturbing the peace?”  He hated the church, he hated preachers.  He suggested to children that they should steal money from the offering plate and that they should sue their parents for forcing them to attend church.  When I moved to Nashville, one of the things I did not miss about Atlanta was hearing about his on-air antics.

Imagine my surprise when a few years later I read in a religious journal this item.  “A radio station “shock jock” who made regular, hateful diatribes against Christians has professed belief in Christ. (The DJ) was converted after leaving the station in a contract dispute and taking a job as car salesman. In an address to a church convention . . . (he) said he was impressed by the quiet witness of a fellow salesman.” Hmm, “quiet witness.” Must have been a Lutheran, don’t you think?

In one way or another, all of our lessons remind us of our call to be “witnesses,” to tell to others what we have seen and heard of the mighty deeds of God acting in Christ.  In Acts we read, “. . . whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.” (verse 15)  In First John, the writer gives his witness, carefully differentiating between what he doesn’t know; “what we will be has not been revealed” and what he does “What we do know is this, when he is revealed, we will be like him . . .”(verse 2) And in the Gospel lesson, Jesus reminds the disciples of why he came, ‘to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, (verse 46) what must be done, “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be preached in his name to all nations  ,” (verse 47) and what their roles is to be, “You are witnesses of these things.” (verse 48.)

Yes, they are witnesses and so are.  And it is okay that most of us are quiet witnesses, like the man who was instrumental in the conversion of the shock jock in Atlanta so many years ago.  About a month ago an old preacher died somewhat quietly in Blue Ridge, Georgia.  His name was Fred Craddock and he was well-known among preachers and a few other folks.  Years ago he wrote a book called “Overhearing the Gospel.” He wrote about how people respond best to indirect and gentle witness, things they can observe and hear and think about on their on time and in their own way.  This is what being quiet witness is about, telling the truth as you know it and nothing more.

Witnessing is the telling of personal experience, what we ourselves have seen and heard and felt. When one is a witness in a court of law, the lawyers and judges generally don’t care about your opinion about what you think might have been the motivation for what happened – no, they simply want to know what you know, what you saw, what you heard.  How many times on Law and Order have we heard a lawyer say, “I object, calls for a conclusion from the witness.”  In witnessing, we don’t have to draw conclusion or make arguments – all we must do is tell the truth as we know it.  In a Christian context, this is not just any personal experience, rather it is the story of our experience with the word of life, the Risen Christ. For us to be a witness requires simply that we be willing to tell the world about our encounters with the Living word of God.  It is up to others to draw their conclusions in God’s own good time.

It was in seminary that I became friends with an African-American preacher named Larry Blackwell.  We lived and had churches in the same small town about 35 miles from the school we both attended and we car-pooled in together most mornings.  It was he who taught me the traditional preacher’s refrain, “Can I get a witness?” used to invite response from the congregation.  That Jesus’ question to us today:

“Can I get a witness?

Can I get somebody to tell my story to the world?”

“Can I get a witness?

Can I get somebody to tell their neighbor about the love of God in Christ?”

“Can I get a witness?

Can I get somebody to live a life of joyful service, loving friend and enemy alike?”

“Can I get a witness?

Can I?”

Amen and amen.

The Second Sunday of Easter for Year B (April 12, 2015)

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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Acts 4:32-35

There have been any number of movements to have us “get back to the early church.” Even the early church was trying to “get back” to the way Jesus did things. Here, the most radical idea is that “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions.” Makes sense, since Jesus owned nothing and lost what little he had to the gambling soldiers at the cross. Working out from that point, the church discovered that — together — they owned just enough to take care of one another. Nobody was too rich, and nobody was too poor.

Not sure how well that flies in our contemporary culture — but, that’s what it says! How will these words challenge you (individually, and all together) in considering what it is that you “own?”

Psalm 133

This is a power-packed three verses! Dwelling together in unity has always been a challenge for God’s people. But when it works, it really cooks! The pouring of oil is a sign of “anointing” for a purpose — in this case, the setting aside of Aaron as high priest among the Hebrew people. Taken in the context of kindred dwelling together, we might well see an illustration of our common call — our anointing — to be bearers of the steadfast love of the Lord in a world filled with discord, disunity, and all around dysfunction!

The dew from Mt. Hermon becomes the source of the headwaters of the Jordan River, which then flows and waters the whole land of Israel. It literally is the source of life. So, apparently, is the sense of God’s dwelling among us — with us — and flowing through us into the lives of others. What does it mean to you to think about being called as a bearer of God’s love and life-giving blessing to others?

1 John 1:1-2:2

John brings it own down to the “getting real” level of life. The story of Jesus is not just a bunch of theological mumbo-jumbo; it’s all about the things we have felt, heard, seen, and experienced. When it’s time to “share your faith,” this passage is a great model! Don’t worry if you don’t know all the “right words.” You know what God has meant to you, and that’s the gospel truth that we have the privilege of passing on.

John 20:19-31

The story of developing faith among the disciples after Easter continues in this week’s gospel text. We saw last week that John, Peter, and Mary Magdalene all had different experiences at the empty tomb. They each had to make up their minds about what to believe, in their own way, space, and time. Now, we get Thomas — the “give me the facts” guy — who can’t quite believe just based on the experiences of others. He has got to know it for himself.

Thomas is not so much a doubter as he is a realist. He’s practical. He doesn’t rush into something that he can’t fully commit to. I kind of admire him, when I stop and think about it. But his “coming to faith” is, in the end, not so much a matter of adding up the facts as it is encountering Christ face-to-face. Are there any ways that we, who will never “see” Jesus like Thomas did, still have an opportunity to encounter Christ for ourselves?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

When you hear the word “church,” what picture comes to your mind? Just close your eyes and think “church?”  What did you see? A large neo-gothic cathedral? A picture perfect white frame building with arched windows and a high steeple? Perhaps a sturdy brick building with a bell tower? Maybe something more modern; with soaring glass walls and sharp angles vaulting toward the sky? Maybe a community gathered around a Word and Sacrament, sitting in folding chairs in a room used for something else most of the time?  Perhaps a stage with people playing drums and guitars and people with closed eyes and upraised arms singing words of praise? What do you see when you hear the word church?

I’d almost be willing to bet none you saw fifteen or twenty scared and lonely people, huddled behind closed and locked doors, whispering among themselves, jumping out of their skins at every noise from the outside. Whatever our image of church is, it usually doesn’t include locked doors and frightened people.

Yet that is the picture John paints of the very first church. First Church, Jerusalem: gathered together on that first Sunday after Jesus’ death, huddled and hiding, trembling and terrified, lonely and loveless. They’re not much of a church; no organ, no pews, no pulpit, no stained glass windows, no joy, no praise, no word, no sacrament. Nothing but a room to meet in and memories to talk about.

“What was it he said at Supper the other night? Something about the bread being his body and the wine his blood? Peter, what did he mean by that?”  “Did you hear what Mary Magdalene and the other women said? They said they went to the tomb this morning and Jesus’ body was missing, the stone was rolled away and the body was missing. And Mary Magdalene said she saw the Lord?”
“Well, sure, did anybody check her breath to see what she’d been drinking? She saw Jesus alive this morning? Right!  And so on.

They talked, they fretted; they worried themselves sick about what it all meant and what the Roman soldiers or the Chief Priests might be up to. And maybe, just maybe, somebody in the room was praying, but it’s not likely.

Doesn’t sound like much of a church does it? Preaching professor Tom Long said they are a picture of the church at its worst, “scarred and scared, disheartened and defensive.” Long wonders what sort of advertisement might this church put in the Saturday paper to attract members?

THE FRIENDLY CHURCH WHERE ALL ARE WELCOME?  Hardly. Locked doors are not a sign of hospitality.

THE CHURCH WITH A WARM HEART AND A BOLD MISSION? Forget it. This is the church of sweaty palms and shaky knees and a firmly bolted front door.

Here is a church that has almost nothing going for it, has practically no claim to being church except . . . . except that when they gathered, the Risen Christ pushed through the locked door and stood among them.

That is what turned that little group of scarred and scared people into the church, the Presence of the Risen Christ in the room. It wasn’t anything they did or didn’t do, it wasn’t anything they said or didn’t say. Church happens when the gathered community pays attention to the presence of the Risen Christ in the room.

And, when that presence is ignored, nothing of any consequence can or does happen. It was the disciples’ awareness of and attention to the presence of the Risen Christ that made the difference then; and it is our awareness of and attention to the Presence of the Risen Christ that makes the difference now.

Jesus comes to us today, Jesus comes to us showing us his love for us by showing us the wounds he has suffered on our behalf. Jesus comes to us offering us peace and the fiery breath of the Holy Spirit. Jesus comes to us, to tell us, I love you and I have great plans for you!

Are we paying attention?

Amen and amen.