Ascension of Christ - Ed de Guzman.jpg

Easter: New Life Can Be Yours, Now!

Easter Sunday • April 21, 2019
Scripture Lessons: John 20:1-18
(adapted from the The Message)
Rev. Jeff Wells

Happy Resurrection Day! Wait – is this Fake news…or the greatest story ever told? You know there are plenty of people who think the resurrection is fake news. But for us, this is a day to celebrate. A day when we rejoice that Christ is risen. A day when we remember that death does not have the last word. Christ is risen – thanks be to God!

It would surprise some people to hear a progressive, pro-science pastor say that he believes in the resurrection. But the way I look at it, even if you want to claim that this whole empty tomb story was just fake news, you can’t escape the fact that something extraordinary happened that morning. No matter what you believe about what Mary Magdalene and the other disciples experienced, God was powerfully present and at work among them. Whether these were physical manifestations or spiritual visions, something mysterious, powerful, and undeniable happened to them.

After the crucifixion – Friday and Saturday – Jesus’ most committed followers were depressed, defeated, ashamed, and hiding in fear for their lives. Surely, those emotions are very familiar to us. I think of the millions of refugees living in camps, tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants in detention centers, and thousands of people pulled over  for “driving while black” and other racist outrages repeated every day. Even those of us living relatively privileged lives go to sleep worrying about what the future will bring.

Right now, we are living through a kind of death in our denomination. At the Special General Conference of the United Methodist Church in February, a conservative majority of delegates voted to double-down on anti-LGBTQI discrimination and severe punishments for breaking the rules. Many clergy, lay persons, and whole congregations I know have felt emotions similar to the disciples on Good Friday and Holy Saturday – they have felt depressed, defeated, ashamed, and fearful. All of us returning from the General Conference felt at least spit upon, scourged, scorned, and rejected.

Sometimes, we need to experience death before new life can arise. Last May, in Northeast Pennsylvania where Diane and I have a house, large areas for miles around of us were devastated by a tremendous storm with 110 mile an hour winds that left homes damaged, entire neighborhoods devastated, and large swaths of forest in which most of the tree had been snapped off in the middle. We and so many of our neighbors were depressed and discouraged in aftermath of that storm – thinking we would never be able to rebuild and our the beautiful forests that surrounded us would never be the same in our lifetimes. Yet, now, less than a year later, we can already see the evidence that that death has made room for new growth of saplings, daffodils, and hope for new and beautiful life.

This pattern of death and resurrection gets played out in very real and practical ways in our own daily existence as individuals and as a community of faith. In a way not unlike the storm in May, the United Methodist Church as we have known it is withering and dying. It had grown rigid, inflexible, and had drifted away from Jesus’ message of radical, inclusive love. So it is snapping in the storm that was created over decades by its unjust policies and practices. Yet, now we can see resurrection on the horizon. Already, we can see new life beginning to arise. Expressions of love and hospitality are blossoming in unexpected ways and places. I am, and we as a church, are committed to working toward whatever these new fully inclusive expressions of God’s love and justice might bring – toward wherever the Spirit of Jesus is leading us.

Before long, after coming back from the General Conference, some of us felt strangely hopeful – as if we had been freed to live into whatever might be resurrected out of this death. We were able to feel hope because we remembered that, in the days after they had visions of Jesus risen, his disciples suddenly felt very differently. Their individual and collective experiences of the resurrected Christ transformed them into a committed community. They came out of hiding and told others what they had seen. They risked their own skins to deliver, far and wide, the radical message of God’s love and justice, incarnate in Jesus. They had witnessed what God was capable of and had experienced the ways God had transformed their lives through knowing Jesus. Now they responded to God’s clarion call to lead this new movement. I know many of you here today have had similar experiences. Because you have come to know Christ, you have been able to escape addictions and to leave unhealthy relationships. You have discovered gifts within yourself and found ways to use them to serve others. You have taken on responsibilities of leadership when you found confidence and abilities you did not know you had. You have felt God transforming your own lives.

We can’t separate our understanding of the resurrection from Jesus’ life, his teaching, and the way he died. Jesus publicly took the side of the poor, abused, and oppressed, the outcast, untouchables, and unclean. He demonstrated God’s preferential love for the last and the least. He challenged the religious and political elites and became such a threat to the social order that they felt compelled to kill him. He broke the rules and took risks constantly. Jesus taught that we can never overcome evil with evil – only with good. In the end, love will triumph and it is the only tool we have that will work. It is God’s tool and Jesus modeled it for us through his own self-giving love. As he told his disciples just before he was arrested, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:12-13).

In the things Jesus taught, the practices he modeled, the ways he lived and died, he showed that the whole purpose of our lives really comes down to love. He said our most basic need is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus worked to draw us into solidarity with the whole of suffering humanity.

All of this is what made me love Jesus so much when I finally got to really know him. In 1999, when I first made my way back to a church, I went on a mission trip to Puerto Rico. A church there in the mountains south of Arecibo had been badly damaged in a recent hurricane and our team was there to help replace the roof and rebuild the bell tower. Since I had carpentry skills, I was the main guy up on top of the tower. We had to carefully lower the bell to the ground and remove the damaged parts of the wall. Then we constructed a new frame on top of the tower to protect the bell. The hardest part was getting that very heavy bell back up from the ground. We struggled mightily. It was like a tug of war, with a line of people on one side of the tower and the bell on the other. We repeatedly go it up to the top of the tower, but could not get it to up and over the edge. It took hours for us to figure it out. Finally, as it began to get dark, we succeeded in heaving it over and setting the bell in place. A few people suffered pulled muscles in the process. But we helped to resurrect that little church. And that new bell tower and its ringing sound became a sign of renewed hope for that congregation and for the whole community. I encountered Jesus in the people of that church in Puerto Rico and in the community of our team from New York as we all worked, sweated, sang, and laughed together. The whole experience made me want to commit my life to following this Jesus and I never turned back. My experience of Jesus, somehow alive in this Christian community and others, has repeatedly convinced me that I am doing the right thing with my life. I thank God every day for the opportunity to participate in the resurrected life of Christ through the Church of the Village. We are a community fiercely commitment to making new and abundant life available to every human person, without exclusion or exception.

In Jesus, God was doing a new thing. Jesus gave himself completely to the desires of God for his life and for all of humanity. In all that Jesus did, he strove to lead us into a new day, a new covenant with God, and a new way of life. Therefore, what we celebrate today is not just the resurrection of one man, but the resurrection of the whole of humanity. Resurrection is not a single historical event, but the origin of a whole new creation. Jesus inspires people in all times and places to join him in a new way of being human. The really good news is that you don’t have to die physically in order to experience resurrected life. New life can be yours, right now! We just need to accept the challenge and the call to live into this radical new way of being human. This way of living is dedicated to practicing radical inclusion, social and economic justice, nonviolence, forgiveness, kindness, and compassion. [1] Be warned: when you take this challenge seriously, it changes every aspect of your lives.

Here is a piece of a poem by a Methodist spiritual writer I adore that poses the challenge of Jesus’ call to new life:

You were created to love. It is your nature, and your purpose….

When you love, you die to the world of fear, and you are raised to a new life.

When you love you enter into God, into what is divine and infinite and eternal.

When you love, even at great cost, and even if you fail,

even if you have no effect at all, you have won the victory.

Jesus showed us how to live. Because of him, we do not fear that the death of our denomination will be the last word. We trust in the power of love to bring new and abundant life for all. We rejoice not only in a 2,000 year old story, but in the truth that Jesus’ resurrected life is still transforming the world. Sometimes, the impact of his powerful and amazing Living Spirit of love is hard to detect. Love still has to struggle in the world. As we see everyday, love does not always seem to triumph. Yet, its power is wide and spreading. Every week I read or hear of more Methodist churches, Annual Conferences, seminaries, and other bodies taking a stand for full inclusion of our LGBTQI siblings, adopting new welcome statements, putting up banners and rainbow flags, issuing statements with hundreds of clergy and lay signers. This is resurrected life in practice.

We know from experience that this life is not easy. It takes time for new forests to grow. It will take time and hard work for a new church to come into being. This is Jesus’ challenge to us. It is for this that he called us to follow him – to love extravagantly, without limits, prejudice, or reserve – to love as he loved. As humanly flawed as we are, the Church of the Village and communities like ours in the progressive Christian movement, can be the living embodiment of Jesus’ spirit and his resurrected life for a more vibrant, loving, and beautiful world. We practice it far from perfectly, but we have hope because this extravagant love is embodied and practiced in the world today. Friends, do not be depressed. Do not give in to defeatedness. Let go of your shame. Come out of your hiding places. Celebrate your privilege in participating in a community God called to be Christ’s body for the world. Let God’s amazing love grow and find its place in your hearts and spirits ever more powerfully. May God continue to transform us and our the world in the image and spirit of Jesus’s boundless and unconditional love. Christ is alive! Alleluia! Thanks be to God!

Copyright © 2019 by Jeff Wells
All rights reserved.

[1] Some of these ideas are adapted from Brian McLaren, “Joining the Resurrection,” Progressive Christian blog, April 8, 2012.