Sunday, April 21, 2019

Easter 2019

Acts 10
39 “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, 40 but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41 He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

You obviously don’t need to be church person to be upset by a cathedral on fire.

I guess I was a little surprized by the extent to which Monday’s fire at Notre Dame in Paris dominated the news. Of course it was a big story, but the networks gave it hours and hours of coverage. Secular media, in a secular society, tend to acknowledge church stories rather than drag them to the front page and leave them there.

My leading theory is the unique place Notre Dame plays in people’s lives. I’m guessing that for many tourists, this is the only cathedral they have ever visited. I’m surprized when someone tells me they went to London and missed St. Paul’s— but I’ve never heard of someone visiting Paris and skipping Notre Dame.

By all accounts, the cathedral can be restored. The stone walls and the vaulted ceiling are designed to withstand such a calamity, assuming the fire can be extinguished in time. It turns out that ability to recover from a fire such as this is a design feature, and thank goodness for that.

As I followed the story throughout the week, I was also surprized to learn that Notre Dame is the property of the French government, and that over the course of its history, the cathedral has been seized by the government on two occasions. The first time was during the French Revolution: all church property was claimed by the state, and priests had to pledge loyalty to the revolution under threat of exile or death.

The cathedral itself was rededicated to the official Cult of Reason, and then turned to a warehouse. Most of the artwork was destroyed, including twenty-eight statues of biblical kings that the revolutionaries mistook for French kings. Eventually, Napoleon restored the cathedral to the church, but the damage was done. The last renovation (following the publication The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1831) created the cathedral that we remember. Fast-forward to 1905 and another radical government seized all church property in France. Churches could use their buildings, but did not own them. In time, we may learn if this ownership arrangement had a role in the fire.

For me, however, this is a resurrection story: that for all the trouble—revolution, destruction, misuse, neglect—the cathedral remained. Every calamity was met with resolve—and faithful people understood that the cathedral’s original purpose would eventually be restored.

There are many ways to define resurrection: new life, hope restored, the end of death, Jesus triumph over the grave. We mark events of renewal and hope and we frequently label them resurrections, lives turned around, second chances taken, restoration after a time of trouble. It’s a handy metaphor, a way to express an abundance of meaning in a single word.

But when we’re marking the day of resurrection, it’s seems important to return to the source, those who first described the resurrection in the hearing of others. The women at the tomb, first heralds of the resurrection, share the good news: an empty tomb, angel visitors, and Christ’s own instruction to tell the others that he will visit them back in the Galilee. The others struggle to believe them, but Christ will soon correct the slow to believe.

And them there is Simon Peter. After the resurrection, he is slow to believe, but by Day of Pentecost he has found his voice:

“We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”

Peter the fisherman points to the tangible and the practical (“God raised him for the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen”). Poor Thomas gets the most grief for wanting proof, but Peter’s sermon at Pentecost says ‘here is my proof, and I know he was raised because I have seen him.’ He even points to other witnesses—few in number—but selected to eat and drink with the Risen One in the days that follow that fateful day.

So that’s Peter, but what about Paul? It’s hard to beat the drama of Resurrection Day, but Paul is close. Unhorsed by Jesus, challenged by Jesus, redeemed by Jesus, Paul joins the fellowship and claims his place among the apostles. He too is a witness to the resurrection, with specific instruction to carry out. As Paul testifies to his faith, he reports what Jesus told him: “I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me.”

The Bible, then, is the primary source material for understanding the resurrection. “He is not here, he is risen. God raised him on the third day and caused him to be seen. He commanded us to preach to the people and testify.” Like the movement itself, the good news of Jesus begins in a small circle a ripples outward. The movement is from recognition to witness, understanding that he lives and then telling others.

Yet even that simple path can be interrupted, but a determined God will find a way to make the message heard. One of best examples of this involves St. Paul, newly filled with a desire to make Christ known, but finding a slammed door instead. Luke picks up the story at the end of Acts 9:

26 When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. 28 So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord.

In some ways, the disciples never seem to learn. Fear seems to be their first response to something new, like an empty tomb or a life transformed. But no matter, because Barnabas becomes a witness to the witness, seeing something the others can not. He is witness to Paul’s resurrection, and the transforming power of a life in Christ.

So we witness to the resurrection, but the resurrection also witnesses to us. We remind ourselves every time we come together as the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ is his resurrected body, taking the shape of this congregation. We remind ourselves when the bread and the wine are transformed into his body and blood, bread of heaven and cup of blessing. We remind ourselves when we say “they shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore, the sun shall not strike them nor any scorching heat, for the lamb in the midst of the throne shall be their shepherd, and guide them to springs of living water.” The resurrected lamb witnesses to us and calls us home.

The resurrection witnesses to us. Beneath our feet is one of those places that witnesses to the resurrection each day. Yes, there are wonderful stories of lives transformed, but for many who make the drop-in part of their lives, there is a more everyday-kind of resurrection, where people find each other and form a community, where friendship is extended, and love expressed. This is a the power of resurrection: challenged, but not alone; distressed, but held by others; hungry, and frequently fed.

You don’t need a disastrous fire to see the power of resurrection. You just need to look around. Who has finally decided to make a change after years of trying? Who has rededicated themselves to some higher purpose? Who has recognized something in another person that no one else can see? These are resurrections, a gift from God, which we can witness if we have eyes to see. You simply need to look around you. Christ is risen! Amen.


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