United Methodist

The Low Places

John 1:43-51 (NRSV)

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”


“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Well, yeah, good things can come from Nazareth, and places like it. Nazareth is an excellent example of how grace can pour forth from society’s lowest places. God’s grace—the love we don’t deserve but receive anyway—has a funny habit of flowing uphill.

In some ways, we covered this with the Christmas story, when we talked about how Jesus came from poor members of a downtrodden people, living in what seemed like nowhere. The idea seems worth revisiting this week. Arrogant Roman leaders would have considered Nazareth one of the outhouses of the empire.

We can tell from Nathanael’s words that even Jews didn’t have a very high opinion of Nazareth. It was no metropolis; modern archaeologists estimate less than 500 people lived there in Jesus’ day. And yet, in the story, here comes Jesus, straight out of Nazareth, bearing down on his next disciple with revealing perception.

The Eternal Gift

As Jesus walked from Nazareth into full-fledged ministry, he carried with him all sorts of gifts we still barely comprehend today. As the story plays out, there is the greatest gift of all, eternal life.

Jesus’ ministry, rooted in the truth of who he is and the love he wants to share with the world, got him nailed to a cross. We now understand it had to be that way, that the death of a holy, sinless, perfect savior was necessary for us to escape the shackles of our own sins. We know the resurrection of this same savior, fully God and fully human, proves that death has been defeated. We believe, and we are saved.

What a gift to come out of Nazareth! There is more, though. The grace poured out upon us is not just something for the next life. It is for this life now.

Wow!

This story of Nathanael’s encounter with Jesus reminds us of what I call the gift of astonishment. What? You had a vision of me under a fig tree, before we ever met? We can tell Nathanael was astonished because he jumped straight from cynicism to declaring Jesus the Son of God.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I like to be astonished from time to time, so long as God is the one doing the astonishing. I discover that life is about more than mundane, day-to-day events.

My big astonishment in life is that God would give me the same experience twice, once as a child and again as a young adult, so I would get back on track with him. And there are little astonishments that keep coming, too.

I like it when I see a vision for how something might be, and then discover someone else, perhaps one of you, has seen the same possibility or dreamed the same idea. I sense the Holy Spirit is at work in those moments, and I know we’re really a church.

I like it when God shows me how people are not what I expected them to be. I’ll give you a simple example. Where I was raised, I did not know a lot of black people, and the few I did know seemed to be trying to blend in and not be noticed. What I thought I knew about black culture came from one black karate instructor who grew up in Jonesborough, Tenn., and too much 1970s television.

Then I moved to the Atlanta area, where I lived for 13 years, working downtown most of the time.

I’ll not claim to be any expert on what was going on before my eyes; I often didn’t understand actions or attitudes unfamiliar to me. But I was regularly astonished by how tightly knit inner-city black communities could be, and how the culture could be quite matriarchal, with older women commanding a kind of respect that in many ways held their sometimes difficult world together. Many of those authoritative women, by the way, were not shy about speaking openly of their love for Jesus.

Beyond the dominant black culture, I also think of a Vietnamese friend I made in Atlanta, a former refugee who barely made it alive to Hong Kong on a rickety boat, and then eventually made his way to the United States. I learned a lot about perseverance just being near him.

The World Is Our Parish

I  continue to expect to see God’s astonishing grace at work in people very different from me. One of the nice things about being United Methodist is that we are from everywhere, from Africa, from Asia, from Central America, from Haiti* and other Caribbean islands. As we have struggled with the issue of biblical authority in the UMC in recent years, words of encouragement from our African brothers and sisters have particularly inspired me.

What unites us globally, regardless of whether worldly people consider our particular home “high” or “low,” is the larger vision Jesus described as he recruited Nathanael to his little team that would change everything. For there is astounding grace, jaw-dropping, weeping-with-joy grace still to come.

Heaven and earth will be remade and reunited through Christ’s work. The walls that divide us will be torn down. Racism, poverty and political ideologies will give way to the uniting truth that Jesus Christ is Lord.

With God working in such powerful, unpredictable ways, a man would have to be a fool to show disdain for people from low places.


*On a personal note, I am particularly conscious of a very good thing to come out of Haiti, a nephew, adopted from an orphanage there by my brother and his wife. My nephew’s name is Nathaniel, by the way.

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Creation Stories


Genesis 1:1-5 (NLT)


In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.

Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. Then he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day” and the darkness “night.”

And evening passed and morning came, marking the first day.

Genesis 2:4-9 (NLT)

This is the account of the creation of the heavens and the earth.

When the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, neither wild plants nor grains were growing on the earth. For the Lord God had not yet sent rain to water the earth, and there were no people to cultivate the soil. Instead, springs came up from the ground and watered all the land. Then the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person.

Then the Lord God planted a garden in Eden in the east, and there he placed the man he had made. The Lord God made all sorts of trees grow up from the ground—trees that were beautiful and that produced delicious fruit. In the middle of the garden he placed the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.


“In the beginning.” These are, of course, the opening words of the Great Story we celebrate in our lives, the story in which we participate whenever we gather for worship.

It is the Great Story, the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, that explains who God is, why God matters, and how God relates to his creation, particularly people. We discover that people are central to the Great Story, too—in fact, we matter so much, we are loved so much, that God does some very strange things to maintain the relationship.

Ultimately in the Great Story, there is God in flesh, and a cross, and resurrection. But today, we’re going to re-introduce ourselves to the creation stories, those first two chapters of the Holy Bible that set the tone for everything to come.

Being Biblical

I am going to be as biblical as I can be today; by that, I mean I am going to let the story as it is told shape what I say as much as possible. (God help me, and God forgive me where I fail in this area.) Traditionally, one of the great things about being Methodist is that we let the Bible guide us, trusting that it is God’s inspired word, communicating truths that transcend cultural biases.

That does not mean you will hear what some call a fundamentalist or literalist presentation of the creation stories’ highlights from me. As I understand those explanations of the creation stories, they at times can contradict the purposes of Genesis 1 and 2. Fundamentalists and literalists have been known to take lyrical tellings of who God is and how God relates to humans and reduce them to strange science, missing their larger points.

Ultimately, I want to get to the deeper truths being communicated at the opening of this sacred, wonderful Great Story. For there are great truths, the kind of truths around which we should build our lives. When I say I believe Scripture is true, I’m talking about a mystical kind of truth that underpins and holds together the very cosmos.

The Stories

There are two creation stories before us in Genesis. Most scholars agree the first one runs from Genesis 1:1 through the first statement in Genesis 2:4, where we hear the concluding statement, “This is the account of the creation of the heavens and the earth.” The second story then begins, “When the Lord God made the earth and the heavens …”.

There are, of course, similarities between the two stories. In both cases, we detect the presence of the Holy Spirit, one of three biblical manifestations or persons of God. In the first creation story, God’s Spirit hovers over a dark, watery, formless earth. In the second story, the Spirit is present as God’s breath, entering the human formed from the ground to create life.

There also are significant textual differences between the two stories, including the name used for the Creator. In the first account, God is, in Hebrew, simply ʼElohim, while in the second account we see “Lord God,” YHWH ʼElohim, the addition being the “I Am Who I Am” secret name of God revealed to Moses in the story found in Exodus 3.

The basic purpose of the first creation story seems pretty clear. We see God standing outside all things. God is complete. God is not dependent in any way on creation. Why does God create? It would appear that creativity simply is a key part of God’s character. As God sees things are “good,” he experiences the satisfaction a human writer, painter or sculptor might feel.

We also see how creation is made to be responsive to God. Pay careful attention to the shift in language at Genesis 1:11-12. With God’s power, the land begins to participate in the process of creation, sprouting and producing seed-bearing plants which then beget more life.

The pattern is repeated as animals are created. God gets everything rolling and creation joyfully imitates. Ultimately, humans are made in God’s image, ruling in miniature on behalf of the one who made all things.

I carry this truth away: I am just one of billions of humans who have existed, but I am important. You are important. As responsive bearers of God-given life, made in his image, we have so much potential! Treasure the life you’ve been given.

Yes, the story goes on in chapter 3, and sin introduces horrible encumbrances to weigh us down. But remember that potential, and remember the powerful truth that Christ came to redeem us from sin. Through Christ, we are re-created, restored to that potential.

Deep Love

The second creation story accomplishes another important task. It is, in a way, God’s valentine to us, as he says, “See how much I love you?”

Here, the Lord God is much more personal and relatable, shaping the first human from sod and blowing life into his nostrils. He then carves out a special place in creation, a holy garden where the man can learn pleasurable, fulfilling work alongside his creator. He also is called to learn joyous obedience by following one simple rule: Don’t eat from that tree.

There is to be no sadness or sense of isolation in this place called Eden. We see this as the Lord God fashions animals, and then finally a woman, for the man. We are left with a picture of perfection, man and woman together, relating to one another and God in idyllic peace.

Again, sin mars the picture as the Great Story progresses. But thanks to the work of Christ, we can look at one another, and look to God, and say, “We are loved!” And never forget that the Great Story, the whole story of the Bible, returns us to this Paradise, this perfection of relationships.

It is all true. These stories are not science or history as modern people understand these two fields of study, but these stories are true.

Let these creation stories lead you into the eternal story lived with God.

Begging to Give

2 Corinthians 8:1-15

Yes, this is a giving sermon. In many churches, that often means a moment where the preacher either begs or lectures. But today we celebrate giving, looking at what has been done and what I believe will be done through this church known as Luminary.

In our Bible text, Paul tells the church at Corinth how to understand giving, in the process enlightening us a little about the Christians in Macedonia, a group he holds out as a standard for other churches. The Corinthians would have found Paul’s words difficult to hear. Corinth and Macedonia were political rivals in Paul’s day, and the apostle is trying to inspire a touch of jealousy, shame or some similar emotion in the Corinthians, who need to be doing more for God’s kingdom.

Paul’s writings raise a question for any church: When it comes to giving hearts, are we more like Macedonians or Corinthians?

The church in Corinth was relatively affluent, it would seem. We don’t know a lot about the situation of the churches in Macedonia—Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea—but it is clear from Paul’s letter they had fallen on hard times, despite being in a relatively prosperous region. Some of the Greek words Paul uses to describe their affliction are associated with religious persecution, and it is also clear from his words the Macedonians had descended into poverty because of what they suffered.

And yet, they give to help others, Paul writes, giving “even beyond their means.” The Macedonian churches even beg for the privilege of participating, finding great joy in the midst of their suffering to join in Jesus Christ’s work on earth.

In their giving, the Macedonians were like Christ, reducing themselves so that others might be made rich by the gift of eternal life flowing from the cross.

Nothing about the Macedonians’ attitudes should surprise us. Among people who study Christian giving patterns, it is known to be a basic fact that the best givers are among our poorest people. I have heard needy people say, “If you want help, go to a poor community, not a rich one.”

I’m reminded of the story about a church that announced in 1946 it was going to take up a collection to help a poor family in the community. A widow and her three daughters went to great lengths to participate, finding great joy in the sacrifices they were making. They raised most of the money collected by the church, only to discover they were the intended recipients of the offering. They ultimately gave what the church had handed them to a missionary working in Africa.

There was a family that would have been comfortable in Macedonia.

In terms of resources available to us at Luminary, we are more like Corinth than Macedonia. Most of us are not what anyone would call poor. Certainly, as a church, we are not mired in poverty and persecution. That’s a blessing, of course, but such a blessing comes with great responsibility.

The great preacher and writer Charles Spurgeon told the story of being invited to preach at a rural church so a special offering could be taken to retire the church’s debt. The man making the invitation said Spurgeon had his choice of places to stay during the visit: the man’s country house, his town house, or his seaside home. Spurgeon declined the invitation, suggesting the man sell one of his homes and pay off the debt himself. Abundant resources are an invitation from God to take bold actions.

As a group, bold action is always possible for us. I have mentioned before, and I will mention again, that committed tithing is the great equalizer for all church members, allowing us to commit equally to our community, rich or poor.

And this is where I begin to celebrate. Clearly, some of you are developing a deeper understanding of what it means to give to the kingdom. I don’t know who tithes and who does not tithe, but I can look at the bigger picture and surmise a few things.

♰ A significant number of you are giving in committed ways. I can tell this because our church income remains steady even as our “regulars” travel during the summer. Thank you for treating your church like a community with ongoing ministries, and not like a movie theater.

♰ Some of you also have increased your commitments. We are succeeding financially in ways we have not succeeded in a long time. Halfway through the year, our income is exceeding our expenses by about $6,000.

♰ Our better financial performance has happened while you have been “tithing up” to support the larger church, much like the Macedonians desired to do. Late last year, your leaders decided to begin tithing from our general offerings to the conference after many years of not supporting the larger church in full, and we have stuck to that commitment. (Until 2011, this system was called “paying apportionments.”) In all of 2014, Luminary sent $7,583 in support of the larger church; to date in 2015, we have already sent $12,236, and there’s no reason to believe we cannot continue that commitment. And none of that accounts for the special gifts you have made—for example, the more than $1,900 you sent to the Holston Conference to aid area children in poverty, or the regular gifts we send to Holston Home for Children.

All of this translates into lives being changed, locally and beyond. And there is so much coming in the life and ministry of Luminary:

♰Starting in August, our worship will be made richer and more vibrant with the arrival of Seth O’Kegley, our new music director. I cannot say enough about what this young man brings us in terms of music skills and devotion to worship. Your giving makes his presence possible, and he will bring Christ into people’s lives in ways we are only beginning to imagine.

♰A new vision for how we function as a church is taking shape, thanks to your Church Leadership Council. You will hear more about that soon, and I’m already praying each of you individually will see your lives and the lives of people around you changed for the better. Some of these changes will require new tools; the retirement of current debt, the acquisition of church vans and the completion of the upstairs keep coming up as likely needs.

We may not yet be Macedonians in heart, but we certainly are moving toward Macedonia. Pray that our financial commitment to our church holds and grows; pray that we become a people so enamored with Christ that we beg for the chance to give.

Conquering the World

1 John 5:1-6

This sermon may sound a little old-fashioned.

Talking about the basics of Christianity will do that to a preacher. Lately, a lot of us are more prone to talk about new ideas—clever ways to connect with the lost, or new trends in communication, which is all good stuff, of course. We have to remember, however, that the core truth about Jesus Christ doesn’t change. The author of 1 John brings us back to that core.

First, there is belief, specifically believing that Jesus is the Christ, God’s chosen redeemer for the world. In particular, we are to believe Christ’s death on the cross defeated sin, and that the resurrection is both proof of that fact and a promise regarding what is to come.

People come to believe in various ways. It is important the converted remember the unconverted may come to Christ in ways we don’t expect. I’m reminded of the story of the man who went to a hotel room to commit suicide, but instead opened a Gideon Bible and met Jesus in its pages.

Another favorite conversion story is of a man sitting in a Chicago church as a worship service opened with a full processional down the center aisle. As the crucifer—for those of you unfamiliar with more formal worship, that’s the person carrying the cross at the top of a long pole—went by, the man looked up, saw the cross and believed. No sermon, no prayer, he said later. He just knew when he saw that cross. Sounds strange to me, but it worked for him.

What is important, of course, is that we come to believe, period.

Belief allows us to be incorporated into a new family, 1 John also tells us. Again, it’s a little old-fashioned sounding, but we are “brothers and sisters.” The family metaphor doesn’t work for everyone; if momma ran off when you were a baby and daddy was a drunk, the word “family” probably sounds terrible. We’re supposed to think of the ideal version of family, however.

Look at it this way. If you had a bad family experience growing up, you can always learn about God from the negative example. How would you have liked your family to behave? Through belief, God is offering you such a family, in this life through a spiritually healthy church and in the next life in God’s full presence.

The author of 1 John goes on. In a healthy family, we abide by certain standards; for Christians, it is the commandments, the Ten Commandments and the other guidance God gives us in Scripture regarding right and wrong. In summing up the law, Jesus kept matters simple. Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbors as yourselves. Right is still right, and wrong is still wrong, but love controls how we deal with sin when it is before us.

I thought about how love fits into the conversion equation when I drove by some placard-waving Christians in downtown Kingston, Tenn., last week. The signs covered a range of issues. One asked God to bless Israel; another said homosexuality is still a sin, while a third noted, “Drunkards shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Sitting at a red light watching the scene, I was struck by an odd dichotomy. Scripturally they were correct, but from a kingdom-building perspective, being right doesn’t always mean you are helping. They mostly appeared to be an example of like attracting like and repelling those who needed a deeper relationship with Christ. Right (or perhaps simple self-righteousness) was present, but I did not see love offered.

I do like the way we as Methodists handle some of the more difficult issues requiring a careful balance of law and grace. Human sexuality, for example—in our Discipline, we call sin a sin, and we recognize unrepentant sinners shouldn’t be leaders. At the same time, however, we acknowledge that in God’s eyes, all people are worthy of grace and need access to that grace through Christian community and worship. It’s a more complicated position than many Christians try to live out, but it’s easy enough to understand, if we try.

Abortion is another example. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas and a few other writers have helped me understand how we should stop thinking we’ve dealt with the contentious issue just because we’ve entered a voting booth or courtroom. A mother responding to her pregnancy by considering abortion is a mother experiencing deep fear—fear of family, fear for her future, fear about something.

Here’s a basic question for any church: If abortion is such a serious matter in God’s eyes, what are you doing to eliminate that fear so the mother will drop abortion as an option? Have you told her she has people around her who will help? Are you willing to put the time and money in place to help her rear the child? Can you make her part of the family of Christ, too?

Once we get all these core concepts right, there is much to celebrate. As 1 John tells us, there is victory; we win! We join with God in conquering the world, ripping it from the grasp of evil and restoring it to its original, holy state. That opportunity in itself should be enough to draw people to Christ.

Yes, these ideas are old-fashioned, but in them there is good news, the kind of news that can transform anyone forever.

Walking with Jesus

Luke 24:13-35

The seven-mile-long walk home to Emmaus from Jerusalem must have seemed daunting for two weary travelers, one known as Cleopas. They had been in the city as it went into an uproar over Jesus of Nazareth, its people finally succumbing to political intrigue and a spasm of emotion that led to Jesus’ crucifixion.

Just before leaving, they also heard wild stories that only disturbed them more, tales of a tomb flung open, visions of angels, and a dead man walking. Yes, they would travel the seven miles home, but when they got there, could they even sleep? Which would win out, weariness or worry?

A man joined them along the way. We know the story; we know he was Jesus. Why two people who had followed him could not recognize him is not clear. Perhaps it was their grief. Perhaps a resurrected body is different enough that it is not immediately associated with its mortal predecessor. Or perhaps God simply willed that their eyes be veiled for a time to enhance their understanding later.

The man, oddly enough, seemed ignorant of all that had transpired, despite traveling from the same place they had been. They explained what they had seen. He proceeded to make them feel ignorant.

“Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” the man asked. He began to explain the Scriptures to them—he worked from what we would now call the Old Testament, of course—showing them the events of the previous days had to happen.

We don’t know what he specifically cited. Surely he mentioned Genesis 3:15, the condemnation of the serpent for bringing temptation to the garden: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.”

Also, the promise from God to Abraham in Genesis 12:3: “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

They must have discussed Deuteronomy 18:15—”The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet”—and how Jesus’ role exceeded even that of a prophet.

And of course, they would have discussed prophesies from Isaiah 9, 11 and 53. It was, after all, a long walk.

They must have been intrigued. And being good, hospitable Jews, the kind of Jews who would not leave a man to travel dangerous roads at night alone, they invited him into their home when they finally reached Emmaus.

The stranger must have seemed pushy when they sat down to share a little bread. He took the bread to bless it, a role usually performed by the host. And when he broke it—Jesus! They knew they had been walking with Jesus! And then he vanished!

A seven-mile-long walk back to Jerusalem should have seemed particularly daunting. They should have been exhausted. They should have been fearful, for it was night, and bad things happen on the road at night.

But they walked back down that road anyway—when you’ve experienced the risen Christ, there is no fear.

I suspect they ran as much of the road as they could. When they paused for breath, did they laugh as they gasped for air? Did they discuss how crazy this all would sound once they reached Jerusalem?

Know that Jesus walks with you. Through the revelation of the Bible we’ve already been given, see Jesus for who he is—experience his presence. Then run and tell others. Living the Christian life can be that simple.

The Cure for Doubt

John 20:19-31

Nonbelievers aren’t the only ones with doubts. People who call themselves Christian sometimes have doubts about Jesus, the resurrection, and how it all applies to them.

It’s not surprising we can struggle in such ways. The Easter story lives on the edge of fantasy—a man most undeniably dead leaves his rock-sealed, heavily guarded tomb and appears to hundreds in an indestructible state. Even more remarkable, we are to understand this event as a mere beginning, a foreshadowing of a radical change in creation that eventually will result in our own transforming, death-defeating resurrections.

Our doubts arise for a simple reason. Despite the promises of the Easter story, the world keeps smacking us around. We lose people close to us. Worry about the immediate future overwhelms us. Sometimes we simply experience intellectual doubt, our rational minds telling us to stick to what we can see as the basis for reality.

In today’s resurrection story in the Gospel of John, we find the disciple Thomas very doubtful. Thomas had seen the man he called teacher, Lord and master crushed by the power of the world, and he quickly fell into a rigid cynicism. Even when his fellow disciples excitedly told him they had seen the risen Christ, he was not impressed.

Let me see the hands, he said. Let me stick my fingers in that horrible wound in his side. I wonder if we’re supposed to read his words with a tone of bitter sarcasm. “Look, they riddled him with holes, including a spear-sized one running through his lungs and heart,” I hear him saying in the deepest, darkest corner of his soul. “You really think he is walking around?”

Thomas had to wait a week, but Jesus accommodated his request, appearing for his wavering disciple’s sake. Touch the wounds, Jesus said. Believe.

We see Thomas’ doubt cured. I believe that in this story we also can find a cure for our own doubts.

Even if we don’t see Christ physically present, our doubts can be relieved by an inner experience of God. That idea certainly fits with today’s story. Even the disciples needed to experience something more than the physical Christ to grasp the truth of Christ’s resurrection. This is why we have this account of Christ breathing on them, providing an early Pentecost, an experience of the Holy Spirit to sustain them.

The risen Christ breathes on us, too. We simply have to put aside doubt long enough to open ourselves to a similar encounter with the Holy Spirit, that aspect of God resident in Christ.

I am perplexed by how resistant people are to the simple acts that trigger the experience, even people who have long called themselves Christians. When I spend time with Christians struggling with doubt, I find they have a basic problem: They’ve forgotten how to spend time with the one who gave them their first taste of eternal life.

We encounter God most directly by spending time in prayer, learning the stories of the Bible, and worshiping so the Holy Spirit can work in us and through us as a group.

I know. I sometimes sound like a broken record with all this talk about praying, reading our Bibles and going to church. It is the Methodist in me. We suffer needlessly when we fail to methodically use the means God has given us to draw near him. When we do draw near, we allow God’s Spirit to whisper to our spirits.

Those who spend significant time in such activities can testify that the ensuing experience is as good as seeing Jesus in the room. Christ breathes on us, and doubt flees.

Forgetting Easter

Several years ago, back when I could easily call myself a young adult, I awoke after sleeping in one Sunday morning and went about my usual routine. I ate a late breakfast, watched television on the couch, and wandered through the day carrying out some other activities that must have been fairly mindless, as I cannot remember them now. It was only later in the day, prompted by an item on the evening news, that I discovered something: It was Easter Sunday.

Realizing I had let Easter go by almost unnoticed left me more aware than ever of a strange, empty feeling that had been within me for awhile. Partly, I was nostalgic, missing the childhood connection to the day. My parents had always made sure my little brother and I went through the rituals that made Easter fun—the coloring of the eggs, the basket with the hollow chocolate bunny (one year the basket itself was made out of candy), the afternoon trip to Granny’s house. In my memories, Easter always happened on a warm spring day, although that couldn’t have been true every Easter.

I also sensed, however, that my emptiness really had little to do with my need for a chocolate bunny. There were other pictures in my mind, too, glowing pictures full of stained glass and candles, reminders of the mystery of Easter Sundays in church. Smells and sounds from worship remained alive in my mind, too, and they all came back to me at once.

"Resurrection of Christ," Michelangelo, c. 1532

“Resurrection of Christ,” Michelangelo, c. 1532

Those images, sounds and smells existed to declare a powerful message: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. It’s a truth we should hear declared every Sunday, and it should be declared in an especially powerful way on Easter Sunday.

Yes, even for adults, the concept of the resurrection is a mystery. As a pastor, I try to explain as best I can that the resurrection is evidence sin and death have been defeated, and we have nothing to fear. But even the greatest theologians cannot fully explain the magnitude of what God is doing through the resurrection.

That’s a good thing; the mystery surrounding Christianity is evidence God, not humanity, is at work. We need to learn to revel in the fact God has done something inconceivably great and immeasurably loving through Jesus. Hey, that’s why we need the light, the smells and the music in worship. We’re trying to grasp a truth beyond words.

I say all of that to say this: Easter Sunday is April 5 this year. If you want to worship by coming to Luminary United Methodist Church, we’ll have a sunrise service outside (weather permitting) at 7 a.m., and worship services in the sanctuary at 8 a.m., 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. No special clothes or fancy hats required—just come expecting God to fill the emptiness.