I struggled all week on how to start this sermon. I just didn’t know what it would feel like to step into this pulpit for the first time in fifty-eight Sundays and see people sitting in the pews. As I wrote this on Thursday, I still had no idea, but goodness does it feel ___________________. It has been way too long. While I can’t say I’ve missed the five am alarm clock, I have certainly missed you, my Christ Church family, and I look forward to May 2nd, when, God willing, we’ll be able to restart our 10 o’clock service as well. The prospect of returning to Church in the Pews this week has been an opportunity for me to look back over the last 13 months and to think about what we’ve learned, how it’s felt, and what we might take with us into the future. Surprisingly to me, I’ve found myself feeling profoundly grateful for the experience of the last year-plus, and wondering if maybe you’re feeling some of that as well? I’m grateful that our girls got to be kids for most of 2020, riding their scooters, jumping on the trampoline, and using their imaginations as the world around them shut down. I’m grateful for flexible work schedules, for polo shirts, and for strong WIFI. I’m grateful for amazing teammates in our staff and parish leaders who have worked harder than you can imagine making sure Christ Church continued to live into its mission despite all kinds of hardship. I’m grateful for each of you; for your patience, your support, and your witness to what God is up to even in the midst of unprecedented challenges. In doing so, you have lived into the commission that Jesus gave to his disciples in our Gospel lesson this morning, serving as witnesses to the Good News of Jesus Christ for a world that desperately needs it.
We might be two weeks out from Easter, but our lesson this morning takes place still on that first Easter day. In Luke’s account, it has already been a loooooooong day. It started just before dawn, when Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and some other women gathered to prepare the spices and ointments to give Jesus a proper burial after he was hastily laid in a tomb on Friday afternoon. At sunup, they found the stone rolled away from the now empty tomb, and were met by two men in white who asked one of the most profound questions in all of Scripture, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here. He has risen.” Quickly, the women departed and returned to the upper room, where they found the eleven remaining Apostles, who, apart from Peter, dismissed the word of the women as an idle tale. Peter, however, ran to the tomb, found it empty, and somehow decided to just go home. At some point, we find out later, Jesus appeared to Peter, maybe over his morning cup of coffee as he scrolled mindlessly through his Facebook feed. At least two of the disciples were so dismayed by the events of those three days that they decided to give up, go home, and see if they could get their jobs back in Emmaus.
Just before our lesson for today, is the well-worn story of Jesus meeting those disciples on the Road to Emmaus. Downtrodden, they plodded along the seven-mile journey, discussing with sadness all that had transpired. “We thought, we really thought, he would be the one to redeem Israel. He was a prophet, mighty in word and deed, and God was with him, but they killed him, and now his body is gone, and hope is lost.” Jesus opened their minds to the scriptures and how all that had been written by Moses and the Prophets had led straight to the cross, but it wasn’t until they sat down at the table together and Jesus broke bread with them that he opened their eyes to see him, in his resurrection body, their Rabbi, Messiah, and Lord, before he disappeared from before their very eyes. The two of them took off back to Jerusalem, where the rest of the eleven and a cadre of women were still in the upper room, sharing stories of the day, and wondering what it all meant. “We’ve seen him!” the two exclaimed. “So has Peter!” the crowd responded, and just then, Jesus entered the room.
“Shalom.” “Peace be with you,” he said to the small crowd that was nothing close to peaceful. Luke tells us they were startled and terrified. It’s the same root word Luke used to describe the shepherds watching their flocks by night on that first Christmas. Jesus speaks peace into the midst of chaos and passes the standard tests to prove one wasn’t a ghost in antiquity, at least according to Union Lutheran Seminary Professor Mark Vitalis Hoffman. First, they checked for extremities, where bones would be obvious – hands and feet – and saw them, intact, though scarred. Next, the disciples made sure Jesus wasn’t Caspering around, and that his feet were touching the ground, which they were. Finally, everyone knows ghosts don’t eat food, so when Jesus asked for and ate a piece of broiled fish, he passed the final test. What they were witnessing wasn’t a group hallucination or a hopeful vision built upon stress and grief, but the actual flesh and blood of Jesus who had been crucified and died three days earlier. Even as they grew joyful that this was, in fact, Jesus in their midst, they were still amazed and in disbelief that it could all be true.
For the second time that first Easter Day, Jesus opened up the scriptures to remind them, yet again, that the Messiah, HE, would die and rise again, that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed for the whole world in his name, and he commissioned them as his witnesses to all these things. They were empowered to tell the Good News of Jesus Christ despite the hardship of the previous three days. As inheritors of that Apostolic Tradition, you and I are still called to be witnesses of the ongoing work of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the world today.
As such, our work is two-fold: proclaiming the Good News of the resurrection of Jesus of Christ and proclaiming repentance and the forgiveness of sins. The first task is summed up in First Peter 3, “If someone asks you about your hope, always be ready to explain it.” This past year has been a difficult one for us all, but from where I stand, I’ve seen amazing signs of hope all along the way. That so many of you continued to give to the mission of this congregation was a sign of hope, that someday, we’d be back together to do the work God is calling us to do. That so many of you signed on to Zoom calls, Facebook Live, YouTube, and podcasts was a sign of hope that despite the hardships, you are committed to deepening your faith for the days to come. That so many of you sent notes, emails, and text messages of encouragement and prayer was a sign of hope that we are connected, even when we are apart. There are stories of hope to be told, no matter how crummy the last 13 months have been, and as Christians, we are all called to share them.
The second task isn’t quite as easy. Proclaiming repentance and the forgiveness of sin means calling sin, sin; both in our own lives and in the world in which we live, and then trusting in God’s forgiveness. To take our calling seriously, we must be willing to take stock of the places in our own lives where relationships are broken, both with God and with our fellow human beings. In the wider world, as Christians, commissioned by Jesus Christ to preach repentance, we must be willing to call out systems of oppression like gun violence, xenophobia, white supremacy, and police brutality, which keep the Kingdom of God from being fully realized here on earth. God is eager to forgive, but we must be willing to repent, to change course, and move toward wholeness.
Your witness over this last year has been a gift. As we move into this next phase of pandemic life, I invite you to consider how you might proclaim repentance, forgiveness, and the Good News of the resurrection of our Lord to a world that still desperately needs it. It’s been a long road, but our work is just getting started. I look forward to the journey. Amen.