By Rev. Amy Butler
If you were telling the story of the Gospel of Jesus Christ becoming a reality for your life and mine, where would you start the story?
Would you start in Bethlehem, at the manger, with misty-eyed shepherds listening to the angels’ song?
Or would you start at the wedding at Cana, Jesus’ first miracle, when he launched his public ministry and began teaching disciples what the Gospel meant for them?
Might you start even earlier, by quoting prophecies of Isaiah like we do during Advent?
Where would you start the story?
For the disciples of Jesus, those who had just been through a roller coaster of events over the last several weeks, the story began… on the walk home from the tomb.
See, after the exhausting events of the return to Jerusalem, their last supper together, the betrayals and failures among their group, the paralyzing fear and horror as they watched their friend be tortured and killed, then the utter confusion of running to the tomb where they’d buried him only to find it empty… with all of these experiences, their minds were spinning.
They didn’t know where Jesus was, exactly, when or where he would come back to them and, if and when he did, what their relationship would be like. But they did know… that morning had dawned, the tomb was empty, and, horror of horrors… life kept going. It was on the walk home that they surely faced the stunning reality that the world was still turning; life was still being lived; and somehow they had to make sense of it all.
I will never forget my first experience with death.
In Hawaii, where I grew up, there is a very large military population. My childhood church experience, then, included Sunday School teachers and family friends who were part of military families. We would often gather at homes in military housing to have church potlucks or bible studies.
I must have been about 10 years old when my parents received a telephone call one night from a young woman in the church. It was around dinnertime and I could feel the solemn hush descend as my Dad’s voice got low and somber, and very serious. When he got off the telephone he called my mother into the other room and we knew something really bad had happened. Later they told us: the telephone call had been from Jennifer. She was calling to tell my parents that her husband, Stu, whom we all loved because he played the guitar and would always play hide and seek with the church kids even though he didn’t have any kids himself, had been killed in an accidental plane crash.
Stu was a military pilot who had recently been sent on an assignment to run test missions over the island of Guam. For some reason Jennifer did not know for sure, Stu’s plane had crashed mid-air with another plane, and he was dead.
While I could understand the facts of the news my parents were breaking to us, I remember I just could not seem to integrate what I was hearing. I remember thinking that maybe this was at terrible mistake, that Stu would call very soon and tell us that he had miraculously survived and was on his way home?
It never happened, though.
A few weeks later, Jennifer invited us over to their house on the military base. Together we looked at through a box of Stu’s possessions—name tag, medals, dog tags—and talked about Stu and how much we missed him. Jennifer cried. A lot. Then, we all got up from that conversation and (and I remember thinking this was so strange) had a cookout. We shared a potluck of all Stu’s favorite foods and spent the afternoon playing his favorite sport: volleyball.
I can still smell the grass and feel the sunshine; I recall eating potato salad and hot dogs; I even remember singing and laughter. Most of all, I remember thinking how very strange it was that, when confronted with a tragic death like Stu’s, life went on. Life just went right on!
I wondered: shouldn’t everything stop at least for a little while? Shouldn’t everything on the planet reflect the pain and horror of this turn of events in some way? Shouldn’t the world stop turning or something?
It should, I thought. But it didn’t.
It didn’t when Stu died and it certainly didn’t when Jesus died.
The tomb was empty and Mary had seen Jesus, but as they walked home from the tomb that morning those who had followed Jesus so closely must have been asking the questions: What now? Where do we go from here? What does the Gospel message Jesus came to teach us mean in practical terms for my life?Anything?
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Yes, the story of the Gospel of Jesus Christ becoming a reality in the lives of his followers, in the lives of all of humanity who would come to engage in relationship with the risen Christ, began then: on the way home from the tomb, when exhausted, grief-stricken followers of Jesus had to find some way to articulate the experience that had changed their lives.
And so it is that we find ourselves reading this morning from the second chapter of the book of Acts, Luke’s recording of the early church’s birth and growth, listening to Peter’s first sermon, as biblical scholars call this portion of Acts.
Remember, Peter was the disciple Jesus called “the rock,” the one upon whom the church would be built. Surely Peter didn’t know what that meant when Jesus said it, and my guess is that building a church was the last thing on his mind that evening in the temple courtyard when he’d denied he even knew Jesus at all.
But here he is in the second chapter of Acts, not even two months after that day they ran to find an empty tomb, preaching in public with authority and conviction, telling his own story of faith in such a way that people around him recognized their own encounters with a Gospel way of living and wanted to join Peter in his fumbling attempts to articulate what the Gospel of Jesus Christ could possibly mean for someone like him. His testimony ignited the passion of all those around him who were also craving an authentic encounter with God.
Now, Peter didn’t have a very impressive pedigree—uneducated fisher who struggled publicly with his own commitment to Christ, certainly not someone in high demand as a public speaker. He didn’t have any of the things we’ve come to associate with a person who ignites others with a compelling message and starts a religious movement that changes the world.
But what he did have… was a story. His story. And because of his encounter with the living Christ, there was no way he could keep silent. The story of his own transformation, of the conviction he had that the Gospel message could change the world, these kept bubbling up from inside him and there was no way he could keep the story to himself any longer.
For the next few weeks during the season of Easter we will be following Jesus’ first disciples through their attempts to understand this Gospel they’d been given, to share it with the world, to take the transforming power they’d experienced and… somehow… to live it out. We’ll look at the ways in which they were determined to practice resurrection. And we’ll talk frankly about how we are or aren’t practicing resurrection, too.
Last week was beautiful, it’s true, but Easter resurrection cannot remain the property of one bunny-populated Sunday. No, resurrection has to mean something or it’s just a nice story. Telling the message of Jesus Christ transforming us and transforming our world… this is practicing resurrection.
Some of you have already read Diana Butler Bass’ book Christianity for the Rest of Us. Butler Bass is a scholar who teaches just across the river at Virginia Theological Seminary. She has built a career on her suspicion that predictions of doom and gloom for the mainline church are wholly untrue.
For some time experts on church growth, you see, have been sounding the alarm that mainline Protestant churches, churches like ours, hold no relevance for the world in which they exist. We’re dinosaurs, experts would claim, unable to hold out any word of hope or transformation for the world.
And, they’d say, people don’t like to come to church anymore, anyway; they find it cold, stodgy and lifeless. They don’t care about denominations or feel any obligation at all to give their money. Unless church can somehow reinvent itself, experts claimed, churches like ours would die slow and unnoticed deaths.
There are alternatives, they said, and most experts wrote books on just the thing that would transform a mainline, traditional church into a popular Sunday morning destination: ramped up worship style, elaborate multi-media and consumer-based initiatives, like free childcare and Starbucks coffee during worship.
But Butler Bass didn’t buy that.
Instead, she started studying those old, mainline Protestant churches. And guess what she found? She found vibrant, growing, vital communities that were, you guessed it, practicing resurrection.
Her book is a study of several characteristics—she calls them signposts of renewal—that characterize these vital, traditional faith communities. As I read her book I noticed that many of the characteristics she cites are present all through the book of Acts—the story of the very first church. Signposts of renewal, practicing resurrection… that’s what the disciples had to figure out how to do that day as they walked home from the tomb.
And that’s exactly what we have to figure out, too.
How does the Gospel message matter in your life and mine? How does the Gospel message matter right here at Calvary Baptist Church?
How do we… practice resurrection?
One way we do that is testimony, an onerous, baggage-laden term for just what Peter was doing that day in the crowd: sharing his own story about how knowing Jesus had changed his life.
And you and I have stories like that to share, too.
When we share them with each other, we are practicing resurrection… we are living like Easter really matters after all.
Just like you may have suspected, testimony is a long-standing tradition in Christian practice. The version of the practice we’re probably most familiar with comes from the Puritans, who used testimony as a rite of passage. Your testimony was a story of stepping into your predefined role, an experience of finally submitting to the rigorous expectations God had for your life: the story of giving in to God. This kind of testimony leaves everything nice and neat in its conclusion: I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see!
And… there’s nothing wrong with this kind of testimony.
But its practice has had the end result of inadvertently creating environments where, when you hear a testimony like this one and your experience is not nice and neat and in conformity with everyone else’s, well, then you’re likely to think that your story of experience with God is somehow inauthentic.
So what is the kind of testimony that births new life in lives like yours and mine and in churches like ours? Why, you already know, because you do it all the time.
Testimony that births new life and practices resurrection is a testimony that is unique and personal… our very own experiences with God that reflect, as Butler Bass calls it and as the first Christians, like Peter lived out: a “spirituality of imperfection.” These testimonies are stories, yours and mine, that may be characterized by adjectives like eccentric, unexpected, unconventional. They are stories of having a lot of questions about God; about not having all the answers; and about stepping out in faith anyway.
A true testimony, the kind of story that helps us practice resurrection as individuals and as a community, is not a story about “God fixing us” but really, an individual and totally unique story of resurrection: of God’s continued work in your life and mine to create something beautiful out of our brokenness and pain. Every one is a little bit different. And every one, in its telling, is an exercise in living like Easter matters.
In case you haven’t heard, we have a new church web site.
This has been a project long in the making, the majority of hard work on the project undertaken by Mary Andreolli. The staff and church leadership devoted much energy and effort to evaluating our old site and making suggestions for the new one. Mary spent hours and hours and hours writing, editing and coding the new site.
As a church we undertook this process because almost every visitor we have in worship—probably 90%—find out about Calvary by searching the web. [How many of you either found Calvary on the web or visit the site regularly?] As part of existing in this city as a vital faith community, it’s critical for us to create and maintain a web site that is attractive and easy to use.
But there’s not one person I’ve met in my almost-five years here who has become a member of this community of faith because of our excellent web site. Or, as a matter of fact, because of our well-edited newsletter… or the carefully planned liturgy in worship… the wonderful music… even the indisputably stellar sermons.
Everyone I know of who has joined this community of faith and made the commitment of membership has taken part in some kind of opportunity to share a personal faith story. All of you have experienced in some way the truth that hearing and telling our stories of faith—our testimonies—knits us together as the community of Christ that is Calvary Baptist Church.
I know this because, very often, I get to share in these moments with new members… and, come to think of it, longtime members, too. I hear your testimonies when you tell me who you are… when you share the questions you’re wondering about now… when I ask and you answer: ”What are you passionate about? And, who God is calling you to be?”
And when I hear your testimony and you hear mine we are reassured in our quest for relationship with God because we discover again that we are not alone on this journey of faith, that we walk side by side with each other, searching and finding God, creating and investing in vital community, practicing resurrection!
When I was little I learned the rhyme: “Here’s the church… here’s the steeple… open the doors… and here’s all the people!”
When we talk about practicing resurrection we’re not talking about the church as a building and a steeple, though we certainly have a beautiful church building.
Churches that are just buildings shrivel and die, just like the experts say.
No, we’re talking about those of us inside the building reaching out to the world and sharing… our testimonies, our stories of Gospel living: why it is that we even look for God and how it is that God finds us, over and over and over again.
If you were telling the story of Gospel of Jesus Christ becoming a reality for your life and mine, where would you start the story?
Friends, if we’re serious about practicing resurrection then we should know: the story starts again, in your life and my life, right now.