Sermon by Ken Sehested
Texts: Hosea 6: 1-3, Luke 24: 36-53
Every now and then I stay up late enough to catch David Letterman's talk show. You Letterman fans know about his "Top Ten" list which he does each evening. He starts with some kind of zany statement or conclusion to a question and then lists ten possible and equally zany variations of questions that fit the conclusion.
Well, I've got my own "Top Ten" list. Question: How can you tell it's the Sunday after Easter?
Answer #10: There's not a lily in sight.
#9: Walgreen's and K&B rotate the Easter candy to the sale tables and bring out the Mother's Day cards and gift ideas.
#8: You'll have no trouble finding a seat (even if you're late for worship).
#7: You'll have no trouble finding a parking place (even if you're late for worship).
#6: There is a very noticeable relaxing of the dress code.
#5: The number of visitors drops dramatically.
#4: The number of people who look like visitors but are actually church members who haven't been here for a while drops dramatically.
#3: Everyone is glad to wait another 12 months before singing "Up From the Grave He Arose."
#2: The choir recycles an old anthem.
#1: The preacher takes a Sunday off.
Easter Sunday is a hard act to follow. The Sunday after Easter mood is about like the way you feel when you pull the car in the driveway at the end of a long trip to some distant location. Dinner is definitely a take-out occasion. The return to "normal" life is a bit sluggish.
That's why preachers and choirs tend to take a week off or cook up some offering of a lighter fare. That's why you have a pinch hitter this morning.
The week after Easter is a very popular time for R&R conferences and retreats for ministers. It's a time for all of us—but especially preachers and choirs—to recover from the agony of Holy Week and the ecstasy of Easter, to kick back their feet and take a blow.
It's easy to understand. Who doesn't? It takes a lot of overtime work to pull off those extra Holy Week services and all the special features and arrangements for Easter Sunday. It doesn't take a degree in psychology to know that there's sure to be an emotional let-down. The sound of the Monday morning alarm clock is always a harsh one. Much, much more so the day after Easter. Actually—and this may sound odd at first—every preacher knows it's very easy to preach an Easter Sunday sermon. It's like getting a fat pitch to hit, a 3-and-2 count fastball, with no movement, belt high, in the heart of the plate, with runners in scoring position. Can't miss. Just about anybody can preach a good Easter sermon. It's the Sunday after Easter that takes some work.
Easter kind of wears us out. It's easy to understand. But it's also unfortunate. Because the other shoe has yet to drop. Easter is the beginning, not the conclusion. Just as our faith does not end with Good Friday crucifixion, neither does it end with Easter resurrection. We may be exhausted, but the New Testament story is not. Resurrection is certainly the pivotal moment in this drama; but there's another act to follow. But if you leave now . . . well, let's just say you go home and tell your friends this play was about spring fashions and painted eggs and chocolate bunnies. All very delightful, of course. Great acting; superb staging; crisp dialog; marvelous dramatic movement. But you missed the point. It would be kind of like walking out on "The Fugitive" right after the bus accident. Harrison Ford escapes, and boy are we glad ‘cause we know he's innocent, didn't kill his wife, didn't deserve to die in the electric chair. And now he's free. Oh, thank-you Jesus; now we can go home.
That would be crazy, of course, because things are just now getting interesting. If you think that bus crash was a heart-pounder, you ain't seen nothing yet. If you walk out now, you miss the most exciting part of the movie. And if you quit reading when Jesus is rescued from the jaws of death . . . well, let's just say you go home and tell your friends that this story is about gettin' people to heaven when they die.
That's the interpretation that a lot of churches give to this story. Lay-away theology: Give your heart to Jesus now so you can go to heaven later. Easy installments of weekly church attendance.
Transport theology: Buy your ticket now in case the glory train comes early. Then just hang out 'til the whistle blows. Nothing else much matter much once your ticket's in hand.
Life insurance theology: Once you read the policy and make arrangements for the payments, you file it away (and hope you don't have to cash it in any time soon).
But the New Testament story of Easter is different. Resurrection is not life insurance, to be used only in case of emergency. It's more like mobilization orders for someone in the National Guard. The action has just begun. Resurrection, as Clarence Jordan says, is God's refusal to stay on the other side of the grave. "God raised Jesus, not as an invitation to us to come to heaven when we die, but as a declaration that He himself has not established permanent residence on earth. The resurrection places Jesus on this side of the grave, here and now, in the midst of this life. The Good News of the resurrection is not that we shall die and go home with him but that he is risen and comes home with us, bringing all his hungry, naked, thirsty, sick, prisoner brothers and sisters with him."
Easter does not exhaust the biblical narrative of God's saving work. There's more. What began with Adam and Eve, what began again with Noah and the ark, and again with Israel's escape from Egyptian bondage, and again with Jonah emerging from the whale's belly, and again with Israel's repeated returns from exile, and again with Mary's pregnancy—all these beginnings and new beginnings, now uniquely confirmed and summarized and restated in the resurrection, are the prelude to the final act in the story, one step short of the dramatic conclusion of the salvation story. There is another stage between the eruption of Easter and the inauguration of the New Heaven and the New Earth. Just as surely as Good Friday crucifixion is followed by and fulfilled in Easter resurrection, Easter in turn is followed by and blossoms into Pentecost.
Easter is God's resurrection moment, Pentecost is God's resurrection movement. Pentecost, the birthday of the church, is the enactment of the dramatic declaration of the news of Easter morning. Easter is when God announces the invasion; Pentecost is when God establishes a beachhead.
Our New Testament text this morning is a bridge text between these two momentous occasions. Luke is at the end of his first book, about to start the second volume, which is called the Acts of the Apostles. Here, in the final story of Luke's account, we find the resurrected Jesus appearing to the dazed and terrified disciples huddling behind closed doors in some secret location in Jerusalem. They've already found out about the empty tomb. The women have told them their fantastic tale of having spoken with the resurrected Lord, and while they're not dismissed out of hand as they were at first, the menfolk probably still do not fully believe them. A resuscitated corpse may be a scientific marvel, but it doesn't have the power to beckon death-defying faith.
Jesus suddenly appears among them. "Peace be to you," he says. He asks why they're still in hiding. "Why are you troubled?” as if he didn't know. And did you notice what came next? Before the disciples even have a chance to respond, Jesus asks if they have anything to eat.
"Yo, guys! What's happ'nin? What's for dinner?"
Seems like everywhere Jesus went in the Gospel stories, food gets passed around. Actually, this is no coincidence, but an important clue about his mission.
After repeating the same teaching he had given just a little earlier to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, about how God was fulfilling what was written in Hebrew Scripture, Jesus formally swears them in as witnesses to this new reality—a reality not really new but only hidden and now made manifest. "And behold, I send the promise of my Abba upon you," he says. And then a curious command: "but stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high." Don't rush out just yet, he says. Don't get ahead of yourselves. God will act again, to empower you. It is the promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit, which Luke would write about just a few chapters into his second book—the occasion of Pentecost.
Pentecost never drew much attention for those of us who grew up in Baptist churches. For the first half of my life, my only association with Pentecost was that bizarre practice called "speaking in tongues" which the Pentecostal folk did. Always seemed kinda spooky, in poor taste, definitely uncultured. "Pentecostal power" meant talking gibberish with lots of weird emotions. Later I learned that this Pentecost marvel wasn't about glossolalia—ecstatic tongues—but about the disciples' sudden ability to speak in foreign languages. Certainly interesting, even impressive, but not very gripping.
It would be later still before I began to comprehend the real miracle at Pentecost. Pentecostal power was not talking emotional gibberish; nor was it the overnight facility with languages on the part of the disciples. No, Pentecostal power was about the overcoming of walls of hostility. Pentecostal power was about the fact that people of different races, different cultures, difference languages (to be sure), different nationalities and ethnicities suddenly understanding each other, suddenly about to really "hear" each other, suddenly able to respond to each other with empathy rather than hostility. Remember that Jesus' final entry into Jerusalem, just before Good Friday and Easter morning, was the celebration of Passover in Jerusalem. It was the time when Jews from everywhere came on pilgrimage to the holy city. Walk down the streets of Jerusalem during Passover and you could hear people speaking in languages from every part of the known world. Pentecost would come to symbolize the overcoming of the Tower of Babel story in Genesis, when human arrogance became so overwhelming that God "confused their tongues" so they could not understand each other. Pentecost is the unraveling of this confusion and this division within the human community. Pentecost, in other words, is about overcoming racism, and nationalism, and every other "ism" which feeds enmity and hatred between people.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. We're not yet to Pentecost. There's still a good bit to go of the 50 days separating Easter and Pentecost.
Right now we're in between times. Resurrection has occurred, but the reforming of the people of God has not yet happened. The coming of the Spirit power is ahead of us still. Right now we're still waiting and listening and reading the signs of the times. Right now we're still gestating, not quite ready to be born. And that brings me to the point of this sermon.
I am convinced that a new gestation of the people of God is actually occurring among us at this very moment. I am convinced that we are at present between the Resurrection moment and a new Resurrection movement. The God movement (as Clarence Jordan would say) is being redefined and reshaped. And this is happening in two related arenas, both of which encompass the life of Prescott Memorial Baptist Church. One is more narrow, geographically and culturally specific; the other is broader, more global in scope.
The first instance of God's reforming the life of the people of God has to do with our historic identity as a Southern Baptist-affiliated congregation. We're only barely an SBC church, of course. We've already been kicked out of the local SBC association. And both the state and national bodies can expel us at any time. It's not a question of if they dismiss us, but when. I am saying that the time has come for us to take the initiative to sever that affiliation ourselves.
The second instance of God's reforming the people of God in our age has to do with a more global reality. Sometime during the middle of this century a little known but very significant thing happened. For the first time in history, the majority of the Christian community is now composed of people of color. The worldwide church isn't white anymore. In addition, the majority of the Christian community now live in the South and in the East. No longer is Western Europe and North America the center of God's resurrection movement.
Understand the significance of this fact: the new constitution of the people of God now lives primarily outside the gates of the empire, the empire being the United States and its client states in the North Atlantic region. Therefore the interests of the empire are increasingly at odds with the people of God.
April 10, 1994, Prescott Memorial Baptist Church, Memphis, Tennessee,
©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org