The Call to Continue — Saturday Sermon from the Sidelines

John 20:19-31; 2 Easter B 2021

Life after the Resurrection is rough going. Mary Magdalene suspects tomb raiders and gets abandoned to grieve alone. Peter and The Other Disciple (aka TOD) race to the tomb, inspect the linens, and retreat behind locked doors. Jesus passes through their security measures and nearly scares the life out of them. Thomas is off somewhere on his own and misses all the fireworks. He demands physical evidence. Jesus says in response, “Stick out your finger, smart guy!”

Yes, it all turns out well in the end. Mary hears her name and greets her Lord and Friend. The disciples rejoice when they realize it’s Jesus. Thomas shouts his confession of faith for the Church to hear down the centuries – “My Lord and my God!” We salute one another with the good news of Easter. Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Then another Monday comes. And the broken world is right where we left it on Saturday. So much for Easter bringing in a whole new cosmos, right?

Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich on Pexels.com

Life after the Resurrection is rough going. The writer of John’s Gospel knows this all too well. When we follow Jesus, we need booster shots to buck up. We need Resurrection refreshers to keep us going. It’s not Easter that’s the challenge. The challenge is what comes after.

At the end of today’s gospel text, we read the conclusion to John’s whole gospel story. I know there’s another chapter after this. But think about John 21 like the epilogue or afterword to a book. There’s important stuff there. But the punchline of the whole Gospel of John is chapter twenty, verses thirty and thirty-one.

We tend to miss that because the whole “doubting Thomas” thing sucks all the air out of the room. So, let’s spend some time with those last two verses today. “Therefore, Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book,” John writes. “But these are written in order that you may continue to believe that the Messiah, the Son of God, is Jesus, and when you are believing, you may have life in his name.”

That’s my translation of those verses. I know the New Revised Standard Version says all these signs are written “so that you may come to believe.” The NRSV translation makes it sound like John’s gospel is written for those who don’t yet believe. I think John intends to write mostly for those of us who have come to believe but are in danger of losing our faith.

There’s a theological cottage industry built on the debate about how to translate “believe” in this passage. Nothing would make me happier than to walk through the data and arguments. If I did that, however, I’m pretty sure I’d be walking alone. So, here’s the deal. The evidence from manuscripts and grammar is solidly in favor of the “continue to believe” option. So, I’m going with that reading.

Life after the Resurrection is rough going. The writer of John’s gospel knows that. For the first audience, the problem may be that these predominantly Jewish Christians are being forced to choose between a more “orthodox” Judaism and a faith that says the Jewish Messiah is Jesus of Nazareth.

That’s why another part of the translation matters. Most translations of verse thirty-one say, “Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.” There are very good reasons, however, to translate it as “the Messiah, the Son of God, is Jesus.

I know, I know. It sounds like six of one, and a half dozen of the other. But each translation answers a different question. Is Jesus the Messiah? That is, is the most important question about Jesus’ identity?

Or is the Messiah Jesus? If you’re a Jewish Christian having debates with your more Orthodox in-laws over a Sabbath dinner, that’s the question that matters. Yes, we are waiting for the promised Messiah. But why in the world would you think that some crucified fool from Nazareth is the One?

For John’s readers, the answer was getting them disinvited from those dinners and booted out of their synagogues. It was a big deal.

We might have trouble empathizing with this problem at first. But think for a moment. How many friendships have evaporated because you can’t see eye to eye on current politics? How many family meals have been disrupted by political – or religious – disagreements lately? How many people do you or I ignore or avoid because we aren’t on the same political or spiritual page?

It would be a lot easier to let go of our contested opinions and priorities. It would be a lot simpler to go along just to get along. What if hanging on to Jesus meant letting go of your family or friends? That may be the sad reality in some families. I hope the more frequent outcome is a hard but rewarding journey back toward relationship and respect. That sounds a lot like new life.

Life after the Resurrection is rough going. We exit this Resurrection week looking forward to some return to “normal,” some measure of “getting back to the way things were.” But what does that mean? Will going back to normal require us to let go of the new world Easter brings?

Esau McCaulley wrote a great book called Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. I recommend it to anyone. McCaulley has an op-ed column in the New York Times called “The Unsettling Power of Easter.”

In that column he writes, “To listen to the plans of some, after the pandemic we are returning to a world of parties and rejoicing. This is true. Parties have their place. Let us not close all paths to happiness.” Yes, I can’t wait to hug my grandkids without anxiety.

“But,” McCaulley continues, “we are also returning to a world of hatred, cruelty, division and a thirst for power that was never quarantined. This period under pressure has freshly thrown into relief the fissures in the American experiment.” That is certainly true for our country. It also happens to be true for our churches.

Recently, I read a piece by Pastor Steve Brackett. Brackett is an Assistant to the Bishop in the Northeastern Iowa Synod, ELCA. Pastor Brackett has responsibilities for the congregational call process. And he sounds worried to me. I am sure these worries are not exclusive to that synod or to that denomination. I suspect Pastor Brackett speaks for large parts of the American Church.

Especially as we come out of Covid-tide, life after the Resurrection is rough going. “As I write this, we have 30 congregations in the call process,” Pastor Brackett notes. “That number is likely to increase as some of our rostered ministers decide that the only way to recover from the difficulties of this pandemic is to leave and start fresh in another call.”

It’s been a brutal stretch in many ministries. I know that some of my colleagues are nearly at the end of their pastoral ropes.

“My hope,” Brackett continues, “is that rostered ministers and congregations will decide to remain in ministry together.  For this to happen, some time will need to be set aside to have honest conversations about what went well in establishing worship and ministry protocols, and what did not go well.”

A number of my pastoral colleagues are hoping for some recovery time away from the parish sooner rather than later. (By the way, I expect the pulpit supply business to boom this summer).

“Where necessary, forgiveness should be sought and granted for the times when communication broke down, or unkind things were said, or when people let their anxiety or anger get the better of them during negotiations or implementation of protocols,” Bracket wisely counsels.

“Following a crisis of any kind in a community, it is typical for clergy in the area to seek new calls shortly afterward,” he notes, “While this was a global pandemic, it was experienced locally in each congregation.  The easy way for rostered ministers and people to move beyond such a crisis is to part ways. But often the better path for the sake of ministry is to work through these difficult issues and remain in ministry together.”

Friends, we church folks must do our best to heed Pastor Brackett’s counsel and seek the healing good news of Resurrection in our lives, in our relationships and in our congregations. Honestly, in some places, the pain is too much, the ruptures too deep. In some places, a parting of the ways will be the most faithful path. In others it will not. In either case, the good news of Jesus is given to us so that we may continue to believe.

If that is the case in the Church, it is more so the case in the world. But we need more in our world than forgiveness and reconciliation. We need real systemic change and an ongoing passion for God’s justice for all people.

“As we leave the tombs of quarantine,” Esau McCaulley concludes his op-ed, “a return to normal would be a disaster unless we recognize that we are going back to a world desperately in need of healing. For me, the source of that healing is an empty tomb in Jerusalem. The work that Jesus left his followers to do includes showing compassion and forgiveness and contending for a just society. It involves the ever-present offer for all to begin again.”

Life after the Resurrection is rough going. The emptiness of the tomb may reflect the emptiness of our hearts. The retreat of the disciples may point to our own wish to hide from the troubles still out there. We may be drowning in grief, unable even to look up in hope. We may be angry, cynical, and ready to give up like Thomas.

But, dear friends, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia! We have these stories so we may continue to believe. And as we continue believing, may we find – and share – the life we have in Christ’s name. Amen.

Esau McCaulley’s recent column: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/02/opinion/easter-celebration.html

Steve Brackett’s article: http://blog.neiasynod.org/2021/03/an-update-on-call-process/?fbclid=IwAR2Hm8zdc2fQS-amPLtLq5cAzh7nMgjotl2aNwikg5laQnkNKxZIgIrWwMw

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