04-22-18 THE CARING SHEPHERD

THE CARING SHEPHERD

Psalm 23; John 10: 11-18

 

In the sixteenth century Joseph ben Ephraim Qaro, … a persecuted Spanish Jew who migrated to Palestine, produced a monumental summary of Jewish law under the title Shulhan Aruk, which means, a “Table Prepared.”  Qaro took the title from the twenty-third Psalm “thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.” Yes the psalms were the original hymnal of the Jerusalem temple, but they were also used for religious education and spiritual guidance over the ages. The Psalms speak clearly and vividly about religious truths. Even in our day, many small Testament Bibles, handed out to college students or to military personnel by groups like the Gideons, not only contain the New Testament, they also contain the Psalms. The Psalms have served several functions since the days of King David who wrote many of them.  One, they contain pictures of life in countless stages and situations. Two, they run the gamut of human emotions from anguish to praise to comfort. And Three, we find examples of prayers people have offered to God so that we, when tongue tied, might have some templates to follow. Some Psalms resound with joy and thanksgiving; others let us listen in to a hurting soul. They are a resource for Jew and for Christians to this day. When you may be struggling or broken, you can see what people before us said as they turned to God.  And when words hardly form in one’s prayer life, a Psalm can shine a light in your darkness.  Of all the Psalms in the book, Psalms 51, 90, 91, 100, 121, and 150 are used often, but the most beloved Psalm is the twenty-third Psalm.  There is no doubt in my mind that Jesus, addressing his disciples in John 10, knew Psalm 23.  His knowledge of those words molded his message that he was the “good shepherd.” Psalm 23 is often called “the Shepherd’s Psalm,” and it is the most used passage of Scripture at funerals.

 

Psalm 23 is an affirmation of faith; it expresses extreme trust even as it offers personal confession.  David, the writer of the Psalm, shows a child-like trust in the Lord, who he likened to a shepherd. Although the shortest Christian confession in the Bible is “Jesus is Lord,” the first line of this Psalm is also a confession of faith: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” There it is. Still, few in American culture get exposed to the life of a shepherd. That’s why an author and shepherd like Phillip Keller is so helpful. In his book A Shepherd Looks a Psalm 23, he unpacks the meaning of those beloved words. He grew up in East Africa and watched native herders at work. He became a lay pastor, bringing with him his wealth of “pastoral” insights. Even the term “Pastor” refers to “one that looks out for a flock.”

“I shall not want.”  In other words, “I have everything I need.”  The shepherd takes care of the food, the water, the grooming, the doctoring, and the protection of the sheep.  Ah, to be a sheep in the flock of a good shepherd: that’s the pinnacle of care! That’s what David noticed, what he apparently practiced and what he believed about being in God’s care. It was quite a claim.

“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.” Keller wrote:

The strange thing about sheep is that because of their very make-up it is almost impossible for them to be made to lie down unless four requirements are met:

Owing to their timidity, they refuse to lie down unless they are free from fear.

Because of the social behavior within a flock, sheep will not lie down unless they are free from friction with others of their kind.

If tormented by flies or parasites, sheep will not lie down. Only when free of these pests can they relax.

Lastly, sheep will not lie down as long as they are in need of finding food. They must be free from hunger. [Zondervan, 1970, p. 35]

 

Goodness! Humans … I mean sheep, are needy!

 

“He leadeth me beside the still waters.”  Sheep, I have learned, will not drink from a running stream; they will die of thirst out of their fear of getting water in their nose (a little like humans?) But if they drink from stagnant water, bacteria can grow and infect their digestive system. So a shepherd must find water (available ideally from streams, rivers, or springs in Israel,) and either capture the water and pour it into a trough, or dam up the running water temporarily so the sheep will drink it.  Just like our four little grandsons will absolutely not drink water from their brother’s or cousins assigned cups, so sheep will not drink water unless it is still. Finicky! But they need hydration for sure, and that’s the way a shepherd achieves it.

 

As we hear Psalm 23, it rarely occurs to us that this is shared from the point of view of sheep. These are the needs of sheep! But then we step away from the sheep metaphor and David decides to jump into his own skin, writing:

he restoreth my soul.”  A sheep might put it this way: “He gives me peace.” But David knows there’s more to God than peace; there is also justice; there is mercy; there is love; and there is righteousness. God restored David’s soul; God can restore our soul. It is a rich expression of belief.

“He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” When the one who owns the sheep, and even the land, is the one taking care of them, his name is on the flock. That is, when your name is on something, and it is your responsibility to have something succeed instead of fail, great care and attention may be poured into that venture. For God’s own sake, the shepherd leads sheep in the right paths.  Sheep do not just wander aimlessly. Where they go and how much they eat is carefully decided by the shepherd. If they eat grass to the ground, it will not quickly grow back. If they go in the direction of a cliff or a predator, they could be hurt or killed. God’s name is on these sheep.  Or as Christians, Christ claims us at our baptism and puts his name on our foreheads and in our hearts. To the public he writes: “This one’s mine!” And to the person he whispers, “You are mine!” What comfort.

Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. The lands of Israel always created opportunities for danger to sheep.  Valleys were important because water would collect there; but predators or bandits could get the upper hand by being at the top of a ridge, a small cliff, or hiding in a cave. The shepherd always had to watch for the human dangers of bandits that would try to steal sheep, or for predators like coyotes, wolves, cougars, stray dogs, or snakes.  The rod was a stout stick used to stir brush to reveal serpents, or to smack the heads or noses of animals starting to attack.  In our day, cattlemen may refer to a pistol as their “rod,” with the same purpose in mind.  The rod is for protection; the staff is for gathering, collecting, and pulling sheep back from danger. The crook would go gently under the body or around a neck of the sheep.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies. A good shepherd prepares the tableland. First, the shepherd searches for just the right place that is level enough and covered with enough healthy grasses.  Then, he also must pluck up certain weeds and flowers that, if ingested by sheep, are poisonous. He finally decides how long to leave the sheep in one place—not too long as to remove all vegetation; because he counts on it growing back. The enemies of sheep may gather nearby while they graze: humans who want to take them, or animals that want to eat them are nearby. The shepherd knows that the rocks and the cliffs can have eyes, so he is always watching for danger while they eat.

Thou anointest my head with oil, my cup runneth over.  Especially in the summer, sheep can be tormented by biting flies. But like a flea and tick collar for dogs, shepherds concocted a natural insect repellent, made it into an ointment, and applied it to the head of the sheep and to other parts of their body.  If they were tormented, as we are tormented by mosquitoes in Florida or Georgians are tormented gnats, we know what relief a good repellent is. The shepherd knows that too.  It keeps sheep from getting so anxious that they will not eat or sleep. Sheep have their needs met because of their shepherd.

 

Finally, David the writer addressed the reader, human being to human being:
[Yes God is like a good shepherd, and because of that I declare:] Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.  The Bible is filled with metaphors; metaphors try to describe what is hard to describe. Calling God a good shepherd, or Jesus a good shepherd, is one such metaphor. Calling us “sheep” is another. But few other words can describe what it is like to be in such good care.  Be comforted by the images; and remind yourself how good it is to be in the flock of a good shepherd.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                 April 22, 2018

 

04-15-18 JESUS BY THE SEA

JESUS BY THE SEA

Luke 24: 36b-48

 

A visiting Priest was attending a men’s breakfast in Ohio farm country. He asked one of the impressive older farmers in attendance to say grace that morning. After all were seated, the older farmer began:

“Lord, I hate buttermilk.”

The Priest opened one eye and wondered to himself where this was going.

Then the farmer loudly proclaimed, “Lord, I hate lard.”

Now the Priest was overly worried. However without missing a beat, the farmer prayed on,

“And Lord, you know I don’t care much for raw white flour.”

Just as the Priest was ready to stand and stop everything, the farmer continued,

“But Lord, when you mix ‘em all together and bake ‘em up, I do love fresh biscuits.”

“So Lord, when things come up we don’t like, when life gets hard, when we just don’t understand what you are sayin’ to us, we just need to relax and wait ‘till you are done mixin’, and probably it will be somethin’ even better than biscuits.”

 

I shared that story with our Men’s group several months ago! It’s a wonderful reminder that it takes all kinds of ingredients; all kinds of people; and all kinds of talents, which—on their own—may seem irritating or inadequate. But mix them with the Holy Spirit and great things can happen!

Churches operate on that recipe. Some people initially feel too young, too old, or too inadequate to be of any use. But mix them with prayer, training, and God’s Spirit, and soon we get something better than biscuits!

 

In John’s gospel we learned that the disciples, perhaps like many of us, felt ill equipped to handle the ministry that was asked of them. They were unsure; they did not feel up to the task.  But with prayer and with practice, they carried out their tasks. I deliberately chose liturgists today from our Confirmation Class. By having them here, I am not throwing them in the deep end of the pool; they have practiced this kind of work during our Wednesday prayer services. We practiced together on Wednesday; and we have prayed. So young persons, who perhaps weren’t sure they were up to the task, show us that they are! That’s what Jesus wants from his disciples! He, in effect, says: “Trust me! You are ready for this!” And so, the beginning of Christianity after Jesus arose from the dead began to blossom. The mixer is not a Kitchen Aid or a Sunbeam; it is the Holy Spirit- taking the ingredients of ordinary men, women, and youth, filling in the gaps, mixing in the ingredients that look like talents, and something wonderful is made out of it! To this day God’s Spirit makes wonderful recipes out of ordinary ingredients- you, me, and any inadequacies we may feel.

 

Author John MacArthur wrote two books in particular. One was “Twelve Ordinary Men” and one was a sequel: “Twelve Extraordinary Women.”

In them he describes how God took ordinary people, and set them apart from their common tasks to carry out God’s special tasks, just as we set aside common water, common bread, and common wine from their common uses when they are used for special reasons in our sacraments.  Remember: with ingredients God chooses, and that people God choose, the Spirit can mix them together and mighty things are made!  Listen to how John MacArthur puts it:

If you were going to recruit a team to alter the course of history, how would you begin? Jesus began with a walk by a lake. “Follow me” the Master told them. And they did. Thus began his uncommon mission with twelve most common individuals: men who became Christ’s very first disciples. Have you ever considered who Jesus didn’t choose for his inner circle? He didn’t select a rabbi. He didn’t recruit scholars. He didn’t look within the religious establishment to build his team. Any of these would have given him an inside track with those in power. Instead he assembled a rag-tag bunch of folks with unimpressive resumes….it was part of the plan….Jesus wanted ordinary people—people with hopes and dreams of their own but who were willing to leave their lives behind to follow the Savior. [W Publishing Group, 2002, inside front cover]

 

Jesus was really on to something … and he still is!  Do you know that studies have shown that if you invite someone to church, 90% of those invited will come or consider coming. If a minister invites someone to come, only 10% come or will consider coming! People thinking ministers are paid to do such things; but you do them because you have found a good Savior, and a good church! Look what power you have! And Jesus knew that.  Pastors can teach you and help you with prayer, and guide you in mission, but you are the kingdom of God and you keep growing the Kingdom! My invitations to you and others are always offered, but yours are more effective. Young, old, abled or disabled: God uses each one of us! The Apostle Paul put it this way: “God said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ [and] the knowledge of the glory of God [has shined] in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay pots, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God, and does not come from us.” [2 Corinthians 4: 6-7] There is a classroom at First Presbyterian Church here in Daytona Beach called the “Cracked Pots” class! It is a constant reminder that class members are not the light; I am not the light; and you are not the light. But we are called to let the light—who is Jesus—shine through all we say and do!

 

By the Sea of Galilee Jesus called his disciples. Now in today’s passage they are still in the holy city of Jerusalem. Jesus appeared to them again after he had arisen from the dead! Why did he ask for food? Why did he ask them to touch his hands and his feet? It was for them to believe he was not a ghost; not just an image, he was really there in bodily form.

David Heim tells the true story of a man who served in the Navy—Charles Hubbard, of Austin, Texas. The Vietnam vet received a letter from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs informing him that he was dead and that his family needed to return thousands of dollars in benefits! A victim of stolen identity, Hubbard found his checking account closed by the VA. After he made an extensive case for being alive, the VA informed him that it would take eight months for him to be officially brought back to life! That’s when they would restore his pension benefits. The resurrected Christ had his own problems convincing the disciples that he is alive and well, bodily present with them.

 

Having someone rise from death leaves people in wonder and in awe. Most would just think if they saw a man who died they were seeing his ghost. But this was Jesus. He knew they were frightened according to verse 37; he also knew they were falling back into their old trades and ways. But Jesus didn’t come to be a flash in a pan; he came to change the world. And this change would not happen if the 11 remaining apostles just went back to being fisherman or tax collectors. So he needed another meeting with them; a motivational meeting to redirect their work. This was it. And he said this: “the Messiah was supposed to suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and [because of that] repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations beginning Jerusalem.” They were already in Jerusalem! This was it! They were being commissioned; and the book of Acts continued to record the work of these apostles—these sent ones—who took the light of Jesus to the nations.

 

Those men have long died. So the message—that Jesus is the light of the world and the Savior—is now ours to share! It’s not just for preachers to do—as I said, we are less effective in reaching others than you are! So you make the most difference in sharing his light! You are the ones Jesus calls to proclaim his name to all nations. But you can start in your condo; or in your neighborhood; or in your school. You may ask: how do I do that? Here’s an actual conversation that occurred several years ago with congregation members: that couple came down a condo elevator on a Sunday morning; they were dressed for church; another couple on the elevator were dressed for tennis. “Going to play tennis?” The church-going couple asked. “Yes!” they said. “Have fun!” the church going couple said. After my class on evangelism that week, their conversation went like this two weeks later:

“Ah, playing tennis?” The church-going couple asked. “Yes!” they said. But this time the church couple said: “We’re going to our church; a wonderful church-Westminster By-the-Sea! Look!” (and they pointed to our building from their glass elevator.) “It’s right there! Come with us sometime! We’ll sit with you!” And the tennis couple said “Thanks! We might just do that!” And they did. People came to church because of that change in the conversation.

 

The hymn we are about to sing proclaims that “Jesus Calls Us.” Jesus does not just call the 12 apostles; he calls us too; to follow him; to let his light shine through us; and to proclaim his name wherever we can! Even in our weak times, our young age, or our old age, we are just cracked pots: vessels committed to letting Jesus be known. May you accept your commission from Jesus today, or redouble your prior efforts for the future.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          April 15, 2018

 

04-08-18 CAMELOT CHRISTIANITY

CAMELOT CHRISTIANITY

Acts 4: 32-35

Do you recognize these words from a musical?

A law was made a distant moon ago here:

July and August cannot be too hot.

And there’s a legal limit to the snow here

In Camelot.

The winter is forbidden till December

And exits March the second on the dot.

By order, summer lingers through September

In Camelot.

Camelot! Camelot!

I know it sounds a bit bizarre,

But in Camelot, Camelot

That’s how conditions are.

The rain may never fall till after sundown.

By eight, the morning fog must disappear.

In short, there’s simply not

A more congenial spot

For happily-ever-aftering than here

In Camelot.

 

“Camelot is a musical by Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe ( music). It is based on the King Arthur legend as adapted from the T. H. White novel The Once and Future King.” [Wikopedia] As much as it describes the way we might like things to be, it is a fairytale; a legend. It is dreamy but not real. Or is it?  Camelot sells.  People describe the years when Kennedy was President as “Camelot.” But they were not. Wedding photographers try to make the wedding day look carefree and joyful! But hundreds of weddings I have witnessed were filled with anxiety and often tears instead. Our daughter posted a picture of our grandson in a text to us. He looked like angel! One time Jenny posted how many pictures she had to take to get a good one: it was 23! 23 pictures to get one that looked like Camelot! I remember old ads for cars in the 60s where a man floated down from the sky and landed in the driver’s seat of a brand new Chevy convertible! Camelot! Camelot sells.  Who has bought a timeshare thinking that it would make for Camelot vacations? That’s sometimes not the case. Camelot is what we hope; what we dream; they way people think things should be. Thomas Kinkade was a Camelot painter of idyllic scenes.

 

Even the Bible has some idyllic, Camelot scenes. Genesis chapter 1 is an example. God was creating and naming everything good! All was well! But perhaps the best Thomas Kinkade-like painter in the Bible was Luke. Luke “painted” the endearing picture of Mary and Joseph and shepherds and animals in a Bethlehem stable when Jesus was born. Luke “painted” the compassionate picture of a Good Samaritan helping a man who was beaten. It was just a story, but one found only in Luke.  And almost all scholars agree that Luke wrote the book of Acts too. So we come to on another picture with a Thomas Kinkade touch: a picture of Camelot Christianity.  Acts 4:32-35:

32 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35 They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. 36 There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”). 37 He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

 

Wonderful pastor, teacher, Bishop, and preacher William Willimon says this about those words:

We are not surprised to hear Luke claim that “the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul” (4:32) because we are accustomed to hearing such pious, often unrealistic claims made by Christian congregations, even within our own day. Preachers sometimes tend toward rosey [sic] exaggerations. But when Luke claims that “no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but that they had everything in common” (4:32), our ears perk up. [Acts, Interpretation: A Bible Study for Teaching and Preaching. Atlanta:  John Knox Press, p.

52.]

 

So should this description that Luke writes in Acts chapter 4 be accompanied by lilting “Camelot” music; or be seen with the light paintbrush of Kinkade; or is it possible that it’s really happened in those early years of Christianity?

 

I went through the websites of 7 current major congregations this week. Reading their costly and visually stunning websites made me think I was about to enter the Land of Oz! Everything was puffed up and enhanced! When it comes to advertising and promotion and sales, I think we are all guilty, to some degree, of painting the pictures of our products in generously optimistic ways.  On occasion I have read the ad for a car that included a picture. Then I’ve gone to see the car in person. Sometimes there’s quite a difference! Churches all compete on social media and in newsprint as well. Our well-placed ads for Easter cost money; churches spent so much promoting Easter services in hopes that a portion of the people might come on Easter or consider joining. But we put try to put our best foot forward every week, not just on Easter. Still, last Sunday almost 600 worshippers heard our Easter message and music and had an invitation to follow Jesus.

 

Could it be that Luke, who tends to wrap his message in light and in love, described the early church in an accurate but also in a generous way?  Can you imagine in our day of capitalism and real estate, no one holding any property of their own? That’s what’s described in Acts chapter 4. In a way we have it; just this week we caught the first of at least three distributions of an estate while loving people are sharing the proceeds of possessions, a cabin, and a house with the church.   But Acts is not in 21st Century America. It was a different place when people were filled with the highest hopes for being a Christian community. Do you recall how radical Jesus was?  There is no record of Jesus owning anything except the tunic on his body. No record of him owning an animal, or a piece of land, or a home. He leaned on others and welcomed their hospitality. Indeed it could be that at the beginning of Christianity, and at the beginning of the world in Genesis, there was a kind of Camelot; a kind of innocence and wonder and gladness? Perhaps all new groups of Christians, fresh out of the waters of their baptisms, view their new life through Camelot eyes. The question is, can we keep our hopeful attitudes from souring over a short period of time? Things soured in Genesis 3 when the serpent was introduced. Things soured in Luke chapter 2, just after baby Jesus was dedicated at the temple:  a man douses that lovely day with these dark words: “this child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel … [and then he turns to the proud mother Mary and says to her] and a sword will pierce your own heart too.” [34,35.]  Come on, man! Couldn’t you wait a day or two before sharing such darkness?

 

Today I confess there’s a little bit of Camelot hope with everything I do at Westminster. When you come to a service, I always hope it is the best we can offer. When people as far away as Virginia and Georgia choose join this congregation, I think they find a little bit of Camelot Christianity here; that they have found nothing in all the miles between their house and their church that is better! We work to offer the best music, best teaching, and the best attention to details. So, do I hope to hold onto a little Camelot in my life? Yes! And I’d imagine you love those times too! What a Camelot time the apostles had in Acts chapter 4! A little Camelot Christianity can be an oasis for visitors at Westminster (and churches like ours,) and it can lift up the hearts of church members! I know people who have told me they had to take antacid tablets before they went to their own church services because of tension and dysfunction. Acts says it need not be like that! To paraphrase the Broadway show, “in short there’s simply not a more congenial spot for living like a Christian, than here, and in other congregations, in Camelot Christianity! We still strive for a church that is like the one described in Acts chapter 2; and Acts chapter 4! Welcome to a little slice of Camelot.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          April 8, 2018

 

04-01-18 AN ASTOUNDING APPEARANCE

AN ASTOUNDING APPEARANCE

John 20: 1-18

 

A woman whose husband had recently passed away asked me to stop by her home to talk.  In times of grief sometimes people really want to talk, and at other times it’s hard to find anything to say. As we sat down, she said, “I want to tell you something, but I hope you won’t think I’m crazy.” “Go ahead,” I said. “Tell me.”  So she said, “This week I saw Gary (not his real name. She was talking about her recently deceased husband.) She continued: “He was in our bedroom at the foot of the bed. Then he came around the bed and sat on his side of the bed. I could see an indentation on the bed covers. Do you think I’m crazy?” “ I do not think you’re crazy,” I told her so. I had heard such stories before, and since then I have heard them from others: they’ve seen a face, or heard a voice, or felt the presence of a loved one who passed from this world. These are astounding appearances, but I don’t think most, if any, of them are made up. If God is a God of amazing grace, (which I believe,) one who offers steadfast love, and mercy, maybe we get permission in our next life to, if the time is right, reassure our loved one that all will be well. I don’t think everyone is able to experience such events, but some can. Just like Paul said in First Corinthians 12 and 13, some can speak in tongues, and some never will speak in tongues, but that is not an indication of inferior or undeveloped spiritual gifts.  Likewise some may see these loved ones, and some may not. But if you have been equipped to see or feel the presence of someone who has gone before you, share it! I think such witnessing invites others to claim, or at least consider, the mysteries of God.

 

Today, for any of you who have lost a loved one (and who hasn’t, from a pet to a parent to a friend?), I want you to think back to the time when you knew that your loved one had died.  What did you feel? Disbelief? How did you feel? Numb? What did you do? Endlessly call family, or sit in one place on stun or in tears?  Such events are life-jarring. No matter how much we prepare, we are not really prepared for them. Our daughter Jenny is an ordained Presbyterian minister and one of the chaplains at Tampa General Hospital. One of the chaplain’s jobs is to meet with the family when there has been a death. They are a Trauma 1 center so often the deaths are truly traumatic. Their job is to call in next of kin, to listen to them, and to console them.  What a job, but she feels called to do it. Still it can take a toll.

 

Keep that thought as we move back in time 2000 years. Not only had a friend died; not only had a son died, but it was a brutal death. Many of the women, including the man’s own mother, watched him be tortured. And then they saw him breathe his last. They saw his limp, dead, body be taken down from the cross. They likely overheard, perhaps with some comfort, that a man named Joseph of Arimethea gave his family tomb away to this man. The man who had just died? Jesus.  In those days, a tomb was a cave—man-made or natural—and a family had exclusive ownership of it in which they would place the dead bodies of loved ones, anoint them ritually with spices, roll the stone over the tomb, and wait several weeks or months for the body to decompose. Then the bones were collected and placed in an above-ground container called an ossuary. If they were Jews they would ask to be buried as close to the Mount of Olives as possible, where they believed the Messiah would return. On this particular day, outside of the Jerusalem walls, the women and men were at the cross. They likely went away dejected, because the one in whom they had hope for salvation had died; they had seen it with their own eyes. They were like those family members in an emergency room; or those gathered at a funeral home, ones perhaps making plans to embalm or not embalm a body and thinking about a funeral. So the men in John’s gospel were milling around the room set apart for them by Jesus, and the women—also special disciples and friends of Jesus—were there too.  In those days women customarily did the not too pleasant job of preparing the dead body to be left in the tomb. They usually used oils and spices—sometimes even frankincense and myrrh—which wise men foreshadowed.   So those women who had hope that Jesus would be different  now had all their spirits dashed. He was dead; they would do their duty; they would mourn for a period of time, then they’d pick up their lives. They would not have the luxury of going into a deep depression for months- they had families for whom they were responsible.  Those women going to the tomb were like those in a hospital trauma room; or  those in a funeral parlor. They were mourning and just doing what needed to be done.

 

To their great surprise—and I can’t emphasize that enough—they found the stone rolled away!! That was shocking for at least two reasons. No Romans would come and touch, or try to move, the body of a Jew! Romans cared only about taxes in Judea. By contrast, no faithful Jews would come to the tomb before morning because the God sanctioned Sabbath was just ending as the women arrived! No one did work on the Sabbath! Besides, the stone was exceedingly large and would have been very heavy to move. Nevertheless, the stone was rolled away! In John’s passage we read that the women were so stunned they ran back to get help. They asked Simon Peter to come and see it. He and another disciple (likely it was John) ran back to see the unbelievable event. Was it grave robbery? I doubt anyone was thinking “miracle” at that time. This time they went in and found the grave clothes lying on the ground, (like they are at our tomb in this sanctuary) and they were no longer wrapped around a body! Finally, like the apparitions that others have described to me, a person appeared to Mary.  Being in such a state of shock, she did not even entertain the notion that it might have been a ghost of Jesus; she was still going on the assumption that the body had been taken. But after hearing the voice of the one she loved so much, her eyes and ears were opened and her heart filled with hope that she dared not consider earlier. Could it be?  She went to embrace him, only to be warned that she could not do that, because he was in some state between earth and heaven. He said, “Do not hold me because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” What a confusing day! The unbelievable had not only become possible, but actual! Jesus had risen from the dead!

 

Now we know: the grave was not the end for Jesus; a rolling stone could not hold his body in; and a cross was not the final chapter! God is with us now, watching us and writing the last chapters of our lives! How will they end? That is largely up to you and me and the situations we face each day. What we do know is that God hopes that all people in the world find their final home in heaven! You can plan on it if you follow Jesus, not only in this life, but into the next life too! Choose Jesus: the risen Son of God! And join him today in the joyful feast of the people of God! Today’s story did not end at a grave; it continued with new life. It continues now at a table. Jesus invited disciples to join him in a meal in John 21: the next chapter. Now he invites you; won’t you join him and share this meal with Jesus?

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          April 1, 2018