Friday, April 8, 2016

We Have Come to Believe




1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Luke 24: 1-12
March 27, 2016, Easter Sunday
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Our first reading today is from Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. Corinth was a religiously diverse colony of Rome, a city whose reputation was one of wealth without culture and diversity without sophistication. The early church there reflected the city – a few very wealthy and influential people, a wide diversity of backgrounds, with Jews, Greeks, Roman freedmen and immigrants making up the bulk of the congregation. But it was only the rich who had sufficient space and resources to host the house church gatherings, and it was only the wealthy who could leave off work early enough to come and eat the best food and drink most of the wine of the communal meal before the poor working stiffs arrived. You can imagine that sometimes resentment and conflict that would arise. We know that the church at Corinth had many struggles, which occasioned Paul’s letters and visits. But we also know that as one of the earliest Christian congregations, they were held together by a core belief, the faith in the risen Christ. Paul reminds them of this, the central doctrine that made this new community of believers come to be called “Christians.”

Let’s listen for God’s word in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11:

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters,
of the good news that I proclaimed to you,
which you in turn received, in which also you stand,
through which also you are being saved,
if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—
unless you have come to believe in vain.
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received:
that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,
and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day
in accordance with the scriptures,
and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time,
most of whom are still alive, though some have died.
Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.
Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle,
because I persecuted the church of God.
But by the grace of God I am what I am,
and his grace toward me has not been in vain.
On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—
though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.
Whether then it was I or they,
so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.

Our Gospel reading for this Easter morning is the account from Luke that affirms what Paul’s letter addresses – that Jesus was not dead, but raised. The gospel tells us of the women going to anoint the body of Jesus and finding the tomb empty, just as Jesus had told them. When the women go and report this to the rest of the disciples, they are not taken seriously – at least at first. But straightaway, Peter runs to the tomb to check out their story, and sees the truth that Jesus is not there, in fact has been resurrected. This is the truth of Easter, the story we have come here to tell and celebrate, and truth that we, too, have come to believe.

Let’s listen for God’s truth in Luke 24: 1-12
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb,
taking the spices that they had prepared.
They found the stone rolled away from the tomb,
but when they went in, they did not find the body.
While they were perplexed about this,
suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them.
The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground,
but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?
He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you,
while he was still in Galilee,
that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified,
and on the third day rise again.”
Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb,
they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest.
Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James,
and the other women with them who told this to the apostles.
But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.
But Peter got up and ran to the tomb;
stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves;
then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

The word of God for the people of God.
Thanks be to God.

The women who came to the empty tomb that morning had not come to see the Risen Lord. They had come to anoint a dead body, the body of a beloved friend, the body they had not been able to prepare for burial. He had died a horrifying, humiliating death, unjustly executed for blasphemy and sedition, crucified on a stinking heap of garbage between two thieves, and buried in a borrowed tomb.

They had come with spices, to anoint the body. They had not come to see a living Jesus. They had not come to believe. When Peter went running, frantic, to the tomb, he was not coming to see an empty tomb. He was coming to disprove what he thought was an idle tale, the fantasy of some unreliable women. He had not come to believe.

But they did come to believe.
They did – the women, Peter, and all the disciples. The early Christians of the church in Corinth, those who had been brought to faith by the Apostle Paul, even they needed some reminding of what they had come to believe. Like Paul did in his letter to the Corinthians, we keep on telling the story, even now, and especially today. We tell it because it is Easter, the celebration of the resurrection. We tell it because we are Easter people, and we have come to believe.

Have you come to believe, today?
Karl Barth, who was one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, perhaps the greatest, and certainly one of the best known, Karl Barth said that we Christians come to church on Sunday with one question in our hearts, a question we may be fearful to ask out loud, a question on which hangs all of our faith and our trust in God, a question that we must answer for ourselves over and over again: IS IT TRUE?

“When people come to church,” Barth asked, is it not the case that “they consciously or unconsciously leave behind them cherry tree, symphony, state, daily work, and other things, as possibilities somehow exhausted?” Barth says we come in the expectation that God is indeed present. Barth says we want to know the answer to this question: Is it true?—"and” he says, “not some other answer which beats around the bush.”

So here it is, Easter morning, and I’m assuming that you also, as I do, believe that the answer is here, in this story – that it IS true, as Paul said “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” and that he appeared people after his resurrection, and that he is alive and at work in the world even now.

If the question is “Is it true?” the answer is “YES!”
Trouble is, things have changed. The church has changed a lot since the first century, and even more in the twenty-first century. Barth imagined that people leave behind homes and work, woods and sports, daily life and symphony concerts, and come to church to seek God’s presence. But the reality is more the reverse – people are forsaking church in favor of home or work, or the woods or sports, or symphony concerts. and they do not come to church to seek God’s presence.

In fact, for many people, church is the LAST place they would come if they wanted to experience the living Christ. There are lots of reasons for this new reality, and there are lots of people in my line of work who bemoan the statistics. Regular church attendance for most people is once or twice a month. I confess, I’d like it if more people were in church on any given Sunday. It makes the whole thing more lively and fun. I’d like it if all of you were here every Sunday, in fact.

But that’s not the point of all this – that you come to church. The point of all this is that you come to believe. I think you are here because you want to believe in resurrection. But even Peter didn’t believe it at first. He had to have someone come and tell him, and he had to see for himself. Jesus appeared to people over and over, after he was raised from death. When he first came to the disciples, Thomas wasn’t there, and he actually asked Jesus, when he saw him, to show him his wounds.

We all need someone, sometimes to point out what is true, what is beautiful, to pass on to us what is of first importance, so that we, too, can come to believe.

It’s like parents who show call their children to the window to see a sunset,
or teachers who take their students to an art museum,
or friends who tell you a story,
or bring you a beautiful flower, or a picture, or a quilt.
Sometimes you need some to show you, or remind you,
so that you may come to believe.

If I could take you to the window right now,
I’d show you how Christ is at work in our community,
in the hands of those who feed the hungry, with a daily breakfast,
with a weekend food bag, with a hot meal and a place to sleep.

If we could take a field trip today,
I’d take you to the island of Lesbos, 
where church groups stand watch all night 
for small boats coming in the darkness from the sea.
We would travel to refugee camps around the globe where Christians
young and old offer food, and medical care, and clothing and comfort.

If I could bring you a picture,
I’d show you pictures of my friends who are chaplains –
of Craig, in the Air Force, ministering to men and women
who are far from home, people of every faith tradition and no faith at all,
and I’d show you a picture of Sharon,
whose mother was the ninth person to be shot dead
at Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston,
and who ministers not only to people at Parkland Hospital in Dallas,
but also travels the country to speak out against gun violence.

If I could tell you a story of resurrection,
I’d tell you the countless stories of men and women
whose lives were turned around from addiction,
by an encounter with the living Lord of Easter.
I’d tell you about my friends – more than one!
whose cancer was stage four and is now gone,
whose lives continue in service to God.

And I would tell you so many stories of those who were not cured,
but who are healed in death, and who breathed their last
with a song of praise and thanksgiving on their lips,
because they knew the truth in the terrible beauty of their death.

It is true.
Christ is alive and at work in the world.

We affirm it every time we repeat the Apostles’ Creed.
We affirm it when we proclaim the mystery of our faith
in the communion prayers:
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

It is true.
Christ is alive and at work in the world.

We see it in every act of mercy,
we hear it in every song of praise,
we encounter it in the profound silence of prayer
and in the astonishing beauty of nature.

It is true.
We can see it in lives changed,
hearts renewed,
minds enlightened,
songs raised,
in others, to be sure,
but also in ourselves.

We have come to worship, yes.
We have come to sing the songs of Easter, yes.
We have come to be with our families, we have come to be with our community, we have come to receive the bread and the cup at Christ’s table. 

But most of all, we have come to answer that question: IS IT TRUE?
and we have come to meet the risen Christ, to answer YES.
We have come to believe.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed.

Amen.

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