a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine
Easter Sunday, March 23, 2008
READING: Luke 24: 13-35. -- “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the Scriptures to us?”
Some years ago now, when I was still relatively new to the ministry, and serving the Unitarian congregation in Midland, Texas, there was a child in our Sunday School whose parents were recently divorced, so every other Sunday she attended our church with her father, and then on the alternating Sundays she went to the Baptist church with her mother and grandparents. And naturally, this was a little confusing for her. One Sunday she’d go to the Baptist Church and hear about how God created the world in seven days. The next week she’d come to our church and learn about the dinosaurs. The next week she’d be back over at the Baptist church hearing about Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden and Original Sin. And then the following week she’d be back with us, and the teacher would have brought an actual snake into the classroom, and would be explaining about “The Interdependent Web of All Existence, of Which We are a Part.”
Now as it so happened, the Sunday School teacher at the Baptist Church actually started to get kind of curious about Unitarianism as well, so she decided to try to find out more by asking Sherry about something that a young child was likely to know, which turned out to be the holidays.
“What do the Unitarians believe about Thanksgiving?” the Sunday School teacher asked.
“Thanksgiving is when remember the Pilgrims, who came to America in search of religious freedom, and survived the first winter with the help of their friends, the Indians.”
“And what do the Unitarians believe about Christmas?”
“Christmas is when we celebrate the birth of the Baby Jesus, and the coming of light into the world at the darkest time of the year.”
“And what do the Unitarians believe about Easter?”
No response. So the teacher began to give some hints.
“You know, Jesus dies on the cross, and is buried in the tomb....”
Still no response.
“And he’s buried in the Tomb for three days.... And at the end of three days, he rolls away the rock, and comes out of the tomb....”
Suddenly Sherry’s eyes lit up. “And if he sees his shadow he goes back in and there’s six more weeks of winter!”
Now let me tell you a true story. A generation ago, when I was a child growing up in the Unitarian Church, it was still not uncommon for our Sunday School students to perform full-scale Easter pageants at this time of year. And when my mentor, Peter Raible, who is now the minister emeritus at University Unitarian Church in Seattle (where I attended Sunday School as a child), was himself new to our ministry, he was in charge of organizing the Easter Pageant at our church in Providence, Rhode Island, which the children were to perform before the entire congregation as part of the Sunday service. Everything went smoothly until the dramatic climax, when the child who was playing the part of Saint Peter rushed onstage to announce the Good News. At the top of his lungs, he shouted his discovery to the congregation: "The Rock has risen, Christ has rolled away!" There was silence, followed by a nervous titter which soon gave way to uproarious laughter, bringing the pageant to an abrupt and early close. For from the innocent mouth of a child, a profound commentary on our faith had sprung forth. What is the meaning of Easter here in the Unitarian church? Perhaps it is nothing more than this: the Rock has risen, Christ has rolled away.
This is a tough time of year to be a Unitarian Minister. It's not like Christmas; we call all pretty much get into the Spirit of Christmas without worrying too much about whether or not it truly was a Virgin Birth, or if the angels really did speak to the shepherds. Thanksgiving is essentially OUR holiday: a tiny group of pilgrims who come to a new world in search of religious freedom, and who survive against all odds and in the face of terrible hardship; and if you ever happen to find yourself in Plymouth some Sunday morning, and decide to worship in the church that the Pilgrims started, you will find other Unitarians there to greet you.
But Easter is different. No matter how eloquently we may speak of the rebirth of new life in Spring, or of other Ancient Near Eastern traditions of dying and rising gods, Easter remains the story of an empty tomb, the Resurrection of the Christ, a corpse that got up and "stood again." It's a story, quite frankly, which I don't believe; which is why it's so tough to be a Unitarian minister on Easter Sunday. What do you say after you've said "Sorry, I don't buy it. Not a word of it. It's nothing but fiction, a metaphor, a lot of make believe...."? That's not exactly the sort of message designed to inspire a great outpouring of renewed commitment and religious faith. And yet this is precisely what Easter is all about: the renewal of trust, the renewal of hope: the rebirth of a commitment rooted in faith, even in the face of death and disappointment.
As I said last week, our Unitarian Universalist religious heritage is based on a very simple premise: the premise that Truth, vigorously sought and plainly spoken, will win out over falsehood every time. The free and responsible search for truth and meaning is the keystone of our religious practice -- it's the reason that free churches like ours endure. But curiosity alone, even a "responsible" curiosity, is not enough. There also needs to be, somewhere, an understanding that Truth really matters: that this is not just some abstract, intellectual exercise we are engaged in, but rather potentially an activity of life-transforming significance. The life of faith is not just a commitment to know the truth, but also a willingness to be "set free" by the truth: a willingness to live, truly, by what one has learned, to come into the light rather than skulking in the darkness. It is only through our commitment to something which is larger than our self, larger than our personal preferences and desires -- a commitment which is open to the possibility of surrender, of losing one's self in order to find it -- that we grow beyond our present limitations as religious beings, whatever they may be, and bring our potential to fruition. Knowledge becomes transformative only when one is willing to be changed by what one has learned, willing to grow beyond what we already are to what we potentially might become. And I called this commitment the Call of Discipleship: the challenge of becoming a disciplined religious learner, enjoying Fellowship with other learners, sharing the Stewardship of a religious heritage and institution, providing Leadership for others who would join us on our way, and who likewise seek to grow beyond themselves.
You see, Easter is the story of an Empty Tomb. But it is also many other stories as well. It is the story of a martyrdom: of one individual's faithful witness to the integrity of his beliefs, and of the price which he paid for maintaining that integrity. It is a story of failure, and temptation, and betrayal; and of the opportunity for a different kind of relationship with the divine, a "New Covenant" which is open to us even in midst of our human weaknesses and shortcomings, and still inspires us to become more than we now are. And above all, I think, it is a story of survival in the aftermath of tragedy, and of that hidden strength which exists within each of us, and which rises to the surface when we need it most.
Consider the story of Simon Peter, or "Rocky" as one of the more contemporary translations of the New Testament calls him, in an attempt to render the effect of the Greek pun on his nickname Petros or "rock." He was the first of the disciples to answer the call of Jesus, a simple working man who caught fish for a living on the Sea of Galilee, and lived at home with his wife and his mother and his brother -- always the most faithful and loyal of the disciples, and yet also (it's always seemed to me) a little thick-headed, as though he really didn't grasp or understand the full significance of everything that was going on around him at the time. Yet it was upon this "rock" that Jesus chose to build his church, his community of people who had been "called out" to learn the Good News of the New Covenant. And the Story of Easter is as much the story of disciple Peter as it is of Rabbi Jesus: what does the "learner" do when the "teacher" is suddenly taken from him, and the full significance of it all finally begins to grow clear?
This, in a nutshell, is what it means to become a Disciple. It means the recognition that when you answer the call to become a religious learner, and commit yourself to the discipline which that entails, you are also accepting the responsibility of becoming a religious teacher: of communicating by example what you have learned through imitation. You become an "apostle" -- one who is "sent out" -- one whose faith has not only taken root in the discipline of religious life, but which has also taken wing so that it can be spread to others. This is the quality that separates the Disciple from the dilettante, from someone who merely dabbles in spriritual learning for their own amusement, pretending to a wisdom greater than they possess. The disciple may recognize that his or her knowledge is incomplete, may even shy away from the challenge of sharing it with others. But ultimately the true disciple will rise to the challenge; and it is through this process: learners teaching learners teaching learners teaching learners, that the community endures, surviving even the execution of the teacher who first gathered it.
Jesus himself was a disciple once. In the second chapter of Luke we read of an episode in his life, when he was the age of twelve, in which he remained behind in the city of Jerusalem following the Feast of Passover, and was missing from his family for three days. They eventually found him sitting in the temple, listening to the rabbis and asking them questions, and surprised that his parents should have been so worried about his whereabouts. And eighteen years later, following his baptism by John in the river Jordan, it was only after forty days of fasting in the wilderness that Jesus came to the decision to answer the call to ministry, to gather disciples to him, and to preach good news to the poor. The challenge of an authentic religious faith entails making that step from study to service, to move forward from learning to actively doing the Good and the True.
In the case of Simon Peter, the challenge came upon him suddenly. At the moment Jesus was arrested Peter's first impulse was to resist, to fight back; and afterwards, in those dark hours before dawn, as he followed the members of this paramilitary "Death Squad" who had kidnapped his teacher back to the house of the High Priest himself, and then sat in the courtyard -- frightened, helpless, and confused -- three times he denied that he even knew Jesus, no doubt hoping to avoid a similar fate himself. And when he realized what he had done, he wept for the shame of it.
And then a very strange thing happened. For in the ensuing hours and days that immediately followed the crucifixion, it was the Apostle Peter -- the Rock -- who "stood again" in the place of the departed Jesus, who gathered the disciples together in the Upper Room to observe the Sabbath while they waited for the opportunity to anoint the body of their executed teacher. There was as yet no talk of any "resurrection," no one had been to visit the tomb, no one had claimed to have seen the Risen Lord. But the miracle of Easter had already begun; the teacher was dead, but the teaching lived on: the disciples, the learners, were becoming teachers in their own right, and the community which they formed would survive.
Recall for a moment the passage I read this morning from the Gospel According to Luke, the story of the resurrection appearance on the road to Emmaus. I read that passage not because I think that it's an accurate account of something that actually happened, but because it is a story that is personally meaningful to me. Imagine this, if you will. Two disciples, two "learners," are returning home after having witnessed the crucifixion of their teacher and master. They meet a stranger on the road, invite him to share their company and hospitality; and in the familiar action of the breaking of the bread, they see again the face of their rabbi, Jesus. And the message of this story, for me, is not so much that Christ still lives, but that Christ Lives On: that everything that Jesus had come to stand for in the lives of these two students was just as valid after the crucifixion as it had been before.
It has always struck me as ironic, with all the heated arguments I've heard about the nature of the resurrection: whether or not it occurred at all; whether the tomb was empty or Christ simply "appeared;" what, if anything, it should mean to us today anyway, that more often than not, whenever the Apostle Paul (whose epistles represent the earliest documents of what we now call the "New Testament") speaks of the "risen body of Christ," he is speaking metaphorically of the early Christian church, with its "body" of believers, its "many members." For Paul, the empty tomb was never an issue; he saw the Risen Christ every time he saw another Christian, every time they broke bread together. Paul himself never met the living Jesus -- of this even the most conservative Biblical scholars agree. And yet tradition records that he was struck blind on the road to Damascus, and emerged from that experience a different human being: not just a disciple, but an apostle of Christ, with a new vision of his role as a religious learner, and a teacher. The Greek word anastasis, which we translate as Resurrection, literally means "to rise" or "to stand again." And it happens not once in history for all time, but continually for each of us who encounters the Rabbi on the road to Emmaus, or Damascus, or Wherever, and who "rises up" to "take a stand" for a higher principle, for a different way.
Once Jesus had died upon the cross, it was the Apostles who held the church together during its early years: Peter who provided the leadership, the continuity, the solid root from which the community of faith would take wing; Paul who carried the good news to the Gentiles, who spent a good portion of his ministry in prison, and whose letters are now regarded by the church to have the authority of Scripture. Peter went on to become the Bishop of Rome, the first Pope; and was likewise crucified for his beliefs there in that city during the reign of the emperor Nero. Tradition says that Peter asked to be crucified up-side-down, with his head toward the ground and his feet in the air, because he did not feel himself worthy to be executed in the same manner as Jesus. He had answered the call, and then risen to the challenge; he had truly become a "fisher of men," just as the Rabbi had promised when he had said to him "follow me."
The challenges we face in finding our own wings may not be so dramatic as those faced by Peter and Paul. But the thrust of it all is still very much the same: to grow beyond our fears, to rise to the challenge, to use the things which we have learned in the service of others, to become the solid rocks upon which a community can be built. When we rise to this challenge, it is the miracle of Easter all over again: the renewal of faith, the renewal of hope, the resurrection of the spirit of truth and love and fellowship. Through the willingness to serve, to become teachers as well as learners, to act as witnesses to the truth of our beliefs and our ideals, we become active participants in the process of “saving” the world: a world in which evil and falsehood retreat before the power of the Truth plainly spoken, and no challenge is too great for the community of those who faithfully seek it.