Acts 10:34-43; Colossians 3:1-4: John 20:1-18
On Thursday I was on the phone with one of our members and he asked if he should come to church to change the colors of the linens here in the altar and the lecterns. It’s Easter and the colors should be white and not purple anymore. But I told him I think we should leave it the way it is. What you see is our reality right now. I am alone in this church. It is cold in here as the heat is turned off. The pews are empty. The altar is bare. No flowers, no pretty gardens up here. No egg hunts for the children after the service or Easter eggs. No morning Easter breakfast waiting for us in the backroom either. Where are the people? They’re all confined to their homes. These are uncertain times. Death is doing its deadly work daily: illness, unemployment, virus, fear, scarcity, loss, … How many of you wake up every morning to check how many people death claimed? What’s the new total of death due to the pandemic? Did someone we know die of it? Or maybe someone popular, famous?
But you know when we actually look at the biblical Easter story, Jesus’ resurrection did not begin with large gatherings of Christians rejoicing and singing accompanied with the organ and trumpets. It was pretty much the way it is right now. Instead of an empty church though, it was an empty tomb. The resurrection of Jesus began with an empty tomb and 3 fearful women. A tomb emptied of death. Jesus’ resurrection found the disciples in isolation, huddled in fear, behind locked doors. Not because of COVID19 but for other reasons, but still it was a social isolation.
How do we make sense of an empty tomb, an empty church?
For us now, an empty tomb is our cue to shout: halleluiah! Christ is risen! He is risen! For Mary back then, it must have been like experiencing the crucifixion all over again. As if it weren't enough to have Jesus taken by death on the cross can you imagine how Mary must have felt on that dark morning to find he had been taken again? "They have taken the Lord," she laments, "and we do not know where they have laid him."
For us now, an empty church probably means the church is dying. But is it really?
For Mary, an empty tomb must have meant Jesus’ body was stolen? Who took it?
For us, seeing our churches empty, does that mean our churches are dying? Is the church going to survive?
We know how the story goes. Mary runs into one she thinks is the gardener, but who in reality is the risen Christ. In her grief and despair she didn’t recognize the risen Christ until he spoke her name. And she knows Jesus has returned. She knows Jesus must have triumphed over death and the grave and he lives. She hears and sees the best news. And because she sees him, she knows that Jesus is Lord of all.
Ah, so the empty tomb represents life! Emptiness, in this case, is life-giving! The Lord of life is out and about and we never know when we might bump into him next but what we know from this passage is that he didn’t appear first to the disciples who run the fastest, or who believe the quickest, but to the ones who are weeping, questioning, stuck in their confusion. Wherever you are confined right now, wherever you have isolated yourself, Jesus will find you. He’s done it before and each time he shows up, he says “Peace be with you!”
What about our empty churches? We mentioned earlier that emptiness, in this case, is life-giving. We are in a global crisis. This year we are separated, socially distanced. Not by choice, but for the sake of saving lives. Our empty churches speak to our care for life as an exercise of our faith. Our caring for our lives and the lives of others is an act of holy justice. Our churches are empty in this season so we might live! This is the reality in our Easter season, and a reality in our lives in this unprecedented time.
The Mission We Carry
We also must remember that this mission we are carrying is not our own. It is the mission of the risen Christ! And the Church of Jesus Christ will endure this hardship, survive these losses, and adapt in ways that will position us to proclaim and live out the Gospel well into the future. And we also must remember that you are the church. I am the church, we are the church. And right now, more than ever, I am seeing us BEING the church. Daily, we are witnessing the vulnerable beauty of humanity through compassionate caregivers and courageous front-line workers. Ordinary people, like you and I, are asking - what can we do? We are practicing the disciplines of social distancing - that will save lives. We are making phone calls to shut-ins and crafting masks for those who must venture out. We are living as neighbors like never before and uniting in prayers of solidarity and songs of inspiration. We are practicing patience and kindness at home.
Forging New Life
And in the words of our conference minister, in this time of quarantine, illness and loss, we may not witness the slightest glimpse of victory over COVID 19. But as surely as God was forging new life well before the dawn of that first Easter, so too is God at work in this moment preparing to raise us up once again to be a joyful and grateful people. Resurrection always comes, not necessarily on our time, but in due time. God calls us to remain rooted in our core spiritual values - compassion, hope, justice, generosity, grace. And God expected no less of us than to stand firm on the Church's one foundation, Jesus Christ.
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