A Sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Easter at St. Mark's Protestant Chapel, Canadian Forces Base Greenwood.
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. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 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. (Acts 4:32-34)
Last Sunday this congregation joined with the church universal around the world in proclaiming the good news of Easter, “Christ has risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia.” Today, as we gather for what some churches call the second of six Sundays of Easter, we are called to consider the question - now what? Christ is risen. Now what? For many in the post-Christian, secular world, it's not even a question. Easter is chocolate, spring, a long weekend. All good things, but limited to themselves and to this time of the year. Even for many Christians, Easter is a short-lived holiday, lacking the emotional and sentimental appeal of Christmas. The English bishop and theologian Tom Wright has written that for many Christians, the resurrection, if they think of it at all, was something nice that happened to Jesus, but doesn’t have much if anything to do with their daily lives.
But Christians, if we are to be truly Christians, need to be a resurrection people. “A resurrection people” is the kind of phrase beloved by theologians and preachers, but what does it really mean? I would say that being a resurrection people means that we are called by our baptism, by our creeds, and by our faith to live in hope and confidence. We can live hopefully and confidently because we know that in the resurrection God has given the final answer to sin and death - the things that blight and distort and limit our lives. The passage that opened my sermon, Acts 4:32-35, reminds us that the Resurrection was not an isolated event limited to Jesus, but rather was an event of “great power” and “great grace” that affected and changed the behaviour of the first believers. And so our question for today is indeed, now what?, or, to put it more fully, how does the resurrection change us?
Change. What a lovely word for churches! (Anglican lightbulb joke: How many Anglicans does it take to change a light bulb? Change? My grandfather gave that lightbulb to this church!) Change, as we all know, is difficult. Most of us don’t like it very much, especially when it threatens or challenges us. The passage from Acts I read, which talks about Christians giving up their property and holding all in common, would be a very unpopular change in most churches, I am sure. Changes is also hard to predict. Last month I heard the Chief of the Air Staff, at the Air Force Mess dinner, remind us that for all the planning we do, we do a lousy job of predicting the future. The same is true of churches, both now and at the beginning of Christianity. In the first days after the resurrection no one knew where the church was going, or even if there would be a church. No one could say. Many of the versions of the gospel of Mark, the resurrection story heard in many Christian churches this Easter, end with these words: “So [the women] went out from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mk 16:8). Other versions of Mark, like the other gospels, fill in the ending with the women and the disciples meeting the risen Christ, and the book of Acts, as we hear this morning, takes up the story as the church is born out of the resurrection, but for the first few hours, when all the women had was an empty tomb, there was only fear and uncertainty.
I was interested to note that this Easter, in times of great economic and social uncertainty, many pastors reported that the shorter ending of Mark mirrored the fear and uncertainty in the lives of their congregations. The Rev. Tony Dusso, a Lutheran pastor near Chicago, was quoted as saying that “there’s a connection between those who have lost jobs or have had their hours cut or face medical uncertainties and these women who don’t know what lies in the future”. Another Lutheran pastor quoted in the same story commented that the shorter ending of Mark is like a season finale that leaves the viewer wanting to know more: “People are staring mid-sentence out into a future they cannot see or predict. It’s scary to think that God is alive and able to do things so far beyond our prediction and beyond our control”.
These days of uncertainty, with all the comparisons to the Depression of the 1930s, our sense of control has been severely challenged. Our retirement savings, which we were told would give us freedom in our fifties, are diminishing. One joke I saw recently said that RRSP now stands for Really Really Small Potatoes. Little in the news gives us much hope, but yesterday I came across one story which described an unexpected hope that one woman found when she lost control of her life. The woman’s name is Eve Birch, and she was profiled recently on the National Public Radio show, This I Believe.
After 25 years of chasing the American dream – job, mortgage, marriage, credit, it all fell apart for Eve Birch. Homeless, with just her truck and a few bucks, she found herself looking at a shack on a mountain road in West Virginia.
It was abandoned, full of broken glass and rubbish. When I pried off the plywood over a window and climbed in, I found something I could put my hands to. I hadn't been alone for 25 years. I was scared, but I hoped the hard work would distract and heal me.
I found the owner and rented the place for $50 a month. I took a bedroll, a broom, rope, a gun and cooking gear, and cleared a corner to camp in while I worked.
The locals knew nothing about me. But slowly, they started teaching me the art of being a neighbor. They dropped off blankets, candles, tools and canned deer meat, and they began sticking around to chat. They'd ask if I wanted to meet cousin Albie or go fishing, maybe get drunk some night. They started to teach me a belief in a different American dream — not the one of individual achievement but one of neighborliness.
Men would stop by with wild berries, ice cream, truck parts and bullets to see if I was up for courting. I wasn't, but they were civil anyway. The women on that mountain worked harder than any I'd ever met. They taught me the value of a whetstone to sharpen my knives, how to store food in the creek and keep it cold and safe. I learned to keep enough for an extra plate for company.
What I had believed in, all those things I thought were the necessary accouterments for a civilized life, were nonexistent in this place. Up on the mountain, my most valuable possessions were my relationships with my neighbors.
After four years in that hollow, I moved back into town. I saw that a lot of people were having a really hard time, losing their jobs and homes. With the help of a real estate broker I chatted up at the grocery store, I managed to rent a big enough house to take in a handful of people.
It's four of us now, but over time I've had nine come in and move on to other places from here. We'd all be in shelters if we hadn't banded together.
The American dream I believe in now is a shared one. It's not so much about what I can get for myself; it's about how we can all get by together.
Eve Birch and the people around her lived as resurrection people. She calls it the American dream, but we could call it the Christian dream or the Christian vision of our life together. When you think back to Acts 4 and the first apostles who renounced private property and “held all in common”, it doesn’t sound threatening or pathetic, like some wacky sixties commune. Instead, it sounds as if these apostles discovered, as Eve Birch and her friends did, that “our most valuable relationships are with our neighbours. Or, to put it in more theological terms, the apostles discovered that the in bringing Jesus back to life, God was now inviting them to share that new life and to live in ways that they couldn’t begin to imagine at the time.
So, what if we tried to turn all of our fear and uncertainty around and ask ourselves, what is the resurrection change that God is asking of us? We may not be asked to sell our homes and possessions, like the first apostles, but what if we are being called to share their attitude and think, like Eve Birch and her new-found friends, of one another first and ourselves second? So many of our certainties that seem to be comfortable are actually unhealthy. They tempt us to say “OK, this is how it is, I know how the world works and I’ll look out for myself and my own interests”. Certainties can too easily harden into prejudice, complacency, and indifference. But if we allow our unhealthy, self-centered certainties to die with Christ on the cross, what God-centered and life-giving uncertainties will we find if we take the road that leads away from the empty tomb?
Let’s remember how it began for those first apostles in the days after the first Easter: “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all”. The book of Acts tells us that great things happened afterwards. The first apostles and Christians weren’t guaranteed prosperity or safety or prestige. They didn’t get rich, or build nice churches, or even have long lives. However, in the post-resurrection world they discovered a new way of relating one to another, as brothers and sisters in the living Christ, and that vision of new life became so attractive that within three centuries it swept the greatest empire in the world. So, my friends, as we look at one another, brothers and sisters in the risen Christ, may we say “he is risen” in such a way that we are truly a resurrection people, full of the love of God and one another.
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