This was my sermon on Easter Sunday. I probably should have given it a different title. I based the sermon on Mark 16:1-8.
The words in this translation don’t convey fully what the women felt that first Easter morning. They weren’t alarmed – they were terrified, quaking with fear.
They did not expect the empty tomb. The angel told them to tell the others that they would find Jesus in Galilee, but their terror and fear overwhelmed them so much that they didn’t tell the others.
Mark’s Easter account couldn’t be more different than those in the other gospels. In those the men saw the empty tomb or the women told them.
This ending, however, leaves Mark’s gospel unresolved. By Mark’s account, the men didn’t know – they were still hiding in fear – and the women dropped the ball. Mark begs the question, “What became of Jesus’ ministry?”
That question was as relevant in the first century as it is today. Sure, we know what happened – the other gospels resolved it for us. We have the book of Acts to describe the growth of the early church and how it spread outward from Jerusalem to the rest of the world. We could say that Jesus’ ministry was one rabbi’s movement that grew to become the world’s biggest religion. We could say that Jesus’ challenge of the Roman Empire’s political authority eventually became the Empire’s state religion. We could say that Jesus’ ministry became a moral force for justice throughout the world. It laid the foundation to abolish slavery. It undergirded the work of women and men for women’s suffrage in this country. It provided the justification and the fortitude to rid this nation of Jim Crow. It gave backing to farm workers so they could have a living wage.
None of these could have happened without the Church. The Church has transformed lives and made the world a better place. The Church has liberated the oppressed and given hope to those who had none. The Church has provided relief for those whose lives have been upended through natural disasters. The Church has fed people who don’t have daily bread.
The Church (at least in recent centuries) has done this without using weapons of destruction and without a huge amount of money. In short, the Church is nothing short of miraculous.
So, why aren’t people coming through the doors? Why are we getting older in age and smaller in number? We can legitimately ask, “What became of Jesus’ ministry?”
I believe there are a lot people looking for something bigger than their own lives. I don’t think I’d be going too far out on a limb to say that most of us in this room know people who are “spiritual but not religious.” Here’s a small sample of some of the posts from the website SBNR.org, (Spiritual But Not Religious):
- “To me, god exists in everyone. Every moment in front of another human is an opportunity to find god in his highest values and best self. Loving people unconditionally is what I think god is all about. As they say, anbe sivam (love is god).”
- “I will still be compassionate toward others and help those in need and listen when someone needs to talk and give money to beggars on the street and volunteer with local organizations and bring homemade cake to work. I am pretty sure I don’t believe in God anymore, but I do still believe in good.”
- “We can fulfill all our deepest yearnings with our willing commitment to heal our own split mind. Now, more than ever, it is possible – and indeed inevitable! – that human consciousness will eventually wake up, thus creating an experience of Heaven on earth.”
They could be members of a church, but they reject it. A 2008 article in USA Today published the results of a survey of unchurched adults (defined as having not attended any religious service whether in a church, a synagogue, or a mosque in the previous six months). Some of the findings:
- 72% believe God, or a higher or supreme being, actually exists
- 71% responded that believing in Jesus makes a positive difference in one’s life
- 89% have at least one good friend who is a Christian
- 44% responded that Christians get on their nerves
- 79% believed that Christianity is more about organized religion than loving God and loving people
I read this data as we’re missing something here. The unchurched are mostly in synch with us, but they can’t cross the threshold. Although they may not be as terrified as Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James, and Salome were, they look into our churches and they don’t see Jesus either.
They want an “authentic” encounter with the divine – one of those encounters that make you say, “Wow! That was totally life-changing.” The encounter is not just a say-so, but it is a real “feel it in your gut” one. But they’re not getting it when they look at the church.
Christians are supposed to be loving and caring. Yet, the Christians they encounter through the media are narrow-minded and judgmental. They are too political in that their positions on issues seem to correspond too closely with a political party. They are anti-intellectual – unwilling to ask questions and challenge political and doctrinal assumptions. They are homophobic. I know that characterization weighs heavily against those on the theologically conservative end of the spectrum. I realize that seems unfair for progressive Christians to be painted with the same brush. We can talk about the media’s inability to report on faith issues – that’s a different sermon, actually. But I wonder if blaming the media is too glib.
I actually think the unchurched would embrace faith, even Christian faith, if they had an authentic encounter with Christ. But I don’t think they have. The 79% who believe that Christianity is more about organized religion than loving God makes a valid point.
We know Jesus is here. But maybe we know because it’s an inside thing. You know, kind of between only us. Maybe we look at programs as ways to attract new members than just doing them because they’re the faithful thing to do. Maybe we spend too much time on raising money to keep the lights on and the building in good condition rather than raising money to make a difference in the lives of many who struggle here in town. Maybe we’re too satisfied by just writing a check and thinking that we’ve fulfilled our mission rather than rolling up our sleeves and getting dirty. Maybe we’re tongue-tied about Jesus; a little reluctant to say openly that “I love Jesus and Jesus matters in my life,” because we’re afraid of being too much like those “other” Christians. Maybe we can’t quite embrace the truly radical counter-cultural message Jesus proclaimed because it undermines the way we’ve organized our own lives.
While we know Jesus is here, we’ve got to make that real for those who are “spiritual but not religious.” We might start by taking an honest look at our own discipleship. Are we really living the way Jesus asked us to live? Can we be honest and just admit that we’re works in progress and that becoming a true as-Jesus-would-approve disciples is a life-long struggle? We might just have to admit to those who call us hypocrites that they are right, but it’s because we’re hypocrites that we’re here; remembering what Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:31-32)
We also have to tell our story, too. We have a rich history. We’ve transformed lives in the face of overwhelming odds. But we also have to set some expectations – that what we’ve done as the church for justice for the oppressed, the downtrodden, the powerless, and the broken were not accomplished overnight. They were not accomplished in a month. They might have taken generations. And that also bears telling – that being a disciple of Jesus Christ is not easy – it’s hard work and it’s not for everyone. It’s working not for yourself or by yourself, but working for others with others. It’s not about you, but everyone. It’s not for your glory, but for God’s.
When we make Jesus really present, almost tangible, people will find the encounter with the divine they seek. But making Jesus present is not something we make happen in order to grow this church, that’s the wrong motivation. We make Jesus present because we’re Christ’s people and this is what we’re called to do as disciples. And when we do that, Mark’s question will be answered.