A Communion Meditation delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, at The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, March 31, 2002, Easter Sunday, 11:00 a.m. service, dedicated to the memory of my grandmother, Josephine Mathias Kellermeyer and Carolyn Watkins' brother who were carried on the wings of the morning into Eternal Rest on Easter and to Carolyn and her mother who live on in the faith Christ has given them & always to the glory of God!
Part VII of VII in the sermon series:
"God's Word and Our Struggle to Respond"
Acts 10:34-43 and Matthew 28:1-10
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
The first Easter was an extraordinary day. According to Matthew's account, as dawn was breaking, an earthquake hit, splitting rocks in two. An Angel of the Lord descended from heaven like lightening, with raiments as white as snow, rolled back the stone from the entrance to Jesus' tomb and sat on it. The guards fell down like dead men. The women who went in the predawn hours to anoint a dead body heard the angel say from his perch on the rock, "Do not be afraid . . . Jesus is raised from the dead . . . Come and See . . . Go and Tell! ...Go to Galilee . . . He will meet you there!"
Before sleep had cleared their eyes, before fear had left their bones, the women saw their Risen Lord! This was more than they could handle. Immediately they fell to down, kissed his feet and worshiped him. Our Risen Lord reiterated the words of the angel, "Do not be afraid . . . Go and Tell! ...Go to Galilee!" With the sun barely touching the face of the earth, the world was being turned upside down. The world would never be the same again!
We know that feeling, don't we? We know the feeling of a world being turned upside before the sleep has cleared our eyes. We call it 9/11. In our reality of world flipping, it was the most evil face of human violence which turned the world upside down, not the deepest truth of God's amazing love and grace. Violence, not peace. Hatred, not love. Today is no ordinary Easter, for our pre-Easter world has been turned upside down.
On this Easter, the Holy City of Jerusalem, the place in which our Messiah was Risen, has become a battleground in what appears to be no less than Holy War. On this Easter, having lost thousands of lives in a field outside tiny Shanksville, Pa, in a wing of the Pentagon and in a place we now call "Ground Zero," our nation struggles to fight terrorism while not yielding to the inclination to become terroristic as well. The battleground of Jerusalem and the war on terrorism engage us in ways and places we have not previously experienced, on this not so ordinary Easter.
The first, extraordinary Easter story has the power to guide us to a new place of understanding this Easter morning. From Matthew's gospel we learn No fear and we encounter God in Galilee - on the outskirts of town. From Luke's account of Cornelius' conversion in Acts, we learn that purity leads to exclusion and inclusivity leads to God.
1. "No Fear!" say the angel and Jesus. More precisely, "Do not be afraid . . . Go and Tell!" I believe our greatest enemy is fear, no matter what the sphere of fear is. Facing the fears related to his own battle with cancer David Watson wrote these words in Fear No Evil: A Personal Struggle with Cancer:
(I discovered in my battle with cancer) that nothing is certain . . . Everything is a matter of faith . . . (In fact), the opposite of faith is fear, and I have found that there is a constant running battle between the two. In one sense, fear is faith in what you do not want to happen. Job once said, "The thing I fear comes upon me, and I what I dread befalls me" (Job 3:25) . . . Fear is a great deceiver and destroyer. It robs our minds of peace; it breaks up relationships; it ruins our health; it goads us into foolish, impulsive and sometimes violent action; it paralyzes our thinking, trusting, and loving . . . (David Watson, Hodder and Stoughton, 1984, pp.152-153).
Do you think these words spoken by the angel and Jesus were superficial? No! Quite the opposite! The Son of God and the Angel of the Lord knew all too well how paralyzing fear can be! Jesus spent his entire ministry battling fear. Fear consumed his enemies. Fear strangled even his disciples at times. Fear of relationship. Fear of salvation. Fear of new life! Fear of eternal life! Fear of the stranger!
But, faith rose on Easter morning! Faith blew the rock away! Faith raised Christ! Faith frees us to do and be more than we could ever do or be while stuck in our sleepwalking fears! Faith leads us to a new relationship with God! Faith leads us to new relationships with neighbors and new relationships to the strangers in our midst!
The Risen Christ tells both Marys, "Do not be afraid." It is fear we see on the stage of global politics and war. And fear that greets us and grips us in our personal encounters of everyday life. But, we have a Savior who proclaims "No Fear!" This most extraordinary Easter Day, we must have no fear. Rather than let the trying things of life come between you and God, bear them humbly, and with faith.
Secondly, The Risen Christ tells the women to pass on this message to his disciples - "Meet me in Galilee." What does this mean to you? It seems to serve as a coded message. If I said to you, "Meet me in Tuscaroras County," Or "meet me in Portage County," or "meet me in the Hocking Hills," would you know where to go for our rendezvous? Of course not! But, my family would know where to go! We have traveled together. We have roots in these places. We have shared experiences there.
The disciples knew that "Galilee" was shorthand for Peter's house, or Capernaum, or a specific location somewhere by the seaside! They knew how to reconnect if they became separated.
One thing we know about Galilee, then as now. It was far from Jerusalem. It was rural. It was on the outskirts. And, Galilee was home. It was home to all the disciples except Judas. You see, we encounter God on the outskirts. We find our center in God - on the outskirts. We retreat to Templed Hills or Hocking Hills or wherever we commune with God on the outskirts. There we find our home. This is an important lesson from our texts for our lives.
Recently, Rabbi Harold Berman of Tiffereth Israel, led a bible study for pastors of the BREAD clergy caucus in the prophet Amos. During this study, Rabbi Berman told us of his particular interest in one area of Holocaust studies. He has spent considerable time reading the stories of those called "righteous gentiles." "Righteous Gentiles" are those who hid Jews and transported Jews to freedom and thus saved thousands of lives. Rabbi Berman is interested in what motivated people to risk their lives saving Jews while most turned their backs on the genocide of more than six million Jews.
In studies done of Righteous Gentiles, only two traits were common among all who assisted the Jews against Nazi devastation. First, they were people who looked Jews "in the eyes and made immediate decisions to help." In other words, they had face-to-face encounters with those whose lives were in immediate and immanent danger. These folks were not necessarily neighbors. In fact, there are horrific stories of neighbors locking their doors and turning neighboring Jews away when they came knocking (and screaming) for help. But, the righteous ones opened their homes. The second trait was that all who helped were people "on the outskirts." They lived on the outside of town (perhaps), or outside the power structures, or outside the local religious or civic leadership circles. They were outsiders in some way shape or form. Like the righteous Gentiles, the Risen Rabbi of Nazareth understood the power of looking into people's eyes and saving their lives. He understood that the Galilees of this world are people and places where transformation and salvation happen!
So, what does it mean to go to Galilee? It means to go home to God! It means to go to the place where God knows your name! Galilee is the place of call, the place of compassion, the place where love is spoken and learned. To go to Galilee this most extraordinary Easter Day is to venture to the outskirts, to go to the places where we meet God face-to-face and in so doing, saves & liberates us!
3. There is one more lesson to learn. From Luke's account of Cornelius' conversion in Acts, we learn that purity leads to exclusion and inclusivity leads to God. In Cornelius' conversion, Peter discovers that the true power of faith in the Risen Christ comes when we realize that "God shows no partiality!" Unfortunately, this central lesson of inclusivity has been lost on too many people and nations in our times. We live in a world of ethnic, ideological and theological cleansing in search of a kind of purity.
In their book A Spacious Heart, Croatian theologians, Miroslav Volf and Judith Gundry-Volf address the terrors and tragedies both politically and religiously driven by the claims for purity - terrors which both Judith and Miroslav have witnessed firsthand in their homeland. They suggest that sin is not so much a defilement as it is a certain form of purity - the exclusion of the other from one's heart and world.
They turn to the story of the Prodigal Son in which the real sinner was the older brother who withheld an embrace of his fallen and then forgiven younger brother. The older brother's sense of purity expected exclusion. Volf writes, "Sin is the refusal to embrace others in their otherness and a desire to purge them from one's world by ostracism or oppression, deportation or liquidation . . . The exclusion of others is the exclusion of God." (Judith M. Gundry-Volf and Miroslav Volf, A Spacious Heart, Harrisburg, PA., Trinity Press International, 1997, p. 49).
Demanding purity, thus excluding God, is not something that is only done in Kandahar by the Taliban - try Boston, by the Puritans! Yes, that right. We bear the pain of exclusion based on purity in our faith tradition. In 1660 the Puritans, our forbears in faith, hanged Mary Dyer, a Quaker freethinker on Boston Commons. They called her a heretic when in dissent from Puritan theology, morality, and politics, she declared, "Truth is my authority, not some authority my truth." She was right. Truth prevails!
This most extraordinary Easter Day, we must overcome the obsession for purity and practice an inclusive love of others, remembering that to exclude others is to exclude God!
In the aftermath of 9/11 and in the middle of a war on terrorism and an ever-exploding Middle East, one could say we are living in times which border on apocalyptic. Kathleen Norris writes: "Apocalypse is a word coming from the Greek meaning `uncovering' or `revealing.' We human beings learn best how to love when we're a bit broken, when our plans fall apart, when our myths of self-sufficiency and safety are shattered. Apocalypse is meant to bring us to our senses, allowing us a sober, if painful glimpse, of what is possible in the new life we build from the ashes of the old . . . Apocalypse grabs us by the shoulders and says, `Look at what matters in life.' And suddenly we see. (Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, quoting her book in a Sojourners Magazine article, Jan.-Feb. 2002, pp.26-28).
Today is no ordinary Easter Day. Out of the ashes of the old, out of the painful, but sobering glimpse of what has been and in faithful pursuit of what can be, we are called to live beyond the apocalypse. We are called to live in the power and truth of Christ's Resurrection.
No fear, meeting God face-to-face in the Galilees of our lives, and remembering that to exclude others based on a sinful and twisted view of purity, means to exclude God. Let us step away from the empty tomb. As we do, remember - the first Easter was an extraordinary day - and so is this one!
Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia! Amen.
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