[Preached at Alma United Church & Melville United Church, May 28, 2017. Luke 24:44-53]
And so we come at last to the end of the Easter Season. Next Sunday is Pentecost Sunday, when we will celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church.
This Sunday, we observe Ascension Sunday, and so our Gospel reading is that story at the very end of Luke where Jesus finally says, “Goodbye” to the disciples. Although we in our time have taken a few weeks to get from Easter to the Ascension, in the disciples’ time, it was only the evening of Easter Sunday.
This long Easter weekend has been a trying one for the disciples. First they had to endure the trial and crucifixion, then the long dark Saturday when they stayed hidden behind doors instead of going to the temple or the synagogue as they ought to have done according to their own religion. Finally on Sunday, a few of the women went to visit the tomb…
And the body isn’t there!
Some sources say the women, or perhaps only Mary Magdalene alone, saw Jesus. Others say that they saw only an angel who told them that Jesus wasn’t there, that he had risen.
Either way, the rest of the disciples were incredulous and more than a little disturbed. Two of them left and started walking home to Emmaus. Peter left and went to the tomb to find out the truth for himself.
The two going to Emmaus meet Jesus on the road, and immediately return to tell the others, who are themselves buzzing with news—the Lord has appeared to Simon!
Then Jesus appears among them. There is no indication in Luke’s retelling that he entered by the door, and he certainly didn’t knock. The disciples were “startled and terrified,” and Jesus invites them to touch his wounds, and finally eats with them, in order to convince them that he is not a ghost.
Then he says something really odd. “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you…”
Aren’t you with us now, Jesus? I mean, we just touched you! We just saw you eat fish!
What do you mean when you say, “These are my words I spoke to you while I was still with you?”
But Jesus isn’t with the disciples, or indeed the living, the way he was before.
He has died and has risen.
He has not somehow mysteriously survived the crucifixion. He was not buried alive, to somehow wake up in the tomb and remove his linen wrappings.
And now he is not dead. He is very much alive, as the fish and the touching indicate, but he is no longer alive as a human being.
Jesus once more opens their minds to understanding the scriptures. He tells them that they are to proclaim the repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations. Then finally he tells them that he is going to send what God has promised—holy power from on high will cloak the disciples so that they may continue what Jesus has begun.
He then leads them out of the city, blesses them, and is carried up to heaven.
Next week, we celebrate Pentecost. We often call it the birth of the church.
But the last sentence of Luke’s gospel contains a short, very important statement that to me indicates that today we celebrate another “birthday,” one which is often seen as equated to the church, but in reality is quite different.
“And they worshiped him…”
The disciples have followed Jesus from his humble beginnings as an itinerant preacher. They’ve heard countless sermons and parables, they’ve been instructed on how to live a better life as Jews faithful to the promise of Abraham. They’ve watched him heal the sick, and restore the outcast into community.
They’ve even had a couple of trial runs, where they did these things for themselves.
They followed Jesus to the foot of the cross, to the tomb, and now finally to the resurrection.
But all this time, to them he’s been a human Messiah, a human Lord. They just didn’t understand the big picture.
Now, finally, they do. And they worship him, not as a human worships another human, but as a human worships God.
There has been a shift in how the disciples see Jesus.
Today, we celebrate the birth of Christianity itself.
This week is the week that delegates from all over Hamilton Conference meet to discuss business, to learn and work and grow together. It’s our time to move beyond our little churches and our presbyteries, and realize that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.
The title of today’s sermon is the theme Gord Dunbar, our outgoing president, chose for his time in office.
He, and many others who have been involved in the church for years, has seen over the past ten or so years evidence that the church is shifting and changing as it has not for many years past. Theologian Phyllis Tickle points out that this sort of transformation happens approximately every five hundred years or so.
That’s not an exact measure—the first “Holy Shift” was in 325 CE when the First Ecumenical Council developed the Nicene Creed, and Christianity developed into a more coherent faith. The second occurred in 1054, when the Church split into Orthodox and Roman Catholic branches. About five hundred years after that, Martin Luther nailed his bits of paper to a cathedral door, and the Pope refused to annul the marriage of King Henry VIII, and we had the beginnings of the Reformation and of the Church of England.
Those “Holy Shifts” didn’t occur in a vacuum.
Christianity originated at a time of incredible instability. The Roman Republic had ended with the declaration of Caesar Augustus as the first Emperor.
285 years later, the Emperor Diocletian divided the Empire into two, and from 324 to 337, the Emperor Constantine worked to put it back together. Part of how he did this was to convert to Christianity, to declare it legal, and to make it the official religion of the Empire. He called the First Ecumenical Council in order to solidify Christian Doctrine, a necessary step if it was to provide the underpinnings of a stable Empire.
The stability didn’t last long—in 450, Attila led the Huns into Gaul, and in 455, the Vandals sacked Rome.
In the 7th and 8th centuries, the rapid expansion of Islam and the Arab world led Christian leaders to attempt to reclaim formerly Christian lands. This reached its height in the 11th century, with Toledo and Sicily being recaptured in the west, and the Byzantine Empire regaining territory in the East.
The struggles over whether the Roman Catholic church or the Orthodox Church held supremacy was tied up in these attempts, and led to a surge in piety and interest in Christianity. Participation in the Crusades was touted as a way to do penance for forgiveness for sins.
In the 15th century, we of course had the invention of the printing press, which made literacy much more common than it had been. It is hard to imagine Protestantism, with its emphasis on solo scriptura, as being possible without this advance.
But the world was changing in other ways as well. Europeans had, for centuries, been exploring the world, but now they began to settle it. And among the first of the settlers to North America and elsewhere were religious dissidents who had been persecuted in their home countries by the established churches of the day. German dissidents fled from the Lutherans, French dissidents fled from the Catholics, English dissidents fled from the Anglicans, and North America became populated by the most unlikely variety of Christians the world has ever seen.
No wonder separation of church and state, unknown in Europe since the time of Constantine, was such an important principle in the founding of Canada and the United States!
During all of these Holy Shifts, God has moved among us, helping us to understand and interpret the scriptures in light of the world in which we find ourselves living, in light of new understandings of how the world works, and in light of who Jesus is, not only as a human, but also as God.
We once again find ourselves in a place of Holy Shift, in this new millennium. The internet and global mobility has broken down barriers that formerly seemed impossible to break. When one can live in one country, earn money from another, and put that money in the bank in a third, the concept of nationhood seems to be just a little obsolete. When most of the world’s population has free or almost free access to almost the entire collective knowledge of humankind, elitism becomes almost impossible. Now that many of us have moved beyond the stage where sharing cute cat pictures is the sum of our computer knowledge, well…
The world is out there.
And we are finding new understandings of what it is that God wants us to be and do.
It’s been rough for some of us. The church we grew up in no longer exists. Christianity is more ecumenical today than it has ever been, but there is also a new understanding that the Spirit of God, while being within the church, is not confined to the Church, and that all human religion is a response to the divine.
We have been, over the past few years, like the disciples hiding in the house, fearful of what is outside, and not really understanding.
But in the past few weeks, I’ve seen something happening. I’ve read about a church that has over three hundred kids enrolled in what we sometimes call Sunday School, but which they call “Graceland.” That church isn’t an evangelical church, and it’s not in another country. It’s Wellington Square United in Burlington, Ontario.
I’ve read about a church that is reinventing itself spiritually, focusing on prayer and study of scriptures and leading a Christian life in all ways, even financially. The church has grown tremendously as a result. That church isn’t an evangelical church in a foreign country—it’s North Bramalea United Church in Brampton, Ontario.
I’ve visited a brand new church building in a small, some would say dying community. The building dedication photos, taken in 2014, show the lawn in front of the church filled with hundreds of people—men, women, and lots and lots of children. Inside that beautiful new building, there are rooms for many small groups, and a huge, modern sanctuary.
When I visited it very recently, the preacher was a young French Canadian who had been ordained only two years ago. He held that congregation, which filled the church to overflowing, spellbound, except when we were rolling on the floor in laughter. We sang with gusto, we shouted, “Amen!” spontaneously many times.
That church was not an evangelical church in a foreign country—it was Port Elgin United Church, and the service was the celebration of New Ministries, part of the proceedings of this year’s Hamilton Conference.
There has been a Holy Shift.
Christ has died. AMEN!
Christ has risen. AMEN!
Christ is here among us, not as a ghost or as a spirit, but as a human. AMEN!
Christ has withdrawn, to be with God and be God. AMEN!
And now—now we have the Spirit, with us until the end of all things, and the Spirit is at work among us and within us. The time of fear and waiting is over, and the time of action begins. We are to go out into the world, proclaiming with our words and our deeds the Good News of Christ.
Go in joy, worshiping the Christ, in the church and on the streets.