Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Great Experiment (J. Barry Vaughn, Christ Church (Las Vegas, NV), Easter Day (March 31, 2013))

The New York Times recently reported that the world has become so wicked that God decided to launch an investigation. The Almighty sent one of the angels (who happened to have a degree in sociology) to do a survey.

The angel returned with the results. "Well, God," the angel explained. "According to our survey, 95% of human beings are wicked, bad and evil. And 5% are trying to be good."

"Only 5%," God said. "It has to be better than that. I'm sending down another angel to do another survey." Because as we all know, when you don't like the results of one poll, just do another.

Well, it wasn't long before the second angel returned with her news. "95% of human beings are wicked, bad and evil. 5% are good, but more troubling still, those 5% are feeling very sad and discouraged."

That troubled God greatly, so God decided to reach out to those good people by sending the 5% an uplifting and encouraging e-mail. And do you know what that e-mail said? What?? You mean you didn’t get one??

The great physicist Albert Einstein formulated his theory of relativity by conducting what he called a “thought experiment.” Instead of going to a laboratory and firing up the Bunsen burner or measuring the velocity of electrons, he simply imagined what would happen to two clocks. One would be on a train that could travel at the speed of light and the other would remain stationary. OK, then, that’s about all I know about Einstein and the theory of relativity. But I like the idea of thought experiments, so let’s conduct a theological thought experiment.

Imagine a world without Easter. In the first book of the Narnia chronicles – The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe - C.S. Lewis tells us that Narnia is under the spell of an evil and powerful witch who has decreed that it will always be winter and never Christmas. But instead let’s imagine that it is always Lent and never Easter or simply that there is no Easter because, after all, Lent implies an Easter at the end of forty days.

What would such a world look like?

First, the New Testament would be entirely different. If we removed Christmas from the New Testament, we would lose only 2 or 3 chapters at the beginning of Matthew and Luke. There are no other references to the birth of Jesus. But if we remove Easter, then we lose the ending of all four gospels; we lose most of Paul’s letters because it seems as though almost every other sentence in Paul refers to the resurrection or at least presupposes it; and we lose much of the rest of the New Testament because on almost every page is an idea, a fact, a concept that makes no sense without the resurrection. The gospels make no sense whatsoever without the resurrection. Take the resurrection out of the gospels and what do we have? We have some lovely parables; some pretty exciting miracles (hard to beat that one with the loaves and fishes); some truly impressive moral teaching; and several other very nice things. But Buddhism also has some great parables; Islam tells us that the prophet Muhammad performed miracles; and every other spiritual and religious system in the world has a set of moral teachings that is at least 80% identical to the things that Jesus said.

In other words, without the resurrection, without Easter, the question we have to ask about the New Testament, in general, and the Gospels, in particular, is . . . so what? Why pay any special attention to Jesus of Nazareth? He was an inspiring speaker; he showed remarkable compassion; he may even have worked miracles; but he was not significantly different from half a dozen other spiritual, moral, or religious figures.

Second, let’s take Easter or the resurrection out of history. If we take the resurrection out of history, then we suddenly lose our bearings. In the west, the resurrection is the great starting point. Our calendars begin with the life of Jesus (as I’ve already implied) not because of his parables or miracles but because he died and rose again. The resurrection of Jesus completely re-oriented life. In the Roman world, Sunday was not a day of rest; it was the first day of the work week, but the resurrection of Jesus transformed a working day into a joyous festival.

We worship on Sunday, the first day of the week, rather than on Saturday, the seventh day of the week, the day designated as the Sabbath in the Old Testament, because Sunday is the day of resurrection. Worshipping on Sunday, the day of resurrection, reminds us that Christianity is about beginnings, starting over, getting another chance, maybe even being born again! Christianity is a future-oriented faith that invites us to look forward, not backward.

Third, take the resurrection out of the equation and there is no satisfactory explanation for the rise of the Christian church. By the end of the first century the Christian faith had spread as far west as the British isles; as far south as Ethiopia; and as far east as India. Why and how did this happen? What energized the followers of Jesus and gave them the courage to risk their lives in taking the good news to the ends of the earth? What was it about the message they proclaimed that caught the imaginations of people as diverse as the peoples of Britain, Ethiopia, and India? Well, let’s go back to our thought experiment. Let’s imagine that Paul and the other Christian missionaries of the first century had told their listeners the story of a Jesus who had taught people the story of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son and had healed the sick and even multiplied the loaves and fishes and then had been betrayed and arrested and tried and condemned and executed and then… well, that was pretty much it. Without the resurrection, the life of Jesus is just a tragedy with a sad ending.

But that is not the story they shared in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and took to the ends of the earth. To be sure, they told about the parables and miracles and the suffering and crucifixion but what made the story different and caught the imagination of their hearers was the absolutely staggering ending: Jesus did not stay in the tomb; he rose again on the third day.

Let’s take the thought experiment one step further. What difference would it make if we acted as though the resurrection was real? I ask this question because I’m convinced that most of the time we live our lives as though Easter never happened.

We’re great about giving up martinis and Marlboros for Lent but when Easter has come and gone, it’s pretty much business as usual.

What if instead of thinking of Easter as the end of Lent, we thought of it as the beginning of the most exciting part of the year? What if instead of giving up something for Lent, we took up things for Easter? What if we lived as if Jesus really did rise again on the third day?

I believe that Christ Church has been through a long Lent, a Lent of not just 40 days but a Lent that has lasted for several years. Five years ago twice as many people worshipped here as are worshipping now.

Well, I believe that I have a word from the Lord for Christ Church: God’s will for this church is life, not death; Easter, not Lent.  Make no mistake: Resurrection may not happen in a moment, a day, a week, or even a year.  Jesus’ followers waited three days for him to rise again; the resurrection of Christ Church may take much longer.  But I believe it will happen and I believe that the signs of resurrection are all around us – a thriving outreach program, the enthusiastic turn out of people to stripe the parking lot, people assuming new responsibilities, people in the neighborhood once again noticing us and seeking us out, and your willingness to reach out to the Latino community.

Easter makes a difference, the resurrection makes a difference, because it reveals God’s plan for creation. It’s like turning to the back of the book and finding the answers or seeing how the story ends. It tells us that death does not have the last word. It tells us that God longs to gather human life in all its messiness into the divine life and that there is future for flesh and blood beyond death and decay.

How might the world be different, how might we be different, if we took the resurrection seriously? The resurrection of Jesus is the story of a man unjustly condemned to death who is vindicated by God by being raised to new life. What does that imply for us? It implies that we belong on the side of those who have been unjustly and unfairly treated by political and economic systems – the unemployed, the uninsured, the unjustly imprisoned. The story of the resurrection is the ultimate miracle of healing. All healing is a way of pushing back death. The story of Easter tells us that part of our job as Christians is to bring wholeness to a world of fragmentation and death; to bring hope to the depressed and despondent; to seek out the lonely and unloved.

N.T. Wright, formerly Bishop of Durham and now professor of New Testament at St. Andrews, tells this parable about the resurrection of Jesus. Imagine that a wealthy patron of the arts has given a magnificent painting to a church. The congregation is grateful but their church is small and there really isn’t a good place in it for the painting. They try hanging it behind the altar but it’s too tall. They try putting it in the narthex but there isn’t enough light there. They put it in the parish hall but the heat and humidity might damage the painting.

What is this church to do? Of course, they could trim the painting. Cut off a corner here, shave a few inches there. But that would destroy the painting or at least reduce its value. So the little church came to the only possible conclusion – they would tear down their church and build a new one.

We would like to make Christ’s resurrection fit our categories. We would like to cut it down to size, make it not a mystery to be experienced but just a problem to be solved. We would like to tame the story of Easter to fit our belief in a world in which there are no surprises, no miracles, and in which dead men certainly do not rise again. But the resurrection will not be trimmed or modified.

In the Easter story we have been given a thing both surpassingly beautiful and uncommonly strange, so beautiful and strange that it does not fit into our world. We live in a world of death and decay but Easter speaks to us of a world in which death is destroyed, the world is renewed, and we can be born again to lives full of joy and wonder.

So on this Easter Day in the year of our Lord 2013, I am here to tell you that Christ Church’s long Lent is over. It is over not because you have called a new rector but because Jesus Christ is risen. We must not trim the Easter story and make it small enough for our impoverished imaginations. It is time for Christ Church to live out the fantastic truth that Christ is risen and start again to build God’s kingdom in this time and place.