Last week was wonderful. I needed that service. I always need Easter. That holy day is so inspiring and really makes the presence of God tangible. I love the hope that is found on that day. I love the grace that is present when we talk about the resurrection. I love the fact people come in new clothes or the fact that for some this is their one trip to church a year. I love the special music and the energy that was in this place. I wish it could be Easter every week.
The truth is it is. We just finished up the first seven days of the Great Fifty Days. Easter, like I told the children, lasts for fifty days. Fifty days marks time between Easter and the birth of the Church at Pentecost. For fifty days, ten more than the forty we just experienced, we celebrate the fact that our Lord has risen. But this is what we do every Sunday. We don’t count Sundays in the forty days of Lent because Sundays are reserved for celebrating the resurrection. Every Sunday is a little Easter and so Easter continues today. The church is not a place where we memorialize the death of Christ each week. We are not simply a tombstone marking a place of rest of our Savior. We gather because we represent that our Savior is till working. We are the physical reminder that our Lord has risen and that is what we celebrate each week.
Bishop Will Willimon tells a story about when he was visiting with a man a couple days before his death. He asked him how he was feeling now that he knew he was at the end and was he fearful. The man replied, “Fear? No. I’m not fearful because of my faith in Jesus.” “We all have hope that our future is in God’s hands,” the Bishop said, somewhat piously. “Well, I’m not hopeful because of what I believe about the future,” he corrected, “I’m hopeful because of what I’ve experienced in the past.” The Bishop asked him to say more. The man continued, “I look back over my life, all the mistakes I’ve made, all the times I’ve turned away from Jesus, gone my own way, strayed, an gotten lost. And time and again, he came back for me. He found a way to get to me, showed up and got me, looked for me when I wasn’t looking for him. I don’t think he’ll let something like my dying get in the way of his love for me.”
There is really nothing that can stop our resurrected Savior from reaching us. Today we find the disciples in a locked in a house out of fear. They were scared because they had just witnessed their Rabbi, the one they thought was the Messiah, die a horrific death. Now his body was missing and they knew it would upset some people. They cowered in fear in this locked house wondering what to do. The scripture tells us that it was the fear of the Jews that called all ten of these disciples together. They feared the fact that they may suffer the same fate as Jesus. The Jewish leaders may try to squelch the rebellion even more by taking out Jesus’ followers. They thought they may be blamed for his missing body and suffer because of that.
It is in the midst of this fear mongering and anxious behavior that Jesus shows up. The resurrected Jesus returns to his broken followers and gives them peace. His first words to the ten are, “Peace be with you.” They all rejoice that they see the one had just died in front of them. He came through the locked doors and now is in their presence. Jesus had returned to his fearful disciples, to those who betrayed and forsaken him just days before. He came to bring peace and to give them a mission.
I passed a church another UM Church on my commute in to my last appointment in Charlotte. It was a small congregation that had a half to quarter time appointment. They were located on a busy road that during rush hour hundreds of cars always slowed down right in front of their place. They had an old marquee brick sign out front and for most of the three years I drove past it, it read, Open Hearts, Open Doors.
Now I thought that was the most honest church sign I had ever seen but I wondered what non-UMC people thought and if they appreciated their honesty. We all know that our igniting ministries slogan is Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors, we are the people of the United Methodist Church. This church at least was happy to let you know that there hearts and doors were open, but not their minds. Refreshing honesty on a marquee.
Many of our churches would say that they have all three, Open Hearts, Minds and Doors. But are we truly being honest with ourselves? I know at Trinity we have many new visitors who struggle to find our open doors. Let’s face it is hard to understand what door to go to from the parking lot, the ones some visitors try are locked. Don’t ever try to get in on any other day besides Sunday. Churches lock themselves in constantly and make it hard for people to get in. So how can we truly have Open Doors?
The United Methodist Church has seen a dramatic decline in membership over the years. For the first time since the 1930s we have dropped under 8 million members in the United States. At one time we were the largest denomination. The largest we have ever been was in the 1960s and 70s when we had over 10.6 million members. The good news is that if the 60s and 70s every come back, we are ready! There is some truth in that statement, I’m not just trying to be funny. There are many United Methodist Churches who are like the disciples in the house with the door locked. They are worshipping in church each Sunday, but what they are really doing is gathering in fear, hoping no one finds out about their location.
What do we have to fear though? There is a church in Charlotte who rose to high prominence in the 50s and 60s too. They had a great location in a prominent neighborhood. Their membership was high and their sanctuary was gorgeous. They were high on the appointment process and competed with some of the top churches in the conference for the top ministers. Everything was great back then, until the city started to change. All of a sudden the neighborhood started to go down hill. The prominent people moved to the suburbs. The roads changed and poor people moved in. High dollar homes turned into crack houses. Crime was up and this church’s membership started to head down. They battened down the hatches. These white collar white people closed off their congregation to the blacks and Hispanics that were moving in. They feared the people outside their doors so those doors were locked tight. This church missed an opportunity to be Church for a community that needed them. Instead they were disciples locked in a room.
When it comes to welcoming in new members many churches just want clones of themselves. I have often heard, “We love new members.” But what they are saying is, “We love new members as long as they are think like us, act like us, and look like us.” Fear of change paralyzes congregations and pushes them into locked rooms. The church they meet in turns into, “My Church.” They claim possession over it and like a two year old they hold onto it and repeat over and over again, “Mine! Mine! Mine!”
Jesus comes to us today in the midst of our locked doors, in the midst of our fears and reminds us of our calling. He tells us, “As the Father as sent me, so I send you.” When he tells that to the disciples he transforms them from disciples into apostles. A disciple is one who follows a teacher, who learns all about them and wanders the world in the teacher’s shadow. An apostle is a pioneer of a reform movement. It is a person who is charged with a purpose and who will stop at nothing to carry it out. Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, transforms this fearful, broken and sinful group of followers into the apostles of our faith. They leave that locked house and go boldly into the world to proclaim the Good News.
The Good News to us today is that Jesus returns from the dead. He returns to speak to our doubts and our fears and to open the doors. He comes to the congregations who’s doors are constantly locked and makes it difficult for people to come in. We all need this resurrection experience in order to remind us all that we are not a community of followers who lock ourselves in a room out of fear. Our faith is not private and hidden. We are called to move from being followers to being apostles. We have to remove the locks from our doors and truly open them up. Not only to let others in but so that we can go out.
And all God’s people said…Amen.