He’s Going on Ahead of You

I’ve been preaching to an empty room for over a year now, save for that blip from August to November which feels shorter than the three months it was. This is the second Easter we’ve spent like this. I wish you were all here to smell the flowers. To pass the peace. To share in communion and coffee hour.

One thing I don’t really miss is the receiving line after church. Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing you all, and spending time face-to-face but let’s be honest… the receiving line can get awkward. I’m an extrovert and I love it, but it can be weird for the introverted and shy. We line up, and folks come through. Some don’t know what to say. Others try to skirt past me. New visitors sometimes look like they’ve been caught with their hand in the cookie jar. Some folks have a very long story to share, and others behind them get impatient. It is a strange practice.

Sometimes I can tell when folks didn’t like the sermon. Once in a receiving line, I could tell this man was heated. He stormed up with a red face, clutched my hand, looked me straight in the eye and said, “I didn’t agree with 90% of what you said, but I liked how you said it.” And then he stormed off. I still don’t know what to do with that.

Often, folks have something to share or are more specific. Sometimes there’s a general sense that they liked it, but something didn’t connect so they use the phrase, “You sure gave us a lot to think about.”

Jesus told stories that had twist endings. Stories that don’t go the way we thought they would. Jesus certainly gives us a lot to think about. A lot to think about with how we live. Where our true loyalties lie. The extent of our good will and who we consider a neighbor. How far God’s love for us goes.

We often like to put God in the abstract box. We’ll praise God when things are good. Curse God when things are bad. We might visit church a few times a year but not really think about our lives… it’s more for the ritual, maybe? But God comes to us in a body. A context. God in Christ accepts everything we throw at him. Even the shame of the cross. And then today… The resurrection. It gives us a lot to think about.

Even the most casual of Christian is drawn to this part of the story. It’s weird. It’s strange.

After one Easter sermon, someone came up to me in the receiving line and said, “So was this a spiritual resurrection or a physical one?” Their eyes were brimming with tears, and yet there was a tone that told me that they were spoiling for a fight if they didn’t like my answer.

“Yes. Both? I don’t know as I wasn’t there and all the gospels don’t really agree,” I said, honestly. I said more, but I don’t think she was impressed with my answer.

In today’s scripture, we don’t even see the Resurrected Christ. We just get a young man dressed in a white robe saying “That Jesus guy? Yeah. Not here. He’s going ahead of you to Galilee.” The emotions we get are alarm, terror, amazement.

The Quaker minister and author Phil Gulley gives his take on the resurrection, “Not even the people writing it 30-60 years after the event agreed what happened. After 2,000 years, there’s no way I can know. I’m amazed and astounded just like those women at the tomb. We know something happened; we’re not sure what. This is an area of faith in which we ought to be very humble. There is much we don’t know. But I will say this. While I may not know and understand the particulars of the resurrection, I believe with all my heart in the principle of resurrection. I believe difficult, dreadful things can happen to us and that our circumstances can be redeemed. I believe we can be handed a plate of mud and rock and sand and that buried at the bottom can be a flake of gold. I believe in the principle of resurrection, that good can come from bad.”[1]

Well, that gives me a lot to think about. After the year we’ve had. After all the things that have rattled us. In the past year, we have had a pandemic, a national discussion on race due to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others. We had an election. An insurrection on my birthday. We’ve had funerals where we couldn’t really mourn together and lives we couldn’t celebrate in the ways that we’re used to.

I was able to head to a hospital room where one of our own spent the last few hours of their life. Their adult children looked at me and asked, “What are we going to do after they’re gone?”

Those are questions all of us ask when our lives have been upended. Those are scary questions to ask. When the women went to visit the tomb of Jesus and met a young man who told them Jesus had risen and urged them to go tell others, they fled from the tomb, trembling and astonished, and said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

At every funeral, I give a similar message. “Your loved one has gone on ahead. Yet their love remains.”

It gives us a lot to think about. I don’t know how it happens. I don’t know the particulars but I know the principle of resurrection. I know it with all my heart.

It’s shown in one way in one of my favorite parables from Max Lucado.[2]

A sea captain comes upon some uncharted islands in the south sea. On the first island, the captain sees nothing but sadness. Underfed children. Tribes in conflict. No farming or food development, no treatment for the sick, no schools. Just simple needy people.

The other islands the captain and his crew visit reveal more of the same. But what can he do?

The captain lands on the last and largest island. There people are healthy and well fed. Irrigation systems nourish their fields, and roads connect the villages. The children have bright eyes and strong bodies. The captain asks the island chief for an explanation. He asks how has this island moved so far ahead of the others?

“Father Benjamin,” The chief answers. “He educated us on everything from agriculture to health. He built schools and clinics and dug wells.”

The captain asks, “Can you take me to see him?”

The chief nods, and he takes the captain to a medical clinic and introduces him to the staff. There are clean beds, and it’s well stocked. The captain, though impressed, sees nothing of Father Benjamin. He repeats his request. “I would like to see Father Benjamin. Can you take me to where he lives?”

The chief looks puzzled, so he takes the captain to the other side of the island. There’s a series of fishponds. Canals connect the ponds to the ocean. As the tide rises, fish pass from the ocean into the ponds. The islanders then lower gates and trap the fish for harvest.

The captain is amazed. Yet the captain wonders if he’s making himself clear. “I don’t see Father Benjamin. Please take me to where he lives.”

The chief takes him up a steep, narrow path. After many twists and turns on the mountain, the path deposits them in front of a grass-roofed chapel. The voice of the chief is soft and earnest. “He taught us about God.”

“Is this where Father Benjamin lives?” The captain asks.

The chief nods and smiles.

“May I talk to him?”

The chief’s face grows suddenly serious. “Oh, that would be impossible.”
Why?
He died many years ago.
The bewildered captain stares at the chief. “I asked to see him, and you showed me a clinic, some fish farms, and this chapel. You said nothing of his death.”

“You didn’t ask about his death,” the chief explains. “You asked to see where he lives. I showed you.”

I don’t understand the particulars of resurrection. But I believe with all my body, mind, and spirit in the principle.

God goes on ahead of us. Coaxing order and life from the chaotic void. God was out in front.

God goes on ahead of us. Wrestling and blessing Jacob, naming him Israel. Jacob exclaims, “God was in this place and I didn’t know it!” God was out in front.

God goes on ahead of us. In the column of smoke and the pillar of fire that led the Israelites from Egypt to the Holy Land. God was out in front.

God goes on ahead of us. As the Israelites trudge back from their Exiles in Babylon and Persia. They rejoice and weep as they gather at the Temple ruins. They resolve to rebuild. God is out in front.

God is out in front of us in the prophetic voices. Remember the poor! The outcast. The immigrant! Take care of the sick. Loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke! I don’t need your worship or your praise, take away the noise of your songs, but let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.[3] We have yet to catch up to our God who is out in front.

And now in Jesus, the incarnate Logic of God. Love God and your neighbor. Every. Single. Neighbor. Jesus who was in and of the Jewish faith. The Jews who had all sorts of horrors visited upon them. They exist to be a nation of priests to bless the world. Forged in the fires of oppression and injustice, this nation, this faith is about the healing of the world. The restoration of all things. Only one of theirs can pray for things to be “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Of course, this God has gone on ahead of us. In our terror, our astonishment, our grief we want to stay in a locked room. Stay at home. Keep searching and arguing over HOW it happened and WHAT we BELIEVE about it all. But Jesus is out ahead of us, inviting us to a new way of being in the world.

A world where Love has the first and last word. Where hate and injustice are temporary. Where war and violence are viewed as tools of the weak, not the strong. Where no one goes without.

This fundamentally changed the lives of the disciples. They didn’t go back to their pre-Jesus lives. We’ll explore some of what they did in our next series, The New Normal, where we journey through Acts.

We don’t have to go back completely to our pre-COVID lives. We’ve had more time with family, to watch our kids grow up. Our teams are still meeting. We’re able to include some people virtually who found it hard to make evening meetings because they don’t like to drive at night or they have little kids at home. We’ve become more efficient and more vulnerable in our meetings. We’ve held and healed one another in this time. Connected in new ways. We’ve let some unneeded and unnecessary things die.

I’m eager to see you, to shake hands, high-five, hug. I’m eager to share a meal with you. Show you all the home improvements I’ve done. Play you some songs on the ukulele. Show you how much the kids have grown and see the growth in yours. But we don’t have to go back to the unrelenting busy-ness that was poisoning our lives. We don’t have to live in impatience. We don’t have to choose the isolation of nightly Netflix or doomscrolling. We can choose community. A community that chooses each other. That lives and mourns together. That grieves and yet is able to point to the love that surrounds us and connects us, that is within and among us.

I know it’s a lot to think about. Yet we already know this way of life. We read about it every Sunday. We see it in nature, how the seasons come and go and green is returning to the world. We don’t know what the future holds, but we know God is already there. We know God has gone on ahead of us, waiting for us. We know this because we know the principle of resurrection even if we don’t know the particulars.

Good things can come from bad experiences. Crisis breeds opportunity and innovation. We can consider all the things that have gone wrong the last year, all the things we’ve lost, all the tombs that the last year gave us. Or we can take the Resurrection view. The Easter View. Easter reminds us that we don’t always find dead bodies in tombs, sometimes we find new life.

Works Cited

[1][1] http://philipgulley.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Easter-2011-Final.pdf

[2][2] From Out Live Your Life: You were made to make a difference. Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2010, pages xix-xxi

[3][3] See Leviticus 19:33-34, Isaiah 58:6, and Amos 5:24

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