Monday, April 26, 2004

Encountering the Risen Christ

From Sunday, on the occasion of the First Communion class being honored. The class is a parish custom, not my invention. If such a class is an appropriate custom, in light of the fact that the Episcopal Church no longer denies communion to anyone who is baptized, regardless of their age, is a discussion this parish may have with their new rector next year. It is not an essential discussion for an interim vicar to engage in. Here's the sermon...
Acts 9:1-19a
Revelation 5:6-14
John 21:1-14

This morning we hear of two resurrection appearances of Jesus. In the first one, Saul is knocked down and blinded by a bright light. A dramatic, and life changing experiences for Saul, who became Paul, undoubtedly the most influential missionary of the early church.

In the second resurrection appearance, the disciples have gotten tired of waiting for something to happen, and have gone back to what they know best; they've gone back to fishing. Jesus suddenly appears on the shore, invites them to breakfast, and even cooks the meal. Quite different from Paul's experience. Yet, in both, those who find the risen Christ in their midst have their lives transformed.

Jesus appeared one way to Paul, and another way to the disciples. Each appearance was in a manner that would cause a transformation. Each appearance was tailor made for the needs of the person.

How has the risen Christ appeared to you?

I'm not talking about the second coming, the one we speak of in the creeds. I'm not talking about the rapture, either. A lot of the popular talk about the rapture today bothers me. We are told that whatever this second coming is all about, Jesus will arrive like a thief in the night. We're told not to try to predict how or when this event will happen. So what do we humans do? We try to predict it, of course.

When I was in Junior High, the family I lived with belonged to the Open Bible Standard Church, a Pentecostal denomination. My Uncle Dub was the pastor. On Wednesday nights, we went to the mid-week service, which was usually a lengthy teaching from Uncle Dub on either the book of Daniel or the Revelation to John.

I have fond memories of Uncle Dub. He had a passion for the Gospel, and a winsome style. It was not unusual for him to preach for more than an hour. Sometimes, in the middle of his sermon, he would start a hymn, and then sit in silence while we sang. By the end of the hymn, he had marshaled his thoughts, and we were off again for another thirty minutes of passionate rhetoric.

When the popular series of books, the Left Behind series, came out, I had parishioners who kept encouraging me to give it a read, as they were interested in my opinion. These are books that attempt to tell, in story form, what will happen in the end times. They are written by a couple of gentlemen who are fixated on the rapture much in the same way my Uncle Dub was. I resisted reading them for some time, but eventually gave in, and read the first three volumes.

I got that far in the series by considering it as Uncle Dub would have understood it. For the most part, it is an accurate depiction of what many Christians who are preoccupied with the rapture believe.

At one point, there are terrible earthquakes and firestorms, resulting in thousands of casualties. Some of these disasters are described in vivid detail. One of the characters asks how God could allow such carnage. The response is to claim that these disasters are an expression of God's love. They are the way God is trying to get our attention. God gets our attention by making us suffer horribly. In other words, this God is some kind of monster. That was the end for me. I closed the book, and have never been tempted to read that series since.

The last volume of the series is out, Glorious Appearing. Here is a how one reviewer describes the ending;

Encountering the army of the Anti-Christ near the ancient city of Petra in Jordan, the Christ Triumphant announces, "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and Last, the Beginning and the End, the Almighty." Upon hearing these words, the Anti-Christ's minions "fell dead, simply dropping where they stood, their bodies ripped open, blood pooling in great masses." Later, the Lord rides a white horse to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where he sits on his throne of judgment. As he approaches, the saved sing "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."
At least they rejoiced in all this smiting with a good Lutheran hymn!

I think that image of Christ would have even made Uncle Dub wince. It would be an understatement to say I don't agree with this interpretation of scripture. The Revelation to John, which we heard a passage from this morning, was a vision that John had. We do not know for sure exactly what John was talking about. I'm not sure he did either. It was a vision; a mystical experience; the kind of thing that it difficult to ever trap in words. To use such a text to develop some idea of what will happen when Christ comes again is about as valid as going to a palm reader. Actually, I think a palm reader might have more accuracy.

Jesus as an avenging angel might be an image that sells books. It might even make a good TV show. But it is not the Jesus I encounter in the Gospels.

It's not far from what the early Christians expected, however. They thought the risen Christ would show up and kick the tail of the Roman Empire. Instead, the risen Christ shows up and cooks breakfast.

We do not know how Christ will come again. Focusing on such speculation can blind us to the ways that Christ comes again in our daily lives. Let's set aside our imagining of some future arrival of Jesus. How do we encounter him right now?

Our answer to that question would probably be different for each person here this morning. Just like the two appearances we heard about in today's readings, Christ, the spirit of the living God, makes himself known to us in ways that are tailor made to our needs.

One of the customs we've adopted in our Wednesday night class is to take a few minutes for each of us to answer the question, "What was your moment closest to Christ in the last week?" There is no wrong answer to that question, of course. But sometimes, we are all surprised by the diversity of our responses. As the weeks go on, we find ourselves expecting to meet Christ in our daily lives; we look for the risen Christ in every situation.

There are some certain ways that we know Christ is present with us. Jesus said he'd be there whenever two or three are gathered together in his name. That means that this morning, right here, right now, Jesus has come again, and is in our midst.

As with so many things, sometimes we need these ideas, ideas like Jesus being with us, to take on some real and concrete form, some symbolic form, or the idea just floats away and vanishes. Within the Holy Eucharist, the Church teaches us that Christ is present with us in four specific ways;

Christ is present in the people gathered together. As we share this meal today, our unity with one another transforms us into a new family, the family of God. We can be the presence of Christ for one another.

Christ is present in the Holy Scriptures. As we engage ourselves in the texts, they come alive, and speak to the various conditions of our lives. Through the bible, through the testimony of those who have gone before us, our image of Christ with us right now becomes clearer. Today, we see the image of Christ as one who appears to us as a blinding light, or, if we prefer a less dramatic image, as one who invites us to breakfast.

Christ is present through your spiritual leaders, who can be special conduits of God's grace.

And Christ is present to us in the bread and wine that we share as the body and blood of Christ. When we receive these gifts, we are strengthened in our union with Christ, and we are strengthened in our union with one another. Receiving Holy Communion is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, a banquet that we are invited to today, a banquet that we are invited to for all of eternity.

Today, 7 of our young people will officially join us at the banquet table. A., K., M., E., J., C. and M. will be making their First Communion. They have been preparing for this day for many weeks, with classes here at church, and at home with their families. We talked about a lot of things, and got to know each other pretty well. And every time we met, I could feel the presence of Christ with us in those classes.

So today we affirm the good thing that God has already done; we invite these young people to take their place at the table of the heavenly banquet. Let us who are here today commit ourselves to nurturing them in every way we can to nourish and strengthen their relationship with Christ.

We will each encounter the risen Christ as we kneel at the altar today to receive communion. We will also encounter Christ as we visit with one another in the parish hall after the liturgy. We will also encounter the risen Christ when we return to our homes.

Each and every day, expect an encounter with the risen Christ. Every night, take a few minutes to ask yourself the question, "What was my moment closest to Christ this day?"

And now, let us continue with our liturgy, as we prepare to "share breakfast" with our risen Lord.


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