Monday, April 21, 2014

Nothing Changes in the World until Something Changes in You

The angel said to the women, “Go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed is going ahead of you to Galilee’; there you will see him.’”

Suddenly Jesus met them and said… “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

If you look at Matthew’s gospel from the perspective of a narrative with force and flow and weight, this Easter story is not at all what you would expect.  As straight literature, the miracle of the Resurrection is superseded by suspense relating to what will happen in Galilee.  If we took Matthew’s telling to heart, today would be a ‘low’ Sunday and we all would gather next week to hear the dramatic conclusion.  What is going on here?

Jesus, of course, was crucified just outside the city of Jerusalem and buried nearby.  His followers were staying close enough that the women were able to walk to the tomb in the predawn hours following the Sabbath Passover.  In Matthew’s telling of the Resurrection, the only time Jesus appears to any of his followers in Jerusalem is the single, brief encounter with the women we heard just moments ago. 

Since all of Jesus’ closest followers where still in Jerusalem, why not meet them there?  Travelling on foot, Galilee is 68 miles to the north, which is a healthy three or four day walk away.  Getting there will require no small effort, but, according to Matthew, that is what the eleven remaining disciples do.  Again we ask why.  Why did Christ want to meet his followers in Galilee?

Well, in this day and age, all you have to do to get an answer to this sort of question is type it into a google search box and – presto – like magic you are pointed toward the insights of one Cornelius a Lapide, a seventeenth century Flemish Jesuit and biblical scholar.  Old Cornelius pondered this very question and, after some quality reflection, put pen dipped in ink to paper and recorded his thoughts:

He goeth before you into Galilee.  First, because Galilee was the native country of the Apostles, to which, after the death of Jesus, they were purposing to return, that they might live more safely among their own relations. 

Secondly, because in Galilee Christ willed to show Himself openly to all His assembled disciples.  For the Jews would not have permitted them to assemble in Judea. 

Thirdly, because in Galilee Christ had for the most part preached, and had performed very many miracles.

Ahhh, if only Cornelius could see your eyes glazing over as I can while I read his thoughts aloud.  Truth does not always have to be dynamic, but there has to be something more significant and a little less practical behind Jesus’ pointed focus to go home.

Think about this: for centuries, when people strive to find God they often do so not by returning home, but by going away.  The pilgrimage – a journey with a holy destination – is a time-honored way to find God.  So too is a retreat – leaving behind the cares of the world for a quiet place where one can commune more closely with the Holy.  Even the weekly practice of going to church emphasizes that when we want to find Jesus we leave home in order to facilitate an encounter.

Home is a place of daily chores and stifling routines.  Meals must be made, floors swept, and clothes cleaned.  At home you have to wake up early in order to go to work all day.  Do this long enough and you will soon find yourself in need of a vacation – a time of solitude and rest and reflection.  If Jesus had sent the disciples to the beach we might have understood, but back home?  It boggles the mind.

I think Corny a Lapide (and he lets friends like me call him that) was on to something when he said the Resurrected Jesus did not want to appear openly in Jerusalem.  Had he done so, it would have been an act with tremendous political and ecclesiastical implications.  Being the seat of power – both for the ruling authority and for the Temple – any open post-resurrection appearance to the masses there would have started a revolt.  Roman officials would have been cast out and Jesus enthroned.  Temple officials would have been swept away and Jesus installed.  And Rome would have responded by crushing the Jesus movement before it ever got started.

By meeting his disciples in Galilee, Jesus is saying that his Kingdom first and foremost is neither political nor institutional.  It is personal.  It begins, if it begins at all, with changed lives and changed hearts and changed minds and changed ways.  The Welsh poet and Anglican priest R.S. Thomas beautifully captures this notion in a poem titled “The Kingdom”:

It’s a long way off but inside it
  There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life.  It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.

I like Thomas’ basic message that nothing changes in the world until something changes in you. 

When Jesus meets his followers in Galilee he gives them a charge.  He does not tell them to launch a political campaign nor does he direct them to reform the church.  He tells them this:  “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”  Jesus’ Kingdom is about touching hearts and changing lives.  It is about leading people into the truths that Jesus taught; truths that will enable individuals to live in this world with all the freedom and grace and goodness God intended from the beginning of Creation.

In time, individuals will become communities, and communities will become multitudes, and multitudes will become nations, and nations will become peoples.  In time, structures will need to be redeemed and institutional faith purified.  But the Kingdom begins by baptizing one disciple at a time.  Nothing changes in the world until something changes in you.

I know some clergy who, on this day, will call out the ‘C&E’ crowd – those people who come to church only at Christmas and Easter.  I remember one priest telling them rather pointedly we will have services again next Sunday and 8:00 and 10:30, in case they did not know.  As much as I like to poke fun whenever and wherever possible, I have never warmed to chastising the ‘C&E’ folks in the parish.  Here at St. Paul’s, many of the C&Eers are visiting from out of town.  You have gone to considerable effort to be here this morning and I, for one, thank you.  Your presence adds so much to the celebration of our Easter joy.  There are other folks here today who might mistakenly be labeled as ‘C&E’, but that is not entirely accurate.  Yes, you are here on Christmas and Easter, but also on odd and unpredictable days – a Sunday in July, Shrove Tuesday, two or three weeks in a row in the fall.  You have your reasons and, while curious what they might be, I will not judge them.  I am glad you are here because you too add much to the joy of our celebration.  Easter is the kind of day that brings people to our church for the first time.  You have been thinking about attending a service, but needed the push of a high, holy day to spur you to action.  You too are most welcome here.  And then there are those of you who are here pretty much every Sunday and any other time the doors are open.  I can’t begin to tell you how much I enjoy gathering with you on a regular basis to worship, to laugh, and to care for one another.

Here is the thing we can all take away from today:  No matter how spectacular the Resurrection is (and make no mistake, if true it is the seminal moment in human history), this day is not an end unto itself.  The main point of this day, at least as I can discern from Matthew’s gospel, is not to rejoice that death has been vanquished nor is it to count on a hope of eternal life.  The point of this day is to go to Galilee (whatever and wherever that may be for you), to live now into the teachings of Jesus, and to work now so that others might become disciples (even as you strive to deepen and authenticate your own discipleship).  Nothing changes in the world until something changes in you.