Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Unfinished Gospel

Have you ever heard of “Quasimodo Sunday?”  Most of us probably have not. In our tradition the first Sunday after Easter is commonly known as “Low Sunday." The reason is quite simple: while worship attendance soars on Easter, it drops to an all-time low the following Sunday. Truth is, most Senior Pastors, including myself, can’t be found near a pulpit on Low Sunday. Thanks be to God for wonderful associates, like Jane and Alice, who along with the rest of the staff continue to serve our church on that Sunday and keep the story alive.

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all tell the story of Easter morning in their own unique and wonderful ways. Many of their details don’t match up with each other, such as who exactly was there that first Easter and how it all played out. This untidiness never seemed to bother the early church. Who cares, they reasoned, if each one is a little different?  The main point is that they all agree that Jesus, who was crucified, dead and buried, was ALIVE. That’s the Easter story. He is Risen, indeed!

There is one interesting little twist in Mark’s Easter story. It has both a shorter and a longer ending.  Some scholars believe the longer ending was added because the shorter ending was just, well, too short. Among those scholars was the late Dr. Bruce Metzger, a renowned Bible professor from Princeton whom you may remember from an earlier Sardis Enrichment Series. He saw the abrupt ending as all we have of Mark’s writing but accepted the longer ending, coming from a different source than Mark, as an ancient and valid part of the Biblical canon. You can check out both endings in your own Bible and see what you think.

All of this has led many scholars to believe that Mark intentionally did not finish telling the Easter story with a nice, neat ending, but left it unfinished. You might wonder why?  Do you think it is because Mark believed that you and I are to finish the Easter story by the way we live our lives?  

Mark wants us to be EASTER PEOPLE, not only on Easter and Low Sunday but every day.   He expects the story of Easter to stay alive through you and me. Now I ask you, what kind of ending is that? Actually, pretty exciting when you stop to think about it! 


Friday, April 11, 2014

What Does Maundy Mean?

I never know exactly how to deal with Holy Week, which is also one of the most “unholy” weeks in all the year. It begins out fine enough on Palm Sunday with a parade into Jerusalem as children line the streets with their parents and wave palm branches. Things, however, quickly go downhill and will eventually end with a cross atop a hill called Calvary.
Holy Week is pretty scary.  Every time I read John’s gospel, I get a sinking feeling in my stomach. It is clear that the plots against Jesus are strong. The Jewish people at the Passover festival in Jerusalem even said of Jesus, “What do you think? Surely he will not come to the festival, will he?” I want to join them and shout out a warning to Jesus, “Don’t go. They are going to kill you. Don’t you see?” The problem is, He does see and He goes anyway. How do we respond to that?
Lots will happen between Palm Sunday and Easter. Jesus will show his anger and righteous indignation over those who have turned the temple into a money making enterprise instead of a house of prayer. He will have heated verbal exchanges with those who stand in his way. He will speak directly and tenderly to his disciples in the upper room on Maundy Thursday, where he institutes the Lord’s Supper by asking his disciples to “do this in remembrance of me.” The word Maundy takes its name from the new “mandate” or “commandment” Jesus gave them in the upper room to “love one another. Just as I have loved you.” 
We have a Maundy Thursday evening communion service at Sardis. I often hear that it is the most meaningful of all the services we have throughout the year, even more meaningful than Christmas Eve. I wonder why that is the case?
I’d love to hear from those of you who are so touched and inspired by that service. What makes it so meaningful for you? How do you sense the presence of the Holy Spirit?
We have come a long way from that first Maundy Thursday, but the invitation remains the same, “do this in remembrance of me,” and so does the mandate to “love one another”. If you have never attended our Maundy Thursday service, the invitation is open to everyone. I hope to see you on this most sacred of nights.  


Friday, April 4, 2014

An Easter Invitation

Every day there seems to be another article about religion in America. I recently came across one titled, “Losing Faith: 21 Percent SayReligion Not That Important.” According to data from an NBC/WSJ poll, one in five Americans say religion does not play an important role in their lives. A different Pew report says 20 percent of people identify themselves as spiritual but not religious.  What does all that mean? What is this “religion” that is not important to people?

Some might find these numbers alarming, but not me.  Maybe there is some real honesty and connection in what is going on.  In fact, Jesus did not have many good things to say about some religious people of His day, especially when their religious institutions became more important to them than a personal relationship with the Living God.   On the other hand, He did see His church as the instrument of God’s kingdom on earth.  Remember what He told Peter in Matthew 16, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”  We are now that church and carry a special responsibility for its success.

I don’t know of any other week that gets to the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ than Holy Week.  Lots of religious trappings fall away and tables get overturned.  We come as close as ever to understanding the depth of God’s love, from Palm Sunday to Maundy Thursday, to Good Friday, and then to Easter.   Holy Week comes around each year and reminds us who we are and what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ.

There is another piece of data that says many people “re-enter” the church at Easter. We will have more visitors come to worship with us that day than on any other in the year. I hope we all extend to them the wonderful gift of welcome and hospitality. By doing so, they may want to come back and try us out the rest of the year.

And here’s a thought, what if all of us invited someone to our Holy Week services? Have you ever invited anyone to join you for our joyous Easter celebration, or for our Maundy Thursday service?   Many of you say Maundy Thursday communion is the most meaningful service in the entire year. It would be great to share that meaning with others in our community.

People are not interested in being introduced to religion, but they are interested in hearing the most amazing story ever told. They are interested in hearing that they are loved and accepted. They are interested in the story of Jesus and His love, and that’s what they’ll hear this Holy Week. Let’s spread the Good News as widely as we can.