Leader: For I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
All: But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy and its people as a delight.
Leader: Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.
All: The wolf and the lamb will feed together, the lion shall eat straw like an ox; but the serpent–its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.
Gathering Prayer God of resurrection, we thank you for your child, Jesus, who died and rose again that we might have abundant life now and eternal life in the world to come. In every moment you make us anew. With every breath your Spirit sustains us. Teach us to breathe out the past–hurts that hinder us, traumas that haunt us–and breathe in fresh possibilities, wild dreams, new hopes. This is the day of resurrection. Today we find our freedom. Amen.
Dedication of the Offering
God whose generosity knows no bounds, we give with humble gratitude for your gift of abundant life. Amen.
Holy God, on this Easter morning we welcome the sunrise. We welcome the birdsong. We welcome the branches swaying above our heads. We welcome the opportunity to greet familiar faces and meet new ones. We welcome the energy and joy and promise of a new day, new beginnings, and new challenges to face. We welcome the chance to hear with new ears the old story of Jesus: how he died at the hands of violent people and was raised by the unstoppable power of your boundless love. Renew our faith in resurrection. Renew our commitment to the Jesus way. Amen.
We love you, Jesus, and we do our best to keep your commandments. You said that no one has greater love than to lay down one’s life for others. Though we are too often tired, discouraged, and preoccupied we once again offer ourselves as your hands and heart for the world. Bless our worship that we might offer a sacrifice worthy of your boundless love. Amen.
On the church calendar this is the first week of the Easter Season: 50 days between Easter and Pentecost. Pentecost is the Sunday we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Jesus’ followers. Jesus had ascended to heaven following his resurrection, but had promised his followers the Holy Spirit, who would empower them to carry on his mission even though the physcial form of the historical Jesus would no longer be present in the world. The 50 days of the Easter Season was an intense time during which Jesus prepared his followers to be his hands and heart for the world.
This preparation begins with appearances of the resurrected Christ. This week’s Scripture, John 20:18-31, recounts two appearances of Jesus to the disciples who had gathered the week before to celebrate Passover with Jesus in the “upper room” they had rented for the occasion. The text–like all of the stories of Jesus’ appearances–raises two big questions: “Who is this resurrected Jesus?” And “How should we respond to him?”
The John 20 account is famous for the story of a disciple named Thomas. As I mentioned above, Jesus appears twice in John 20. The first time Thomas is absent. His fellow disciples tell Thomas that they saw Jesus, but he doesn’t believe them. He says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Jesus appears to the disciples a second time. This time Thomas is among them. Jesus invites Thomas to examine and touch his wounds–just as Thomas had demanded–and Thomas believes. The scene ends with Jesus saying to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
If you were in Thomas’ shoes, how would you respond to reports that Jesus was alive? I grew up in a very conservative Christian community that understood faith to be a kind of “belief without proof,” a kind of “take my word for it.” The Bible says God raised Jesus from the dead, so we should accept it as fact even if it seems like a fairytale. To doubt or question was understood to be antithetical to faith. While I definitely had my questions and even as a young child asked them, more than that, I wanted to be a good Christian, so I accepted what my parents and Sunday school teachers and pastors said even if not everything made sense.
As a young adult I studied at a divinity school where we learned to question and critique Biblical texts and church doctrines. As an middle-aged adult I have pastored more liberal churches in which folks tend to wear doubt as a badge of pride–a sign of intellectual rigor and freedom of conscience. And as I have gone deeper in my studies I have noticed yet another turn: a practice of doubting one’s doubts. A comedian once put it this way: “You say there is no God. Are you sure? Have you looked everywhere?”
I invite us to consider stepping beyond faith and doubt as intellectual exercise. The significance of Christ’s resurrection for me is the reality it points to: following Christ’s way moment to moment makes new and abundant life possible for me, for you, for all of creation. Try it yourself and see!
God of life, defeater of death, we worship you because you alone are worthy. Thank you for Jesus, firstborn of the dead, who has shown us the pathway to life everlasting. In these stay at home days, be our shelter. In this time when news of illness and death is all around, restore us to life. In this time of economic anxiety and financial peril, establish our faith in your generous provision. Amen.
The resurrection story in the Gospel of John is famous for its recounting of Mary’s personal encounter with Jesus “in the garden” near the tomb. John is the only gospel that contains this story. It’s vivid in detail, and it inspired the schmaltzy hymn “In the Garden.” For those of you not familiar, it goes like this:
I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
And the voice I hear
falling on my ear
the Son of God discloses.
And he walks with me
And he talks with me
And he tells me I am his own
And the joy we share
As we tarry there
None other has ever known.
The joke in my family was, “Who’s Andy?” (You know “Andy” walks with me. “Andy” talks with me . . .)
You probably love this hymn. A lot of people do. And I’m not immune to schmaltz, but this particular hymn was always a little much for me.
That’s why I’ve chosen to preach on this text this week. I wonder if there’s something vivid and powerful underneath the layers of sentimentality that have been slathered on this particular resurrection scene that can speak to this time of crisis.
If I had to guess, it might have something to do with the garden and gardening itself. John tells us that when Mary encounters Jesus she at first mistakes him for the “gardener.” The image of the garden reminds me of the Biblical Garden of Eden and all that transpired there: creation, disobedience, the curse of Adam and Eve, and the promise of redemption. It also reminds me of the famous pronouncement following creation: “God saw all that God had made, and behold it was very good.”
As coronavirus wreaks havoc across the planet, does “very good” still apply? Had resurrection really happened back when Mary encountered “the gardener” so many centuries ago? More importantly, can it happen now?