Friends of Jesus
I’m thinking this Easter morning about the friends of Jesus, those first followers, not just the twelve, but the larger company of folks who knew him and in some way, or another, shared in his life and ministry. To varying degrees these companions of Jesus lived and moved and had their being with him. I imagine it was quite a remarkable time in their lives. So full of hope; so full of new and marvelous and sometimes confusing, radical ways of thinking about God and their relationship with God; so full of new learning; so full of the wonder of healing; full of adventurous and sometimes troubling encounters; full of risk and even danger; full of the possibility of making the world a better place; so full of promise; so full of life.
And then, it all began to unravel; the pieces started having more rough edges to them; the encounters with some grew more troublesome and even hostile. There was disagreement within the company; there was confusion and uncertainty about what it all meant; and when the end came it came so quickly. A paradoxical entry into Jerusalem; Various encounters with religious and civil authorities; A meal together, the outlandish washing of feet, a night of prayer, a betrayal, an arrest, a denial, a trial, a beating and suddenly the one they looked to in hope, the one who inspired them, the one who brought them closer to God then they had ever been, was hanging on a cross – dying before their very eyes.
The companions of Jesus were devastated and scared, left alone to mourn the death of their friend, their teacher, their leader. And when the women of the company, the ones who had likely watched the closest and the longest, saw where they laid his limp, dead body, they went home, prepared the burial spices, observed the Sabbath and rose early to anoint his body.
This year, we hear the story of what happened next from Luke (24:1-12) who tells us that the women came to the tomb and found the stone rolled away. They went in and did not find his body. Two men in dazzling clothes ask, “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?” And, then they announce, “He is not here, He is risen.” They invite these women, whom Luke treats as full disciples, to “remember.” Remember what he told you would happen. They remember his words and return to their companions not just as messengers, but as Apostles, as heralds of Good News they are just now beginning to believe might be true.
The eleven, and all the rest, as Luke tells the story, did not believe what Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women told them about their encounter at the grave of Jesus. They thought it an idle tale, but Peter, Luke tells us, got up and ran to the tomb. Stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves. (Note: Peter “peeked” in, while the women actually went in the tomb.) Then he went home, “amazed at what had happened.”
Amazed at what had happened. But what had actually happened? The tomb was empty, the linen cloths were left in a pile and Peter is amazed. In Luke’s continuing narrative in both the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, it is the subsequent appearances of the Risen Christ that helps those friends of Jesus give voice to what had actually happened, and to make their testimony the same as the two men in dazzling clothes who greeted the women – “He is Risen. He is alive.” And that Easter proclamation has been part of the story for the friends of Jesus ever since. It is our story today.
Death is not God’s final word. An empty tomb is followed by an awareness of new life. The grave gives way to the promise and hope of eternal life. The everlasting pattern of God’s amazing grace is firmly established. So, today, the words of Isaiah ring in my heart and stir my amazement: “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating.” (Isaiah 65:17-18)
I am also thinking this Easter morning about some other friends of Jesus, the people of Gethsemane Church in Proctorsville, Vermont. Gethsemane is one of the smallest congregations in our diocese, and the one most devastated by Tropical Storm Irene, which destroyed their parish hall and washed away the foundation of their church building.
In the serendipity and wonder of God’s divine economy, my Sunday visitation two weeks ago, upon returning from a meeting of the Bishops of The Episcopal Church, was with the people of Gethsemane. The theme of the Bishop’s Retreat was Godly Leadership in the Midst of Loss. Our time together included daily reflections from several bishops on this theme, one of whom was Bishop George Councell of New Jersey who offered a meditation on Godly Leadership in the Midst of Natural Disaster sharing what he experienced and learned as a result of Hurricane Sandy. The intersection of his words and my visitation to Gethsemane was amazing.
Bishop Councell said many profound things in his meditation, but perhaps none so moving as his declaration that to call such disasters “acts of God” was a “slur on God.” Instead, he maintained, “we are called to show the world in times of natural disaster just what an act of God looks like; acts of compassion, acts of going there and being there.” He reminded us that in the face of such loss, the pattern of response forged in the Easter reality of God’s mercy, love and grace is that we get to keep starting over. God never loses patience. God never gives up. He reminded us that “when nothing new can get in, you die.”
Since their devastating loss back in August, 2011, the members of Gethsemane have tirelessly and patiently rebuilt their building. At the same time they have faithfully reached out and offered relief to the people of their several communities, many of whom lost everything as a result of the flooding. I still recall the lesson I learned a few days after Tropical Storm Irene, when I went to be with the people of Gethsemane and survey the damage.
After patiently waiting for me to walk around the collapsed buildings and take pictures, the Senior Warden said as politely as she could, “Bishop, have you seen enough? If it is all the same to you we need to get up to the firehouse because we are in charge of distributing relief to those in need.”
The day of my visitation two weeks ago was their second Sunday back in the church and we dedicated a new parish center that will serve as a community gathering place, as well. It strikes me that the people of Gethsemane have not only heard Bishop Councell’s words – they are living them! Their story is an Easter story, forged in the reality of new and abundant life emerging from the reality of suffering, devastation, loss and death.
I am persuaded that the meaning of the stone being rolled away from the tomb is not so Jesus could get out, but rather so that the women, Peter, and we ourselves could enter in – that is, participate in Christ’s dying and rising. Today, when all is said and done, we are reminded of the Mystery of Easter faith – God’s eternal pattern of relationship from the very beginning of creation – living, dying, rising.
And, like Peter, the eleven, the women at the tomb, the people of Gethsemane, Proctorsville, Bishop Councell and others, who for centuries have been amazed by God, we are called to bring the Good News of that life and mystery to all the broken places of our lives and the world in which WE live and move and have our being. Participating in God’s Mission each and every day as true friends of Jesus we proclaim, Alleluia! Christ is Risen. Christ is Risen. Indeed! Alleluia!
©The Right Reverend Thomas C. Ely