It is very good indeed to be back in the pulpit and back with you after the pilgrimage to Turkey and to Greece. No doubt there will be opportunities for this community to see pictures and hear about the adventure from those who went on it.
For me, to stand on the grand avenue of Ephesus with the terraced houses of the elite Romans on one side of the street and the public latrines on the other; to stand in the theater in the city where followers of Paul were dragged because the preaching of the gospel impacted the selling of Artemis charms; to share communion off the village square of Corinth; to stand still on the Areopagus – a mound of rock just below the famous Acropolis in Athens, with its magnificent temple to Athena. It made Paul come alive and the early church come alive too.
A small group of those who believed that Jesus was raised from the dead gathered in houses to sing hymns and study the Hebrew Bible, to break bread together and share all things in common; to be on location there collapsed space and time for me and moved me deeply.
And of course there was a swim in the freezing Aegean Sea, and a hot Turkish bath in Istanbul, and time spent in the bazaars and markets, and refreshment on the top floor terrace in Athens, the illuminated Acropolis glowing in its splendor, and much laughter and joy.
As the week progressed for me a theme arose, a metaphor: “In the shadows.”
The early church was always in the shadows of the larger Roman culture. The monuments and temples cast the shadow of the power of Rome upon everything. In Pergamon the temple on the hill was a dominating presence. How could the church survive? And the personal agitation of my experience was hearing a voice say: “What shadow are you in, John?”
I don’t have an answer yet, but it will come in time. For a shadow to be cast there must be a light somewhere – and the light for me is Christ and the yearning to draw closer. And today’s lesson is about coming from the shadow of the tomb into the light of life: Shadow and light, life and death.
Then, it was in the shadows cast by Acropolises with their temples to Athena, and Zeus and Apollo. Since the 4th century, it is the church that builds monuments and cathedrals that cast long shadows.
Then, the church was in danger of not making it, almost a still-born baby – dead on arrival, entombed before the confirmation. But out of the shadows it came, out of the catacombs, out of the tombs (literally and figuratively), transforming life, upsetting culture, creating new avenues of creativity and grace and all about a man crucified, dead and buried – but experienced alive and present and powerful.
Now churches are empty across great swaths of Europe. The birthplaces of Christian faith are now all but empty of Christians. Our denomination is declining, churches are closing – people are looking elsewhere.
In John Updike’s novel Rabbit Run, the main character, Rabbit, runs to the local church seeking asylum – only to find the church locked and dark; a tomb. And the question that hangs in the shadow of that scene: are the lights going out in our churches? Do we really have anything to say to our culture, our time, our space?
Out of the shadow of the tomb Jesus calls Lazarus four days dead; the stench of mortality in the air. The sisters are devastated that Jesus had not come earlier, the mourners take their places grieving the loss but soon will go home to their villages – another death, another day.
“Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus does come out of the tomb wrapped up in post-mortem swaddling clothes looking like some horrifying mummy about to wreck vengeance upon the countryside.
And Jesus commands: “Unbind him and let him go!”
The command of Christ echoes through the ages to this moment, right now, to you and to me. For what shadows are you in? What is the Lord calling you out from, us out towards?
What are the tombs that keep you chained and unmoving, what are you dead to and dead from? Listen to the voice of Jesus.
You and I are not only being called out of the shadows, out of the tombs – but you and I, who profess the Lord Jesus Christ dead and buried and risen are still in the calling out business – where we see and feel the shadow of death we preach life;
We are still in the unbinding business – for too many are all wrapped up in daily concerns, stresses, and aggravations – no room to move. Let it go.
We are still in the shining of the light in the midst of the darkness business.
Jesus still calls his church out of the shadows of the status quo into the remarkable and topsy-turvy world of faith – where those blinded can see, and the poor have good news preached to them, and the economically distraught are given a glimpse of jubilee where abundance is shared – where the hungry are fed, and the naked are clothed and the prisoners are visited. We need that word preached more than ever today – when all our leaders, Democrat and Republican both, seek to protect the wealth and cut the help.
We are still in the liberation business where the sad are embraced and the outcast are welcomed and the sojourner finds a home.
We are still in the life-giving business – where spiritual gifts are nurtured, and knowledge is fostered, and saints are equipped to live life in the mystery.
Oh yes, Jesus is still calling us from the tombs – and your and my primary business is to unwrap what is bound and to step out…from anything that binds you or anyone else. Don’t blame – unwrap.
Your own doubts, your own addictions, your own shame, your own guilt, your own sense of not being good enough, or being smart enough – don’t give them power….Come out!
There are so many voices, so many tombs – Jesus weeps for you and for me – but they are tears of deepest love and passion; Come out! Come out! Come out where ever you are…. Indeed as the graceful words of the childhood game “Hide and Seek” are proclaimed – so too does the voice of Jesus call us out: ” All-y, All-y In Come Free.” You no longer need to hide, no longer need to be crouched in the shadows.
I believe that Jesus still stands at the entrance of the tomb weeping and greatly disturbed – the Greek words really mean that he “snorts like a horse in rage or indignation.”
For it is NOT the will of God that anyone should be stinking with death – but rather fragrant with the sweet smell of innocence and abundant life – just as sweet as a little baby’s breath, or skin, or as beautifully fragrant as the aroma of that touch of perfume behind the ear, or the smell of clean skin and hair.
It is not God’s will that anyone should dwell in the darkness of the tombs. We don’t like to think of Jesus enraged, or indignant, or snorting like a horse but to me that is a fabulous description of the passionate God whose priority is for the poor, and the child, and the outcast and those who are dead in spirit, wandering in the hinterland of depression and anxiety – and for you! Come out!
And so Jesus commands – and his word does not return empty.
And the great proclamation of Paul written in his letter to the Romans, perhaps written from Ephesus – still rings in this age: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ, our Lord.” (8:38-39)
This is what we cling to, this is the treasure we have in earthen vessels – this is the life-giving power we still possess – to call forth, to come forth, out of the shadows into the light – into the light of truth, and love and hope – into the light of faith that liberates and calls and empowers.
You are the beloved children of God – Jesus is very passionate about you this day; he snorts with indignation at anything that holds you back.
Come out and leave the tomb behind, come out of the shadows into the light. Then our church will shine in the darkness and faith will be the sweet dew of the honey on the rock, and the lion will lie down with the lamb, and the child shall lead us – and death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more – For the first things have passed away – and see, “I am making all things new!”
Ally – Ally in come free – out of the shadows: “Unbind me and let me go!”
Say that with me: “Unbind me and let me go!”