+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
Say what you want about Mark, the Evangelist, but he certainly knew how to keep an audience wanting more. The end of his account of the life of Jesus left us hanging with the images of an empty tomb, a young man wearing a white robe, and three women running away in terror and amazement. Even more importantly, Mark tells us that the women did not heed the command of that young man to share the good news of Jesus’ resurrection; instead, the gospel writer tells us that they said nothing to anyone.
As we shift from Mark’s Gospel to the story of the early church that follows Christ’s rising from the tomb, we are jumping smack dab into the middle of Luke’s two volume account of the church’s history. In Luke’s version of “the first Easter” we are told that the women who showed up at the tomb that morning were confused and frightened. Again, we can’t exactly blame them. They were greeted in that garden by the sight of an empty tomb, and by two men in dazzling white clothes, who reminded them of everything that Jesus had told them about his death and resurrection while he was still alive. Immediately, they rushed back to tell the disciples what they had seen and heard, and the disciples responded to the news they brought by dismissing it outright as an idle tale. Later in the day, the women’s story was confirmed by two appearances of the risen Christ, and the church as we know it sprang to life. Today’s reading recounts the last in a series of appearances by Jesus to the disciples, including those women who had faithfully proclaimed the good news about the Lord’s death and resurrection. During this final visit, the Lord commands the eleven remaining disciples – and anyone else within earshot – to be prepared to give an account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and to tell the good news of Jesus to people in every language and tongue. After this commissioning, the disciples watch as Jesus is taken up to heaven, and just like the women at the tomb in Mark, they end up getting stuck. Maybe it’s the wonder of it all; maybe it’s the fear of moving forward without their teacher and Lord; whatever the reason, they stand rooted to the spot, their eyes raised up to the heavens to follow the ascent of Jesus, until a very sharp question from another couple of heavenly visitors brings them back to reality: Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up into the sky? Why, indeed? Why, in the midst of this incredible display of power, didn’t they simply listen to what the messengers told them about Jesus?
I think it’s likely that – with apologies to the musical composer Andrew Lloyd Webber – they had “too much heaven on their minds.” They saw Jesus taken up and away from them, and because they had built their entire lives around their fellowship with him, they weren’t sure what to do now that he was no longer bodily present with them. It’s understandable that they would want to be where their Lord was. But that wasn’t what they were called to do. Their mission had changed. Instead of “Follow me,” they were now being sent out to be witnesses to the power of God in Christ, beginning in Jerusalem and extending to the very ends of the earth.
What does that have to do with us? Well, it seems to me that we modern Christians sometimes suffer from the same problem that those first disciples did – namely, that we are in danger of having too much heaven on our minds. It’s popular to say that this life is training for the next life, and in a way that’s an indisputable fact. All the Biblical language about accountability and judgment suggests that what we do matters. But it doesn’t just matter because of how it sets us up for eternity. It matters because what we do in this life has the ability to make the gospel real for the people around us. It matters because when we are inspired by the grace and love of God to go out in service to God and our neighbors, when we bear witness to the victory of Jesus Christ over sin, death, and the devil, we are participating in the in-breaking of the kingdom of God. Where life and love and joy and peace are made known to our neighbors and friends – and even (especially!) our enemies – the gospel takes on flesh and blood, and people can encounter the risen Christ in real, tangible ways that make a difference in their lives. If, like the women at the tomb in Mark’s Gospel, we allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear, we miss out on the chance to share good news with people who need to hear it. If, like the disciples who stand around with their heads in the clouds, we allow ourselves to be distracted by what is yet to come, we miss out on the chance to be Christ’s witnesses today. We would do well to emulate the women in Luke’s account of the first Easter, who were so eager to tell what they saw that they didn’t even need to be commanded to go and share the news! Their bold witness to the resurrection of Christ made the story of the early church – and, by extension, our story – possible.
Over the next several weeks, we’ll explore how the church’s early witness played out in the lives of real people in real places. We’ll learn about the ministry of Peter, the missionary zeal of the apostle Paul, the gift of the Holy Spirit that empowered those early Christians to risk life and limb in service to the gospel of Jesus Christ. We’ll ponder what lessons we can glean from our forerunners in the faith as we seek to proclaim the good news in a world that is rapidly changing around us. Today, we celebrate the first apostles, those women who brought the good news of Jesus to light, and whose example continues to inspire men and women alike to acts of bold and faithful service within this congregation, in our community, throughout our state, across the nation, and around the world. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will surround and fill us, and give us the courage to keep our feet firmly planted on the ground, so that we can journey in faith toward a world in need, and bear witness to the power and presence of Jesus in this and every place. Thanks be to God! Amen!