Witnesses of These Things
By Noah Stansbury
The Third Sunday of Easter, Year B
In the name of the one, holy, and living God. Amen.
Our Gospel reading today finds the disciples in a pretty dark place. For us it’s been two weeks since Easter, but in the lectionary we’re still, really, right at the end of Holy Week. The events of the Last Supper, Gethsemane, and the crucifixion are still in the front of everyone’s mind, and while something strange has been going on at the place where they laid Jesus, most of the people in the room are convinced this is just salt in a gaping, gangrenous wound. But something is afoot: the two episodes in Luke that immediately precede this passage are the Resurrection itself and the encounter between Jesus and the unnamed disciples on the road to Emmaus. Jesus has vanished from their midst, and they immediately go to find the Eleven and while they are still breathlessly relaying the story of their most unusual dinner guest, Jesus does it again, showing up in their midst, unexpected and unannounced. It has been a busy day.
In all of these encounters, we see the same kinds of adjectives: “they were alarmed,” “they were afraid,” “terror and amazement seized them.” I’m particularly drawn to the language in our reading today; the disciples were “startled”. What an incredibly human moment. I was turning a corner the other day and was startled by a co-worker who didn’t catch my eye at first, and that was bad enough! I can only imagine if it had been someone I knew to be dead; I’d probably fall right over. Let’s go ahead and nominate this translation choice for understatement of the week.
It’s as if the people who put together the lectionary are trying to get us to slow down and recognize something, even if they have to illustrate the point a few times: It is indeed a startling thing to be interrupted by the resurrected Christ. Perhaps in the comfort of our own lives—in a culture where these stories have been passed down generation after generation, their impact worn away to a faint echo of what it once might have been—it is easy to forget just how much calamity this news brings to those who hear it. Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death; life as we thought we knew it has been completely upended, our carefully arranged lives scattered asunder in the light of this new thing being worked out in our midst. Such an encounter takes all our preconceived notions about the way the world works, about the way we expect the world should work, and casually tosses them aside. We’ve all had those moments where the rug was pulled out from under us and suddenly nothing is the same, and it’s often a deeply unsettling thing, even if after the initial shock has passed we see that it is in fact good news.
Like a lot of biblical comparisons, the ways this plays out in our own lives isn’t always as dramatic as it was for the disciples, but that doesn’t make it any less impactful. People ask me what it was that drew me to St. James (and I have to admit there are some days when I’m the one doing the asking), and I remember that when I was sitting on my couch in Pittsburgh after an interview with our head of school, marveling at what I had just learned, I clearly thought to myself, “This is an outpost of the kingdom of God in a place that desperately needs it.” I came to St. James School under the auspices of Servant Year, a program of our diocese that invites recent college graduates into a year of service while living in small residential communities with each other. When I initially applied in January of 2014, I had expected to start the program in August, and I had never really considered working in an education placement. But, as with the disciples, something was afoot. The way God comes to us unbidden, that thing we call “grace,” is messy, often ill-timed, invasive, and above all hard to ignore. It rarely shows up in ways we expect or prefer, but if you’re paying attention, you know it when you hear it. A few weeks later, I showed up on the campus of St. James for the very first time, having accepted a job without having ever seen the place in person. It is a place where God’s work in the world is being carried out, where light shines out of darkness. It has become for me, and I think for many, a holy place.
In this passage we also have Luke’s version of the Great Commission: "Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in my name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things." We know the rest of the story, of course. The apostles took what had been entrusted to them and passed it on to their successors, who cultivated the young church and the disciples that came after them, on down through the centuries through saints and sinners alike, in catacombs and in darkened houses, in classrooms and in open fields and on hard pews and around the kitchen table, down to you and me, starting in our baptism and God willing continuing to the day we leave this world. You and I, too, have become witnesses of these things, tasked with proclaiming repentance and forgiveness to all nations. No pressure.
Not so fast, you say. There’s something about this idea of proclaiming repentance and forgiveness that I know conjures for me (and I suspect for many) a distasteful image of the street corner preacher, railing against the supposed depravities of the world around him, standing on his soapbox (and it is in my experience always a he), perhaps frothing at the mouth a little bit. Or maybe if you haven’t met this person, you have that one person on Facebook who always has something to say about the evils of contraception or same-sex marriage and someone engages them and then wheels start spinning and next thing you know there’s what we Millennials call a “flame war”. The imagined meaning of proclaiming repentance is not something we Episcopalians typically go in for, and why should we? Instead the Church has, in her wisdom, painted a different picture for us. The catechism in the Book of Common Prayer tells us that the mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ, and that this mission is carried out by the ministry of all who have been baptized (and yes, there is a catechism in there, toward the back, but wait until after the service to go looking for it).
So what does it mean for us to proclaim repentance and forgiveness to a broken world that desperately needs it? We don’t assert there is a better way of doing things just by yelling about it and wishing it were that simple; we model it. We go where the pain is, and we walk alongside it. We look at what the way of the world has wrought, and we start to pick up the pieces. North Philadelphia’s reputation precedes itself, of course, as a wasteland of poverty, hunger, violence, drug crime, insufficient educational resources, and the list goes on. Allegheny West, the neighborhood where St. James lies, has in recent years had the distinction of having the highest murder rate per capita in all of Philadelphia. Nearly half of the students who attend the neighborhood public high school will drop out. The choices our ancestors made have brought us this far, and rather than stand at a distance and shake our heads, it is our responsibility to say, “Enough,” and do something about it. If we, as the Body of Christ, are in a society that has laid our brothers and sisters this low, then the repentance—the turning away—from the evil done on our behalf begins with you and me. We find the things that destroy God’s creatures, we let them look us in the face, and we begin to turn them back.
At St. James we use education and service as the locus for our work to bind up the broken, proclaim release to the captive, and freedom to the oppressed, but it is so much more than that. It has to be. Forming relationships and community is the key part of that “restoring unity with each other” piece that lifts it beyond mere charity and makes it… something else, something better, perhaps even on a good day a glimpse of the kingdom of God. Our students’ families are an integral part of our community, and by virtue of nearly half of our staff living on the same block as the school, we are able to form meaningful relationships with many, providing access to medical services, food, clothing, and furniture. This year we are especially focusing on providing nutritious, fresh-cooked meals in an area that until recently lacked a proper grocery store of any kind, and the effects are already being felt at home by some of our students.
A couple of weeks ago at St. James we marked a milestone in the life of our community as we baptized eight of our students, the first baptisms held at the church in a decade or more. In those baptisms, we welcomed them into the household of faith, passing on the witness that we have received, and inviting them into the Church’s work of reconciliation. These eight, and the St. James students who perhaps will follow in their footsteps in the years to come, will carry out this work in their own way, but it’s easy to see where they found their example. They have met the risen Christ, heard his word and dined at his table, and seen that there is much good news interrupting the darkness that surrounds them.
As St. James bears witness to the fading darkness this Eastertide, I am reminded of the words of St. John Chrysostom writing in his famed Paschal Homily: “Let all partake of the feast of faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness. Let no one lament their poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one mourn their transgressions, for pardon has dawned from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free…. O death, where is thy sting? O Hades, where is thy victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown!” Alleluia, thanks be to God!
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Preached by Noah Stansbury, serving as Volunteer and Church Outreach Coordinator at St. James School, April 19, 2015.
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