The other day, I had to find a place to eat with a group of strangers. I sat next to this older man, who had said the prayer before the meal. He turned out to be a leader in his small church in West Virginia, where he was from. He knew I was a pastor and he asked me whether we had any young people in our church. I told him that we were not setting any records, but we had some young people in the pews. He replied that one day there will be an accounting and I wouldn’t want to be any young person in our world. Nervously I laughed and said, I don’t know, I am counting on God’s grace revealed in the resurrected Jesus to get me past the day of judgment. He said, God’s grace just gets us so far. After that it all has to do with how you lived your life, good or bad. The way he said that made me afraid. I am not sure how those scales would tip and I am a pastor. Meeting the resurrected Jesus is supposed to be good news, but he didn’t make it sound like good news.
The women visiting the tomb of Jesus were afraid, too. The standard reason given for their fear is that it is generally terrifying to see something as otherworldly as an angel. This is why the first thing most angels say in the bible is do not be afraid. Having never seen an angel myself, I have to take their word for how scary this might be. However, this year, I wondered if there is something else going on. Could they be in fear of seeing the resurrected Jesus? Fear like that old man had in mind?
Of course, they would want to see Jesus. They thought he was dead and now they find out he is alive. They were in a tiny group of people who were his closest friends. They obviously loved him, respected him and dedicated their life to his ministry. The writers of scripture are clear about this. Yet, they didn’t leave excited at the prospect of seeing Jesus. They left afraid.
Maybe, when they found an angel where Jesus should have been, they got it. The light bulb went off in their head. Jesus is God. Jesus is not just a really talented, loving and wise guy that we were lucky to be around. In that moment, they connected all of the dots. If Jesus is God, then he knew that thing about them that only their closest friends, a few people, Jesus and some others, knew. If Jesus is God, God knows them intimately.
If Jesus is God, then the resurrected Jesus might be hopping mad, not just at the people who nailed him to that cross. He might be mad at the people who should have stuck by him, but scattered when the going got tough. If Jesus is God, then he knows their hearts that first Easter morning. Hearts that are full of goodness. Hearts that can be hard as stone sometimes.
What if their fear when they leave the tomb is identical to the fear of the old man from West Virginia? God is going to come back with a vengeance to punish all of us for every miserable thing we’ve ever done. If this were true, the possibility of bumping into the resurrected Jesus would be bad news not good news. We might be tempted to not tell anyone anything, either like these women when they left the empty tomb that morning.
The women didn’t need to be afraid. The resurrected Jesus is good news, not bad news. That old man from West Virginia shouldn’t be scaring young people or me for that matter. Jesus came back to invite his disciples who had failed him back into community. It is not that it didn’t matter to him what they had done. It just doesn’t matter to him enough to stop loving them. The resurrected Jesus is good news, not bad news. Jesus does know everything about those women and about us, but he didn’t come back to wreak holy vengeance. It’s not that it doesn’t matter to the resurrected Jesus what we have done. It just doesn’t matter to Jesus enough to stop loving us.
This is Good News. We should be telling the world about it as church. When we make it bad news and frighten people, of course they stay away, like the young people in that small West Virginia church. Yet, if we can become a church full of people bursting to tell the Good News that Jesus came back for sloppy, sinful, slugs like me, then people will find us, because everyone is excited to hear Good News.
I am in awe of Father Gregory Boyle, a Catholic Priest in the poorest part of East LA since the 1980’s. His church is in a neighborhood fought over by many gangs and violence is common. He created Homeboy Industries as a vehicle for his church to help gang members and their families leave that culture and join one of hope. Before Father Boyle came to that church, they had little to do with anyone in their neighborhood who had not straightened out and was flying right. Father Boyle changed all of that.
The congregation went along with him at first, until scary looking former gang members started hanging around the place. Father Boyle let them make the parish garage into a gym. They would lift weights, play basketball in the parking lot, hang out, smoking cigarettes, hiding bottles of beer and worse, cursing and laughing. People started to get nervous.
It came to a head when one guy named Ramiro started coming to worship. Ramiro had a lot of tattoos from his years in prison, not uncommon of course for former gang members. Ramiro though had a very prominent one on his forehead, from edge to edge. Just three words, F****the world. When members saw someone come up with his hand out for the body of Christ, with the F word on his forehead, they called a congregational meeting. Father Boyle thought the gig was up. He was sure they would close their doors to their neighbors and call his bishop to tell him to get this priest out of their church.
The first woman to speak stood up and with anger in her voice said, “We help gang members here at our church….(oh, oh Father Boyle thought, here it comes)… because that’s what Jesus would do!” The people at the meeting broke into applause. Then person after person stood up and said the same thing. That was the last they ever talked about turning back. That was thirty years ago and now people around the world are beating a path to their door to hear about the Good News proclaimed in words and actions at that church in the poorest part of East LA.
This is Good News, not bad news. God comes to us in Jesus to gather us to Him, not to divide us into two camps, those good enough to be loved and the rest of us damned to hell. The resurrection reveals that God will love us no matter what. God will love all of us, the good, the bad, the ugly. The Church should be the one place that is shouting this message of the resurrection clearly and we can if we can stop being afraid. Amen