For the leaders of many Christian churches, the week after Easter can have an anxious undertone. A lot of money may have been spent on a direct-mail Easter invitation sent to 5,000 or 10,000 homes. Maybe the church sponsored an Easter Egg hunt…and who knew all those plastic eggs and candy would be snatched up in 10 minutes with a crowd of kids feeling cheated that there weren’t even MORE? Some churches hire extra musicians to supplement the “regulars”. Other congregations host a community breakfast. And how about the “free gift” for worship visitors…that sneaky, consumerist way to get contact information in exchange for a Starbucks card or maybe a family photo with the “Happy Easter” backdrop?
Day by day during the week after Easter, anxiety builds: Were there really any visitors on Easter? I mean the real ones that might “stick”; not the CEOs (Christmas and Easter Only) who show up for holidays but are MIA the rest of the year. Was our worship attendance equal to or greater than last Easter? Will Easter give us the “push” of attendance and, ahem, money (sotto voce) to help us through the drought of summer?
And, in this season of United Methodism unraveling, what would we be inviting them to if they actually did come back next week?
All four gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus include the reactions of the disciples. What we may not pay as much attention to is the reaction of the religious leaders at the time. Surprisingly, if we look at the organizational context around the resurrection of Jesus, there is abundant, inspiring encouragement for those United Methodists who are going through the throes of disaffiliation. And maybe not so much encouragement for the UM leaders in The High Tower who are managing that process of departure.
A Supplementary Read on the Resurrection of Jesus: The Reaction of Religious Leaders
At the risk of being far too simplistic, most Easter sermons go in one of three directions:
- The historicity, veracity, reliability and, therefore, the singular importance of the resurrection of Jesus for individuals and the world.
- The reactions of the disciples and our responses to the gospel as well: the simple faith of Mary Magdalene, the skepticism of Thomas, the disillusionment of the two on the road to Emmaus, the impetuosity of Peter, and the like.
- The “it’s always darkest just before dawn” sort of optimism, hoping against hope, postmillennialist expectation that pressing for peace, justice, and reconciliation puts us on the “right side of history…and the resurrection is God’s symbolic way of assuring us.”
To be fair, there were a couple of notable exceptions to these themes this year coming from United Methodist leaders.
Dr. Miguel De La Torre, a professor from UM-related Iliff School of Theology, caused a stir with an article concluding that the crucifixion of Jesus doesn’t “save” anyone. It shows Jesus’ solidarity with the marginalized and suffering. Going a bit further, Dr. De La Torre concludes: “Christianity’s fascination with blood (that is, the blood of Jesus) made it the cause for most of the world’s bloodletting.”
With a different take, Bishop Dan Schwerin, of our own annual conference (Northern Illinois), in one of his Lenten Bishop’s Columns, says our culture and, presumably, our churches, under the influence of powerful monied interests, are filled with intense but unexpressed anger:
Sure, we are living in post-Christendom, days that the culture is not filling our churches with citizens who wish to make a missional contribution, but rather days our culture seethes with white Christian nationalism. We are facing powerful monied interests that seek to divide us for political gain, both in the culture and the mainline churches. We are living in a Holy Saturday period.Bishop Schwerin We are living in a Holy Saturday Moment
These unusual perspectives by two leaders within United Methodism brought me to look at the gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus Christ with an eye on the reactions of religious authorities. And those religious authorities from so long ago, in some ways, seem startlingly contemporary.
Though there are a couple of examples to the contrary, notably Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, the general reaction of religious leaders to Jesus’ resurrection in his own day was to “control the narrative”. Having used the legal authorities against Jesus and, by extension, his disciples, the official religious leaders attempted to intimidate Jesus’ followers and silence them.
As we know, that strategy of suppression and coercion by the authorities didn’t work.
A Supplementary Read on the Resurrection of Jesus: The Trajectory of the Disciples
We often take heart, understandably so, from the missteps, fearfulness, confusion, and skepticism that was part of the initial reaction of Jesus’ earliest disciples. We’re so often like them: fearful, confused, skeptical, heading in so many wrong directions. The resurrection of Jesus was, honestly, an unexpected, too-good-to-be-true, you’ve-got-to-be-kidding reality for those disciples. It wasn’t just a trick. It wasn’t just for Jesus alone. It was a confirmation of Jesus as Lord, a vindication of all he said and did, and it was an irrefutable sign of Jesus’ cosmic victory over sin, death, and the devil.
So, it is notable, I think, that when the resurrected Jesus met with his disciples – behind locked doors in the midst of their fearfulness – he did not say something like, “Whew! I’m glad that’s over. The whole crucifixion thing is much more than you think going into it!” And he did not say, “We better go back to Galilee and re-think all this Kingdom of God stuff.” Rather, the Lord Jesus pressed forward:
“As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you. Receive the Holy Spirit”John 20:21-22
Those disciples might have felt like cowering and caving in; but Jesus called and commissioned them. The resurrection of Jesus launches an expanding disciple-making movement that continues to this day (Matthew 28:16-20), filled with great joy (Luke 24:13-34), and marked by great boldness (Acts 4:1-23).
I do not want to suggest here a direct correlation between the religious leaders of Jesus’ day and the denominational authorities of our own. The universal human tendency, however, is…well, universal. It is sometimes called, in other contexts, The Iron Law of Bureaucracy. In short, the Iron Law says that over time missional movements institutionalize to such an extent that the leaders of the institution no longer cultivate the mission but instead seek first to maintain their power and insulate the institution against change. In fact, maintaining the institution becomes the mission.
It is clear from the gospel accounts that leaders of institutional religion in Jesus’ day, despite the glorious, good news of Jesus’ resurrection, worked hard to maintain their power and shore up their institution. As it turned out, praise the Lord!, the power of the religious leaders was no match for the impetus of the gospel. Despite the efforts of religious leaders, the disciples of Jesus told others who told others who told others who, through many, many generations, told many of us, too.
United Methodism has struggled with organizational redevelopment efforts at several General Conferences…all to no avail. But worry not, friends. It seems that the Holy Spirit is launching a growing wave of Methodist believers who are, despite the efforts to control, coerce, and constrict them, filled with great joy and marked by great boldness. They too are called and commissioned.
We should all note, lest we give up hope that the UMC could ever experience renewal, one of the most virulent institutional religionists of the first century was named Saul. The scriptures tell us he was “uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord’s followers” (Acts 9:1). But we know of his repentance and conversion, don’t we? We know him as Paul, the Apostle. The former fire-breathing opponent of Jesus would end up writing:
“For you were buried with Christ when you were baptized. And with him you were raised to new life because you trusted the mighty power of God, who raised Christ from the dead. You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. In this way, he disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross.”Colossians 2:12-15
Apparently, those of us who are religious leaders can repent and get in step with the Holy Spirit once again.
Disaffiliating members, pastors, and congregations are not waiting any longer for the institutional leaders. They are now heading out with great joy and great boldness in the great power and overwhelming victory of the Lord Jesus, crucified and raised to life. Hallelujah! That is worth both coming back for and being part of in every age and season. Come, Holy Spirit!
Will visitors return to your church after Easter?
Part of that answer depends, I think, on what you are inviting them to.