Proclaim! (A Sermon for April 7, 2013)

Sermon text: John 20:11-18

To start us out this morning, I’m going to say a phrase—a phrase that describes an activity—and I want you to visualize it. Ready?

“Proclaim the gospel for the salvation of humankind”

What picture came to mind for you? How many of you pictured a TV preacher, or someone like Billy Graham? How many of you pictured a pastor standing in a regular church pulpit? Did anyone picture a street-preacher—someone handing out tracts to strangers, or walking the streets with a sandwich-board sign hanging from their shoulders?

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Now, here’s the follow up question—regardless of what image came to your mind—is that image something you can imagine yourself doing?

For the season of Easter, we will be talking about the Great Ends of the Church—the six big reasons for the church’s existence, according to the Presbyterian constitution. All of these reasons for existing are things that every one of us is called to take part in. So, each week we will be asking: How are we doing this? If this is one of the primary reasons for the Church’s existence, how are we doing it as a community, and how are we doing it as individuals.

And I have to say, this first one is the one that I think can feel most intimidating to the majority of us. “Proclaiming,” sounds really public and really authoritative, and “gospel” sounds super religious and technical, and “salvation,” is one of those scary words that gets thrown around with “repentence,” and “damnation,” and “soul.” And that’s not to mention that this is for all humankind—that’s pretty epic. I have to say that, even for me—someone who stands in a pulpit every Sunday and preaches sermons, this particular phrase—“proclaim the gospel for the salvation of humankind”—sounds super intimidating. I mean, I preach good news to a few dozen folks in Westernville, but is that “salvation” for “humankind?”

How is this something we can accomplish in our day-to-day lives? How can we ever claim to have such authority? What is the gospel, anyway? Is there a simple, three-point summary we can memorize? Are we supposed to accost strangers and force them to listen to our three-point summaries? That doesn’t feel much like salvation… What if they have questions and we don’t know the answers? How can we proclaim anything when we’re not really sure what “gospel” means, and what “salvation” entails? How can we save people when we are fumbling and confused most of the time, ourselves?

Luckily, I think our story from the book of John might help us get a better picture of what this task might involve.

Let’s look back at the story. Mary has seen the tomb open, and ran to tell the other disciples that Jesus’ body was stolen. They returned to the tomb, and Peter confirmed that the tomb was empty, but that Jesus’ grave clothes were neatly folded inside. Which is strange. And no one knows what to make of it.

Mary is weeping. This is like salt in a wound. Jesus was killed, and now his body has been taken away, so she can’t even mourn properly. When she hears the footsteps and voice of the gardener approaching, she is upset. Couldn’t this man have prevented this? Didn’t he keep an eye out for trouble? Why did he let someone take Jesus’ body away?

But this man is not the gardener. Mary realizes it when he speaks her name, “Mary.” Jesus has not been taken away—he is right here, in front of her, speaking her name gently.

Barbara Brown Taylor makes the observation in one of her sermons, that we tend to get a little fixated on the empty tomb at Easter time. What exactly happened in there? What are the mechanics of resurrection? How can we believe what seems unbelievable? How can we possibly convince others that it happened?

But, Barbara Brown Taylor points out, nobody was there in the tomb with Jesus? None of the disciples saw what happened. The resurrection event is one of the only events of Jesus’ life that was completely private between him and God. No one else was in that tomb with him. Easter isn’t really about the moment of resurrection. It also isn’t really about the empty tomb. The empty tomb, by itself, was nothing but confusion and distressing. Mary, for one, could not get past the idea that someone must have stolen Jesus’ body. The good news—the gospel—is not in the empty tomb. No, the real Easter story—the real power of Easter—begins with Jesus, speaking Mary’s name and revealing himself to her. It is the encounter with the living Christ. That is the good news that Mary proclaims to the other disciples—“I have seen the Lord.”

And, is she proclaiming by standing on a tall hill and shouting the good news for all Jerusalem to hear? No. She runs back to the disciples—her friends—and tells them she saw Jesus.

Does she proclaim for their salvation? In what way? Well, she saves them from despair. She saves them from an understanding of God that is too small. She saves them from ignorance. She saves them from fear.

I think, when we take Mary as the model for proclaiming good news, it can become a more manageable endeavor—something that most of us can do and do do.

Mary goes to her closest friends and tells them that she has had an encounter with a living Jesus. He spoke her name. He was right there.

Could she explain how he was alive again, after being dead for three days? No! Could she explain what it meant that he was alive? What the theological implications were? No! Mary didn’t have any answers, and she still had plenty of questions, but she did have an experience—an experience of Jesus that she needed to share with others.

Viewed this way, “proclaiming the gospel” might become something more manageable. It is not about standing on stages, or broadcasting to millions. It is not about having all the answers. It is about sharing our own experience of God with our friends—telling them about it, because it is good news. It is about sharing those experiences of God that have been life-giving, and sharing them with a handful of people. There is no convincing that needs to be done. No academic arguments or theological treaties. Just you. Your experience of God, shared authentically with a few other people. That is proclaiming the good news for the salvation of humankind.

It might be hushed words spoken about God’s presence in a difficult time. Those meaningful words, or songs, or touches, or the inexplicable peace of while keeping vigil at a parent’s hospital bed. Or it might be loud, joyful laughter over the way God has brought you to unexpected places. It might be the simple repetition of words and rituals in family life, as we try to communicate to our children what we know of God.

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Today we will be baptizing twins! Remington and Reagan are the newest members of our church, and our call to proclaim the gospel begins with these infants—and all the children in our church. We have promised to tell them these stories. But the gospel is not just the stories found in our Bible—when we pledge to raise our children with an understanding of the gospel, we are pledging to let them in on our lives and our experiences of God, too. We cannot expect our children to understand this faith as their own story, unless we tell our stories of faith—our stories of God—our stories of encounter with the Risen Christ.

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