Throughout our lectionary readings in the weeks that follow Easter, we hear numerous passages from both John and Acts. While Easter does not have overarching themes as well known or consistent as those of Advent or Lent, this ambiguity opens the possibility up for us all to hear new themes emerging from our Easter texts, that speak to our lives here and now. A few themes that have emerged for me in the weeks past and weeks to come are these: understanding, time, terror, and awe.
I bring up understanding for two reasons, the first of which is our dwelling in the gospel of John, where so many of the interactions and conversations between Jesus and others include Jesus answering with or explaining something that goes way over everyone else’s heads. In our faith, we do not always understand the depths of all that God is doing, yet we continue to follow and learn faithfully. I also bring up understanding because of our Acts readings – many of which depict the disciples acting in ways that seem radically incomprehensible to authorities around them. This understanding speaks into the same Christian living that we here are called to – living in response to the Gospel, because even if we do not understand it all, what we do understand truly changes us.
The next theme that I mentioned was time. This stands out to me because of the zig zagging we have done through John’s timeline, and the interconnected ways throughout this Gospel that Jesus tries to prepare the disciples for what is to come, process what is happening, and prepare them for what is coming. One of the major themes in John’s gospel is “come and see”, or in other words, the invitation to be brought into faith, understanding, relationship with Jesus Christ, healing, and so much more. Many times, in these encounters with Christ, those around him do not understand what is happening in the moment but realize or remember it later. We too are called to be patient with time, reflective of all the ways God has been a part of our lives in the past, aware of God’s presence in the now, and willing to follow to all the ways God is calling us into the future. We may not understand it yet, and it may feel like things are moving slowly, or like God is absent, but John reassures us of God’s continuous presence with us, and reminds us of ways that God is, has been, and will be at work in ways we do not yet see.
Lastly, we have come to terror and awe. This may sound familiar, as it is a repeated phrase used to describe people’s reactions to encountering Jesus after he had risen. This is also something that congregations face quite commonly and yet naturally. We may not understand everything yet. We may not see God’s activeness in our past, present, or future. We may be terrified or uncertain of what is to come. And yet, we stand in awe of our God, and of the life together which God has called us to. We linger in the awe of the gospel, the resurrected Christ, the promises of God, the hope of resurrection, the commission of the disciples, the evangelism of the early church, and so much more. We find ourselves much like the women at the empty tomb, terrified and awestruck, yet trusting that God will continue to reveal God’s self to us, be present with us, and offer us peace
in the midst of terror. We have faith, which moves us forward in the midst of it all.
With globalization, the internet, and the increasing connectedness of the world, our reality today has and continues to rapidly change. So, it is no surprise that things are changing when it comes to evangelism as well. It is easier than ever to do what the early church was told to do in the beginning of Acts, to witness in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Long gone are the days when we need to hop on a boat or plane and spread the news about Jesus to places that had never heard about Christianity. Now, and after decades of foreign missions, news about Jesus has spread to the ends of the earth. The number of Christians in places like Ethiopia and Nigeria have out surpassed the numbers of Christians here in the United States.
There has even been an interesting shift where while the number of Christians here have been waning, numbers elsewhere have exploded. Some places that first heard of the gospel because of Western missionaries have now even started to send missionaries here back to us to spread the good news in a place where Christianity is not as prevalent. Long gone are our days of sending professional missionaries out to bring the gospel where it has never been. Now, our mission field is right where we already are and we are all called to be the missionaries, the evangelists. An Easter church looks like a people unafraid to share the good news they know.
On Phillip’s journey to spread the good news of Jesus and listening to the direction of the Holy Spirit, he came across someone reading from the prophet Isaiah, an Ethiopian eunuch. Someone who, by Old Testament law would have been barred from full participation in the Jewish temple. Someone who was searching for meaning and trying to make sense of the writings of a Jewish prophet. In other words, someone both in need of and open to the good news of the gospel, right in Philip’s midst, yet under old circumstances, someone who would not have been fully worthy of it.
Phillip was driven by the Spirit to someone right in his own community who was searching, looking for belonging and something to make sense of the world. Phillip had, early in the book of Acts, gone into Samaria and started to preach the good news publicly, but here he encountered someone right in front of him in need of that message and perfectly receptive to it. In this moment, Philip was faced with a decision – to continue with what was comfortable, bringing the gospel to foreign lands as he had become used to, or challenging his plans, his ways of doing things, and the boundaries he would have grown up with regarding who is and is not worthy.
An Easter church knows the gospel is good news for all people without exception. The gospel spreads and people establish relationships with Christ not because of anything we Christians have ever done but because the good news of Jesus is good news. It changes things. It changes people’s lives. It lets us experience divine love and lets us share that with others both afar and in our midst.
Justo L. González, a historian of the early church writes that, “In studying the history of the Church and its missionary progress, we repeatedly see that the great movements, the most notable discoveries of unsuspected dimensions of the gospel and of obedience to it, usually appear not at
the center but at the margins, at the periphery.” I wonder if this is because we who feel at the center have become content with the assumption that the work has already been done, will be done by others, or is being done in ways that do not need us. I wonder if this is because we who feel at the center have become content with the assumption that the work has already been done, will be done by others, or is being done in ways that do not need us.
The Ethiopian reminds us that those of us who situate ourselves around ecclesial “centers” might be inclined to expect too little from the good news or to underestimate its capacity to bless and include others. Our imaginations grow rigid and unresponsive. Our sense of evangelism grows tired and content in assuming that everyone has already heard everything, and the good news no longer needs to be shared. In this, we forget how the Gospel can impact us differently throughout our lives. We ignore the yearning of those around us who seek to know God, who know relationship with God is missing in their lives, and who do not know how to begin rebuilding it. We underestimate our own capacity to bless and include others through the gospel, because we assume that the rest of the church is taking care of that on our behalf.
May we in our lives of spiritual contentment be moved to new people, new needs, new possibilities in our own midst. May the old assumptions we carry be let go of, so we can be moved to include everyone as worthy of the gospel, exactly as they are. And may we have the courage and the imagination to encounter those who wait right in front of us, as willing and eager recipients of the good news of the gospel.