Low Sunday

A few days ago we celebrated the glorious news of Easter Sunday morning. Churches around the world reverberated with the ancient words that are constantly new: “He is risen! He is risen, indeed!” Congregations enjoyed standing room only as sanctuaries overflowed, experiencing their annual, high attendance day for the year.

Low SundayThe liturgical calendar calls the week AFTER Easter “Low Sunday.” The origin of the title remains unclear. Historians believe the name stood in contrast to the great festival of Easter. Following the celebration of the Resurrection, churches returned to the “low” or ordinary rhythm and routine of worship.

Church pastors know better. Low attendance puts the “low” in Low Sunday!

If Easter marks the high water mark for worship, then the week AFTER Easter resembles low tide. The same pews that were packed to capacity only seven days before now have plenty of room to stretch out for a short snooze.

This year’s Low Sunday is compounded by a further inconvenience of the calendar. The Gwinnett County School System Spring Break begins on Friday, April 1. School does not resume until Monday, April 11. So the Sunday after Easter lands in the midst of the weekend when many families will leave town.

Combining Low Sunday with Spring Break forms a pastor’s worst nightmare. Some churches may even dip into the negative numbers this week! Certainly the pews will be underpopulated and the parking spots plentiful.

During the days following Easter Sunday morning, however, we will continue to celebrate the season of Easter. For forty days, the risen Lord appeared to his disciples. The reports vary in the details.

The Gospels describe the women discovering the empty tomb. Luke’s account includes the two disciples who encountered Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Paul reports that Christ first appeared to Simon Peter, then the twelve Apostles followed by more than five-hundred followers at one time.

In John’s gospel, one man missed the first Easter Eve when the Lord appeared to the disciples. “Doubting” Thomas declared his disbelief and announced he would only be convinced by touching Christ’s wounds.

On the Sunday AFTER Easter, Jesus once again appeared in the Upper Room. He confronted Thomas’ doubts and displayed his wounded hands, feet, and side. For the first time in the Gospels, the disciple proclaimed to Jesus: “My Lord and my God!”

Christ responded: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” For almost two thousand years, people have believed the Easter message by faith rather than sight. The same message proclaimed at the empty tomb continues to echo in our ears today.

I suppose it’s a good thing that Thomas decided to attend church the Sunday AFTER Easter. Just imagine what he might have missed!

On Low Sunday, we continue to celebrate the Easter good news that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead!

Holy Land Journal: Jerusalem

In February 2015, I joined over one hundred United Methodists from Georgia who visited the Holy Land. This blog first appeared after returning from the pilgrimage last year, but I wanted to revisit the article during this Holiest of Weeks. 

Jerusalem_ViewFromMountofOlives_EveChafarnski_123rf1280-1024x645We spent the final day of our Holy Land Tour in Jerusalem. The bus dropped us atop the Mount of Olives with a panoramic view of the city. After a group photo with the Dome of the Rock in the background, we followed the traditional route of Jesus’ triumphal entry on Palm Sunday.

Tombs line the slopes where the Jewish faithful have been buried for 3,000 years. According to a religious legend based on Zechariah 14:4, the resurrection of the dead will begin on the Mount of Olives when the Messiah comes.

The site of the Garden of Gethsemane rests at the foot of the hillside. We walked through a grove of ancient olive trees before entering the cathedral. The Church of All Nations rests on the foundations of two earlier churches from the 4th and 12th centuries. The Roman Catholic church covers a rock where Jesus prayed “Thy will be done” the night before his death.

Entering the Old City of Jerusalem, we visited the Pool of Bethesda where Jesus healed an invalid on the Sabbath. Then we walked the Via Dolorosa and paused at plagues designating the Stations of the Cross.

Church of Holy Sepulcher cropped

Altar at traditional site of Golgotha

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher (or Sepulchre) marks the traditional location of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Although the claim cannot be supported with historical certainty, Christians have worshipped at this sacred site since the fourth century.

Past the entrance we climbed a stairway on the left that ascended to the site of Golgotha. Under an elaborate altar, pilgrims knelt and touched the rock where the crucifixion took place. The Chapel of Adam is located beneath the altar. Legend claims the blood of Jesus seeped through the rock and covered the skeletal remains of First Man.

A large rotunda left of the entrance houses the traditional site of Jesus’ tomb. I stood in a line winding around the sepulcher. The anteroom contained the “Angel’s Stone” which is purportedly a piece of the stone that sealed Christ’s tomb. A priest stood inside, directing three people at a time to enter the second chamber of the tomb itself.

The low entrance forced us to bow while entering the site of Jesus’ burial. An altar marked the place where Joseph of Arimathea placed the body. We knelt in silent reverence on holy ground.

The Garden Tomb

The Garden Tomb

Later in the afternoon we visited a second site claiming to be the possible place of the cross and empty tomb. Golgotha (Calvary in Latin) literally means “the place of the skull.” A British general and amateur archaeologist named Gordon found a rock formation outside Jerusalem’s walls that resembled a skull. He then unearthed a tomb nearby bearing a striking resemblance to the Gospel’s descriptions of Jesus’ burial place.

The Garden Tomb certainly gave us a sense of what the tomb might have looked like. Our British host talked about the various claims supporting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and Gordon’s Calvary. Finally, he paused and said in true English fashion: “However, ultimately it doesn’t matter which site is authentic. The important thing to remember, you see, is THE TOMB IS EMPTY!”

The Crucifixion and the Resurrection bisect history. History swings on the hinges of the cross and empty tomb. On the far side of Easter, nothing remains the same.

The Easter angel’s words continue to ring down through the centuries and in our ears: “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here—he is risen!”

God has conquered sin and death. Jesus Christ is the firstborn of the resurrection, and he invites us to receive life, abundant life, and everlasting life. Easter people need not fear the grave because we serve the Lord of Life.

The important thing to remember, you see, is THE TOMB IS EMPTY!

 

Means of Grace

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, emphasized God’s means of grace that enable us to grow as Christian disciples. The Lord designed these spiritual disciplines as reliable ways to experience divine mercy, love, and power.

means of graceWesley divided God’s means of grace into two broad categories: works of mercy and works of piety.

Works of piety encompass devotional habits that draw us closer to God. According to Wesley’s teachings, they include: prayer, Bible study, Holy Communion, fasting, and Christian community.

Works of mercy lead us to reach out to others in the name of Christ. Faithful disciples joyfully embrace doing good, visiting the sick and imprisoned, feeding and clothing the needy, practicing financial stewardship, and seeking justice.

Works of piety help us to grow in personal devotion. Works of mercy challenge us to reach out to others.

To do one is to do the other. To neglect the one is to neglect the other. Either without the other is not enough. This is not a choice of either/or but both/and.

Paul said works without faith is dead. James said that faith without works is dead. Both were right.

Works of piety and works of mercy are equally important; and they inspire one another. Christian discipleship is both an inward and outward reality. Our personal devotion leads to service of others. Our service to others leads to personal devotion. This becomes a self-reinforcing cycle of faith.

And don’t be misled by the word “works.” It calls to mind human diligence and labor; and certainly we play our part in responding to God’s call upon our lives. However, we also recognize that all of these activities are means of God’s GRACE.

Grace is the first and last word of the gospel. Grace is a gift freely given to us even when we don’t deserve it. Ultimately, we grow in faith because of God’s grace in our lives. Whatever attempts we make to exercise the means of grace are enabled and enhanced by the Spirit’s presence.

You cannot go back in time and start these disciplines five years ago. But which ones will you wish you had started five years from the present? Today is the day, now is the time—start here, start now.

Discovery of Faith

15 years ago today.

March 08, 2001. The Atlantic coast of Florida.

I stood shivering in the cool darkness of the predawn morning. The alarm clock had rudely roused me from a brief sleep at 2:00 a.m. Then we boarded a bus for the thirty minute ride from Cocoa Beach to Cape Canaveral. We waited restlessly with a crowd of thousands for the famous countdown clock to resume.

My cousin was a rocket scientist. Actually, Robert joined NASA in the 1960s. He offered me two VIP passes for a space shuttle launch. So on March 6, my old college roommate and I drove south to Florida.

NASA officially designated the mission STS-102. The orbiter for the 102nd flight of the space shuttle was named Discovery. The shuttle would transport parts and crew to the international space station.

We stayed at the motel where the original seven Mercury astronauts lived. At 3:00 a.m. on the morning of the launch, we boarded a bus at the Cocoa Beach Holiday Inn. After a briefing at the Kennedy Space Center, we rode out to the launch site.

discovery sstThe scene took my breath away. Discovery stood spotlighted in the darkness on pad 39B. The shuttle streamed pale plumes of vapor into the cool night. Shortly after we arrived, the international space station orbited across the heavens like a shooting star.

The natural settings complemented the high tech scene. A bull alligator bellowed in the swamps. A full moon set slowly in the west. Minutes before the launch, a glorious sunrise painted the eastern sky.

The digital clock slowly counted down to zero. Sight preceded sound. The white hot flames of the main engine and two boosters exploded into life. A pressure wave traced its way across the lagoon. Moments later the deep thunder swept over us in a tidal wave of noise.

The shuttle appeared to move reluctantly into the sky, bound by gravity’s chains; but the spacecraft had already exceeded 100 miles per hour when it cleared the gantry. The long train of smoke trailing the shuttle cast a sharp shadow across the brightening dawn.

Attending the launch was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. The union of natural beauty and human technology joined together in an unexpected spiritual experience. The Psalmist declared:

Praise the Lord from the heavens, praise him in the heights above. Praise him, all his angels, praise him, all his heavenly hosts. Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all your shining stars. Praise, him you highest heavens!” (Psalm 148: 1-4)

Some see a conflict between religion and science. However, Thomas Aquinas taught that reason is the first floor of a two-story structure. The second floor consists of faith. Reason and faith share in a mutually supportive relationship. Humanity’s advances in knowledge and technology pose no threat to religious belief. They instead provide another witness to the intricate wonders of God’s creation.

Discovery represented the zenith of human technological achievement. God’s voice was heard in the thunder of technological accomplishment. However, the launch took place within the context of the Maker’s awesome creation. The heavens did indeed proclaim the glory of the Lord!

The world is transparent with God’s presence. Let those with eyes to see, see. Let those with ears to hear, hear. We are all called to a discovery of faith.