My guess is that just about all of us in this room this morning grew up being told the story of Jesus… how we was born of a virgin, grew up as an exceptional child, mystifying the teachers and elders in the temple when he was only twelve.
We were told of his public ministry, where he captivated the crowds with his fascinating stories as he taught people about what he referred to as the kingdom of heaven, or kingdom of God. How he healed the sick, fed the hungry, even raised the dead… the story of his passion – though most of us didn’t call it that at the time… how he was tried before the high priest and Sanhedrin, taken to the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate, and was beaten and scourged, then nailed to a cross.
And then, to certainly top it all off, we were informed that he was raised from the dead and met with his disciples before ascending into heaven to be with his heavenly Father.
Most of us grew up hearing that story, and we accepted it as we were told. We simply accepted it. And why shouldn’t we believe it? People we trusted… our parents, our pastor, our Sunday school teachers – even the Deacons! – they all believed it. Why shouldn’t we? It became our spiritual DNA, an accepted part of who we are.
And so, having believed it, Easter then – rather than being to us the scandal that it was, certainly that first Easter and for a number of Easters to come – became instead more of an opportunity to dye eggs, dress in our new and nicest clothes, head to church for a service where we sang of Jesus’ glorious resurrection, and then did our best to beat the Methodists and Presbyterians to the local cafeteria… for Easter was one of the few times we got to eat out after church.
But let me ask you this… what if you had never been told that story, and today you were hearing it for the very first time? Do you think you would believe it? Do you? Come on now, be honest. Do you?
For those of you who have not been with us during the Lenten season that has led up to this day, I draw your attention to the front cover of the worship guide. Both the theme and the graphic you find there point to our emphasis for these last six weeks, The Journey. That theme came from the scriptures listed in the revised common lectionary, a source of prescribed lessons from which the sermon texts were found. As I studied them, to determine what my sermons would be for this season, I was struck by the geographical references I found there. If you look closely enough, the New Testament gospels can read almost like the Rand McNally of the Holy Lands.
Not all the gospels agree as to where Jesus was, and when, during his ministry. We’ve attempted to make the point that this doesn’t really matter, that each gospel writer had his own purpose in telling the story, and that exact agreement on these things is not required. But, a careful study of Jesus’ wanderings around is quite telling, not to mention exhausting. In three years, Jesus covered a lot of ground!
Just during this six week-long season, we have followed Jesus from his native Galilee to the other side of the Jordan, referred to as Perea. It is here that he was baptized, only then to be thrust into the wilderness where he was tempted forty days and nights. He went back to Galilee, primarily for the purpose of securing a group of men who would follow him as his disciples. From there he ventured to the gentile region of Caesarea Philippi where he was transfigured and spent time with Elijah and Moses.
At that point we switched from the Gospel of Matthew to the fourth gospel, of John. This finds Jesus and his disciples in Jerusalem where he had the evening encounter with the noted Pharisee, Nicodemus. John locates Jesus in Jerusalem more than the other three gospels, essentially because that fits best his narrative, his purpose.
Leaving Jerusalem Jesus went through Samaria in order to return to Galilee. It was while he was in Samaria that he encountered the woman at the well of Sychar, offering her living water. Next thing you know, he’s back in Jerusalem where he healed the man born blind. He doesn’t stay there long because, before you know it, we find him about forty miles away, once again in Perea. It is there he receives the message that his friend Lazarus is ill. So what does he do? After staying there a couple of days, he then heads right back to Judea, where Jerusalem is located, and into the waiting arms of the opposition.
Whew! It wears you out just thinking about it.
Perhaps you remember the Family Circus comic strip. Occasionally, Billy would be somewhere in the neighborhood and his mother would call him to come home. Bil Keane, the artist, would then trace Billy’s movements as he made his way back home, but never did he go in a straight line. Billy would meander all over the place, over this fence and through the woods, across a creek – wherever – with his tracks following behind him to show us everywhere he went.
I often think of that when I consider Jesus’ movements throughout the part of the world we now call the Holy Lands. It is a journey indeed – an exhausting one, to say the least – and we have tried to depict it for you graphically on the front of the worship guide.
But there is a difference in the picture on the bulletin cover for today’s service. Absent, of course, these last six weeks has been the empty tomb. If we truly do journey with Christ through all those experiences, and all those places that led to his cross, it is not appropriate for us to presume there would be an empty tomb at the end. We all knew it, if for no other reason than we grew up hearing the story, that DNA thing we mentioned. We know the outcome, don’t we?
Still, there is no resurrection without the cross!
So we have to put ourselves in the place of his disciples… we just have to. They didn’t know, didn’t prepare their Easter bulletins in advance. Not that Jesus didn’t tell them. He did. According to the gospels, he informed them on several occasions what would happen to him in Jerusalem. And he told them he would rise again. But it evidently didn’t connect; it never sank in. They didn’t know because… well, it just wasn’t done!
Yes, Jesus had raised the daughter of Jairus, the synagogue ruler. Yes, he did bring back to life the son of the widow in Nain. Yes, they had seen him do it, but that doesn’t mean they had bought into the belief that he himself would come back from the dead. That just doesn’t happen!
In Lloyd C. Douglas’ novel The Robe, the young protagonist is a Roman Tribune, the very one responsible for the crucifixion detail that put Jesus on the cross. A year after the crucifixion, he is given the responsibility, by the emperor Tiberias himself, to go back to Jerusalem, and then to Galilee, to see what he can find out about these stubborn followers of Jesus, the Nazarene. There are reports that these people called Christians think their master is alive, that he rose from the dead, and the emperor wants to find out what this is about.
The tribune’s name is Marcellus Gallio, and through his travel experiences with the new Christians he comes to believe that there was certainly something quietly powerful in Jesus. But it is not until he is a witness to the stoning of Stephen that he finally crosses over the threshold from that level of belief to actual commitment.
It is in the reading of this story that you start to see just how difficult it must have been for these first followers of Jesus to accept that he is once again alive, which is no doubt why they are told repeatedly, “Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid.” Imagine how much harder it would have been for those who had not been following him to believe.
I’ve been watching you this morning. I don’t see a fearful person in this place. Maybe we should be. They certainly were.
So what do you do when you are afraid? You seek out a safe place, and generally, the safest place you can find is home. For the disciples of Jesus, their safe place – their home – is Galilee.
The angels said it first, telling the women to tell the men, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee, and there you will see him.” But just in case they don’t believe the angel, Jesus decides to go to the women himself. “Do not be afraid,” he says, “go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
Galilee is their home, their safe place.
Not that Galilee isn’t a good place to be from. It was not exactly an oasis, you know. It was a rough-and-tumble kind of country, filled with constant insurrections and rebellions. But still, it was home. It was where it had all begun. They knew it like the back of their hand, spoke the dialect, felt comfortable there… the way you and I, if we’re natives of Arkansas, feel in our home state. Many of you have heard me say that, after twenty-two years on the east side of the Mississippi, we felt we had to come home to get happy. Same with Jesus’ followers. And they knew exactly where in Galilee Jesus would be. There is comfort in knowing that Jesus, the risen Christ, will meet them there.
Where is your Galilee?
In all our travels with Jesus, you can’t help but notice that he is always ahead of his disciples, beckoning them to come where he is. And now, as the risen Christ, that has not changed. Once we’ve come to the empty tomb, that is when the journey really and truly begins. If you’re not certain where that journey needs to take you, with the eyes of faith you will see him. And you might even hear him say he is ahead of you, waiting for you in Galilee.
May we find our Galilee in you O Lord, trusting that you have always gone ahead of us, urging us to come in your direction. May we do it this Easter day, trusting that all our days have resurrection in them. In the name of the risen Christ, we offer this prayer. Amen.