Bishop Benfield’s sermon on April 14, 2013

Of the many bills of dubious necessity introduced at this year’s Arkansas’s legislative assembly, a few (or perhaps more than a few) centered on religious issues. My warning: when politicians get involved with religion in the state house, they are no friends of religion. This year was no exception.

There was one bill, for example, that sought a moment of silence at the beginning of each school day. I think it passed. Its reason for introduction seemed to be a back door way of introducing official prayer into the schoolroom. If you can’t officially pray, then have a moment of silence. Well, the result was not quite so good for prayer; even the sponsor said a moment of silence would give the students a chance to catch up on things, such as homework, I suppose.

Another similar attempt was the bill to allow the teaching of the Bible as literature and history. Now, even in my most agnostic of moments I think that the Bible is wonderful literature, but any such bill turns the Bible into a bad novel and questionable history, and thus destroys its power to change lives in the 21st century. The Bible’s message is subversive and revolutionary, and when we attempt to turn it into a nice piece of literature or a history of the Middle East, we miss its power, and Christianity turns into an historical set piece.

Today’s lesson from Acts and the gospel of John are prime examples of what I am talking about; misuse the story and the Bible loses its power. The whole emphasis in the Christian church is about resurrection, and I am not talking about what happened on the first Easter Day after the events of Good Friday.
As I said in a Communiqué message to the diocese during Holy Week, and as I said in my sermon at the cathedral on Easter Day, the gospel that is read in church on Easter Day, the story of the empty tomb, is not in and of itself the good news. Peter and other men and women who followed Jesus finally come to comprehend the good news, not as they stand peering into the tomb, but later on when they will be shocked to see Jesus standing among them looking—well—not looking like Jesus of Nazareth.

The power of Christianity is not contained in an historical event. It is instead released when we start seeing Jesus—everywhere—every day. Take a look at today’s gospel. It is the third of a series of events in which people see Jesus looking—well—not looking like Jesus of Nazareth. In on place in John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene sees a gardener and finally exclaims, “I have seen the Lord.” The disciples are locked in a room, look around, and finally say, “We have seen the Lord.” And today, the disciples are gone fishing, back to their normal lives perhaps weeks or months after Good Friday, trying to make a living, as we would say, their equivalent to our teaching in the classroom or working the register at Wal-Mart, and one of them finally admits, “It is the Lord” when someone tells them how to fish. All of this is to say that if we want to know the power of Christianity, we do not look primarily at the empty tomb in the year 33A.D.; we look at where Jesus starts making appearances. Jesus is not simply historical.

Examine today’s lesson from the book of the Acts of the Apostles. The scene is set years after the events of Good Friday. The lesson tells us that Saul’s eyes are open, yet he can see nothing. Let me assure you that the writer of the book of Acts did not unintentionally put that statement in the story. By the end of the story, the scales fall from Saul’s eyes, and he gets himself baptized. And in between, in what I can only call an invitation from the risen Christ—not in 33 A.D. in Jerusalem—but in the day and location in which Saul finds himself, there is a voice that hits Saul’s ears, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” For Saul, it is not history; it is current events.

My Easter season message to you is that Easter is not so much about what happened in a moment in history on that first day of the week, early in the morning after Passover, but what is happening when we see that the person whom we are persecuting is Jesus, and it then changes how we see everything. It is why, to be frank about it, that studying the Bible as history in our schools has the potential to rob Christianity of all of its power.

The good news will become evident in our lives as we make a list of the people whom we persecute and then discover that there walks the risen Christ. For a moment think of the people whom we have persecuted or whom we have either consciously ignored and “seen through” as if they are invisible: in this nation, the darker the skin, the more the persecution; the people of lower economic class; gay people; single people (if the number of churches that offer something called a “family church service” is any indication); people whose jobs do not allow them to take time off in the middle of the day for basic health services. Start seeing every last one of those people as the flesh and blood embodiment of the risen Christ, and we will understand the power of Easter.

When we start seeing the Easter message in this context it gets our focus off of ourselves an on to others. That chance to focus on the world beyond our doors is exactly what you have at St. James’ now that Bruce is with you. For a long time you have had to worry about keeping the doors open; now you have the chance to start focusing on ministry, the chance to focus what it means to see Jesus walking the streets of Magnolia. I can assure you that in every congregation that has taken this sort of Easter message to heart, in every congregation that has stopped focusing on Easter as simply an historical event, some remarkable things have started taking place.

I will be honest. It is going to be hard work. It is hard to see things differently. It is scary because it forces us not to hold on to our history so tenaciously, and we love our history. But we have the chance to experience resurrection just as powerfully as did Mary Magdalene and Thomas and Peter and Saul who became Paul.

About a year ago a bishop friend of mine said that I ought to take a trip to the Holy Land with him and his wife. My sort of snarky response was that if I were going to the Holy Land, it would be because I had a plane ticket to Paris. But there is some core of truth to what I said. If we want to see the Holy Land, to see where Jesus walks, all we have to do is go outside these doors. Take a look across the street and see how we might invite Jesus in. Go to Wal-Mart and see how we might invite Jesus in. Go to the college campus and see how we might invite Jesus in. It is the Easter season, after all. When is there ever a better chance to proclaim, “I have seen the Lord?” That’s not history. That’s not literature. Instead, it’s the most powerful of current events. Don’t let a politician convince you otherwise. Amen.