Signs of resurrection and new life can be difficult to imagine or perceive. While the disciples didn’t have the wherewithal to walk closely with Jesus from Maundy Thursday through the horrors of Good Friday, the reality of Easter and the resurrection was even harder to comprehend. It was a story trusted to women first, the disciples were mostly incredulous and avoidant. Thomas even took an “I’ll believe it when I see it and touch it” kind of stance that wouldn’t be that far away from most of our approaches to faith and life.
I’ve been struck this season of Lent by the texts that have been provoking something new: the dry bones of Ezekiel, Jesus’ healing of the man born blind. Can dry bones live? What happens when we go to where we are sent to find ourselves seeing the world anew?
As I’m past my first 100 days in the Conference Executive Minister role, I’m starting to glimpse the possibilities of new life for us and seeing signs along the way of the Spirit’s invitation on how we might live together as people of God’s peace, extending that peace to others both locally and globally.
This week in Intersectings we are highlighting the newness of Mary Nitzsche’s appointment to the role of Associate Executive Minister. Mary will bring wisdom, groundedness, experience and compassionate care to the role and to our Conference system of about 100 active credentialed leaders as well as retired credentialed persons. I’m excited about the new thing that Mary’s “yes” will bring to us. It’s a step along the way toward finding the place that God is calling us as Franconia Conference in this time.
Easter was the culminating event in the life and ministry of Jesus, though he returned to teach and instruct through the Ascension. Pentecost (June 4 this year) represents the Spirit’s arrival, the gifts of speaking the word of Christ’s peace to everyone. In these next weeks from Easter to Pentecost, I invite you to join me in prayer to seek what God might be asking of us individually, congregationally and as a Conference-wide community from South Philly to Vermont and including our credentialed pastors in Metro DC, Mexico, Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines. How might the Spirit empower us to speak and embody Christ’s peace anew? What signs of new life and resurrection do we see along the way? And how might we be that living sign for others who are seeking, searching, hoping, struggling toward the Way which we know means restoration of sight, freedom from bondage, good news for the poor?
As we approach Easter, I am thinking of lost loved ones. Before Christ was risen, he first had to die. Anyone would be sad to lose a loved one, especially when faced with the reality that we will not see our loved ones on this earth again as they leave us to appear before the Creator.
In February, my wife and I took our then-1 month old son to Indonesia with the purpose of introducing him to our family. At first, we just wanted to make this introductory event simple, but one of my sisters, Yanti Rinawati, insisted on making it a big event because it coincided with her birthday. We are very happy because all went well. The event was nice, we were able to introduce our son to the family, and the overall trip went smoothly.
One week after our return to the United States, I received news that that same sister, Yanti Rinawati, was admitted to the hospital in critical condition because of heart failure. We were not able to talk to her even by phone because her condition was so critical. A few days later, Yanti Rinawati left us and the earth forever. My wife and I felt so sad; we cried for many days, remembering Yanti’s kindness.
Indeed, I lost my sister, but I am grateful my family and I were `prepared` more than a week before her departure; we had a warning that her time on earth was coming to an end. I cannot imagine the feeling of Abdulhamid al-Yousef who lost his wife and 9 month old twin babies in the Syrian chemical attack last week. He had no warning. I also cannot imagine the feelings of 8 year old Jonathan Martinez’s parents, as they lost Jonathan in the North Park Elementary School shooting in San Bernandino just a few days ago. We could make a long list of the people we love who have departed from us without warning. The loss of a loved one can be devastating, with or without a warning.
2000 years ago, it was foretold to Mary. She was warned by the Holy Spirit that she would give birth to a son who would be the Savior. Her son, Jesus, healed the sick, released people from the bondage of the devil, brought positive change to the lives of many people through his teachings and the miracles he performed. Then came the day that we do not know if Mary had a warning for. The day she watched her innocent, sinless son treated like a criminal; stripped, spat on, given a crown of thorns, whipped 39 times, forced to carry the cross he would then be crucified to death on. What makes his story different from the others I have mentioned, different from yesterday, today and tomorrow, is that Jesus did die, but Jesus then rose from the grave on the third day. The tomb left empty to prove he was alive.
But Jesus’ story may not be that different from the others, as the word of the Lord says of Jesus that, “he who believes in him will not perish, but will have everlasting life” (John 3:16). As we remember Jesus’s death and resurrection, may we commemorate the loved ones who have left us, remember that one day we too will leave this world, but the good news is for those who believe in Jesus, we will rise up and live eternally with him in heaven.
Aldo Siahaan is pastor of Philadelphia Praise Center, and on staff at Franconia Conference as a LEADership Minister.
“When I was growing up, I was only allowed one scoop of ice cream for snack,” I told my congregation’s children a number of years ago during our Easter Sunday service. I wrinkled my nose as I looked at the piddly scoop of ice cream in my hands. “That’s not very extravagant, is it?”
Such a big word deserved a big illustration, so I pulled out a giant mixing bowl and began scooping ice cream out of a bucket. Eventually, I gave up and just dumped in the whole gallon, much to the children’s delight.
The boys and girls pushed in closer around the kitchen cart with their eyes wide, gasping as I squeezed an entire bottle of chocolate syrup onto the ice cream, giggling and bouncing on their toes as I covered the surface with sprinkles, unable to contain their excitement as I added cans of whip cream and finished it off with a whole jar of cherries.
God’s love isn’t just a scoop of ice cream, I told the children as their eyes remained glued to the overflowing bowl of goodness. God’s love is extravagant—like this giant ice cream sundae. A love so extravagant that it couldn’t stay dead. A love so extravagant that it came back to life again.
Years later, children and adults alike tell me that they still remember the illustration of the extravagant love of God. And that word, “extravagant,” has remained a favorite in my vocabulary.
On a recent Sunday, I visited Souderton (Pa.) congregation for a service celebrating the congregation’s partnership with Urban Promise, a ministry that works with kids in the heart of Camden, New Jersey. The ministry’s director, Bruce Main, shared the story from Matthew 26 of the woman who poured a bottle of perfume on Jesus’ head. The disciples responded with shock: “What a waste!” Most of us, Main suggested, would have responded to that woman’s act of love with the same disgust as the disciples—how could she be so reckless?
As Main encouraged us to love recklessly, I found myself thinking about traditional Swiss-German Mennonite values: living simply, frugally. What a difference there is in how we hear “love extravagantly” and “love recklessly!” While they mean virtually the same thing, extravagance can be controlled: we can weigh the options, evaluate the outcome, and then, when we decide our love will be effective, love extravagantly.
But what Main, and I believe Jesus, is encouraging us to do is to love with risk. To pour our love out in ways that we can’t control, can’t predict, ways that may not be efficient, may seemingly not be effective.
Jesus poured out his life knowing that we might still say, “No thanks.” If we are truly going to join God in God’s mission in the world, we can’t control how people will respond to our love. We can’t prevent our love from being rejected or ignored. Perhaps the greatest hindrance to mission is our fear that our experiments will fail and our money, time, or emotional energy will have been needlessly depleted.
May we instead judge extravagant love by the act, not the outcome. May we see reckless love not as carelessness, but as overflowing compassion. And may our extravagant love draw others to a God who first recklessly “wasted” his love on us.
It’s a familiar story, especially for those who have grown up in the church. So how do we retell the story of Jesus’ passion and resurrection year after year in ways that open us up, once again, to the pain, the beauty, and the wonder of Jesus’ sacrifice and victory over death?
The season of Lent, celebrated for the forty days leading up to Easter, marks Christ’s journey to Jerusalem. It invites those who follow Jesus to walk with him by remembering his life, practicing disciplines of fasting and sacrifice, and engaging in deeper commitment to their brothers and sisters in the church.
Souderton (Pa.) congregation began Lent by diving deeper into Mennonite Church USA’s “Year of the Bible” with an art project. Members of the congregation were invited to choose a word or phrase from scripture on which they wanted to meditate and to write it over and over on a panel using colors to create images. These panels became banners that hung in the front of their sanctuary during the Lenten season.
Souderton wasn’t the only congregation to celebrate the imaginative Spirit. Swamp (Quakertown, Pa.) spent Lent exploring God as creator, “littering” the steps of their platform with items created by members of the congregation, symbols of God’s unique creative work in them. Their children memorized Psalm 139, which they recited on Palm Sunday after leading the entire congregation in a procession, joyfully waving palm branches.
Palm Sunday marked the beginning of Holy Week and was the day when Jesus entered Jerusalem to the adoration of the crowds. The week soon turned more somber, however, as Jesus ate his final meal with his disciples, washing their feet, and predicting his betrayal. These events are remembered on Maundy Thursday.
Conference congregations reenacted Christ’s humility with their own experiences of footwashing. Traditionally, Mennonites have practiced footwashing in groups divided by gender. At Perkiomenville (Pa.) congregation this year, footwashing was one of several stations that members could visit, which, for the first time, allowed married couples or family members to wash each other’s feet.
In addition to footwashing, Plains (Hatfield, Pa.) congregation acted out Christ’s care and humility by setting up prayer stations with large maps of the world, the country, and their region. Members could pray for and mark areas on each map with a dot or a heart.
Compassion for the community continued to spread into Good Friday, the day when followers of Jesus remember his death on the cross. Members of churches all over the Philadelphia region gathered outside a gun shop in the city for a Good Friday vigil. As these believers stood against violence in the city, others gathered in Good Friday services to remember that Jesus’ death made peace and reconciliation with God, and one another, possible.
Just when Good Friday seemed like it couldn’t get any darker, Salford (Harleysville, Pa.) congregation’s evening service was suddenly interrupted by a power outage. For just a few, brief moments the congregation was surprised by the darkness and powerless to do anything but sit in the shadow of the cross.
There was a hush in Franconia Conference on the Saturday of Holy Week, as though the Church was holding its breath, waiting for the joy they knew was coming on Easter morning.
And the joy did come—in colors and flowers, in song and story, in food and hope and promise. Crosses were draped in white and lilies and hyacinths and forsythia decorated sanctuaries. Congregations met as the sun rose, around breakfast tables, and in their morning services to celebrate an empty tomb.
Philadelphia Praise Center viewed a video in which church members took to the city streets to ask people about the significance of Easter. Blooming Glen (Pa.) congregation acted out the resurrection story in a chilly sunrise service and a member at Deep Run East (Perkasie, Pa.) built a custom tomb to display on Easter morning. In Vermont, members of Bethany congregation participated in an ecumenical sunrise service on the side of Mt Killington and then, after brunch, were led in worship by a new generation of storytellers–their children.
It’s a familiar story, and yet it’s born fresh each year as we once again walk with Jesus through Lent, Holy Week, and the Easter season. In this story, we recognize what theologian H.S. Bender once wrote: we live on the resurrection side of the cross. May we continue to celebrate Christ’s resurrection by living our lives as a resurrected people.