Easter brings notably larger crowds to church. Not anywhere near the number of people who report in polls and surveys that they hold some Christian belief. But from a local church’s point of view, when suddenly the worshiping congregation doubles in size, it’s hard not to notice.
This spike in attendance is a trap for pastors. I fall into believing, “if Easter worship could only be whatever the Easter crowd of guests might respond to or need, then they might come back the following Sunday… and become regulars.”
But it’s not always clear what guests at high holiday services come looking for, or that they are at church looking to to stay. Sometimes, I fantasize about how to ask what they want, or at least what they get out of it?
Is it just custom, or the associated reassurance of tradition? A nice addition before Easter brunch or after the early morning egg hunt with the kids? Or hope against hope do they wish that showing up, they might stumble on something deep and real and true? Could there be something more they do get in their visits once or twice a year? Or is it force of habit that still has some folks on auto-pilot?
If we think, instead, from the point of view of the “Christmas or Easter visitor,” the holy days might not turn out to the best days to show up! I mean, if you only come once or twice a year, Virgin Births and Resurrections from the Dead can be a high bar to clear or a big claim to swallow.
I fear Easter and all the hoopla — the lilies and the brass, the outfits and acclamations — might leave the infrequent attender feeling self-conscious about the quality of his faith or insecure about her doubts. Much easier might be a more typical Sunday, where the theological horizon is nearer, more humble, even reasonable — when the whole religious feeling a bit less of a stretch. Say, some summer Sunday when we’re appreciating Good Samaritans or welcoming back Prodigal Sons.
Those of us who attend regularly, we have an advantage, because we are around all the time and know people well enough to recognize diversity of faith and faithful doubt. We can give ourselves more room and find more comfort with our own unfinished or unorthodox beliefs.
But newcomers often assume that everyone else — EVERYONE but them alone! — has a rock-solid, right on target faith. All their questions answered. All their spiritual issues worked out. Guests sometimes imagine they are the only ones in the whole sanctuary with significant reservations. That they alone don’t understand or trust enough. That they fall precariously and unusually short of full conviction.
Greg Carey, Lancaster Seminary’s New Testament professor, offers a reassuring insight from John’s resurrection account — John 20:1-18.
The Gospel pictures a variety of modes and models for believing. Faith rarely comes in only one shape, size, or pattern. Instead, it comes via different paths and is expressed in manifold ways. And in its diversity, the Gospel promises, it can all be authentic.
Mary, Simon Peter and the beloved disciple an all see that Jesus’ tomb is empty. Mary even sees angels, but still concludes that Jesus body has been removed. Even when she encounters Jesus, she mistakes him for a gardener. Only when he calls her name does she recognize him and believe in his resurrection.
Peter and the beloved disciple, alerted with by Mary, have it a bit easier. The beloved disciple outruns Peter to get to the tomb first. And, though he lets Peter enter first, when he follows and notices the grave cloths, he “sees and believes.” It’s not sure what Peter thinks at this point, or when exactly he begins to believe that Christ is risen.
Later on that first Easter day, the risen Christ somehow passed through locked doors to greet the other disciples, except Thomas. It’s eight days before Thomas encountered Christ. Jesus displayed his wounded body. And he shared his breath with them. Finally, at some later, unspecified time in a different place (by the Sea of Galilee), he again appeared, and still wasn’t at first recognized.
Jesus’ resurrection appearances were hardly simple, the same or self-evident. The story states clearly, unequivocally that Jesus rose. But what sort of resurrection was this? Was he spirit? Or was it a bodily resurrection? What was the relationship between the resurrected One and his earthly forbear, the “mortal Jesus” they had come to follow? How did those who loved him most often see, but fail to recognize him? Why did some need to be spoken to before faith dawned on them? And some encountered him on their own, while others only in community?
Some of us see and believe. Instantaneously.
Some of us can never remember having not believed.
Some of us need help believing. A personal touch.
Some of us seem to follow others who believe: we come to faith because that’s where the whole community seems to be headed.
And for many, it’s a longer, gradual process.
Some of us see, but do not yet believe.
And most of us are more like a kaleidescope of various pieces of faith and doubt rolling around in ever-changing patterns that are alternately beautiful or block most of the light!
The Gospel story judges none of these people or their journeys towards believing. John includes all the different the stories without evaluation or assessment.
Neither does our church judge. Because it already includes as many or more different paths and positions on faith. It includes people who disagree on faith, and people who don’t yet believe, but who keep coming because they figure where else better to begin believing.
I suspect, in varying parts, each of us is has at least a bit of all of these in us somewhere.
In other words, you will be welcome at and fit in at Old First at Easter. I wish we could make sure everyone knows they are welcome at Easter, just as they are. Because none of us is so sure of our faith. That’s why Christ and God act for us — not because we have right belief or perfect lives, but because they love us that much.
All are welcome. All of each of us — maybe especially the parts we are least comfortable with ourselves — is welcome.
See you on Sunday (when it’s Easter!),