In his book Orthodox Heretic: And Other Impossible Tales, Peter Rollins writes a parable about a community of people in the desert far outside of Jerusalem. These people were present during Jesus’ crucifixion and left after he died. Their descendants had been living there for over a hundred years when missionaries showed up and shared with them the “good news” that Jesus had been raised and was in heaven with God. The people left Jerusalem after the crucifixion before the resurrection story began to spread and only knew that Jesus had died.
One of the missionaries noticed that the elder of the community had been missing for some time and upon looking for him, found him “crouched low in a small hut on the fringe of the village, praying and weeping.” The missionary was amazed that the elder could be sad at such a time as this having heard the great news that Jesus had not remained dead. The elder informed the missionary that they had lived as a community despite the fact that they understood Jesus to have been defeated by death and that “death would one day defeat” them also. The elder then “looked the missionary compassionately in the eyes” and said the following:
Each day we have forsaken our very lives for him because we judged him wholly worthy of the sacrifice, wholly worthy of our being. But now, following your news, I am concerned that my children and my children’s children my follow him, not because of his radical life and supreme sacrifice, but selfishly, because his sacrifice will ensure their personal salvation and eternal life.
The people of this community had been following and being like Jesus, not because they expected a reward, but because this was what Jesus had taught them to do. Where many of us see the resurrection of Jesus as a great thing, this elder was afraid that it would in fact become a stumbling block for the people who had been so successfully incarnating the teachings of Jesus. Having no knowledge of an “eternal hope” the people lived in compassion toward one another despite having only a temporal hope that could only come by them creating it here on earth.
After I read this, I happened to be walking a labyrinth and thinking about the church calendar and where it placed Easter and Pentecost. Suddenly, it occurred to me how brilliantly it was laid out. I realized as I walked the seemingly endless circles of that sacred maze that Easter gives us the opportunity to celebrate a cosmic hope of resurrection while Pentecost actually was that resurrection. I can just imagine how the community of believers who had been dejected and saddened by the death of Jesus were filled with the spirit of hope once again and decided that despite Jesus’ death, they were going to live their lives in community modeled on the life and teachings of the one whom they had been mourning. During the church calendar, we get to pray and ponder the hope of resurrection during Eastertide, but it is at Pentecost that we celebrate the actual resurrection that still takes place around us!
I realize that this is all easy to say and that it is not necessarily easy to envision what such a resurrected community would look like as it does life and is the church. Rollins does not paint much of a picture, but makes it clear that we are not called to do church, but rather to be the church as we do life the way Jesus taught us to. Fred Craddock, (the eminent preacher and professor) however, paints a very vivid picture of what this community would look like.
In his book Saving Jesus from the Church, Robin Meyers recalls a story told to him by Craddock about a community of folk in Appalachia that Craddock was working with who would do their baptismal services en mass at the banks of a river at sundown. This was a small rural mission that contained some of the poorest people in the United States. The candidates would be baptized and then would come out and get dried off to share in a large meal that was cooked along the banks of the river. A fire would be lit to warm them and before dinner, they would all gather around the fire. The other members of the community would gather in a large circle around them and would one by one introduce themselves to the newly baptized. With their introduction, they would state what they could do for those people when in need. “My name is . . . and if you ever need somebody to chop wood . . .” “My name is . . . and if you ever need someone to repair your home . . .” Afterward they would all share a large meal and have a huge square dance. When Craddock was asked by the city folk whom he was telling the story to what he called such a thing where he came from, he said, “I don’t know what you call it where you come from. But where I come from we call it . . . church.” May God grant us the strength, compassion, and wisdom to be that church.