Early in the morning, just as the sun was crossing the horizon, the women went to Jesus’ tomb. We are told that they carried with them all of the things that tradition and custom said they would need to prepare his body for burial. But when they got there, Jesus’ body was gone, and they were told by some form of divine messenger that Jesus had risen from the dead.
Each Gospel has its own way of expressing this incredible chapter of Jesus’ story. The women go back to the rest of Jesus’ inner circle of disciples and tell what they’ve seen. In the Gospel of John, Peter and the other disciple run and find the tomb empty. There, and in the Gospel of Mark, we hear of a moment when Mary of Magdala is by the tomb, alone, when she sees someone she thinks is the gardener, but who, saying her name, reveals himself to be the risen Jesus.
In all of the Gospels, the women tell the disciples what they have experienced, to various degrees of incredulity by the others. And then, in the Gospels of Mark and Luke, some of Jesus’ other disciples are walking in the countryside, possibly to the town of Emmaus. They meet someone on the road they don’t know, who walks with them. This person hasn’t heard about Jesus’ execution and missing body. When they speak about it, he begins to teach them about what it all meant.
The Gospels go on to tell of moments that the risen Christ appeared to different groups of disciples, sometimes teaching, sometimes sharing food, sometimes allowing himself to be touched, so that those around him could tell that he was really there with them. Each of these moments was met with a mixed measure of belief and disbelief. No wonder! Their teacher and friend had been killed by a torturous execution on a cross, and that death had been tested by one of the Roman guards spearing him. Even for people who believed in miracles, folks who had seen miraculous healings — including Jesus bringing Lazarus to life — it would have been a lot to take in, accept and understand as true.
In the end, the disciples believed what they experienced, and they shared those experiences, along with Jesus’ teachings, with anyone who would listen. And after 2,000 years of twists and turns, of understandings and misunderstandings, of questions and answers and cultural fusions and confusions, we find the church today. There are people still working to learn from Jesus’ teachings and life, still working to live their understanding of his way, still trying to be his disciples.
Through all of that history, groups of disciples have come together in various configurations. The shapes and sizes of those configurations have changed, depending on the place and time they’ve existed. Some have been deeply embedded in the cultures in which they existed. And some, especially those where the church was entwined with colonialism, have had the shape of the colonizing culture.
Groups have unified, split apart, reunified, argued, fought and even reconciled. Traditions have been carried into the future, sometimes with their original meanings being lost to memory and time. Ways of understanding Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and teachings have been articulated in each generation. These understandings have been repeatedly given new life as Jesus’ disciples have interacted not only with the secular world, but with other religions, philosophies and experiences of life and the divine.
The connection among Jesus’ disciples — the church — is huge. The Center for the Study of Global Christianity reported in 2019 that there were more than 2.5 billion Christians in the world. Right now, that’s just under one-third of the world’s population. Pew predicts that, at least until 2050, the number of Christians will continue to grow.
Christ’s beloved community is in no danger of disappearing. The story of Jesus’ life will continue to be shared for the foreseeable future. The Easter moment should give us some sense that the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and all that it could mean, will continue, too. The fact that the worldwide community of Jesus’ disciples has continued through 2,000 years of almost constant change — including wars, political upheaval and pandemics — reveals that Jesus’ call has both strength and resilience.
What about the part of the Christian community to which we belong — the North American, mainline, liberal denomination of The United Church of Canada? Just a few years short of our centenary, as we continue to try to live out our ministry amid waves of a global pandemic, shouldn’t we be worried about our future?
The United Church of Canada was formed in 1925 with an ecumenical vision of bringing all Christians in Canada together. It’s written onto our crest, Ut omnes unum sint, which translates “that all may be one.” But that grand, though empire-building, vision of union has never really been lived out. We’ve had as much a history of exclusion as we’ve had of working for the inclusive love of Christ.
Dying is inevitable. But it’s also irrelevant. Our task is to live out our discipleship to the best of our ability.
Our membership numbers have also been getting smaller since the mid-1960s. Even more telling, the number of members and adherents as a percentage of the population of Canada peaked in 1930, just five years after the union that brought this denomination into being. By this metric, The United Church of Canada has been in decline for almost its entire existence.
Almost four years ago, I stood in front of General Council 43 and asked the commissioners to help the church to stop saying that we are dying. Back then, I suggested that it was a false narrative. I said, “Dying is inevitable. What I think we’re doing is failing at our mission. And that’s something we can change.” If I were to make that speech again, I’d change my words. I’d tell the church, “Dying is inevitable. But it’s also irrelevant. Our task is to live out our discipleship, our ministry, to the best of our ability every moment we live. If we do that, death simply doesn’t matter!”
We’re still here. We’re still doing our best to live out our understandings of what it means to be Jesus’ disciples, in this time and place, with the world as it is now. Institutionally, we don’t look anything like the church of the past. We don’t look like those first followers of Jesus gathered in their homes to share food and tell the stories of his life, or the church of the Holy Roman Empire, or the various churches of the Reformation, or even The United Church of Canada at its constitution. Not only is that good, it’s necessary.
More on Broadview:
- Is the United Church going to disappear?
- Meet the first nominee for moderator of the United Church
- Indigenous United Church leaders on Pope Francis’ apology
While our history shows that we have done terrible things — such as excluding LGBTQ2S+ people, Indigenous people, people of colour and more, for which we continue to repent and work toward reconciliation — we have also done, and are doing, amazing things. Throughout the pandemic, communities of faith have found ways of continuing to gather, even if they can’t meet. There are growing ministries that not only support wider community development but are ready to learn from the community about what ministry is needed. We’re open to being changed by our relationships with our neighbours and with God.
Throughout its entire history, the church has constantly changed shape in response to its interaction with the world around it, so that the core of Christ’s call can be shared in ways that have meaning in that time and place. In this organic community, the resurrection moment is experienced over and over again, and the church grows in response. Whether we articulate that experience in traditional ways, like those of the early creeds of the Christian church, or in newer ways, like the United Church’s own New Creed, Song of Faith or vision statement, our task is to live these things here and now.
God’s grace is not bound by human decline or destruction, or by the passage of institutional time or entropy. Christ’s community is not bound by these things either. Resurrection says that God’s abundant life is more powerful than any ending, even the one we often see as ultimate — death. Easter is an invitation to focus not on the grave but on the risen Christ’s presence. This invitation demands that we focus on living the ministry that Jesus gave to his disciples, here and now, rather than be caught up by the fear of an end, or even death itself.
The women left the tomb to tell the rest of the disciples what they had seen and heard. The disciples in Emmaus got up, right away, and went to share their Easter experience. As an Easter people, today’s worldwide Christian community, including The United Church of Canada, continues to do the same.
Rt. Rev. Richard Bott is the 43rd moderator of The United Church of Canada.
A version of this story first appeared in Broadview’s April/May 2022 issue with the title “Our Easter moment.”
We hope you found this Broadview article engaging.
Our team is working hard to bring you more independent, award-winning journalism. But Broadview is a nonprofit and these are tough times for magazines. Please consider supporting our work. There are a number of ways to do so:
- Subscribe to our magazine and you’ll receive intelligent, timely stories and perspectives delivered to your home 8 times a year.
- Donate to our Friends Fund.
- Give the gift of Broadview to someone special in your life and make a difference!
Thank you for being such wonderful readers.