A recent article in The Globe and Mail [“Sanctuary in the city” Feb. 13, p.L8) describes a spiritual journey one woman shared with her husband. The couple had a regular if rather routine church life in Toronto, but upon retirement they moved to Vancouver, where their habit of going to church changed to a habit of sleeping in and reading the Sunday papers. And who could blame them? With the incredible natural beauty of Vancouver, the mild, temperate days, the sky high mountains and seawall strolls, it was easy to replace church with nature as a way of spiritual renewal.
Then, tragedy struck when the couple lost two beloved family members. After the memorial services, the need for comfort and understanding brought them back to church. Eventually, they found a church that offered them the necessary spiritual and emotional support. In addition to Sunday worship, the couple attended a Thursday morning breakfast group that discussed ideas, books and current events, but participants also shared their own beliefs and doubts in an atmosphere of fun, encouragement and community. Here in this group the special needs of “belonging” and “becoming” were nurtured.
Today, the couple is back in Toronto living in the Beaches area. On Sunday mornings, they make the effort to attend their new church, even as most of their neighbours remain at home or asleep. Why do they still go to church? The woman put it like this: “You might see our new church as an island, comfortable and aloof from Toronto’s cares. But here is a church of connection, compassion, learning and action, a place of community, acceptance and service.”
I like her description of church, though I would add that church offers one thing no other institution can offer – an encounter with God. In the church we come to know the risen Christ in a personal, powerful way. In the church the Holy Spirit guides us, consoles us, and comforts us in all the ups and downs of living. In the church we find the courage to ask challenging questions even if there are no clear answers. In the church we experience caring community, engage in thoughtful discussion, nurture our children, serve in compassionate ministries, reach out to seekers, and worship God in the beauty of holiness.
It was Bishop Michael Marshall who said that the church is a community of people who have nothing in common except Jesus Christ in whom they have all things in common. The church is here to get us through the tough times of life, to ease the ache of a broken heart, to lift us when we are down, and to stand with us in our tragedies and triumphs. And yes, the church is here to move us out of our comfort zone, to challenge us as disciples of Jesus, and to assist us into entering the mystery of God that can change our lives and even the world.
This Easter why not attend church expecting a miracle in your life? Why not come to church believing that because Jesus lives, nothing is impossible. The 17th century Puritan John Owen said that in Christ there is “the death of death” – and he is right. In Christ there are no dead ends, only new beginnings. In the power of the resurrection death gives way to life, darkness gives way to light, hate gives way to love, and we now live in the promise of eternal, abundant life forever.
Several years ago a man in the parish I was serving came to see me shortly after Easter. He told me that his father had died after a long and painful illness. He thought he had braced himself for his father’s death, but when the day came, he felt an incredible sense of loss. His grief persisted, and only seemed to deepen in the coming weeks. He realized how dear his father was to him, how much he would miss him, and what a void in his life now existed that his father was gone. The man said his experience was like walking through a dark tunnel with no glimmer of light at the end. The darkness he found overwhelming.
For several weeks after the funeral, this man could not attend church – his sadness, and possibly depression, was simply too heavy. Friends invited him to join them for Easter worship followed by brunch. He reluctantly agreed. When he got to church something miraculous happened. As the choir sang “Jesus Christ is risen today” and the priest proclaimed, “Christ is risen” with the congregation responding, “The Lord is risen indeed!” – this man said that his darkness began to turn to light and his sadness to joy. For at that moment, he knew in the depths of his being that because Jesus lives, so does his father. Death did not have the last word, God did. He left church filled with hope that the best is yet to come, because in the end, God wins, love wins, and life wins.
This is the miracle of Easter. The God who raised Jesus from the dead will raise us also. The God who triumphed over the grave will do the same for our loved ones and for us. In the power of Christ’s resurrection we are victors over whatever life throws our way. We never give in to despair and we never give up on life, because we are always and forever in the everlasting arms of God.
Expect a miracle this Easter Sunday. Expect the risen Christ to become real to you in ways that defy all rationalization. Expect the power of God to empower you for authentic living. Wherever you are on your journey of faith, whether you are a believer or a seeker, a doubter or a skeptic, a steadfast secularist or someone spiritual but not religious, consider this my invitation to give church a try this Easter Sunday and reconnect with the God who loves you always and forever.
The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is rector of St. James Westminster Church in London, Ont.