In 1987, the musical group REM put out a song called "It's the End of the World As we Know It."
It was full of apocalyptic references – plagues of birds, earthquakes, planes oddly presaging those which flew into the World Trade Center…the singer spoke of all these end-time things, all that echoed in the world in that time, and ended up with the surprising phrase “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.” Strange words. We think the end of the world will not be something about which we feel fine. We think it might be terrifying. How could anyone feel fine?
There have been a lot of news stories recently about the end of the world. A few folks believe that they have absolutely positively calculated the date when the rapture will occur. Hang in there – it’s not too far away – only two weeks to go. May 21st. Fasten your seat belts, folks – Judgment Day is upon us…or so say a few people who spend their days calculating God’s celestial date book.
On one of the websites that promote 5/21 as the big day, they also claim that God created the world in 11013 BC, and that the flood occurred in 4990 BC. What? God wouldn’t do big things in years that are round numbers? Or might it be, that God’s time, as Scripture reminds us, is not humanity’s time?
…and if that’s the case, all this business of calculating end time dates is nothing but foolishness. Jesus told us “…you do not know the day or the hour.” (Matt 25)
But trying to make sense of that which is unknowable is the constant preoccupation of us human creatures. We struggle with incomprehensible things. We want to fit them into our frame of reference, things that make sense to us. For some folks it’s playing with words to calculate when something will happen. For others, it is trying to rebuild after chaotic things change our world.
For us, at various points in our lives, “It’s the end of the world as we know it,” but we don’t feel fine. We feel disoriented, confused, troubled.
And that is just where Jesus’ followers were after Jesus had been crucified. It was the end of the world as they knew it. They felt awful, frightened, didn’t know what to do next. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to end. Jesus was supposed to be the King who saved them from the way the Roman empire pressed down on them like a strangling iron bar on their necks.
But he didn’t save them, or so they thought in those early days. He simply…died. His life was ended. His teachings, what did they mean now? They were grieving the man, and they were grieving the loss of hope.
How do you rebuild hope when hope is gone?
In the Gospel, we hear the story of how Jesus came back to them, to comfort and encourage them. To remind them that he was not dead, that he had risen. Those strange and subtle sentences he had shared with them, the promises that he would reign over a sovereignty that was not of this world, that he would die and rise again, those thoughts were floating around the outer reaches of their memory, but they could not put together what it all meant. Even with the stories of the women who had visited the tomb and found it empty, they still could not understand. For them, they truly feared that their world had ended when Jesus’ life was extinguished.
Two of those disciples were walking together to Emmaus. They were talking about everything that had happened – in modern terms, they were “processing” the trauma that they all had undergone in the week that preceded. Trying to make sense of it, trying to figure out the calculus of a dead rabbi who had preached a new understanding of relationship with God.
And then it starts out like an old joke: “Two disciples walk down the road…” but then they had a surprise. They met someone on the road who seemed strangely unaware of the happenings that had rocked them to their very core. They shared the chronicle with the stranger. Was the stranger another rabbi, another teacher? Surely he must be, because he calmed them, comforted them, explained the words that had been floating in their memories. He accompanied them to the place where the disciples were staying, and enjoyed a meal with them, a simple one. Bread. Wine. He blessed it, and broke it, just the same way as they had experienced just a few days earlier. And then they realized with whom they had been dining…it was indeed Jesus, risen from the dead. No sooner had they realized, than he vanished from their sight, evanescent as a flicker of a flame…just enough to keep them going. Just enough to rebuild their hope.
They were struggling, because the world as they knew it was indeed over. A new one had begun. They were amazed that they hadn’t recognized him at first, when they were talking to him on the road – “Weren’t our hearts burning when he taught us on the road?” –but they were strengthened by that brief visit, that confirmation that what Jesus had taught them was true. He was not dead. He was risen and again. A new beginning, and a shot of fortitude for those poor confused and frightened people.
An end, but also a beginning. Dramatic, right?
But what did it look like after that conversation? How did the church form itself in those first days? We’re practical people and we like practical how-to guides, don’t we? How do you start a church amid the ashes of what had gone before?
We find an answer in our first reading this morning, from the Acts of the Apostles.
In this passage, Peter is the prime rebuilder.
Now Peter was an unlikely person to be the rebuilder-in-chief. Remember, he was the one who denied Christ, not once, not twice, but three times. He regularly misunderstood what Jesus taught – remember the time he got so off-base that Jesus said “Get behind me, Satan?” Peter was the big, ungainly not-altogether-bright guy who sometimes had a bit of a temper. Think of the character Norm from the old sit-com “Cheers,” or the older brother Rob from “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Not a natural leader, something of a coward when things get tough. Rebulder of hope? Hard to imagine.
And yet Peter does it. God uses even the most unlikely people to carry out the divine mission.
Peter stands up and says to the others, “we’re starting the work again. Yes, the Lord is gone, but he was truly the Messiah. And we all were responsible for his death, each of us in our own way. But we have work to do, the work he taught us to do.” Peter challenges those with him. They say “How do we make up for the fact that we were part of the reason for Jesus’ death?”
And he lays it out in very simple terms. Repent your sins, whatever they are. Get baptized – confess your belief in Jesus as the Christ. Accept the Holy Spirit which will come into you and guide you to a right life.
Rebuild one brick at a time. Repent for the things you’ve done before. Commit yourself to God through baptism. Have a meal, a simple one. Bread. Wine. That’s all it takes. Do the things that rebuild hope.
Some 3000 people became disciples that day. The hunger for hope, for a new world built on the remnants of the old one, is powerful and deep. At the end of the world, we must find a way to help fashion a new one. They did it. So can we.
In ways both individual and corporate, we may have had those Good Friday moments. It may have been the end of the world as we know it, but with God’s help we build a new one, and it will be fine. Good Friday is past. Eastertide is here.
And, by the way, on May 22nd, I expect we will all be here, worshipping the one whom we love above all others. Hopeful, growing stronger, feeling the Spirit in us in new ways. I feel fine!