It was the first day of spring, an appropriate day for my professor to begin his lecture on the Resurrection. It seemed odd to us, because the class was on “the urban church,” not the New Testament. Thankfully, we did not write it off, thinking that the professor brought the wrong notes. His exegesis on the Resurrection was basic, but that is all it needed to be. It was a hook to get us to think about the birth, life, death, and, yes, the resurrection of the urban church.
Having worked with congregations for over two decades now, I have noticed something really interesting. Many people fear the death of a congregation more then they fear their own death. In other words, they trust in their salvation, but don’t really trust that God has a greater plan for the church. So often instead of letting go of their past, churches fight to regain what they once had, striving to somehow keep alive a glimpse of their former selves.
This is problematic, not because of the desire to be “what the church once was,” but because we put our desire before allowing a death and resurrection to happen. Like putting a person who will never recover on life support, perpetuating life when death needs to happen is painful, hard, and causes far more casualties than anything else.
The thing about the resurrection that we often do not recognize is the presence that remains. When Christ dies and is later resurrected, he has a real presence in this world, and when he finally ascends to God in heaven, his presence in this world does not come to an end. Yes, he sent the Holy Spirit, but more than that, he left a legacy through his teachings and his examples.
The same thing is true for people. When they die and enter the church eternal, their existence is not wiped away from this earth; their impact is felt and their witness is continued. The same is true of churches. When a church dies, it leaves a legacy. The witness of what came before stays with the new congregation and the people that are left behind.
I always think of this when I wear my Easter robe. That robe came from a church in Virginia that had closed a few months after I started in North Carolina. One of my members had grown up in that Virginia church. As I sat with the member and heard the story of growing up in that church, I was both humbled and impressed with the impact that congregation had on him as well as the impact that congregation had on the one I was serving through him. While it no longer existed in a physical way, it was, and always would be, alive in its witness.
So we come to the celebration of our 125th anniversary this Sunday. We remember as a congregation that we are a resurrected people. While we celebrate the lifespan of this particular congregation, we also recognize that there are many times when we have died and been resurrected. The most formal resurrection was 90 years ago, when the church left downtown and moved to our current location. But it has also happened recently, as we have begun to let go of what we once were and started to ask the question of where God is calling us to be now.
In that respect, this celebration on Sunday is as much about honoring the past, and all those who have paved the way for us to get where we are going, as it is also an Easter celebration, looking forward to how and who God is calling us to be today, tomorrow, and years to come!
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen