I try to pay attention in church. I try, and I fail.
Easter Sunday was no different. This time, at least the cause of my distraction was related to church. In fact, it was the Easter scripture.
Unfortunately for my friend Marsh, he was the only one in hearing distance when my revelation hit me.
“Psst. Hey, Marsh! Did you catch that thing about Jesus?”
Marsh looked at me as though I’d just claimed to be Mary Magdalene. He shrugged.
“The women—all the disciples, really—they don’t find Jesus where they are looking for him.”
“Yeah,” Marsh said. “He’s not in the tomb. You do know it’s Easter, right?’
“Right. But I don’t just mean the tomb. I mean afterward as well. The disciples never find Jesus by looking for him. He always appears to them on his own terms. In the garden, in their prayer meetings, at the seashore. They never summon Jesus. He calls the shots.”
Marsh scrunched up his nose and studied me. “Are you becoming a Calvinist?” he said.
I’m not. At least, I don’t think so. But I haven’t been able to shake that idea. I can’t find a single instance following the resurrection when Jesus appears because someone places an order. He comes to whom he wishes, when and where he wishes.
If that personality trait extends through time to today, we religious professionals have reason to be uncomfortable. We’ve spent weeks preparing for Easter, rehearsing choirs and praise bands, crafting a sermon packed with our best material, trying to find some way to harness the momentum we feel on this holy day and parlay it into greater investment in the church by our churchgoers.
The problem is that it almost never works the way we hope. People resume their busy lives. Summer vacations start. We step back into the grind of administration and visitation and preparation for the weekly grind. By Christmas, we’re grudgingly throwing away drafts of sermons with titles like, “Where the Hell Have You Been Since Easter?”
If we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that all our efforts to get people to come to church will do nothing to conjure Jesus to us, much less bring us the kind of success that we assume would come with such an appearance. If there is a spiritual lottery for church success, the odds are stacked against us, and we can’t do anything to change them.
My hunch, though, is that we don’t need to coax Jesus to us. He is the one who searches us out, and when he finds us going about his business, he tends to show himself in ways we don’t expect.
Perhaps our neurosis about church participation isn’t the way to find Jesus. If we call him Lord, we admit that he is not at our beck and call. He shows himself when he is ready. Perhaps the best we can do is try to be about the work of loving God and neighbor when he does.
And, of course, to pay attention so that we don’t miss him.