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Heather Gormley: Making the world credible to the gospel

Our job is not to water down the faith so that the Gospel becomes credible to the modern world—our job is to make the world credible to the Gospel.

-Stanley Hauerwas

The week leading up to Jesus’ death and resurrection surprised a lot of people, not least of all Jesus’ own disciples. Fittingly, our first Holy Week with Tree of Life Fellowship was full of surprises for our whole community, not lease of all for me.

Tree of LifeAbout seven months ago we followed the Holy Spirit’s leading and started what can sometimes seem like a highly risky experiment- a local, multi-cultural Anglican expression of church. Seven months later we cannot believe the way that God is weaving together the many strains of Christian expressions and culture into a unified vision among the people have come to Tree of Life Fellowship.

One of our greatest hurdles has been figuring out how to faithfully live out what it means to be an Anglican church in a multi-cultural, mostly pre-Christian context.  The pinnacle of the church year is Holy Week.  Most of the people in our church plant had never heard of Holy Week before, so we knew we couldn’t take it for granted that people would be excited about the week, let alone attend.

At last Holy Week came. We were so excited to share the drama of Jesus’ life with our people. We became aware that for many of the new Christians in our church, this might actually be the first time they had heard the story of the crucifixion and resurrection in great detail. The reality of this first time hearing really struck me as I preached about the Thief on the Cross on Palm Sunday. I watched people’s eyes grow wide as I explained what happens in crucifixion and how Jesus even took the time to save a lost soul as he hung dying from the cross and proclaimed, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

The real surprises, however, came on Maundy Thursday. Thursday is typically the night we meet with our neighborhood youth group. Most of our youth do not come from church-going families and very few have any Christian background at all. Everything we tell them about Jesus is new. I explained to them the week before that we wouldn’t have youth group on Maundy Thursday, but that they were welcome to come to our service. To my surprise, most all of them came!

For the Thursday night service we walked with Jesus through most of what happened on the night he was betrayed.  We started with foot washing. The youth were thoroughly grossed out to hear that Jesus touched other people’s feet and even more flabbergasted to watch the adults in our church do the same to one another (none of the youth were brave enough to get their own feet wet ).

Then we explained the origins of communion and shared in a meal together. After the meal, we turned down the lights and had a man in our church act out the experience of Jesus as we read from the Gospels the events that happened in the Garden of Gethsemane. We ended in total darkness; rang a chime 33 times, once for every year of Jesus’ life; and then slammed a board down on the ground to represent the slamming of the prison door on Jesus and our anticipation that Jesus would soon break down the gates of Hell. On a whim, I then came back into the service and said, “To be continued… To find out happens next you’ll have to come back tomorrow.”

The youth, especially, were very flustered that we wouldn’t just tell them what happened next. Sure enough most of them came back the next night to hear about the crucifixion, and nearly all of them showed up on Saturday night to hear the history of salvation by candle light and then ring in the celebration of the Resurrection with bells and Alleluias.  There was nothing intentionally ‘fresh’ about this service. It was a re-telling of an old story, but the youth said it was the coolest church service they’d ever been too. Another man in the church said, “Holy Week made what happened to Jesus seem real.”

For many of these youth the story of Holy Week was a new story. If anyone had told me at the beginning of the week that Holy Week at Tree of Life was going to be about the youth, I wouldn’t have believed it. I would have said, nah, these services are way too somber for youth. Looking back, I now see that the Good News of Jesus Christ is for people of all ages. What better way to share what Christ has done for us than to invite new believers into the profound surprises of the most important week of all time? Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

Heather Gormley serves as pastor of the Tree of Life Fellowship in South Bend, Indiana.

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