By Ed Thompson

Each gospel tells the story of Jesus in its own way. In particular, we see that in how they describe the events at Easter. One of the details in the gospel of John that I find striking takes place when Jesus is talking to Mary Magdalene. She does not recognize Jesus and thinking that he is the gardener and somehow responsible for moving the body of our Lord from the tomb (in her mind the best way – and maybe the only way that makes sense – to explain what’s happened), she asks him to tell her where he has moved the body so that she can go get it.

Jesus then calls her name. Astonished and probably overwhelmed by joy, Mary responds by calling Jesus “Rabboni,” which means “teacher” in Aramaic. Jesus then tells her, “Don’t hang on to me because I have not yet ascended to my Father.”

I can understand why Mary would want to hang on to Jesus. She doesn’t want to lose him again. She wants to preserve the Jesus she used to know. But the resurrected Jesus is – and is not – the same Jesus she used to know. We see that played out in the rest of chapter 20 of John’s gospel.

Later that same day, Jesus appears to his disciples and tells them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me so I send you.” Then he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven, if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” While some aspects of this may be different or even go beyond what Jesus has previously told them, it still seems consistent with what they’ve heard from him before. However, he appears to them only after they’ve locked the doors. While Jesus slipped through the crowd that wanted to throw him off a cliff in the Gospel of Luke, this goes far beyond that.

Although I’m not overly concerned with or really worried about what exactly happens to us after we die, I suspect our resurrected bodies will be similar to that of Jesus in that in some ways we will be the same as we were before we die, in other ways we will be different.

I think that will also hold true for our churches. Since the establishment of our state in 1863 and even before we split off from Virginia, Presbyterians have started a lot of churches in what is now West Virginia. Not all of them have survived. Not all of them will survive. Not counting the churches that have severed their ties with our denomination, we probably have closed about a church every year since our Presbytery was first started in 1987. It wouldn’t surprise me if that’s what’s happened since 1863 and maybe since 1619. (That’s just a guess. I haven’t done the research.) It wouldn’t surprise me if that trend continues or even speeds up over the next decade. More churches are going to close. While in some ways that makes me sad, when I look at it in terms of resurrection, it doesn’t bother me as much.

Some of the churches that close will be torn down. Years of deferred maintenance mean that’s the only realistic option. Other closed churches will become senior citizen centers or community centers. Others will be used for private homes or perhaps restaurants. In many cases, other churches will move into the buildings that once housed Presbyterian churches. They may not have better theology than we do, but they will have more energy and probably be more in tune with their neighbors than the congregations that were left when they decided to close.

Some of the remaining members may end up worshipping in the churches that now own their former buildings. Others may join the nearest Presbyterian church or a nearby United Methodist church or some other church in their community. Wherever they end up, they can be, and I believe they will be, a blessing to their new congregation.

Even as death is not the end for us, neither is the closing of a church the end of the story. Even if the building is torn down, the people will leave a legacy that lives on. If we believe in resurrection, we don’t have to be afraid of death or of closing a church.