Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017 –
Text: Matthew 27:62-66; 28: 1-10
In one of the parishes I served back in Pennsylvania, one of the most faithful members of the congregation was a woman whose husband almost never came to church with her. He told me once that something had happened in his past that had turned him off to the church, but he never confided more than that. So, while he was not at worship regularly, he had an interesting pattern of coming on Christmas, and then for all of Holy Week: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter.
When he came on Maundy Thursday, he would usually comment to me: “Pastor, I hope you reinforced the roof, ‘cause I’ll be here a couple times in a row; it’s liable to fall in!” We would both laugh, and I always reassured him that I was sure the roof would hold, that I was glad to see him and that I was very sure that his presence was a joy to God as well.
I share this story with you because I am pretty sure that some of you who are here today are people for whom coming to church is not a regular part of your week. Some of you may not have been inside a church for a Sunday worship service in quite a while. But I want you to know that I’m sure that the roof is going to hold, that your presence here today – that everyone’s presence here today! -is a source of joy for the gathered assembly and for God.
And about that… I believe God’s joy is mostly about the opportunity to connect with us, and has little, if anything at all, to do with us fulfilling some kind of obligation. Jesus was very clear in his teaching that the sabbath day was established for our benefit.
We Lutherans are very firmly rooted in the theology of grace; so for us it’s very clear that we don’t earn any brownie points for coming to worship, but rather that coming together for worship is one of the ways of creating a space in our lives where we can encounter God, acknowledge our weaknesses and failures, hear God’s word together with others, be fed at Christ’s table, receive the reassuring promise of forgiveness and be prepared to face whatever we may encounter in the week ahead. We bring very little to this weekly gathering, but our host overwhelms us with gifts we can never earn.
And this Sunday is a gathering of extraordinary joy! While every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection, on Easter Sunday we focus on the events of that breathtaking day when Jesus’ followers discovered that all their hopes had been answered: Jesus’ death at human hands had been a temporary state; his promise that he would rise again was fulfilled with a lightening swiftness that shocked them to the core. Just 3 short days…
So let’s look at the story of Jesus’ resurrection as the writer of Matthew describes it. I intentionally began our gospel reading a few verses before the resurrection account, to include the panicked efforts by the religious establishment to prevent any possibility that Jesus’ followers would somehow steal his body and deceive people with a story of resurrection.
We may laugh at their fears a bit from the safe distance of several thousand years, but the hoax that has continued to this day is THEIRS: the secular world often looks at followers of Jesus as though they are a bit off-center for claiming that he is the Son of God and that he rose from the dead three days after being crucified. While many of us remember with fondness the decades when “going to church” was a national past-time, it’s a bit myopic to believe that being a follower of Jesus was ever truly culturally acceptable.
We could talk about THAT for hours… but let’s get back to the story told in Matthew.
The religious authorities, with the help of the Roman authorities, had done everything in their power to ensure that Jesus’ body was securely and permanently sealed in its tomb. The women went to the tomb-probably to grieve-and were stunned upon their arrival to experience an earthquake, and an angel descending from above who rolled away the stone so securely sealed by the authorities, sat upon it and declared:
“Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”
The guards were totally immobilized by fear…
But the women, though deeply shaken, obeyed the angel’s command with a mixture of awe and joy; and as they went, Jesus came to them, and as they fell at his feet to worship, he echoed the angel’s command: “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
DO NOT BE AFRAID
First of all, we need to recognize how extraordinary it is that we have a written account of the women’s testimony of what they experienced. In the secular world of the first century, no woman’s testimony would have been taken seriously. But what they testified to were the words of Jesus… and that made all the difference. Their testimony was later confirmed by Jesus’ presence among the disciples, just as he had promised.
And the heart of his message to them was the same: “Do not be afraid.”
In the world of those men and women, there was much to fear.
And things would not get better, but rather much worse. In less than 4 decades, Rome would destroy Jerusalem and the temple that had been rebuilt once and stood for centuries would be utterly destroyed. Rome would persecute the followers of Jesus, until the 4th century, when Christianity became the state religion and a revolutionary movement would be tamed into an institutionalized sect.
We’ve been struggling to regain the calling of Jesus to live according to the will of God in the midst of a world that opposes that will at every turn. Followers of Jesus have wrestled for centuries with the question of why God allows so much violence, suffering and injustice to exist. We still have no answers, but we have Jesus’ calm command: “Do not be afraid.”
We’re not always very good at following that command. But the faith that has been given to us as a gift keeps urging us to find ways to live in a world that still resists the will of God; That faith is what draws us together; we don’t come together because we have it all figured out or consider ourselves to be more righteous than the average human. We come together because we are sometimes confused and frightened, and we know we cannot do this alone.
So we come, to seek wisdom from God’s word, to receive forgiveness and reconciliation with God and with one another, to be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit among us into people who follow the will of God, and to offer thanks for God’s gracious gifts to us.
Our faith stands firm because it is rooted in the testimony of Jesus, who promised that he would rise again; that death had no power to hold him.
That promise was fulfilled; and because of that promise fulfilled, we are bold to seek a way to live without fear in a fearful world, and proclaim with triumphant joy:
Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!