An Easter Sermon
Pastor Tom Sorenson
Monroe Congregational UCC
March 31, 2002
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer.
On the street in Russia on this day, at least in Russia as it was 100 years ago and maybe in some places in Russia now again, people greet each other, even total strangers with the joyous cry: "Khristos voskres! Christ is risen!" And the reply echoes back with equal joy: "Vo istinu voskres! He is risen indeed!" It is the most joyous day of the Christian year, a day when an ordinary "hi how are you" won't do. A simple hello back isn't enough. This is the day that changes everything. Christ is risen! This is the day when everything is made new. He is risen indeed! This is the day of all days to celebrate, for Christ is risen from the dead, and our joy knows no end. This past week, as we walked with Jesus from his triumphal entry into Jerusalem through the Last Supper and the crucifixion, we experienced the cost of discipleship. We learned that being faithful can cost you your life. Today we celebrate the joy of discipleship. Today we know that our life with God never ends. Say it with me: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
There is no doubt that it was the disciples' experience of resurrection that launched the Christian church. It was the joy of the Resurrection that turned a dispirited and defeated little band of dreamers into the founders of the world's greatest religion. It was the joy of Resurrection that kept them from scattering, that sustained them when the persecutions came, that drove them to share the great good news of the Resurrection with the whole world. Without the Resurrection, Jesus' ministry on earth would have been a abject failure. He would have been just another in a long line of would be Messiahs who came to a bad end, a fool who preached nonsense and paid for it with his life. But those disciples knew that he did not come to a bad end, and that he didn't give his life for nonsense but that he gave it for God's truth, and for us, because the cross wasn't the end. They knew because they saw him, spoke with him, touched him risen from the grave. And they had to tell the world. Tell the world they did, and here we are, 2,000 years later, rejoicing just as they did that the grave could not hold him, that death could not stop him, that sin and evil did not win in the end.
It's funny, isn't it, that for descriptions of the day that changed the world the Gospel accounts of the resurrection are surprisingly, even startlingly brief, even curt. Matthew tells the news initially in ten short verses, the ones we heard a moment ago. Oh, he starts the story out with some good dramatics. An angel of the Lord appears to two women (note that the witnesses are women--a word more about that in a minute) who have gone to see Jesus' tomb. Although it was a customary duty for women to anoint a dead body for burial, to leave spices with the body as part of the rites of burial, Matthew says only that they went to see the tomb. Whatever their purpose, the two Marys--Mary Magdalene and another women identified only as "the other Mary" (Matthew doesn't even care enough about her to give us enough information to identify her)--were the ones who were there. The angel is introduced by an earthquake. In Hebrew scripture, angels are often actually manifestations or appearances of God. And appearances of God are often accompanied by extreme natural phenomena like earthquakes, strong winds, thunder and lightening, and such. Whether this angel was actually God we aren't told, but he appeared in a fearful and wonderful way. He scared the poor guards who had been posted at the tomb nearly to death. Appearances of God, or of God's angels, in Hebrew Scripture (and Matthew is the most Hebrew of the four Gospels) invariably produce fear as the first response in the humans who witness them. They did here. Then the angel said to the women what God's angels always say as their first words to humans to whom they have been sent for benign or beneficent purposes: Fear not. Do not be afraid. We need that assurance when we're in the presence of the Divine, and the two Marys got it here.
Then the angel simply announced quite matter of factly that Jesus isn't there. Can you imagine the women's reaction? Wait a minute! What's up with that? How can he not be there? He was buried here, wasn't he? He's dead, isn't he? Well yes----------but then again, no. The angel tells them he has been raised from the dead and is on his way to Galilee. The angel tells them to go and tell the disciples. Now, that's odd language, since presumably the two Marys were disciples too, otherwise they wouldn't have gone to the tomb in the first place. Jesus clearly had women disciples, even though the Gospels that made the cut when the Bible went to press don't call them that. Just because the Gospels writers didn't is no reason why we shouldn't give the faithful women who followed Jesus that sacred name.
And while we're on the subject of dismissing women: What's even odder than the fact that Matthew doesn't call the two Marys disciples is that the Christian tradition has, until very recently, failed to recognize one central significance of what's happening here. You've probably all heard of the Apostles: the Apostle Paul, the Apostle Peter, the Apostle Andrew, and so on. What's an apostle? An apostle is one who is sent. That's what the Greek word that apostle comes from means. In the Christian tradition, an apostle is one who is sent to bring the Good News of the Resurrection. What does that make the two Mary's in Matthew's account of the Resurrection? The first apostles, of course. In all four Gospels, the first apostles are women. In all four of them, the risen Christ appears first to women and sends the women to tell the others. There simply is no doubt that the first apostles were women. But have you ever heard of the Apostle Mary? Either the Apostle Mary Magdalene, or the Apostle The Other Mary? You should have, but I'll bet you haven't, not until just now anyway . Our tradition has a lot to answer for in this regard.
In any event, off the first two apostles, Mary Magdalene and "the other Mary," went to tell the disciples, "with fear and great joy." Again, Matthew uses rather odd language. How can you feel fear and great joy at the same time? We aren't told, but then maybe extraordinary experiences like the one they just had produce extraordinary reactions, like the apparently inconsistent emotions Matthew tells us they were feeling.
Then something even more remarkable happened. Suddenly, there was Jesus himself. "Hello," he says, as if nothing extraordinary were going on. He said to them what the angel had said: Fear not, and go tell the disciples to meet me in Galilee.
But that's all there was to it. No heavenly fanfares. Not even an earthquake. I mean, at least the angel got an earthquake. Jesus is just there. He says hi and sets up a meeting. That's all. No proclamation of what it all means. No claim that everything is different now. No promise that death has been defeated. No assurance that our sin has been forgiven. No confirmation that the powers and principalities have now been placed under Christ's dominion. Nothing. Just: Hi. Have the guys meet me in Galilee.
And yet---------And yet the disciples knew, and we know, that Jesus' resurrection does change everything, Ever since that first Easter day the Christian church has proclaimed that through Christ's resurrection the old order has passed away and a new order has begun. Through Christ's resurrection the Kingdom of God breaks into history as never before. Death and sin are conquered. God's ultimate victory is assured. That is the message that has sustained and comforted, transformed and challenged millions upon millions of Christians for nearly 2,000 years. That is the Easter faith of the Christian church.
For people with an Easter faith, the world is a different place. It is different because in Easter faith we know that sin, suffering, and death are not the end, do not have the last word, and, most of all, do not separate us from the love of God. Christ is risen, and death has lost its power over us. God has conquered it. Oh, it's still there alright. We still die. The resurrection doesn't make us live forever in this life. Death isn't gone, but it has lost its power. In the image from Charles Wesley's great hymn that we began with this morning, death has lost its sting. Why? Because Christ is risen and has defeated it. Where is thy victory, O grave? Gone! Snatched from you by the power of God's love. Christ is risen, and we know that God's love continues beyond the grave. Christ is risen, and we know that life with God never ends. Christ is risen, and sin has lost its hold on us. Christ is risen, and love's redeeming work is done. There's nothing more God can or needs to do. The victory is ours through Jesus Christ raised from the dead for us.
Friends, if we could just live every day in this resurrection faith, what a difference it would make. When we live in resurrection faith, we have the courage truly to live. Truly to live means to live without fear. It means having the courage to face and take on whatever life sends our way and to do it the way we know God wants us to do it, with love for all, without violence, trusting in God all the way. When we live in resurrection faith we can face even death with courage. We can do that because we know that with God death does not have the last word. We know that even in death we are held safely in the palm of God's hand. We know that though we die God does not forsake us but loves us and will not let us go.
With Easter faith we have the courage to continue the work of peace and justice in a world that doesn't want to hear God's word of peace and justice for all people any more than it did when Jesus preached it 2,000 years ago. Easter faith sustains us when the work becomes too hard. It gives us hope when the task seems impossible. It gives us courage when the job seems too dangerous. It gives us comfort when all the world seems to have forsaken us and God's work of peace. Christ is risen, and we can dare to hope, and even to know, that God will prevail in the end. Christ is risen, and we know the joy of God's unending, infinite, eternal love for each and every one of us and all of God's daughters and sons, indeed, all of God's creation.
In short, what Easter does is give us life. It enables us to live. It lets us shout a joyous "YES!" to life when everything else makes us want to cry No. That's why today is so joyous. That's why today we shout Hallelujah! God has said an eternal Yes to life--to life as Jesus taught us to live it. And now so can we. Now we can face whatever life brings our way and joyously affirm the goodness of life, life lived in glorious light of Christ's Resurrection. Today our color is not the somber purple of Lent but the brilliant white of Easter. Today we celebrate the joy, a joy that knows no end. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Hallelujah! Amen.