Lectionary texts: Acts 10.34-43; Easter Anthems; Colossians 3.1-4; St. Matthew 28.1-10.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. But what should it mean to us Christians? What does it mean to you? This is what I want us to look at this morning. In St. Matthew’s account of the Resurrection, we find a chaotic scene, one mixed with fear and shock and joy. St. Matthew tells us of a dazzling angelic presence and earthquakes, of guards passing out from fear, of a strange command given, and of women running to and fro. A strange story indeed! What is going on here? Before we look at these questions, let us be clear that this story would have been no less strange to first century ears than it is to ours. We needn’t look any further than the women’s reaction to understand this. Contrary to what many seem to think, the women had come to Jesus’ tomb, not expecting him to be raised from the dead but to visit his grave and mourn his death, just like we do when we visit the graves of our loved ones. Instead, they got something quite different. While many Jews in the first century believed in a general resurrection of the dead at the end of history, nobody believed or expected a one-off event would happen in the midst of it. But this is exactly what they were told had happened with Jesus and it was terrifying and incomprehensible to them, at least initially. In reporting these events, St. Matthew surely was aware that he was reporting strange things indeed and that his report would be met with skepticism by many, especially because it was based on the testimony of women who had little cred as witnesses. So if you are one this morning who cannot imagine these things happening as St. Matthew reported them, he would surely understand.
But he might also say this to you. Don’t worry if you can’t imagine Jesus being raised from the dead because the resurrection is not of human origin; it is from God. The earthquake and angelic presence announced it. So did the tombs that were split open and the dead being raised at Christ’s death that I reported. These things are beyond the scope of human imagination and reasoning, just like a crucified God is beyond human imagination and understanding. But that doesn’t make the events I reported any less historical or true. In reporting all these fantastic and highly unusual events to you, I am inviting you to consider by faith what Christ’s resurrection is all about.
St. Matthew surely wants us to see the mighty hand of God at work in the death and resurrection of Christ to change the course of history by inaugurating God’s promised new creation to heal and restore the old order, a world marred and corrupted by human sin, evil, and death (the unholy triumvirate). As with all the gospel writers, St. Matthew doesn’t tell us this in so many words, he tells us this brilliantly in story, not as in a made up story, but a story that is based on historical reality and reliable eyewitness testimony, a story rehearsed and believed in by the Church over the last two thousand years in Word and Sacrament and in the sacred fellowship of believers whose lives have been healed and transformed by the power of our crucified and risen Lord. And because of this, it is a story that has far more cred than trendy, arrogant, and closed-minded “scholars” who just can’t imagine the power of God made known in this way, or by caustic outsiders who snipe at the sins of the Church from afar, unwilling to invest their lives in Christ to see if his claims on them are true. They, like the guards who fainted in terror at the presence of an angel of the Lord, are most to be pitied because their minds and hearts are closed off to God’s power in the life of his world.
So how are we to plumb the depths of God’s story of resurrection and new life? For starters, let us be clear about what all the NT writers, St. Matthew included, meant when they spoke of resurrection. For the NT writers, resurrection meant new bodily existence. It did not mean life after death or going to heaven or the immortality of the soul or some kind of spiritual existence after death. No, resurrection meant bodily existence and it was consistent with the Jewish belief in the importance of creation found in the creation narratives of Genesis 1-2. There we see that God created everything good and humans were created in God’s image to run God’s good world on his behalf. But human sin and the evil it introduced into God’s good world profoundly corrupted both the created order and human lives, death being the ultimate evil. We all know this first hand. We are gathered here today virtually to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. There are no lilies and flowers or spectacular music or sweet in-person fellowship. Our worship is devoid of many of the things that make our Easter celebration so joyous. We aren’t lighting candles or swinging incense or any of that. We’re not saying prayers in the Easter garden or enjoying a magnificently decorated altar, resplendent in its Easter glory. Instead we are huddled in our respective homes, looking at a makeshift altar that is not exactly resplendent, trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. So yeah, we don’t need to be reminded that the old order of creation has gone terribly wrong.
But in the midst of this old order with its decay and darkness and death, St. Matthew reports that Christ is raised from the dead, to new bodily existence that conforms to God’s promised new world or new age. How does he announce this? St. Matthew starts by telling us the women came to mourn on the first day of the week, the eighth day, the day after God’s sabbath rest, i.e., the beginning of new creation. Like the guards who passed out, the women were terrified at God’s power and presence manifested in angelic form. The angel didn’t roll the stone away to let Jesus out of the tomb. Christ was already gone, raised by the power of God! No, the angel rolled away the stone to let them see the tomb was empty! And when Jesus appeared suddenly to the women (he had a habit of doing that during the forty days before his ascension), they were able to see him, hear him, speak to him, and hold him, all the things we cherish in our human relationships that death ends permanently.
But there’s more. As we saw last week in the reading of his passion narrative, St. Matthew reports that in the aftermath of Christ’s death tombs were split open and many of the godly dead were raised to life. In telling us this fantastic story that stretches our imagination, St. Matthew is telling us that in Christ’s death, our greatest enemy, Death, is defeated. Together, these two stories proclaim the defeat of Death and the inauguration of God’s new creation, a world in which sin and all forms of evil are abolished, a physical world where our dead or dying bodies are restored and death is no more, a world where we are reunited with our loved ones who have died in Christ so that we can hold them, talk to them, hear them, and see them, a world devoid of sickness, sorrow, plague, fear, rejection, alienation, heartache, broken dreams, disordered desires, and all the rest that beat us down and dehumanize us. It is a world hard to imagine because it is of God and comes from God’s loving heart and power (cf. Rev 21.1-7). In telling us these stories St. Matthew is telling us that Christ’s resurrection was a history- and life-changing event for the women and Christ’s first followers. How else to explain the transformation of his disciples from sniveling cowards who denied and failed their Lord in his hour of greatest need to bold proclaimers of the gospel who willingly and gladly faced death to proclaim the love and power of Jesus Christ and him crucified?
And here is where we must revisit our place in the story of Christ’s crucifixion that we looked at last Sunday because when God raised Jesus from the dead, he declared that whatever our place was in the story of Christ’s death, God loves us and has forgiven us, just like Christ forgave his disciples by telling them to meet him in Galilee instead of denying them publicly as he said he would do to followers who denied him publicly (Matt 10.32-33). By Christ’s blood shed for us on the cross, we are healed and made fit to live in God’s promised new world. To be sure, we won’t be full participants in the new heavens and earth until Christ returns to finish the work he started in his death and resurrection, but we are citizens right now. Everything has changed. Is this what the Resurrection is to you? Is it for you the turning point in history where God declares the Old Order in which we live with its decay, its brokenness, its sorrow and suffering, and its death is finished? Is it the turning point in history where Death is swallowed up in life, or is it something else? If it is something else for you, then nothing in your world has changed. You still live in a world where fear and uncertainty and decay and death reign, where covid19 paralyzes you with fear and robs you of your hope, where cruelty, injustice, chaos, and the burdens you bear in your own life reign supreme with no hope of relief or healing or redemption. If it is anything less for you than St. Matthew describes it, then you should frankly say to hell with it and quit living the lie that you are a Christian in any real sense of the word because you have no real hope or future. You are settling for a lie and something much less to sustain and guide you in the living of your mortal days. It’s as unedifying as listening to one of Fr. Bowser’s sermons or being a Michigan or BGSU fan. Why would you do that to yourself?
But if the Resurrection is real for you in the sense that St. Matthew and the other NT writers present it, and in the life-changing way the first followers of Jesus experienced it, then there is no reason for you to fear because you know that come what may, Death and all that is evil in this world have been defeated, and that new hope, new bodily life in God’s direct presence is your future.
I do not claim that having this kind of faith is easy and here is where we can profit by listening to what St. Paul has to say to us in our epistle lesson. When we believe that Christ’s resurrection is the game-changing cosmic event that the NT writers proclaim it is and that we are greatly loved and forgiven, despite our sins and brokenness, we realize that resurrection isn’t given indiscriminately. It is given only through the death of Christ in whom our life and being are inextricably bound in the power of the Spirit. Therefore, says St. Paul, “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.”
What is St. Paul telling us? That heaven really is our destination and that our eternal life will be as a disembodied spirit? Not at all. He is telling us that when we put our faith in Christ, we share in his death and resurrection. But the risen Christ currently reigns from heaven and is invisible to us as sometimes is his power and influence on us. That can be terribly frustrating. We know we are called to pattern our lives after him and we desire to do so. But we can struggle in living out our faith or do so badly. Our failures, however, do not necessarily signal that we are cut off from Christ and his citizenship in God’s promised new world because our citizenship there is based on his power and love, not ours, or our worthiness to be with him. His death and resurrection proclaim that reality!
And so we continue to live our lives after him in the power of the Spirit (or set our minds on things that are above). What are those things? St. Paul has laid them out elsewhere in his letters. Whenever we focus on that which is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, and admirable, we are setting our minds on things above. Whenever we love as Christ loved us, whenever we are tenderhearted toward each other and forgive each other, whenever we bear each other’s burdens, whenever we display the fruit of the Spirit in our lives, whenever we reject our old death-dealing ways and desires (remember Christ died for our sins), we are setting our minds on things above. We do these things because we believe we belong to God’s new world—despite our flaws and failures and the baggage we just can’t seem to shake—because Christ belongs to it and we share in his crucified and risen life by our baptism that unites us to him. In other words, St. Paul is telling us that our resurrection faith and hope is the starting point, not the result of, our relationship with Christ. So we must continue to focus on imitating our Lord in his love, mercy, goodness, generosity, et al., despite how imperfectly we imitate him.
Here’s a quick example of how this works. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by news of this pandemic. We hear of people dying alone—a prospect that personally terrifies me—and about economic loss and suffering. We are forced to celebrate Easter today online. We wonder if this darkness will ever end. That is setting our mind on this age with its trajectory toward decay and death. Instead, St. Paul tells us to focus on Christ and his death and resurrection. So we focus on the fact that our sins are forgiven, that we are greatly loved by God the Father and redeemed by God the Son, and therefore promised a place in his new creation starting right now, however imperfectly that looks, so that life and health and wholeness are our destiny. Why then should we be afraid? But this takes a concentrated effort together. We have to be brave enough and humble enough to ask each other for help and encouragement until our thinking leads to our experiencing Christ’s love, presence, and strength in our lives. So turn off the TV or other news sources. Pick up your Bible and read together the stories of Christ’s death and resurrection or St. Paul’s great tract on the resurrection found in 1 Cor 15 to be reminded of the reality of things as well as your future. Worship regularly and be healed and transformed by God’s word and sacraments. If you come away from worship feeling refreshed and renewed or encouraged and strengthened, this is what St. Paul is talking about. You are refreshed and renewed because you have set your mind on Christ who reigns from heaven and who currently is invisible to you. So don’t go back into the world and focus on it so that it beats you down. Keep returning to Christ. Things are rarely straightforward in this life. We have to work at relationships if we want them to grow and worthwhile things in life rarely come easily. So we do the hard work to grow in our relationship with Christ. It’s called Christian maturity. That is what St. Paul is telling us we must do to live a Christian life and manifest our resurrection faith.
But it all starts with what the Resurrection means to us. And so this Easter morning I close by asking you again, what is the Resurrection to you? If you believe Christ’s death and resurrection to be the turning point in history you will learn to know that your destiny is new embodied life in God’s new world and that knowledge will help you overcome the travails of this world. Christ’s death and resurrection have set us free: free from doubt and despair, free from sin and guilt, free from darkness and everlasting death. The world, the flesh, and the devil will try their best to persuade us otherwise and they will succeed if we set our minds on them rather than on Christ and the things above. Don’t do that to yourselves, my beloved. The stakes are far too great. Let us embrace the gift of life offered to us out of the great love the Father has for us and be set free to love and serve him all our days, confident that come what may, the promise is true. We really are New Word Men (and Women)—apologies to Rush. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.