A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Easter Sunday ~ Matthew 28:1-11
Easter Sunday is always a tricky sermon to preach because more than usual the congregation is an interesting mix of first-timers, some-timers, and all-the-timers. And because it’s Easter, and it’s our biggest celebration of the year, we tend to fill the service up with extra music, and extra liturgical pieces, and communion takes longer, so that means my speaking time is a little shorter than usual. So with less time I get to tackle what is probably the most important, and theologically trickiest, part of the Christian story.
When I was reading Matthew’s account this year I was struck by the earthquake – well, not literally. The way Matthew’s gospel tells it some women who were followers of Jesus came to the tomb early Sunday morning, found the tomb still sealed, an earthquake happens as angels come and roll the stone away, scaring the guards stiff, and the women are told that Jesus has risen and they leave in fear and joy.
Great story! Lots of action! But if you look at the other three accounts of Easter in the bible the story isn’t exactly the same.
In Mark, Luke, and John the women find the tomb empty and open when they arrive.
In Mark there’s an angel sitting inside the tomb and the women leave with trembling and ecstasy.
In Luke the angels suddenly appear and terrify the women.
And in John it’s Jesus himself who appears and Mary recognizes him but the story doesn’t say anything about how she reacted.
So which one is the right story? All of them, of course.
If you’re coming to these stories looking for factual analysis and a definitive set of historical events you’re coming with the wrong kind of eyes. Gospels are not that kind of writing. Biblical writing in general, and the New Testament writings in particular, are intensely personal.
It’s much more like reading someone’s diary than a textbook. Diaries are not fiction, they’re incredibly personal and biased versions of real life experiences seen through the eyes of someone who has a stake in the telling.
So instead of picking apart the differences among the gospel stories and trying to say they don’t agree so maybe they’re not true (I’m happy to have that discussion another day!) – we should look for the commonalities in the stories and try to discern just what it was that moved the people who wrote them.
What’s common is that some number of women went to the tomb early Sunday morning fully expecting to find Jesus’s dead body there so they could anoint it – and soon after arriving they came to the realization that something quite out of the ordinary was happening.
Jesus was not found dead as expected. There was an empty tomb. There was a dazzling experience of something overwhelmingly spiritual. The women had a reaction to it all – and then they left to share the news.
I can sum that up in four words. Expectation. Encounter. Elation. Evangelizing.
The women arrived that morning fully expecting to find Jesus dead in the tomb. Of course they did. Expecting anything else would be ridiculous. They watched him die. They watched him be placed in the tomb. And yet they also had a sense of expectation that there might be Something More to the story.
Jesus had taught them that God is always with them, and that there is a spiritual life pattern of dying and rising, of endings and beginnings, of resurrection. And so even though they fully expected to attend to a dead body they also had some expectations that with God anything is possible, and that maybe there would be more to their story even though they couldn’t possibly see it at that point.
You all came here today with expectations. Whatever reason brought you here you walked through those doors with expectations.
It’s a church service. You pretty much know what to expect.
And it’s Easter, so you pretty much know we’re going to talk about Jesus’ resurrection.
Some of you are here with jubilant expectations, some are here with eye-rolling reluctant expectations of having to endure these three hours (!).
But hopefully all of you are sitting with some expectation that maybe, just maybe, something UN-expected might happen!
Hopefully you’re sitting there expectantly – not really sure what it is you’re hoping for, but quietly hopeful for the possibility of something spiritually wonderful happening.
After the expectation, and especially if one is expectant, comes the encounter. All four gospel accounts tell of the women having a profound spiritual encounter. They all experienced something they described as angelic, or otherworldly. How else do you describe the indescribable? You can’t see or touch the presence of God, so when you encounter it in such a palpable, all-encompassing, powerful way you flail about for words to try to capture it. And the words fail you, because there are no adequate words to describe an encounter with Ultimate Reality, the Really Real, the Holy Mystery we call God. So we assign a placeholder for it – like calling it an angel. Our brains have an image of angels that we can relate to, so it’s like a shorthand for explaining the unexplainable.
In the Easter story the women come to the tomb expecting to find death. Even though they are expectant their logical brains assure them that death awaits. And then, overpowering their reasonable expectations, they have a life-transforming encounter with the very presence of God. You can’t control a God-encounter – all you can do is be open to it, and hopefully allow it to touch you and move you and work its power on you. No one knows what form or shape an encounter with God’s presence will take. But when it happens you can feel it in the absolute depths of your being.
I pray that you will have a God-encounter like that in your life – and hopefully over and over again.
What response do you think you might have to such an awesome encounter?
The women were described as experiencing fear, joy, terror, trembling, and ecstasy. Sounds about right! And after that initial shock where our senses are so overstimulated that we aren’t really sure what to make of an experience, we settle into the same reaction those women had to their God-encounter – elation. Jubilation, delight, euphoria, pick your synonym. They all speak to that heart-soaring feeling of knowing that you’ve encountered something awesome and awe-full and you are absolutely elated by the experience.
You came with low expectations. You had a spiritual encounter. And now your whole world looks different.
It’s like the person you were when you first arrived is gone. There’s a new person here now.
A person touched by God’s presence and changed by it. It’s like having a brand new start – a new life – a new life filled with an awareness that God really is right here, Present, moving, inspiring, and filling your every moment with light and love.
That’s what happened that first Easter morning.
Those women arrived with low expectations, had a spirit-encounter, and came away changed, renewed, and elated. In some mysterious, inexplicable way Jesus was a present reality for them in a new way. His physical body was not reanimated or resuscitated – he’s not a zombie, or a ghost – but he is alive to them in a profoundly new spiritual way. And the only word that comes close to describing that is resurrection. There was a dying, and now there is a rising. There was an ending, and now there is a new beginning. And new life feels great!
Expectation. Encounter. Elation. And what’s next?
Well, when you’ve experienced something as wondrous as those women did don’t you think you’d need to tell someone about it? Could you possibly just keep it to yourself? No way! And so they left the place of low expectations that were transformed by an encounter with the holy, and elated they went off to share their news.
Sharing their good news. We have a special name for sharing good news – it’s evangelism.
And every single one of you is going to do some of that today.
You won’t be able to help yourself. Sometime today (or tomorrow) someone somewhere is going to ask you what you did Sunday morning, or if they already know they’ll ask how church was. When you answer you will be evangelizing!
How will you tell the story of today?
When you leave this place and connect with other people who weren’t here today how will you choose to relate the story of what you experienced this morning?
Will you mention the size of the crowd?
Will you talk about the wonderful music?
Will you include a description of the sanctuary or decorations?
Will you talk about communion, or kids time?
Will you brag about the mortgage burning we’re going to do?
Will you go on and on about the incredibly insightful message?
Will you try to tell the story of Jesus’ resurrection and the reaction of the women at the tomb? If so, which part will you emphasize? Will it be the same parts that I emphasized?
And here’s the really important question: will you tell of your experience this morning the same way that the person beside you will? Or the person over a few rows?
Do you think any two of you would tell the story of this morning in the same way? I doubt it!
Not because you all didn’t experience it authentically but because you all experienced it personally – and whenever a person experiences something it is unique to them alone. And when they tell their story, try as they might to be objective, they can’t help but tell their story.
That’s why I don’t get very bent out of shape about the various versions of the resurrection of Jesus found in the four gospels. Each telling is unique, just like your telling would be. The important thing is that we recognize the spiritual experience at the heart of it.
Expectations. Encounter. Elation. Evangelizing. That’s Easter.
Against our expectations we have an encounter with the Holy Mystery we call God and find ourselves elated in the afterglow – because what was over has a fresh start – what was ended has a new beginning in God – what was dead has new life in Spirit. And then we have to talk about it. That’s not just Easter – that’s spirituality!
Each and every one of you has had an Easter experience of some sort this morning. Maybe it wasn’t as powerful and profound as what those women had on the first Easter Sunday – or maybe it was! – but either way you’ve had an Easter experience. You’ll be different when you leave than when you first came in.
Now go and share your experience. Tell your story.
Not to convince someone that your version of events is correct, or your theology is superior, but to invite them to enter this awesome story of exceeded expectations, incredible encounters, and unsurpassed elation for themselves. And then maybe they too will catch their own glimpse of new life, of resurrection, of Easter.
Expectation. Encounter. Elation. Evangelizing. Easter.