A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Easter Sunday ~ Matthew 28:1-10
Whenever I have a bible study group, after starting with prayer we read the scripture passage out loud. Usually people in the circle have different translations or versions of the bible so there’s always a variety of ways of saying things that may be different from what each person has in front of them.
After the reading, before we dive in and explore each verse, I always ask the same first question: Does anything grab you as you hear this today? Because there’s always something in the reading that leaps off the page and captures your attention. It might be an affirmation, or a question that arises, or a disagreement or challenge you might have with this or that verse – but usually it’s just something that you didn’t notice before, but for some reason in this go-round you noticed it.
That happened for me as I was working on this Easter message.
I know that theologically I’m supposed to notice that it’s women and not Jesus’ 12 named disciples who are there. Of course, the women were disciples too, but they don’t get described that way in scripture. It’s theologically really important though, that Jesus’ resurrection is first witnessed and experienced by women, and not men, or powerful people, or religious authorities. These women also become the first evangelists – the first who share the news of Jesus’ rising.
I’m also supposed to notice that in Matthew’s telling we get to watch the angel roll the stone away right in front of the Roman guards while in the other gospels the opening of the tomb happens in different ways, with different characters present (or not).
And that in Matthew the disciples don’t experience Jesus in a locked upper room, but back in Galilee on a mountainside – presumably the same mountainside where it all started with the Sermon on the Mount. So there’s a lovely ‘full circle’ thing going on.
All of those are great sermon topics for the resurrection story in Matthew – but none of those are what leapt off the page and caught my attention. What grabbed me was the description of the emotions of the 2 Marys as they were processing all this.
Matthew 28:8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.
Fear and great joy.
Yes, that’s it exactly. That perfectly captures how I’m feeling about Easter this year.
Fear and great joy.
The great joy part is obvious. It’s Easter! Jesus is risen. (He is risen indeed!)
After all the hard work and heavy theological lifting we’ve done through the Season of Lent, our bewildered journey through the wilderness, after all the weightiness of Holy Week – the betrayal story, the arrest, the trial, the beatings, the crucifixion, the agony of the cross, and yes, Jesus’ death and burial – and then the deathly silence of Saturday – after all that, finally we arrive on Easter Sunday and we get to sing “Hallelujahs!” and we rejoice at his resurrection.
As the women were running from the tomb that first Easter morning they were experiencing joy and fear.
Suddenly, Jesus meets them, and he says, “Greetings!” But it’s much more than just “hello.” The Greek word means to rejoice – to delight in God’s grace.
They have fear and joy, and the first thing Jesus says to them is “Rejoice!” – and as the women fall at his feet, awestruck, the second thing he says is, “Do not be afraid!”
The angel said that to them too, but they needed to hear it again. (And again.)
And we need to hear it again and again too. Do not be afraid.
Because we are afraid.
How can we not be afraid? I mean, look around you. Look where I am.
Things are not normal.
Things are very, very strange, and different, and upsetting.
We’re all hunkered down in our homes.
We’re afraid to go out of doors.
We’re afraid to go grocery shopping.
We’re afraid to get too close to passersby on the street.
We’re afraid for our families.
We’re afraid for our livelihoods.
We’re afraid for our churches.
And Jesus says, “Do not be afraid!”
And we say, “Seriously? Don’t you know what’s going on? Of course we’re afraid! Now stand back 2 metres. And why aren’t you wearing a mask?!”
It doesn’t say in the scripture how the two Marys were feeling after that. I have to assume they continued to feel both fear and joy – at the same time. These are not mutually exclusive feelings!
What scripture does say, is that however they may have been feeling, that they got themselves up, dusted themselves off, and went to share the joyous news of Jesus’ resurrection with his disciples. In other words, in the midst of their joy and their fear, they lived out their faith.
That’s a pretty good sermon right there.
But I want to take us to one more place.
There is no doubt that for people of faith, for the followers of Jesus, especially back then, that Easter was a monumental, seminal, epoch-transforming occurrence.
The resurrection of Jesus changed everything…and nothing.
For his followers, they experienced the risen Christ – and it absolutely renewed their lives, gave them hope, gave them purpose, gave them peace, reignited their drive, rekindled their fire, reawakened their passion, regenerated their spirit and soul.
Experiencing the risen Christ, encountering his Presence in deeply meaningful and mystical ways, utterly changed their lives. It resurrected them! In a moment their grief and disappointment were transformed and they embraced new life – a new future – a renewed faith!
And yet, nothing changed that morning.
The Romans were still an occupying force making day to day life miserable for the Israelites.
The people were still oppressed, still afraid, still worrying about their safety, still having to cope with a situation far beyond their control and not likely to end anytime soon.
Jesus emerged from the tomb and the Romans did not magically disappear.
There was no magic in the resurrection. The world pretty much looked exactly the same that first Easter morning that it did the day before.
And yet, everything was different for Jesus’ followers.
Everything was transformed and infused with renewed life for those who were open to experiencing Jesus in this new way.
I became really concerned for the Church as I heard people talk about how they were going to delay celebrating Easter until their congregation could be together in-person again.
I totally get that.
I feel that way too – that when we are finally able to be together again and it’s not just a couple of us rattling around in this big empty space – this…tomb – when we fill this place again we will definitely rejoice and celebrate probably like we’ve never celebrated before.
But there’s a worrisome and problematic theology that’s underlying that desire to postpone Easter until everything’s better.
It’s suggesting that the point of Easter was to make everything happy and wonderful, with sunshine and unicorns for everyone.
And poof goes our troubles, and poof goes our hardships, and poof goes our fear.
The cross is empty, the tomb is empty, and there’s a little bunny leaving chocolate eggs everywhere.
Easter is pure magic!
Except it’s not.
Putting off Easter until things are better entirely misses the point of Easter!
Waiting until things are better to celebrate the risen Christ doesn’t make sense, because the risen Christ is who helps us make things better!
We can’t wait – we need him here, now, in the midst of this hard season, in the midst of things not being so great, in the midst of our fear. Not to take these things away from us – but to be with us in the midst of real life.
So, “Rejoice! And do not be afraid!” – even in the shadow of an oppressor that you cannot control. Especially there.
Because the purpose of Jesus’ resurrection wasn’t to take all your worries and troubles away.
The purpose of Jesus’ resurrection was to show us that we are not alone.
That nothing can separate us from the love of God – not pandemics, and not physical distancing, and not even death.
That God’s Presence transcends everything and is with us even in the midst of the shadows of a dark valley – bringing light to those shadows, and guiding us through.
And knowing that promise, trusting in that Presence, accepting that spiritual power, enlivens, revives, energizes, renews, and yes, resurrects you and me.
And that changes everything.
Our fear and joy will continue to commingle for awhile.
But that’s ok.
Because we are not alone, because he is risen indeed!
What really changed that first Easter morning, and every morning since?
Thanks be to God!