A sermon preached on Easter Sunday, 2008 based upon Matthew 28:1 – 20, entitled “Good News or Bad News”
We’re here this morning for a whole host of different reasons. Some of us are here cause this is where we are pretty much every Sunday. Some of us are visiting family for Easter; some have been dragged here against our will under threat of a major burden of guilt. Some of us just don’t consider ourselves “church people” but we’re here because there is something about Easter that is enchanting, expressing hope in the face of death, and we’re here to catch a whiff of it.
Whatever the reason we are here, it is all good, and there no need for jokes about the roof collapsing — our roof is plenty strong. I would, however, invite you to listen for the sounds of angels singing and dancing — doing the conga line right now up there on our roof. (Pause to listen for angels.)
Anyway, whoever you are and for whatever reason you find yourself here today, I’d just like to plant the idea in your head that beneath any other reason, you are here because God wanted you here today. This is where you are meant to be today.
I want to let you in on a little secret. I was the one portraying the Roman soldier earlier with our children. I know you couldn’t tell, but yeah, that was me. Friday night it occurred to me that I needed to come up with a children’s sermon for Easter. The idea hopped into my head that I could dress up as a Roman soldier who was present at the tomb. Great! I’ll need a costume. I remembered there was a costume shop in Boonton. I’d never been there. I called the shop on the phone and the woman who runs it said, sure they had Roman soldier costumes, come on down Saturday afternoon. Which I did. I wasn’t sure precisely where the shop was; I parked my car just off the main street where it was supposed to be located, got out of my car, and as I stepped onto Main Street, I heard my name called out. I looked, and there, across the street, were my good friends Laurie and Joe Zelman. In Laurie’s hands were, amazingly, a Roman soldier costume.
Turns out she had had a Easter pageant the night before at her church, and she was on her way to return the costume. She and Joe had met some friends, which had delayed there arrival at the shop (otherwise, the costume would already have been turned in), but when I told her why I’d come, she handed me the costume and said it didn’t need to be back till Monday.
I was, to say the least, astonished. What did it mean? For me, it simply meant a little sign from God that I was where I was intended to be.
I want to invite you to consider the possibility that you are where you are intended to be today.
So we have before us this strange event that is reported to have happened 2000 years ago at a tomb just outside the city walls of Jerusalem, that involves the claim that a man named Jesus who had been crucified, dead and buried, was discovered to be alive three days later, and this time with a life and a body that could no longer die.
Is it true? That’s what it comes down to, isn’t it? Each of us must decide for ourselves. I can’t demonstrate to you beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is true, but the opposite is also true, no one can demonstrate to you beyond a shadow of doubt that it isn’t true.
I can offer you some evidence, however, the purpose of which isn’t to prove that Jesus rose from the dead, but simply to make the point that if you are predisposed to write it off as an impossible event that only a fool would believe, it isn’t necessarily so.
First off, the movement following the man Jesus had been underway for about two years (that’s all), and it was, in a certain sense, kind of pathetic. What I mean is that it was initiated by a peasant named Jesus, a son of a carpenter from a podunk town called Nazareth in a remote corner of the earth. The followers that this Jesus gathered around him weren’t “the best and the brightest;” they were fishermen and such, unlearned men, with no worldly power to speak of.
When they arrived in the big city of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, they understood that Jesus was intent on confronting the political and religious authorities who together were oppressing the little people, the poor people, the nobodies. They were assuredly afraid, these followers of Jesus, but they harbored hopes that maybe, just maybe, things would work out swell there in the big city. That maybe through the intervention of God, the people in authority would give up their power, and that Jesus would be established as king, bringing justice and peace to the world, and everybody would live happily ever after.
No such luck.
The people in power, once it became clear to them that Jesus wouldn’t shut up and was intent on challenging their authority and power, well, they had no choice, really; they had to shut him up, just like John the Baptist before him. Jesus had to be killed, or else all chaos would break out, and so it was a no-brainer. The order and stability that everybody counted on (as opposed to chaos and anarchy) was, in their minds, the most important thing. And so, just as they had done to countless others before Jesus, the Roman soldiers put Jesus to death in an especially cruel and torturous manner in order to make an example to others who might consider challenging the stability of the established order.
Now it is important thing to keep in mind that in those days religious/political movements were a dime a dozen. Would-be messiahs came along on a pretty regular basis, always coming to the same end. The charismatic leaders of these movements and their followers were quickly forgotten as time marched on.
So here is the question: why was this one different? In short order the movement took off, despite the fact the charismatic leader had been crushed and the rag tag band of his followers driven into hiding, feeling pretty awful about themselves too.
The Jesus movement took off like wildfire. And these followers, previously none to impressive, suddenly became quite impressive indeed, stronger, bolder, more daringly loving than they had ever been before. And from the very start, their own explanation for how this could be so was that they had met this very same Jesus alive again — that death couldn’t hold him.
What are we to make of this?
Well, one explanation, would be that the followers of Jesus pulled off a colossal con job. It was a hoax; a scam. They stole his dead body themselves, and then told a bunch of lies that people believed.
But that doesn’t make much sense. How would a con job bring about such a transformation of the very persons perpetuating the con job? Charles Colson, one of Richard Nixon’s top aids, made the point that the 12 most powerful men in the land — sharp, smart guys every one of them — couldn’t keep their story together for two weeks about what happened with Watergate.
All four Gospels vary quite a bit about the details of what happened that first Easter (which would suggest they weren’t concerned with keeping their stories straight.) The two things all four Gospels do agree on, however, are that 1) the tomb was empty on Easter morning, and 2) women were the first ones at the tomb to witness this fact, and the first ones to see Jesus alive.
If the followers of Jesus were making this thing up, they assuredly wouldn’t have had women be the first witnesses, because women in those days were nobodies, whose testimony wasn’t even valid in court. And Mary Magdalene, the one consistent woman throughout, was a woman of particularly shady reputation.
The con job explanation doesn’t really work. The first Christians really were convinced that Jesus had risen.
Now, I realize what I just told you doesn’t prove a thing, but it does, I think, make it not unreasonable to believe something more compelling than a mere con job happened back there 2000 years ago. Matthew imagines there having been an earthquake in order, I think, to drive home the point that what transpired that day demands our attention.
In considering the claim that a man came back to life, defying the natural processes as we know them, it is important to acknowledge that this wasn’t just any man: this was Jesus, a man who had embodied an extreme sort of love, teaching his followers to forgive and to love their enemies. He paid special attention to the very people that the Empire and the authorities figured deserved no attention: the poor, the outcaste, the nobodies. To stand up for these very people was the reason Jesus had come to Jerusalem.
And it is important to recognize that the news of his resurrection wasn’t good news to everybody. It was distinctly bad news to those in power. Matthew tells us that in hearing this news, the Roman soldiers “ became like dead men.”
Empires have always been established on the assumption that there are plenty of people who are expendable and unimportant, and those who challenge the system can be made to simply disappear. Take away this capacity to make nobodies disappear, and the Empire loses the threat that keeps it in power.
So the news that this Jesus who was supposed to have been silenced on the cross was up and about telling his followers to keep speaking truth in his name to those who had killed him, well this was bad news indeed. The message always included the idea that with his resurrection Jesus was the first born of many to come; that there were countless other nobodies in the eyes of the empire who were somebody in the eyes of God and killing them wouldn’t silence them either. Bad news indeed for the people in power.
Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress, wrote a letter to a friend from the infamous bunker where she and her beloved Adolph spent their last days before the end of World War II. In the letter she shared how the defeat of the Nazis she was witnessing was leading her to question the existence of God.
It’s all a matter of perspective. Is the resurrection good news, or bad news?
At the very same time, not far from that same bunker, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a prisoner in a Nazi prison camp. Bonhoeffer was a pastor and theologian who had steadfastly stood up against the evil of the Nazis. For his willingness to speak the truth to power, Bonhoeffer was arrested and placed in prison. On April 7th, 1945, just a few days before the end of the war, Bonhoeffer began the day leading his fellow prisoners in a worship service. At the conclusion of the service, guards arrived, summoning “Prisoner Bonhoeffer.” He knew what this meant. Turning to his fellow prisoners, Bonhoeffer said, “This is the end, but for me it is the beginning of life.” He was lead to the gallows where he was put to death by hanging. He went, confident that his life was safe with God, that he was dying with Jesus, and would rise with him as well.
You and I, we were created by God and placed in a spiritual journey. The purpose of the journey is to move towards the light and away from the darkness; to learn how to love and to forsake the fear and hatred that so often moves people in this world; to come to realize that every person has a soul, that nobody is a nobody to God.
We are, hopefully, “run of the mill sinners.” By this I mean we are still on the journey, we haven’t arrived, and there is within us both light and darkness, love and fear. We are sinners saved by grace; God isn’t done with us yet.
But being a run of the mill sinner is something quite different from being someone who has become thoroughly evil. People become evil when bitterness, fear and hatred prevails in their souls. It is often masked, because people who have become evil tend to be convinced they have no sin within them whatsoever. Like Hitler, they convince themselves that they are the children of light doing battle with the forces of darkness.
The first followers of Jesus were ordinary sinners, and the Gospels portray them as such when they receive the news of the resurrection, reacting with mixed emotions. The women depart from the tomb with both fear and great joy. The disciples meet Jesus on the mountain with a mixture of both belief and fear.
Those who have become evil, see this news as nothing but a threat.
They have reason to be afraid. The resurrection of Jesus announces to the world that God will prevail. There are no disposable people. All are cherished by God. So those who have had a vested interest in denying the inherent value of all persons have cause to be disturbed.
I’d like to end with a quote from an Easter sermon by Rowan Williams, that provided the insight from which this sermon arose:
Think back for a moment to the days when death squads operated in countries like Argentina or El Salvador: the Christians there developed a very dramatic way of celebrating their faith, their hope and their resistance. At the liturgy, someone would read out the names of those killed or ‘disappeared’, and for each name someone would call out from the congregation, Presente, ‘Here’. When the assembly is gathered before God, the lost are indeed presente; when we pray at this eucharist ‘with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven’, we say presente of all those the world (including us) would forget and God remembers. With angels and archangels; with the butchered Rwandans of ten years ago and the butchered or brutalized Ugandan children of last week or yesterday; with the young woman dead on a mattress in King’s Cross after an overdose and the childless widower with Alzheimer’s; with the thief crucified alongside Jesus and all the thousands of other anonymous thieves crucified in Judea by an efficient imperial administration; with the whole company of heaven, those whom God receives in his mercy. And with Christ our Lord, the firstborn from the dead, by whose death our sinful forgetfulness and lukewarm love can be forgiven and kindled to life, who leaves no human soul in anonymity and oblivion, but gives to all the dignity of a name and a presence. He is risen; he is not here; he is present everywhere and to all. He is risen: presente.