Summary: The Easter story calls us to follow in the footsteps of the women who were the first to encounter the risen Jesus: in seeking his presence day by day, in worshiping him as our Lord and Savior, and in going out to call people in.
[Sermon preached on 1 April 2018, Easter Sunday / 3rd year, ELCF Lectionary]
“Were you there when they crucified our Lord?”
It is a rhetorical question. Of course, we were not there when they crucified our Lord. The drama that we watched at the beginning of the service gives us some idea of the people that might have been there. We heard them tell how they might have experienced the dramatic events on Calvary. The shepherd, the Roman officer, Peter, and Mary—they were all touched in their own personal way by what happened that day. Each of them had gone through some unique experiences with Jesus. Each of them had a unique relationship with him.
When we look at today’s Easter Gospel, we see women going to the tomb where Jesus was buried immediately after the crucifixion. It is Sunday morning. They want to pay their respects to Jesus and anoint his body.
Like the other disciples, they are disillusioned and perplexed. What happened on Friday is impossible to grasp. It should never have happened. It is the abrupt and cruel ending of what should have been a success story for the whole nation of Israel. The man whom they loved and who was destined to rule Israel as king forever, lays dead and buried.
All the disciples are overcome by fear and despair. The Eleven are hiding. They dare not go to the tomb out of fear of being caught by the authorities. Only the women have the courage to go.
What happens when they arrive at the tomb is really beyond description. There is an earthquake—perhaps an aftershock of the one that struck Jerusalem the very moment when Jesus breathed his last breath. At that very moment, they see an angel coming from heaven and rolling the heavy stone away from the opening of the tomb. It is such a frightening event that the brave Roman soldiers faint on the spot.
The women are scared to death. But the angel comforts them and puts them at ease. “Don’t be afraid.” Those are the same words that the angel Gabriel spoke to Mary when he announced the birth of Jesus. For Mary, the sister of Lazarus, there is another point of recognition. It is not long ago when Jesus commanded the tomb of her brother to be opened. Then, they saw a revived man, who had been dead for days, walking out of the tomb. Perhaps that is what she expects to happen on Easter morning, when the angel has opened the entrance of the tomb. But no. Jesus does not come walking out. The tomb is empty already. The body of Jesus has disappeared, even though the entrance was closed and sealed all the time.
The angel speaks words of hope:
“I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he is risen, just as he said.”
I doubt whether, in this rapid sequence of events, the truth dawns on the women, who are still full of fear and confusion. Matthew tells us that when they rush off, they are still afraid, but mixed with their fear is another sentiment: joy. But what really changes their mindset and their lives once and for all is when on the way back to the city they encounter the risen Lord Jesus.
The resurrection of Jesus is a historical reality. Even though many scholars have tried to disprove the biblical accounts of that first Easter, there can be no reasonable doubt that what the Gospels tell us about Easter is true. More than that, it is not only true in a historical sense, it is also crucial to our Christian faith and life. Many liberal theologians want to deny the historicity of the resurrection, and of the virgin birth, and of the miracles of Jesus, and of a lot more. They want to make us believe, that it doesn’t really matter. They claim that, even if Jesus had never risen from the dead, it does not take anything away from our faith. We can still believe in Christ in many other meaningful ways.
But that claim is in total disagreement with what Peter, Paul and the other preachers in the early church proclaimed. For them not the death of Jesus on the cross but his rising from the dead is the central point in the Gospel. Peter, in his sermon on the day of Pentecost, leads the crowds to a dramatic summit of his speech. After accusing them of killing the man whom God has chosen, he says:
”But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.”
Paul goes further still. In 1 Corinthians 15 he argues:
But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. – – If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.