Christ is Alive!

empty tomb image

(Sermon for the Resurrection of Our Lord, 16 April 2017, based on Matthew 28:1-10.  Apologies for the lateness in posting!–MM)

Christ is risen! [“He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!…]

This is no harmless message we proclaim
because in this often-heartless world we live in
“harmless” just won’t cut it!…
“Harmless” won’t cut through the…hard-heartedness
of modern pharaohs and Pharisees.

To say “Christ is risen!”
is NOT to lull people to sleep
with a pie-in-the sky vision of some far-off next life….
NO!… To say “Christ is risen!”
is to rouse the followers of Jesus the Christ out of our fearful slumber
with a very down-to-earth, heart-rending message of hope
that awakens joy here and now, in this life!…
And God knows we could use some joy in our world right now! [Amen?!…]

Many of you were here last week for Palm Sunday worship,
when we read the entire Passion story….
The Passion story tells about all the events
that led up to Jesus’ death on the cross.
and I just want to say a word about that
because…obviously! can’t celebrate the resurrection
without remembering the death of Jesus on Good Friday….
So, here’s what I want to say to you:
It’s no coincidence that Jesus went to Jerusalem
at the precise moment when pilgrims were gathering for the Passover
and hopes were running high
that perhaps this would be the time
God would act to set God’s people free
from the yoke of Roman oppression,
just as God had intervened long ago
to set God’s people free
from slavery in the land of Egypt….

It’s no coincidence that Jesus entered Jerusalem through a gate at one end of the city
at the very moment Pontius Pilate was entering through a gate at the opposite end….
Picture proud Pilate, representing the Caesars
who claimed to be “sons of God”:
Pilate, clad in full battle regalia, mounted on his prancing warhorse,
and surrounded by a squadron of soldiers bearing weapons….
Now picture humble Jesus, the true Son of God,
dressed in simple peasant garb, seated on his steady donkey,
and surrounded by a crowd of people waving palm branches….

Jesus went to Jerusalem
knowing full well that his mission wouldn’t end well…
at least not in the short term!…
Yet he was willing to surrender
to the worldly powers of Pilate and the priests
because he’d already surrendered his life to God….
This very-human, but oh-so-Spirit-filled Jesus
knew that he belonged to God,
and he knew he was part of something much bigger than himself:
He was part of the ongoing revelation
of God’s self-giving, saving love for the whole world….
As Jesus walked the collision course
between worldly and divine power,
he trusted that God always takes the long view
and that God’s way would prevail in the end….
And we know it did!…
Jesus dared to take on the powers-that-be
with the power that was, is, and always will be,
world without end:
Divine Love had the last Word
as God raised Jesus from the dead,
proving that the power of love
always overcomes the love of power in the end….
God rocked our world
by shattering the worldly myth
of redemptive violence!

To say it another way, by emptying himself
and submitting to death on the cross,
Jesus became God’s love letter to the world….
It was an indelible message written deep in his broken body–
a message only brokenhearted people would understand:
brokenhearted people like Mary Magdalene and the other Mary,
who trudged to Jesus’ tomb
on that first Easter morning so long ago,
wanting to be close to him, so they could grieve….

Because their hearts had been broken open
by their love for Jesus,
the two women were ready to receive
the incredible Good News
the angel of the Lord brought….
Of course, the angel opened with that classic biblical line
angels always use—you know: the one that makes you say to yourself, “Uh oh!…”
Okay, say it with me: “Do not…be afraid.”
(Yeah, right, angel! Easy for you to say!…)
Anyway, without missing a beat,
the angel went on to tell the two Marys
that Jesus had been raised from the dead.
He invited them to come and see for themselves
the place where Jesus had been lying,
and then he commissioned them to go and tell the other disciples
the Good News that Jesus had been raised
and was going ahead of them to Galilee,
where they would see him….

The angel’s message and commissioning
infused the two women with a sense of joy and purpose
that inspired them to obey…
even in the midst of lingering fear.
As they were running to tell their friends the Good News,
the Risen Jesus himself appeared to them
and encouraged them in their mission by affirming the angel’s message,
“Do not be afraid;
go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee;
there they will see me….”

My friends, behind our smiling faces
and underneath our pretty Easter pastels,
we who are gathered here to worship and celebrate God’s victory
over the power of sin and death
share a significant bond
with the two women who went to the tomb
to mourn on that first Easter morning:
Today you and I are the broken and brokenhearted ones
who need to hear and proclaim
and live out the truth
that Christ is risen!…

You see, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is not the end of the story;
It’s the beginning of a whole new chapter
in the still-unfolding story of God’s love for the whole world….
The Spirit of our Risen Lord is alive and well
and working to heal the world.
And so, as you go back to the routine of your daily lives,
keep your eyes and ears open,
and I promise that you will experience Christ’s presence
in some very expected places…and in some very unexpected places….
Christ, who is the Word of God made flesh,
is present in the Word you hear proclaimed today.
Christ is also mysteriously present
in the bread and wine of Holy Communion.
Christ is certainly present in the beauty and wonder of creation.
Christ is present in and working through you, the people of God.
Christ is also present in the strangers we meet.
And once in a while, Christ even comes to
comfort us and commission us
in mystical experiences we can’t explain…
and that cause us to be afraid to tell others….

So, here’s the part where I get to confess to you
just how personal the resurrection is for me…
and how this sermon may well be one of the scariest I’ve ever preached,
because it’s about to get… very personal….
I also want to say that I totally “get” the mix of fear and joy the two Marys were feeling
when they ran to tell the other disciples
about their experience of encountering an angel at the empty tomb….
So, two years ago, a week before Good Friday,
I had a powerful experience of God’s presence….
I kept it to myself for a week,
but finally on that Good Friday I told two friends about it,
and after talking it over with them,
I decided to include it in my Easter message that year…
Earlier this week, as I was pondering in preparation for preaching today,
I felt nudged to tell you about it.
Now, I know some of you may think I’m nuts,
but I’ll take the risk of being a fool for Christ any day!…
I know that what I experienced was real,
and I know that the message I received is meant to be shared,
because while the resurrection may be personal,
it’s never private!
The resurrection is Good News that’s meant to be shared!….

So, here’s my story:
On that Friday two years ago, nine days before Easter,
I’d just awakened and was lying on my side in the semi-darkness.
Robert, my early-riser husband, had already walked the dog,
and, as usual, he opened the door to let her back into our room.
I heard the click-click of her claws and the jingle of her tags
as she plopped down on her dog bed on the other side of the room….
But then I noticed something a bit unusual.
I had my back to the bedroom door, but I hadn’t heard it shut,
and I sensed that it was still open.
(I was a little surprised and maybe just a trifle annoyed,
because Robert always closes the door, so that I can sleep a bit longer, if I want….)
Anyway, I lay there thinking, “That’s kind of weird.
Why did he leave the door open?
There’s light coming into the room….”
At that very moment, I perceived a Presence behind me,
and I heard a voice call to me in a whisper.
I couldn’t make out what the words were,
but they were spoken so lovingly, so tenderly,
I thought it was my husband.
I wondered, “Why is Robert standing a couple of feet behind me like that?
Why doesn’t he come closer, if he wants my attention?…”
Anyway, I rolled over to look…
and was surprised to find that the door was, in fact, closed,
and no one was there! …
And yet, sisters and brothers, I know that Someone was there!…
I know that Christ was present there:
I felt his presence assuring me that I am loved and that I don’t need to be afraid….
Beyond that, I also know
that Christ was there to give me the same message for you:
“Don’t be afraid, because you are loved….”
Sisters and brothers, I’ve never been more convinced of anything than this:
God in Christ Jesus loves you and me tenderly,
and God doesn’t want us to be afraid of God….

Dear friends, Christ is risen,
and he’s alive and present with us and for us…
and that means that anything is possible!
As we step over the threshold to go back to our daily lives,
Christ will be going ahead of us to show us the way.
Whatever our destination, he’ll be there to meet us when we arrive,
because God has work for us to do:
Our work is to practice resurrection
by living Jesus’ way of forgiveness and love in our words and actions,
so that others may come to know Christ and the life that is in him….
After all, what difference does it make that the tomb is empty,
if the hearts of God’s people are not filled to overflowing
with the loving spirit of our risen Lord?!…
Thanks be to God for the gift of new life that is ours through Jesus Christ our Lord! Amen.

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