Easter 2015: He is not here he is risen
Introduction: I am glad to be worshiping with you on Easter because I know you had other options.
It is really great to be with you on a beautiful Easter Sunday morning. It is always great to see everyone, to sing together and greet one another in celebration of the resurrection. It is particularly encouraging to me because I know that you had other options today. You don’t need to be in Church on Easter to make this a special day.
In fact for most of my life, my family and I were not in church on Easter. I remember that one year we went to the Trenton Museum. My Father had done a painting that was being displayed in the gallery so we all went. It was great time and I have fond memories of that day. Another year we went to the Statue of Liberty. My father wanted us to see the Automat before they were taken down. It was fun. But it did not have anything to do with church.
I know you don’t have to be here. So why are you here? What does all this mean to you? I want you to think about your expectations for this morning because most of the people who experienced that first Easter event expected one thing, but were transformed by something else.
Transition: The women go to the tomb on the first day of the week. It is so hard for us to remember that they do not know it was Easter and they are not expecting a resurrection. So why did they go?
Like the women sometimes we celebrate Easter to remember a sad death and a good life.
The gospel accounts tell us that the women went to the tomb early on the first day of the week. But we must remember that they were not expecting a resurrection. They did not go there to look for a resurrection; it was not in any of their thoughts. They went to honor Jesus, to remember him, to care for him in death. All those things are important and if you think about it, most of our national holidays are about remembering people from the past and honoring their lives: President’s Day, Independence Day, Columbus Day. So I can imagine that someone could come to church with that idea. You might be here because you think Jesus was a good person who died a bad death and he should be honored for what he said and did. For many, that’s a reason to come to church on Easter.
The women heard good news that made them ponder and that may happen for you as well.
When the women get to the tomb, they realize several things. They have probably felt an earthquake tremor, they realize the stone has been rolled away, the body is gone and an angel tells them that Jesus has been raised. They have no way of processing this because, as we said this is not what they were expecting. What can it mean that Jesus has been raised? They believe, at least as much as they can understand, because they have heard an angel say it.
You may leave Easter confronted by the message of the empty tomb and wanting to make sense of it. Most of us, like the women that day, do not know what to do with an empty tomb or talk of resurrection. We might think that the resurrection is another way to refer to “keeping Jesus’ influence alive” or “continuing his work.” This makes sense to us because, again, this is how most of our holidays work. This last Martin Luther King day was particularly meaningful because of the 50th anniversary of the march on Selma. We all used that day as a chance to assess how our nation is doing in the task of racial reconciliation. It was a time of reflection. I can imagine that some see Easter like that. This is a time when we keep Jesus alive by remembering him and his teaching, and continuing to follow his way. That makes sense to us, but it does not make sense with the historical situation of the first century.
There is no historical precedent for a group of people continuing to follow a messiah who had been killed by the Romans. While the concept might make sense to us it is not historically plausible. People followed a Messiah because they hoped the Messiah would change the political system they lived under. Messiah is a Hebrew term which means anointed one. To call yourself the anointed one, or the Son of God, when Caesar used both of those terms to define himself, was considered treason. The Romans could tolerate the Jews worshipping their own God. They could not tolerate them having their own king, so most messiahs ended up dead. This is important because we have a good deal of data about what you did when your messiah was executed. In short, you found yourself another messiah. You mourned and honored his memory, then you found a new person to follow. This is what the women were doing on that first Easter morning. They would honor Jesus and mourn Jesus, even as they buried him.
The closest analogy for us would be the 1968 democratic National Convention. In the summer leading up to that convention it seemed like the Democrats were going to give the presidential nomination to Robert F Kennedy, younger brother of John F Kennedy who had been assassinated in 1963. But that summer, tragically, RFK was assassinated. It was shocking and heartbreaking and part of a series of events that made it feel like the world was coming apart in 1968. But after everyone mourned and honored Robert Kennedy, they found another Presidential nominee. No one, that I am aware of, gave their electoral votes to Robert Kennedy in Chicago that year. And in the same way no one would have though of following Jesus, or keeping his name alive, or passing on his teachings, without the resurrection. It is not historically plausible. The resurrection is the only thing that makes sense of the early church.
So you may leave here, like the women, considering the empty tomb and even considering what it means for you. But hearing about the resurrection and even believing in the resurrection is not what changed these women. That happened when they encountered Jesus face to face.
Like the women our lives are transformed when we meet Jesus face to face.
As the women begin to leave the garden they meet Jesus and they worship him. Matthew condenses the appearances so they seem him, recognize him and worship him. Obviously this takes the whole experience to another level. It is one thing to remember Jesus, and it is one thing to see an empty tomb, but meeting him face to face is where transformation begins. The same is true for you. You could leave here having honored Jesus’ memory, or you could leave here pondering the empty tomb. You could even leave here believing the tomb is empty. But what God wants for you today is for you to encounter Jesus face to face. That is what will transform you.
This transformation is really key for you today for a couple of reasons. Obviously meeting Jesus is different from hearing that he was raised from the dead. The women did not just see him resuscitated, they saw him in an eternal state and they spontaneously worshipped him. This is key because God did not bring you here today just to commemorate Jesus’ life and death and he did not bring you here just to tell you that thousands of years ago some women and some angels said he was raised. That might amaze you and it might make you think. But it won’t change you, it won’t change your life. Meeting Jesus is what changes your life. Christians believe in the audacious truth that Jesus is alive now. He is alive, so when we pray he hears us and even speaks to us in different ways. The truth is that God wants to have a relationship with you through Christ. Jesus didn’t just die for sins, he died for YOUR sins, he died so YOU can know God. When you have that conversation with God, a conversation about yourself, about your sin and how you need God to forgive you and enter your life, transformation is possible.
The other reason it is important to make the resurrection personal is because if it is only intellectual, you can always find a reason not to believe in the resurrection. You can see this in the account of the soldiers.
Like some people today, the guards needed a reason not to believe, and the leadership gave them one.
The soldiers had to report what happened to someone. But to admit that the body was gone was tantamount to ordering your own execution. Guards in Caesar’s empire – certainly Roman guards but perhaps also temple guards, had one job. Do not let your prisoner escape. If the prisoner escaped, the guard is executed. It was a very effective way of training new recruits. But the guards knew this was not their fault even if no one would believe them. They told the religious leaders who promised them significant money if they would tell people that the disciples had stolen the body. They assured the guards that this would not mean death because they would deal with Pilate or anyone else who hassled them about their dereliction of duty.
As I said, if you want to find a reason not to believe you can find it. The religious leaders did not want Jesus to be the messiah because it would mean an end to their influence. In the same way you may leave here not wanting to believe and if that is the case I cannot convince you otherwise. There is no way to prove the resurrection. It is not a science experiment that can be repeated in a double blind trial. It is a historical events and can only be proved – so far as it can be proved – historically. I will tell you one thing though, if you were making up a story about the resurrection you would not have the women discover the tomb. Women were not considered reliable witnesses in the first century. Some even claim that they were not allowed to testify in court. So you do not help yourself there. The account of the women is a mark of authenticity. Also, if there wasn’t a controversy about the empty tomb, why would you suggest that the disciples stole the body even putting it in the mouth of religious leaders. That story only helps you if there is a question about the empty tomb and the empty tomb is a mark that something happened. Finally the fact I find most decisive is what I mentioned earlier: only the resurrection makes sense of the existence of the early church.
There is always a counter story. You need to decide which story you believe and which story you will live by.
It is worth noting that God wants to do more in you than just convince you of the resurrection and even more than bring you face to face with Jesus. Many of you will say that you are here because you believe the resurrection and more than that you have faced God and asked him for forgiveness in the name of Jesus. You are a believer and you celebrate that today. I want you to know though, that Jesus is not looking to make believers. He is looking to make disciples.
Jesus called his disciples to make more disciples, more people who worship him, obey him and belong to his community.
The disciples met Jesus several times after his resurrection. Matthew chooses to relate only the last time they meet when he commissions them to make more disciples. In his commission you can discern how he defines a disciple. The eleven and the crowd with them worship Jesus. Some doubt –probably because they cannot grasp that Jesus is worthy of worship. But followers of Jesus worship Jesus. Jesus then tells them to go all over the world and make disciples, baptizing them and teaching them to obey everything Jesus had commanded. Followers of Jesus obey Jesus, they center their lives around him. Baptism is a mark of belonging. It connect you to a local community of believers. Jesus wants his disciples connected to a local community of believers.
God’s desire for you today is that you would center your life around Jesus, worshipping him and obeying him wherever you go tomorrow. You will undoubtedly go someplace where those around you don’t follow Jesus. He is a non-factor in their lives. You will be in a third floor office, PTO meeting, high school classroom or client meeting and you will wonder how do I follow Jesus here? I want you to know, that question is your calling. Your calling is to center your life on Jesus wherever you go. And as you begin to do that, people will notice and you can share your life with them and perhaps have a part in someone else becoming a disciple.
Conclusion: where were your when you came in and what does want to do in your life now?
Perhaps you came here to honor Jesus but now you need to confront the empty tomb. What does the resurrection mean? What does it mean for you? Will you take the challenge to ask that question?
Maybe you would consider yourself a believer, but God is calling you to be a disciple, to do more than believe. Will you follow Jesus in every area of your life?
Maybe as a faithful follower you are being called to love, invest and lead someone else. Are you being called to be both a disciple and a disciple maker?