Written by Kathryn Matthews
Sunday, March 27
We exult in your love, O God of the living, for you made the tomb of death the womb from which you brought forth your Son, the first-born of a new creation, and you anointed the universe with the fragrant Spirit of his resurrection. Make us joyful witness to this good news, that all humanity may one day gather at the feast of new life in the kingdom where you reign for ever and ever. Amen.
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again." Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
All Readings For This Sunday
Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 65:17-25
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:19-26 or Acts 10:34-43
John 20:1-18 or Luke 24:1-12
1. What do you expect from life, and what do you dare to hope for?
2. When have you been surprised, caught "off guard" by good news and unforeseen joy?
3. When something "too good to be true" has happened in your life, what evidence did you need in order to trust in the good news?
4. What is the "new thing" God is doing today?
5. When you come to church on Sunday morning, what are you prepared to find, and to experience? Is resurrection joy something one can "expect"?
Reflection by Kate Matthews
So, first they rest, these women disciples, as they should on the Sabbath. But then they get themselves up, pull themselves together, gather the spices and go to work - to serve, to anoint the body of Jesus. Jesus, their beloved teacher, the reason they had had hope, if only for a little while, a hope that appears to be dashed after his crucifixion. Then something amazing happens: they find the stone rolled away, the tomb empty except for two men in dazzling white clothes.
The women are terrified, of course, but then the angels proceed to do a reassuring little Sunday school lesson with them, reminding them in a "He told you so, didn't he?" way that this empty tomb should really come as no surprise. It actually makes a lot of sense if they think back on all that Jesus said and did in their presence. "Ohhhh, that's right, we remember now..." - and they run back to the apostles, the eleven, the men who are hiding behind locked doors, shaking with fear (not that we blame them, after what they've seen and experienced in the past few days).
Mary Magdalene and the other women tell the apostles about the empty tomb and the dazzling men but the apostles, who are already very important, "know better" than these silly women and don't believe what they say. Who would ever put credence in the words of women, aside from Jesus, that is? But then, Jesus is dead and gone now, isn't he? Peter gets up anyway, just to see with his own eyes that the tomb is indeed empty. And he goes home "amazed."
A simple little word says it all
Sometimes it's the simple little things that make us stop and think, and help us to understand. For example, Theodore Wardlaw has noticed the many times Luke uses the word "but" in his telling of the Easter story: such a simple little word, but such a powerful one. Scholars write voluminously about the meaning of the resurrection, but much of what they say might be summarized in the "but" that keeps bringing us up short, "grabbing us by the lapels," Wardlaw writes, "stopping us in our tracks and forcing us to understand that no matter what we've heard, we haven't heard the whole story yet" (The Christian Century, March 20, 2007).
Wardlaw calls the word "but" a "defiant conjunction" that gets in the face of every cynical, hopeless, harsh evaluation of the state of the things – in the state of the world, and in the state of our lives, every doomsday prediction and pessimistic riff on the meaning of our lives, the value of our actions and the validity of our hope. This little word continues the conversation but changes the direction of things, dramatically, because God isn't through with things yet. God hasn't spoken the last word, not yet, not in the situation we find ourselves in any more than God had spoken the last word on Good Friday long ago.
Facing the tombs of our "Friday" lives
This has to mean something to each one of us, then, when we face the "tombs" of our lives: the losses and disappointments, heartbreaks and failures, tragic deaths and prolonged illnesses, loneliness and despair. Those tombs are our "Friday" lives, and Jesus shares them with us. But (there's that word again) Jesus also shares Sunday, and resurrection, new life and new hope, with us. It wasn't a one-time thing, or one more thing: it is the dawning of a new day, and new life as well.
In the Isaiah reading for this Easter Sunday, God promises to do something new and really big: to "create a new heavens and a new earth" (65:17). No matter what things look like now, this Easter morning says, Wait. Stop. But. We are part of something greater than ourselves, and our lives are lived in a new age of hope.
Remembering what Jesus said and what he did
The women at the tomb in this Easter Sunday account are faithful disciples who set out to serve and, in the process, learn a lesson that begins with remembering: this amazing moment actually makes sense if they connect what Jesus said and did with what they see before them, their personal experience. In The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels, Paul Scott Wilson claims that the raising of Jesus authenticated his teachings and his deeds, and that our remembering of them, in the light of our own experience and that of the community, leads us to deeper faith. If we can't experience our faith, personally, no amount of abstract knowledge will have the power to change our lives. (This has been a difficult lesson for the institutional church.)
This empty tomb, then, is about the fulfillment of God's purposes, the same God who long before spoke of "new heavens and a new earth." N.T. Wright says that Easter Sunday began this new creation and grounded it in hope (The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, with Marcus Borg). This isn't only about "my own personal life after I die," then, but about God's whole new creation, God's new age, a way of being that continually calls us to the table, to reconciliation and healing, compassion and justice, to participation in the wonders of God's new creation. There's a commissioning for each one of us and for our communities of faith to join in what God is doing.
Preachers on Easter Sunday in churches all around the world will try to say a new word about the ever ancient, ever new word of God, God's "yes" to Jesus and God's "no" to the powers that killed Jesus but failed in the end – a failed plot, one might call it. We might ask, "How does something that happened so long ago matter to me today, especially with everything I'm going through right here and now? What does this have to do with me and my life, and my problems? Where do I fit into this picture?" N.T. Wright urges us to see our lives in a new light: "Acts of justice and mercy, the creation of beauty and the celebration of truth, deeds of love and the creation of communities of kindness and forgiveness – these all matter, and they matter forever" (The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions).
"If the threats come to be fulfilled..."
In our story, in the story of faith, there is always that "but," and it carries us through every suffering, every loss, every Friday experience, knowing that the God of life will have the last word. I recall the exquisite words of Archbishop Oscar Romero, before his assassination by the powers that be over thirty years ago: "I have often been threatened with death. If they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people. If the threats come to be fulfilled, from this moment I offer my blood to God for the redemption and resurrection of El Salvador. Let my blood be a seed of freedom and the sign that hope will soon be reality." Jesus knew that his death would not be the end of the story; he knew that his blood would be "a seed of freedom and the sign that hope will soon be a reality."
However, I like to think that Easter isn't just a defiant conjunction like "but" – I like to think Easter is an adverb, too, specifically the adverb "anyway." I read that Mother Teresa had a little poem by Kent Keith, "Anyway," framed on her wall. She certainly was someone who knew something about suffering and faithfulness (and doubt, we have later come to understand) and, I suspect, resurrection and new life, too. I have this poem framed on my office wall, too, because it reminds me of all the things I know about "people" – how "unreasonable, illogical and self-centered" they are, and it tells me to "love them anyway." It tells me to "do good anyway," no matter what.
Anyway, nevertheless, regardless
I looked up this little adverb, "anyway," in the dictionary and there it is: "nevertheless," "regardless," it says. The sin of the world cut Jesus down; nevertheless, God raised him up. Hatred, fear and violence thundered on Friday, but God had the last word, anyway, on Sunday, because God loved the world too much to give up on the beautiful new creation that God had promised through the prophet Isaiah long ago.
But the Bible isn't just about things that happened a long time ago and far away to people we'll never know and can't relate to, like Isaiah and Mary Magdalene and Peter. This "anyway" happens all the time in our lives, too, right here and now. We know we sin, we all fall short of the glory of God, we fail – a lot – and God loves us anyway. We face loss and death and the ever-so-brief glory of our living, of all our accomplishments and plans, and God promises us new life, healing and wholeness anyway. Our relationships crash and burn, our kids worry us, there's never enough money, and God reassures us anyway, God offers us peace and wholeness and reconciliation. We turn away from God, and God offers us grace, anyway.
Which story do we tell?
If it's true, as Carolyn Heilbrun once said, that "power consists in deciding which story shall be told," then there is great power in our deciding to tell the story of the resurrection in every situation, good or bad. It reminds us of who we are as people of faith, but more importantly, of who God is. Justo L. González describes this important moment in the gospel story, after the death of Jesus: "The resurrection is not the continuation of the story. Nor is it just its happy ending. It is the beginning of a new story, of a new age in history….What now remain are no more than skirmishes in a battle that has already been won" (Luke, Belief Series).
Isn't this why folks come to church on Sunday morning? Don't we come from our problems and struggles in the hope of hearing a Word from the Lord? Doesn't that Word of God sustain us in hospital beds and waiting rooms alike, at gravesites and in the longest night of deep agony, doesn't this Word comfort us and challenge us, guide us and surprise and delight us? Aren't we then experiencing the new life of resurrection in the new age begun on the first Easter Sunday morning? Every time we come to the table where all are welcome, we break bread together as a sign of our hope for that new creation in all its fullness, not just in glimpses and promises.
Challenge and joy and perhaps threat as well
Every Easter, we're reminded that we are not lost, and that we are part of the new story that has begun. But being part of that story means not returning to our homes and our lives unchanged. Justo L. González notes that those women and Peter himself and all the disciples coming out of their hiding place could have just gone back home to their work and their lives, disappointed but resigned. But the "joyous event" of the resurrection calls them and us to pick up our crosses and carry it on the path of "faithful discipleship," a "risky enterprise," for "things would be much simpler and safer if one were not impelled by the resurrection to oppose injustice, oppression, and all forms of evil. The full message of Easter is both of joy and of challenge" (Luke, Belief Series).
Just as the Gospels were shaped by the context in which they were written, so the context in which we hear this message of joy and challenge may inform the way we receive it. Pendleton B. Peery writes: "In our comfortable, Western, first-world context, we tend to see the resurrection as the epilogue to the story of Jesus' life and death. Through our ordered worship and well-rehearsed liturgical routines, we work our way right up to the empty tomb of Easter morning, only to walk away from the experience as if nothing has changed" ("Theological Perspective Luke 24:1-12," Feasting on the Gospels, Luke). Peery and González both recall the title of a poem by the Guatemalan Presbyterian, Julia Esquivel, who sensed that there are those who will be "Threatened by Resurrection."
So we might imagine ourselves sitting in a corner in a room where we listen as this story is read by those who live in poverty, who bear the consequences of the unjust use of natural resources and the appropriating of an unfair share of the world's wealth. There are countless children of God who live lives of hunger, poverty, violence and oppression, and at least some of the time, our own lifestyle may contribute to their suffering. For them, Peery says, the empty tomb means "that Christ has claimed victory over the powers that perpetrate violence, injustice, a world full of proscribed, dead-end possibilities, many of which keep our first-world lifestyle secure while the two-thirds world suffers under the weight of oppression. For those who are less wed to the world the way it is, the good news of resurrection takes center stage. It is no epilogue. It is a game changer" ("Theological Perspective Luke 24:1-12," Feasting on the Gospels, Luke). This is an uncomfortable lens to use as we read this story - good news that "threatens" to question our lives in painful ways.
"I love you, and I am not dead"
One of my favorite books of all time is The Color Purple. (Spoiler alert: I'm going to give away some of the story.) The main character, the narrator who tells us her story through her letters addressed to God, is Celie, a poor black woman who has been abused all her life. But she has somebody in her life who loves her, her sister Nettie, who gets chased away by Celie's violent husband, Albert. Albert doesn't let Celie ever see the mail, so Celie never hears from Nettie and starts to believe that her sister is dead. But Nettie isn't dead. She has gone to Africa as a missionary and writes to Celie many letters over the years; she never gets a reply, but she keeps writing letters to Celie anyway. Then, one day, Celie finds the packet of letter from Nettie that Albert has stashed away under the floorboards. "Dear Celie," Nettie writes, "I know you think I am dead. But I am not. I been writing to you, too, over the years, but Albert said you'd never hear from me again and since I never heard from you all this time, I guess he was right. There is so much to tell you that I don't know, hardly, where to begin…but if this do get through, one thing I want you to know, I love you, and I am not dead."
I love you, and I am not dead. You may think I am dead and you are unloved, but I am not dead, and you are loved. Celie suffers terrible childhood abuse from her father, and further abuse through her forced marriage to a violent man, has her babies taken away from her and her sister driven from her, but God loves Celie and her life, so full of hardship because of the hard-heartedness of others, is transformed anyway. When Celie and Nettie are both old and gray, they are finally reunited, and they fall down on the ground with joy. Everyone, she says, must be thinking about how old they look. "But I don't think us feel old at all. And us so happy. Matter of fact, I think this the youngest us ever felt." Old, but young and new, anyway.
Easter is God's Yes to Jesus and to new life and new creation and to us. When the world said or says no to Jesus and to new life and new creation, to reconciliation and peace, justice and healing and mercy, God says yes anyway and raises up our hope. Jesus says, I love you, and I am not dead. Of all the sweet sounds that we may hear, are any words sweeter to our ear than those?
A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection
Eugene H. Peterson, 21st century
"It is not easy to convey a sense of wonder, let alone resurrection wonder, to another. It's the very nature of wonder to catch us off guard, to circumvent expectations and assumptions. Wonder can't be packaged, and it can't be worked up. It requires some sense of being there and some sense of engagement."
Brennan Manning, 21st century
"For me the most radical demand of Christian faith lies in summoning the courage to say yes to the present risenness of Jesus Christ."
Mother Teresa, 20th century
"Never let anything so fill you with sorrow as to make you forget the joy of Christ risen."
Arundhati Roy, 21st century
"Not only is another world possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing."
Dr. Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank
"To say that there is not enough money is just a lie. There's plenty of money in the world; it's just not going to health care for poor people."
Emily Dickinson. 19th century
"To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else."
Martin Luther, 16th century
"Be thou comforted, little dog, Thou too in Resurrection shall have a little golden tail."
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