Acts 10:34-43; Colossians 3:1-4; Matthew 28:1-10
April 20, 2014 – Easter Sunday
One after another, succeeding generations have often felt they were living on the threshold of a dystopian society.
Trends we fear that may be pushing in those directions are branded with historic archetypes such as Nazi Germany and Fascist Europe, the Soviet Union and communist dictatorships, Iran and Islamic totalitarianism, North Korea and the personality cults of megalomaniacs.
Dystopian fiction articulates our fears, often as a polemic against what provokes our fears, sometimes resigned to the inevitable with almost gleeful, “I told you so.” I came of age reading 1984, Animal Farm and Brave New World. Christians have made their contributions from C. S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength to Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ Left Behind books. More recently has been the popularity of The Matrix, Divergent and Hunger Games.
Celebrating Jesus’ resurrection on Easter confirms that dystopian fears are not the destination of humanity, for the risen Christ is leading us into the joy of eternal life.
This journey from fear to joy is woven into the account of Jesus’ resurrection in Matthew 28:1-10.
After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
Throughout the Bible, when angels appear to people the first thing they usually say is, “Do not be afraid.” Bible angels are awesome, not sweet blond girls with lacy wings. The angel who rolled away the tomb’s stone terrified the hardened Roman guards so they shook themselves comatose. (v. 4) With some grasp of angels from the Hebrew Scriptures, the women were still conscious to hear the angel say to them, “Do not be afraid.” (v. 5) At first, what seemed to be “Do not be afraid of me,” became, “Do not be afraid ever again. Jesus is alive forever, and whatever may seem wrong now is temporary. Ultimately the God of eternal life prevails!”
When Jesus first met the women running from the tomb, he greeted them. Many English translations just have Jesus say, “Greetings!” (v. 9) That sounds rather formal and weak. The Greek word is actually an imperative. “Rejoice!” or “Be Joyful!” It was a common Greek greeting, but Jesus would have said something in Aramaic, not Greek. Exactly what it was we do not know, but I believe Matthew translated it this way because Jesus released the fears the women felt as they quickly left the tomb. He nourished the great joy swelling up in them.
When Jesus sent the women to tell his brothers to go to Galilee to meet him there, he said, “Do not be afraid.” (v. 10) With the way the women came to Jesus, took hold of his feet and worshipped him, they certainly were not afraid they were seeing a ghost. They were afraid of the unknown, what was coming next. Jesus empowered them to move joyfully into the future heading to eternal life.
The angel sent the women to tell Jesus’ disciples to go to Galilee where they would see him. (v. 7) Jesus switched the noun from disciples to brothers. “Go tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” (v. 10) By calling them “brothers,” Jesus was healing the wounds of denial, abandonment, fear and doubt of the past week. By calling them “brothers,” Jesus was opening a new deeper intimacy in the fellowship of the resurrection to eternal life.
Matthew and Mark (but not Luke and John) report sending Jesus’ disciples to Galilee to see him. Luke and John report Jesus’ appearances to the disciples on Easter evening (without Thomas) and a week later (with Thomas) before they went to Galilee. Interestingly, the last chapter of John seems to be an appendix that reports in some detail Jesus restoring relationships with seven of the disciples, especially Peter. Matthew reported that it was during this visit to Galilee that Jesus gave his disciples the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (28:19-20) Back where Jesus first called them to follow him, he was now sending them to fish for people throughout the whole world. But they were to return to Jerusalem for Jesus’ final appearance at his ascension and to await the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
As our brother, the risen Jesus invites us into this intimate fellowship of the resurrection to eternal life, but he also evokes a response of wondrous worship. When the women recognized Jesus, they immediately came to him, took hold of his feet and worshipped him. To hold onto his feet they were at least down on hands and knees, if not flat on the ground prostrate in front of him. Matthew didn’t report what the women did to worship Jesus: sing a hymn or recite a Psalm or praise his power over death. Maybe their worship was just the physical posture that expressed the posture of their hearts, but Matthew clearly called it worship. No Hebrew prophet, no New Testament apostle would ever accept anything that even resembled worship. Yet Jesus accepted their worship of him as the divine Lord of Eternal Life.
When both the angel and Jesus told the women to tell Jesus’ disciples to go to Galilee, they said they would see Jesus there. Without getting tangled up in Jesus’ other resurrection appearances to the disciples, I find the directions to go to Galilee to see Jesus instructive for us. If we hope to make the transition from our fears to the joy of the resurrection to eternal life we have to go where we will see Jesus. As the clichés go, this is not rocket science or brain surgery. The spiritual life is not complicated, only difficult.
Some of you may remember me telling about hearing Father Thomas Hopko speak when he was Dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in New York. He said that when he was a boy his mother used to tell him that if he wanted to grow as a Christian he needed to read his Bible, say his prayers and go to church. When as a seminary dean training people for ministry in the church, he told his student that if they wanted lead people to grow as Christians, they needed to read their Bibles, say their prayers, and go to church. Where can you go to see Jesus? In the Bible, as you pray, and in worship together with other Christians.
Two weeks ago when we listened to the conversations with Jesus around the raising of Lazarus from death, I said that the New Testament points to the hope of the resurrection to eternal life and doesn’t tell us much about what happens between the time we die and are raised at the last day. Similarly, we have only a couple of hints about where Jesus was and what he was doing between his crucifixion and resurrection, but I think these hints point to how Jesus’ resurrection propels us from fear to joy.
Our Disciples of Christ tradition considers creeds to be human instruments distinct from inspired, authoritative Scripture. You may know that the Apostle’s Creed says that Jesus “descended into hell” or as the more current translation says, “he descended to the dead.” One interpretation of that is that to redeem us, Jesus not only died on the cross but went to hell for us. 1 Peter 3:18-20; 4:6 say, “He went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.” (A parenthetical comment about Jesus word to the thief on the cross in Luke 23:43: neither Jesus nor the Greek manuscripts used punctuation, so by moving the comma, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” can also be “Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in Paradise.” Then we don’t have the problem of Jesus coming back from heaven so he can ascend to heaven again 40 days later.) Sorting out what Peter meant would be a great Bible study, but for our purposes this morning, I think it is enough to say that taken together Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection defeated sin and death, liberates from fear and fuels great joy.
The Resurrection Icon on the cover of your bulletin is a way of portraying this visually. The risen Jesus is triumphant, dressed in white and surrounded by glory, still with nail prints in his feet. He stands on the gates of hell collapsed in a cross. He broke them down to get in and liberate the prisoners from death. He lifts Adam and Eve out of their graves by their wrists showing that Jesus saves us; we do not save ourselves. Satan is bound on the floor of hell that is scattered with the broken locks, chains and keys that bound humanity to death. John the Baptist and Old Testament saints surround Jesus. Icons are not intended to portray a specific event but are windows into spiritual reality. The spiritual reality here is that while Jesus’ disciples were in mourning on Holy Saturday, Jesus was not inert in the tomb but working out God’s redemptive plan. Sin and death were defeated. In some parts of the Church this is called “The Harrowing of Hell.” Jesus’ resurrection is the victory that takes us from fear to great joy.Celebrating Jesus’ resurrection on Easter confirms that dystopian fears are not the destination of humanity, for the risen Christ is leading us into the joy of eternal life. I invite you to reflect on this as you listen to Colossians 3:1-4.
“So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.”