[Sermon preached April 1, 2018]
I’m afraid of spiders, snakes, flying, heights, heart attacks, losing my mind when I get older, losing my mind when I’m middle aged, my daughters growing up, my daughters going outside, dating, marrying, leaving. I’m afraid of cancer, failure, smelling things that have spoiled, milk less than two days before the sell-by date, being sprayed by a skunk (because what if you never get the stink off), being pulled on stage to do things, clowns, trip wires, messing up my marriage, messing up my children, and bees.
That’s me. What are you afraid of?
In many ways the Bible is the story of fear: the way fear makes us less than human, and how that fear casts us out and away from God, too. Now you might expect that sermons are aimed at telling you how to get your way back to God, that the sermon is a spiritual report card that might cause you some grief, some anxiety. But a sermon that tells the whole truth, and particular one that tells the whole truth about Easter, is aimed at your fears, because fear lives in the duplex with love. Where you find one, you’ll find the other. Fear gets to the heart of the matter.
After the death of Jesus and the storing of his body, which - I cannot imagine the pain, had to be excruciating for Joseph of Arimathea. Have you ever held the evidence that your hopes have been completely wrecked? He had in his hands, the lifeless body of the messiah. It cannot get more grim than this. So Mary and the one Matthew calls “that other Mary,” go to the tomb early in the morning. They are going to prepare his burial.
Of course I don’t think I’m going to ruin things by giving it away right here at the onset - Jesus has risen from the dead. Mary and the other Mary arrive to find the stone rolled away and an Angel resting atop the stone and he says, “do not be afraid.” He tells them that Jesus is risen. He has overcome death. Do not fear.
The grave, the tomb, the cessation of breathing more certain than a heart attack. It is limited. The great and fearful power of the grave is broken as soon as one person overcomes it. As soon as the champ falls for the first time, everyone knows that possibility exists. Death as an end is over. Completely done. If Jesus rises from the dead then a new scale arises by which we view life - it means that meaning is assessed not by a scale of roughly seventy-five years but seventy-five million, billion years. Not by seventy five birthdays or christmases or anniversaries and the things you did right or wrong, the assessments we make about ourselves and each other, but a realm of possibility opens that says we no longer need to assess ourselves, and our worth and dignity by what we prove between first and last heartbeats. We can throw off that burden so heavy that it can grind us into dust, and begin living by a resurrection clock.
In Omsk, in Siberia, a center of war weaponry construction throughout the last century, decommissioned and destroyed tanks serve as the apparatus for several city parks. Some of them have playsets built on them, through them, some are colored in primary rainbow colors, they are de-fanged, used as playthings, utterly harmless. This is what the Angel of the Lord is doing by sitting on the stone that bragged it could hold the body of the Lord Jesus. Death is humbled. Easter is when we paint the things that terrify us, it’s when we put the clown nose on the Adversary of God, on the grim reaper.
The resurrection casts out death from the company of things that should terrify you. Because what is clear now is that death can no longer be proud. Death does not have the last word. The best death can do for the Christian, for the one who belongs to Jesus, is the sloughing off of a corruptible body in the service of an incorruptible one. The worst death can do is usher the believer in Jesus into their eternal joy. Death is the next-to-last word. Death can threaten, but heaven sings. The Angel of the Lord greets the first witnesses of the resurrection by telling them not to fear, because death has been cast out.
But death also casts out sin.
As Mary and the other Mary are on their way to tell the others, they are met by the resurrected Jesus. And he tells them, do not fear. At first there is no reason for this meeting. They were already on the way, they didn’t need convincing - Mary Magdalene is the one who is faithful to Jesus. But this meeting actually tells us everything we need to know. First the greeting. If you have a King James Bible it is typically full of beautiful language but here it gives too much formality to the meeting. Instead of Hail - Jesus actually says something closer to, “Hi.” It is the impersonal and familiar greeting of a friend. He greets them as friends. He allows them to embrace him and worship him (which is a problem for you if you think Jesus never claimed to be God - here he allows himself to be worshipped).
Remember that all the disciples, and all of his friends left him last chapter. Remember that he was crucified in part because humanity is desperately sinful and broken. Remember that Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden due to sin. They said, in effect, “if we cannot be god then we would rather die.” They had to leave, sin creates distance. Here Jesus’ first greeting is a welcome. He receives our sin in the Crucifixion, then in the resurrection he receives us. If he had not cast out sin he could not have received these women as a friend.
Remember he is physically bearing the scars of a crucifixion for which they are liable. Jesus has nail holes and they have a hammer heart and pockets full of nails. When he tells them to go see the disciples he does not say, “Go see those guys that left me in the lurch and tell ‘em Jesus said, ‘I’m on the way and you have some explaining to do.’” No he doesn’t. He says, “tell my brothers...” He refers to them by the family title.
And ever since the resurrection Jesus has been bearing the scars from you, for you, in order that he might call you brother, sister, son, daughter, friend.
In my experience as a minister the roots of unbelief are less about an objection to the quantum physics of a resurrected Lord and more about the internal life, the physics of fear and desperation, the way we learn even from a very young age, that the world is full of hurt and evil, and people who say they love you but leave, and the encroachment of poverty and abuse. And we bury ourselves in activity, in a flurry of noise and distraction, in the stuff of life, because it is too painful to believe that we could be greeted like these women. That we could be called brother or sister.
Now I’ve got you here, I have you as a captive audience. You cannot bury yourself in work right now, you cannot bury yourself in serving others, you cannot distract yourself with looking after your kids or anything else. You cannot cast yourself so far away from God that he cannot tell you this instant the same thing that I’m going to tell you: your hammer and nails could not keep Jesus from loving you. You may think so. You may believe with every ounce of conviction that bodies stay buried and no God wants a girl riddled with addictions and un-love. But both are proved wrong on that Easter morning.
Charles Colson, who was Richard Nixon’s hatchet man before he met Jesus on the road, said this:
“I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Every one was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren't true. Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world-and they couldn't keep a lie for three weeks. You're telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.”
Now, if you’re a skeptic this may all sound like the most absurd fairy tale, and I want to address the plausibility of all of this for a moment. There are elements that are so unique to ANE culture, so odd, that they cannot be dismissed as cultural inventions:
First, the initial witnesses to the resurrection are women - they aren’t even eligible to give sole testimony in a Jewish court - they aren’t deemed trustworthy. But Jesus chooses women, and the disciples don’t change it. You know if we wrote it there would be a Steve from Galilee who also happened to be there when the women got to the tomb and he heard the angels tell Mary the stuff.
Second, the idea of a spiritual-physical presence was completely innovative. ANE folklore held that ghosts had no feet. Matthew specifically mentions this idea - the risen Jesus had feet enough that the women could cling to them. The separation of spiritual and physical was just the accepted arithmetic of the ancient world. This is some epic-level oddness for the typical Judean of the day.
And Jesus’ greeting is not the standard greeting. It is not the right context or the right story for it, but there it is.
The theologian N.T. Wright puts it this way: “If you were a follower of a dead Jesus, in the middle of the first century, wanting to explain why you still thought he was important, and why some of your number had inexplicably) begun to say that he had been raised from the dead, you would not have told stories like this. You would have done a better job.”
Fleming Rutledge says it even more succinctly when she writes:
“It cannot be said too often: if Christ was not raised from the dead, we would never have heard of him.“
So this morning we must decide how we are going to react to the resurrected Lord. Some immediately throw themselves at his feet, others run in the other direction, some like Thomas, ask for evidence then when they see it become such devout witnesses that traditions hold he made it all the way to India with the news. Look there are two reactions possible to the claims of the Bible this morning, and one that is not.
You may be devout in your atheism, and oppose this message with real conviction because it says that you either have the resurrection and the life or you have nothing. This is an offensive message! And if you are not deeply committed to Christ you have every reason to oppose the truth of the resurrection.
You may also be devout in your faith this morning. That does not mean that you do not doubt or you do not struggle or fail, but that you have boarded the plane whose destination is certain, and you have decided that there is no turning back, no matter how much you dig your fingernails into the armrest at takeoff.
The one reaction that is simply insane is indifference. To be intellectually consistent you must take a position on this question. You must be devout one way or the other. And maybe this morning you are realizing that you have lived a life of devout opposition because your heart is not in the resurrection, or the Kingdom of God. You are a follower of your own life, you are committed to weighing your life by that seventy-five year scale. You are committed to the fear of death. Let me just make sure that you know that there is no skepticism so deep, no questions so difficult, no faith so fragile, that God cannot meet you on that road this very day saying, “Do. Not. Fear.” That can happen right now. This morning. You simply need to receive from God his gift of forgiveness, a simple prayer of thanksgiving and ask that Jesus Christ our Lord save you from your sins and adopt you as his daughter or his son. You ask for faith to have faith. This is how we embrace Jesus like these women, by knowing that he stands ready to forgive. And if you pray that prayer this morning, if you want to follow Jesus, man tell me about it. Pastors love that stuff.
If you’re already a follower of Jesus but you realize that you are living indifferently to him, and maybe that’s comfortable for you - I want you to consider this, also from Wright:
“The point of the resurrection is not simply that the creator God has done something remarkable for one solitary individual (as people today sometimes imagine is the supposed thrust of the Easter proclamation), but that, in and through the resurrection, the present evil age has been invaded by the age to come, the time of restoration, return, covenant renewal, and forgiveness. An event has occurred as a result of which the world is a different place, and human beings have the new possibility to become a different kind of people.”
The Christian church cannot live indifferently to the truth of the resurrection. It must drive us to greater and more passionate life. If the resurrection is true then our reaction should be similar to that of those first disciples: joy, courage, generosity and justice, a contention that we have seen, in the resurrected Lord, the future - and we will not be content until we live there.
The greatest proof for the resurrection of Christ is the resurrected church that creates a resurrected world.
I love how MLK talks about how the resurrection casts out the fear of death. The belief in the resurrection created a church who had courage beyond physical death - who could look at sacrificial love the ends your physical life as a small price to pay, because eternity awaits. It allows us to say, “but if not...” that is, like Daniel in the Lion’s Den, eternity allows us to exercise enormous courage now. God will save us from this fire, Daniel said, “but if not.. we will yet serve the Lord.” You can say, “but if not” when you know that you have everything in Christ. The church that casts out fear casts in justice and mercy and love.
“And I say to you this morning, that if you have never found something so dear and so precious to you that you will die for it, then you aren't fit to live. You may be 38 years old as I happen to be, and one day some great opportunity stands before you ...and calls upon you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause--and you refuse to do it because you are afraid; you refuse to do it because you want to live longer; you're afraid that you will lose your job, or you're afraid that you will be...criticized or that you will lose your popularity or you're afraid that somebody will stab you or shoot at you or bomb your house, and so you refuse to take the stand. Well you may go on and live until you are 90, but you're just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90!...And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. You died when you refused to stand up for right, you died when you refused to stand up for truth, you died when you refused to stand up for justice....These boys stand before us today, and I thank God for them, for they had found something. The fiery furnace couldn't stop them from believing. They said "Throw us into the fiery furnace."
If fear is cast out then we can be cast out into the world for the sake of the world. It doesn’t always have to be MLK’s call to enduring bombings and death threats. Into all of your relationships and cubicles and locker rooms where the resurrection of Jesus can bring life into the broken world.
My friend Duke Kwon puts it this way, the ordinary courage that comes from the resurrection.
“How a Christian proves the tomb is STILL empty the day after Easter: dares to love difficult neighbor; repents for wrongs a little more quickly and a little less defensively; returns to work with a fresh sense of purpose and mission; recommits to praying for that “impossible” situation; quietly perseveres in long-term battle with depression; approaches spouse, children, and roommates with fresh wonder and affection; risks serving where no one else wants to go.”
We are the people of the resurrection. Jesus loves you dearly. He meets you on the road with wounds that tell you all you need to know.
I spent time researching bees this week. I’m a curious guy, I wondered how the ANE world would have understood the idea of death losing its sting. Anyway I was studying bees because it seems odd to me to say that death does not sting with death can sting like hell. So we’ve probably all heard that honeybees die after stinging and you may wonder why. Well their stinger has small barbs on it that when stinging other insects and some mammals will allow them to sting and continue living. But when they sting mammals with a skin density like ours the barbs get stuck and when they fly away the stinger remains and pulls apart their abdomen and a portion of their intestines. I know it’s gross but you can’t live without that stuff, okay. Death is certain, but not instantaneous. When the Gospels say that death has lost its sting it is telling us that when death stung Jesus he rose from the grave with the stinger in his hands and feet. The very worst that death could do, it did. It left its barb in Jesus and Jesus then inflicted a mortal wound upon death. Death will die, you must know.
And because death will die we all get to dance at the funeral. It’s a funeral procession we’re apart of this morning, a real New Orleans jazz funeral. We’ve dropped off the body and now it’s time to dance. The resurrection is pure joy for those who are in Christ Jesus. All day we’re told to act like adults, to keep it under wraps, put your head down and get work done but this is our jubilee - we will not sleep, 1 Corinthians says, but we will all be changed in an instant. Death is as good as dead, and because Christ has risen we will rise with him. I fear a lot of things, but I'm not going to be afraid. Are you? Standing here week after week is how I put fear to flight. And say it with me, “Christ is risen!” He is risen, indeed!