Matthew 28: 1-8
This year we have faced first the Crucified Christ on Good Friday, and then the Risen Christ now on Easter, both with the backdrop of the Covid-19 virus. Starting in China, it has shut down or immobilized other countries like Italy, Spain, South Korea, and much of the United States. It has emptied out most commercial airplanes and it has parked cruise ships in any dock where they are allowed to stay; without passengers. This has become a time of war, but not against another country or an army; it is against a virus, marching unflinchingly throughout our globe. Hundreds of thousands of people have been affected. Most Easter services are not being held at all, or they are offered online. Social distancing matters. But even in times like these, there are children being lifted up by teachers driving through their neighborhoods and honking safely from their cars. There are people on Facebook telling others not where to find bread, but where to find toilet paper or sanitizer! We have neighbors offering to take lists of grocery items from other neighbors and to bring back the groceries, limiting the exposure others might have had. And so yes, a pinnacle Christian story about life from death is just what we need to hear at a time like this! Years ago, Carl Hopkins Elmore, after seeing the maltreatment of many people in the world, sent an appeal to all Christians on Easter Eve saying:
I challenge the Christian world to measure itself by the standards of its Christ. As long as any group is judged by its creed or color or country in place of its character, Christianity is a sacrilege rather than a sanctity. To this end, I summon Christians everywhere to make this Easter signify Christ realized, and not merely Christ risen.
My preaching professor, Dr. Donald Macleod, took apart the idea of Christ realized verses Christ risen. He said, “Many, even church members, will greet Easter morning with the triumphant strains of ‘Jesus Christ is Risen today,’ but will leave the world-shaking implications of this fact unacknowledged and unexplored. [Easter for them] means no more than history’s record of one Jesus of Nazareth who lived and died sometime between 4 B.C.E. and 33 C.E., and whose memory time has not been able to flout or destroy. At best, Easter is a delightful festival and provides a pious note as a harbinger of the coming of spring.” Dr. Macleod died years ago, likely picturing sanctuaries teaming with men in pastel colored ties and women in Easter bonnets. A friend of mine send me a meme this week with a group of six women standing next to each other in Easter Egg colored house coats! The caption: “Easter dresses for online church this year!” Likely true! But Christ realized is another matter from the yearly celebration of Christ risen. The empty tomb is a theological celebration, but empty tomb living means we change the world with the message and work of Christ! It means that Christ has to come out of the annals of history, out of the seasonal celebrations of Easter-wear and become a redeeming force for humanity. And the way Christ does that is through the church: the body of Christ; through you, and through me. Christ risen is an annual celebration, but Christ realized means that something has to be done! It implies that human hearts must be shaken by the presence of Christ, his amazing grace, and his inexhaustible love. As Paul said, and I reminded you last week: “Anyone who is in Christ becomes a new creation …and he has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” Bringing together members of the human race to find help and hope at a Christian table, at a Christian pantry, in a prison ministry, or through teaching the gospel is now on us, not on Jesus. For that challenge to have the most impact, Christians must risk rolling back the rug under which politicians have swept issues of immigration, of justice, and of affordable housing or available hospital care in this pandemic. If Christ were here in the flesh, he would likely be standing in the House or the Senate Chambers in Washington, like he took a whip to the Temple in Jerusalem, and saying “well done” to some, and “things need to change!” to others.
But some might pause here, asking “Why are you bringing up these unpleasant, politically divisive issues in an Easter message? Read Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, you’ll that find Jesus’ entire earthly ministry involved those issues; his rising from the dead meant he left us a Great Commission and God left us the powerful Holy Spirit to carry out the work that Jesus began. Ours would be a hollow and groundless religion were we not able to say that once, in the pattern of history, a man appeared who was indeed, as the Nicene Creed affirmed: “Very God of very God;” one who lived a human existence, reflecting someone never known or seen on earth before, who taught us a way of life more original than any philosopher had been able to before. He embraced the will of God so completely that he himself was truth alive, who shared our humanity to the extent that he took on death and overthrew the powers of Satan. After his death, he appeared to many, proving that he arose from the dead! Through the centuries, Christ risen became the impetus for some of the most inspiring parts of culture: paintings by Raphael, and DaVinci, and Michelangelo; music by Handel, Bach, and Haydn. Christ inspired the poetry of Gerald Manley Hopkins, W. H. Auden, and T.S. Eliot. The idea of the risen Christ has influenced many writers and artists through the ages. Yet Macleod also said: “[The risen Christ] can never become a vital and creative truth in us as long as we place our highest Easter offering upon the altars of the gods of commerce and refuse to meet the cost this day entails.”
Matthew 28 included some surprising facts: women were at the tomb as body anointers; a great earthquake shook the ground; an angel descended and rolled back the heavy stone from the entrance to Jesus’ tomb, and there the angel sat! What a scene! Guards were there in Matthew’s account, so no one could steal Jesus’ body; Roman guards were known to be fearless, yet seeing the angel, they become frozen “like dead men.” And then … then, the fear changed to hopeful joy; to the possibility that all Jesus had said was true; that under God’s command he could not only rise from the dead, but also ascend into heaven! This is the historical event that changed the dating system we use and established churches around the globe. Today many sanctuaries are empty, even as the tomb was empty. The power went forth from the tomb, and the power has gone forth from countless sanctuaries, becoming the church without walls! The empty tomb teaches how Jesus’ rising from the dead changed the world. The empty sanctuaries teach us that the people are not gone; they are deployed into the world where need is everywhere. You are the hands, and feet, and eyes, and heart of Christ! Use them, as you bring the world Jesus- on Easter, and in the days ahead.
Let us pray:
Oh Lord Jesus, fresh with wounded wrists, and ankles, and a wounded side and a wounded head: what a sight you are for sore eyes! Who would have guessed you would survive a brutal Roman cross! But survive you did, and now you thrive as the glorious King of Kings and Lord of lords! Now, we can sing “Hallelujah!” Now we can shout “Praise the Lord!” We seek to change the world, even in our own corners of it, so people will know we are Christians by our love. Thank you for loving us so much Lord! Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner April 12, 2020