a sermon on Matthew 28:1-10 for Easter Sunday
preached on April 20, 2014, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
It all began as a quiet trip to visit a friend’s grave, but before long, their whole world was turned upside down. Mary and Mary Magdalene were still trying to figure out what had happened to their friend Jesus—how the loud praises of the crowd on Sunday had turned to cries of “crucify him” on Friday, how the religious officials who had always pushed him a bit suddenly turned on him, how even his disciples abandoned him as he was unjustly accused, convicted, and sent to the cross. But before that reality could even really set in, everything changed—and I mean everything.
As Mary and Mary Magdalene journeyed to Jesus’ tomb early on that Sunday morning, their world was turned upside down. These women left behind a world, where, as preacher Tom Long puts it so well, “hope is in constant danger, and might makes right, and peace has little chance, and the rich get richer, and the weak all eventually suffer under some Pontius Pilate or another, and people hatch murderous plots, and dead people stay dead, and they entered the startling and breathtaking world of resurrection and life. Jesus of Nazareth, who had been dead as a doornail on Friday afternoon, was not in his tomb that morning, and the world—theirs and ours—has been turned upside down ever since.” (Matthew, p. 322)
Easter, you see, is ultimately a story of our world getting turned upside down. If the old maxim is correct and there are only two things certain in this world, death and taxes, then Easter brings it down to just one! This is simultaneously wonderful and scary. On Easter, we can rejoice because death has been defeated, because the one thing that would seem to separate us from God is no longer in the way, because the injustice, the pain, the hostility, and the danger of this world have all been overcome once and for all. But on Easter, we also see that the old ways of the world, the ways we are used to, the ways that seem normal to us, are no longer in place. We can’t count on the dead to stay dead, on our merits to be the basis of our salvation, on the injustice we perpetuate to be ignored, or even on war to bring us peace. Resurrection turns our world upside down. As Tom Long puts it, “The wonderful news of Easter is that Jesus is alive, and the terrible news of Easter is also that Jesus is alive, because nothing is nailed down anymore.” (Matthew, p. 323)
Once the women at the tomb realized that everything had been turned upside down, that the earthquake that had shaken them on their way there had shattered their whole world, they had to sort out what all this meant for them and what they were to do from there. It was surely not an easy task. They had already been struggling to sort out what life without Jesus would mean for them, and the empty tomb confused things all the more. Thankfully the angel that met them at the tomb helped them out a bit. His instructions were clear and direct, and his presence, though startling, was comforting.
First, he told them, “Do not be afraid.” The world may have been shifting, and death may not have meant what they thought it did when they woke up that morning, but the angel made it clear that they should set aside their fears and trust that God was doing something new and different and wonderful right before their very eyes, raising Jesus from the dead and conquering death once and for all.
Then he gave them further instruction: “Come, see the place where he lay. Then 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.’” The angel gives them a mission and purpose: to bear witness to the emptiness of the empty tomb, to share the good news of the resurrection with the disciples, and to carry this word of new life with them on the journey back to the familiar territory of Galilee as they began to sort out what it meant to live in the reality of the resurrection each and every day.
We face a similar challenge every time we hear the proclamation of the resurrection. “The grave is empty, Christ is risen,” we proclaim so boldly—but what does that mean? “Jesus Christ is risen today,” we sing—but how will we be different tomorrow? The world may be turned upside down, but it is so easy to pretend like it isn’t. It is easy to stick to the things we have known, to make the choices that we have made before, to reinforce the old way of doing things and simply be safe and stay comfortable, to put ourselves first and set aside any concern for the other that might come from this new world.
But the angel who meets us at the tomb insists that things are different, that we set our minds on the things that are above, as Paul described it, that we choose paths that lead to the abundance of life for all and not just a few, that we seek hope and justice and peace for ourselves and others and all creation, that we join in all that God is doing in our world to make everything new. The world has been turned upside down, and now we must set aside death and embrace God’s new life, announcing to all who will hear, in our words and even more in our deeds, all the good news that is before us: that the grave is empty and Christ is risen, that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness can never put it out, that while once we were no people, now we are God’s people, and that nothing, not even life or death, can separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ our risen Lord.
Just as everything was turned upside down for the women on that first Easter morning, the resurrection keeps turning our world upside down. It demands that we join in making all things new, that we stop staring into the graves of our lives and start looking for something more than what we have seen before. It demands that we set out on the road from the tomb and start looking for Jesus.
Over the last year, I haven’t had to look far for signs of these things, for this very place has been filled with signs of resurrection. Less than a year ago, we heard a report from our congregational consultant who took a hard and honest look at the realities facing us: a small and aging congregation, a challenging neighborhood setting for the type of ministry we are poised to offer, and a financial situation that had us living well beyond our means. He ended his report to us with a glimpse of resurrection, though: “Most importantly,” he said, “I believe you have the maturity and faith to bring to birth a new thing in this corner of God’s kingdom.”
Over the last year, against all odds, something new has begun to be born here. We have been turned upside down by the wonder of resurrection and new life. We have welcomed new people to our community and opened our doors wider than ever before. We have found new possibility and promise in a shift to a part-time pastor. And we have watched as God has started working in us and through us and in spite of us to bring us to new life. Things have been turned upside down for us—many of the things that were draining us are now filling us, many of the frustrations that we faced are now being replaced with joy, many of the challenges that were before us are now becoming possibilities—because God has opened the way of resurrection for us here and now.
Like any story of resurrection on this earth, this rebirth is not complete. We still have work to do to deepen our mission, strengthen our life together, and reach out into our community—to embody the resurrection life of Christ in our midst—and there moments when it is a little scary because we have never been here before, but there are signs of new life here that I for one could not see a year ago. God has turned our world upside down, and for that I am deeply grateful.
So as we set out on the resurrection road ahead, with our world turned upside down and death transformed into resurrection life, may God show us the way from the tomb to new life, the places where we can meet Jesus along the journey, starting right here at table together, and the possibilities to join in the amazing work of making all things new because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord that keeps turning our whole world upside down today on this Easter Day and every day.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia! Amen.