Sermon: The Good News of Easter

This is the good news: Jesus Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. This Easter Call and Response is an embodiment of the heart of the Christian faith. There is good news: Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. And we are called to respond in faith. While faith is more than just acknowledging something as true, it cannot be less. So it is fitting that when we hear the good news: Jesus Christ is risen. We respond: He is risen indeed.

God’s Word comes to us today from the last chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew. Matthew 28. We will be hearing the whole chapter in a moment. But before we do, please take a moment to pray with me: 

Father, may your Word be our rule, Your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.

If you are able, I invite you to stand as we hear God’s Word.

Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God:

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.

There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the LORD came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid. For I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”

So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet, and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee. There they will see me.”

While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests all that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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 I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

The Easter story is “good news.” In fact, Christians have proclaimed down the ages that it is the “good news.” It is the news that turns the world around, that turns it right. It is the event at the center of history, changing how we look at everything that has happened before and everything that has happened since. But what is this good news? What has happened on Easter morning that causes 2 billion people to gather this morning to proclaim one truth? Jesus Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.

We will hear the gospel message this morning by listening to five short phrases uttered by the angel to the women on that first Easter morning. He is not here, he has risen, just as he said. Come and see where he lay. Go quickly and tell. In these five phrases, we will see the resurrection of Jesus and the mission of the church.

Three days earlier, a group of women stood outside the city of Jerusalem. In front of them were three men hanging on crosses: two criminals and Jesus. The night before, one of Jesus’ disciples had betrayed him to the chief priests and elders. The rest of his disciples fled into the dark. These leaders had conducted a farce of a trial during the night, spit on him, beat him, then handed him over to Pilate, the governor. When Pilate resisted the idea of crucifixion, the chief priests pressured him until he relented, even choosing to have Pilate release the terrorist Barabbas, so that Jesus would be condemned. Women watched, the men nowhere in sight, as Jesus was nailed to that wooden cross and hung there in agony. After hours of suffering, Jesus breathed his last. At that moment, the ground quaked, rocks spilt and tombs broke open.

It was done. It was over. They had hoped that Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel. They had hoped that he was the one God had promised to reign as king forever. They had hoped, but no more. The least these women could do for the one they loved was take care of his body. A follower of Jesus named Joseph asked permission to bury the body. He put Jesus in his own new tomb, rolled a stone over the entrance and put a seal on it. The chief priests remembered that Jesus had promised he would rise from the dead, so they urged Pilate to station guards by the tomb to make sure no one stole the body.

On the first day of the week, two of the women, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, went to the tomb. It was customary, a few days after death, to come and anoint the body with spices. It was a way of caring for those who had died. The two Marys came thinking they would do this one last act of love for Jesus.

Then something happened. The ground quaked and an angel of the LORD descended and rolled back the stone. He sat on the stone, looking like lightning, with clothes like snow. At the quaking of the ground and the sight of the angel, the soldiers guarding the tomb quaked themselves and fell to the ground as though dead.

The same might have happened to the women when they arrived at the tomb, but then the angel spoke, “Do not be afraid.” Their knees stopped shaking and their legs strengthened. “For I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified.” Less than a week ago, Jesus told them that the quaking of the earth would be a sign of the beginning of the end. Now at his death, the earth shook, and as they come to his tomb, the earth shakes and angels appear before them. Could this be the end? What has happened?

Then the angel speaks words of wonder, words that will make these women “afraid yet filled with joy,” He is not here. He has risen, just as he said. Come and see where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples.

He is not here

“He is not here” tells us that something bodily has taken place. The tomb is empty. The angel rolls away the stone and Jesus is not trapped inside. He is not lying dead, wrapped in clothes waiting for the anointing of the women. The spices they brought would have been useless. Jesus is not there. Something bodily has taken place. It is not the spirit of Jesus that is now walking among the disciples. There is no ghostly specter wandering from Jerusalem to Galilee. The resurrection is not the sentiment that the teaching of Jesus will live on in the lives of his disciples. What everyone seems to agree on – both the women who came to the tomb and the soldiers paid to lie about what happened, is that the tomb is empty. Something bodily happened on that Easter morning.

“He is not here” is an affirmation of the resurrection of the body. Jesus is not here, he is over there, the angels proclaims. This bodily resurrection is so important because it says God loves the whole person – body and soul – and because it testifies to the historical, real resurrection. Many figures in history live on through the movements they start, the teachings they give, but these historical figures are not themselves alive. “Yet Jesus of Nazareth not only lives on in his historically remarkable teaching and in his powerful influence; he himself is fully, personally, and even [bodily] alive” (Bruner 788). This fully alive Jesus continues to work in his church, continues to reign over all the world, and is now seated at the right hand of God. That Jesus rose in the body is a proclamation that God loves the body and will ultimately heal and redeem our bodies, changing them to be like Jesus’ transformed body. The goodness of creation, the power of God, and the fully-alive Jesus are all there in the short phrase, “he is not here.”

He has risen

The angel says, “He is not here. He has risen.” One greek word, three in English. “He has risen.” The whole of the gospel hangs on this one claim. If it is not true, but symbolic or exaggerated, then the whole of the Christian faith comes crashing down and should, because it is a lie. But if it is true, then almost everything of importance falls into place. If Jesus has been raised from the dead, there is a God who did the raising. If he has been raised from the dead, then there is hope in the face of death, hope that death has been conquered, and that we can live confident in the promise of eternal life given in Jesus Christ. And if he has been raised from the dead, then we know what to do with our life. If he has been raised, he is Lord and King and so we have one to follow, one to pledge our allegiance to, one to live for all the days of our lives.

“He has risen” is the central, audacious claim of the Christian faith. That this man, Jesus, who is himself God, died, but is dead no longer. What was proclaimed by the angels, encountered by the women, and testified to the nations is that Jesus Christ rose bodily from the dead.

Resurrection was unthinkable to the Greeks and Romans. Your soul might live forever, but the dead did not come back to life, and there was certainly no hope for the resurrection of the body. For Jews, however, bodily resurrection was promised in the Scriptures, but a promise that would be fulfilled at the end of all things.

These were all signs of the end: The earth quakes, the soldiers quake, those who are alive become like the dead and the one who has died has been brought to life. In the resurrection, the end of all things has broken through into the present. These women witnessed the end entering the world right before them. The promised kingdom, where justice and mercy kiss, where tears are wiped from every eye, where death is swallowed up in victory, has come crashing into the present as Jesus rose from the grave. The victory is already secure, even if sin, death, and the devil have not yet surrendered. The king has won the decisive battle, even as his enemies will still be put under his feet. Jesus Christ is risen! He is risen indeed.

It matters not just that someone was raised from the dead, but that the one who was raised is Jesus, the Christ. It is not just one man who was dead becoming alive again – this is astounding enough – but that it is Jesus being raised changes this from a personal event to a cosmic one. God came as the man, Jesus, and having entered death, endured all of its fury and came out the victor. Jesus Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. This promised son of Eve was struck in the heel by the serpent, Satan, taking in all his venom, even to death itself, but rose again from the grave and crushed the head of the serpent. Jesus Christ is risen! He is risen indeed.

Just as he said

The angel proclaims, “He is not here. He has risen. Just as he said.”

Just as he said. One of the side effects of the resurrection of Jesus is that it confirms all of the words Jesus spoke. Jesus promised over and over again that he would face death but rise again on the third day. The words of Jesus proved true. So now, all that teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, all the challenges to repent, all that Jesus said about his trust in the Old Testament as the Word of God, all of it is validated as true by God’s validation of the words of Jesus. Jesus proclaimed he would rise from the dead and he did. So we are called to trust and obey all the other words he said as well.

Come and see where he lay

Then ‘Come and see where he lay.” In the Easter story we also learn that honest inquiry is okay. We do not need to bury our heads in the sand or claim that we should ‘just take it on faith! Don’t ask questions!” The angel invites the women to look into the tomb and see that it is empty. They were invited to look and explore, because the facts will support what the angel has spoken. We who belong to Jesus should be the most willing to explore the truth of Christianity without fear, confident that this resurrection of Jesus did happen in history. We should not see these exploring questions as a sign of unbelief, but as an honest seeking of the truth. “Come and see where he lay” the angel can say, because the tomb truly is empty. We can be open to those who have questions because we know that Jesus is truly risen from the grave.

Go quickly and tell

Lastly, the angel says, “Go quickly and tell.” The Church Fathers were right about this when they said, “The glad tiding [of the resurrection] is not given to you alone for the secret comfort of your own hearts, but ye must extend it to all who love Him: ‘Go quickly and tell His disciples’” (Rabanus in Bruner 790). The good news of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead has come to us. Jesus Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Yet, this message is not just for ourselves. There is immense personal comfort to be found in knowing that Jesus has been raised. We can know that our sins are forgiven, that we have hope of eternal life, that Jesus Christ is our living Lord, who reigns over all things forever and ever.

Yet receiving this good news is also to receive a call to share it with others. After the angel tells the women this wonderful news, they hurry away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and run to tell the disciples. Suddenly Jesus meets them. They come to him and clasp his feet, confirming his bodily resurrection from the dead. Then they fall down and worship him. Jesus receives their worship and then repeats the message of the angel to go and tell the disciples.

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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 I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

The good news of the resurrection includes the call to go and tell. Jesus gives his disciples a commission – to make disciples, students in the way of Jesus Christ. These eleven disciples are to go wherever the Spirit sends them, call people to repentance and faith, baptize them into the family of God, and then teach what Jesus taught. It is a commission at once simple, at once slow, and at once terrifying. Yet, this commission comes with two promises. First, Jesus has all the authority. The power to change hearts, to bring about faith, and cause people to bend their knees to Jesus is not in our hands, it is in his. But it is in his hands. Jesus has all the power and authority, we are only called to teach what he taught and to baptize people into the name of the Triune God. And Second, Jesus will be with us. While we go where he leads, he goes with us.

That power and presence of our risen Lord Jesus Christ is made known to us in the breaking of the bread at the table. We recognize this table as the Lord’s Table, because our Savior lives and he himself is our host, welcoming his brothers and sisters to feast with him. As we break bread and drink the cup, we proclaim his death – his body broken and blood poured out – until he comes again. As we eat together as the body of Christ, we are nourished by Christ himself, who promises to give himself to us here at the Supper. And at this table, we get just a taste of that final banquet, where the resurrected Lord will sit at the head with all the saints and we will feast with Jesus.

Friends, Jesus Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. This is the good news of Easter, the good news for the world, the good news for each and every one of us. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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