Easter A: Proclaiming an On-Going Easter
Dear Partner in Preaching,
Here we are again: the climax and conclusion of Lent and Holy Week, the pinnacle of the Christian year, the very peak of the Christian story and, we confess, world history itself.
And here’s the thing: while I believe that each of those statements is true, I also believe each is insufficient. Too often, I think, we see Easter as a conclusion, when I suspect that in the Gospels and, for that matter, in the early Christian community, the resurrection of Jesus was meant to be only the beginning.
The very fact that we have Matthew’s scene of the resurrection supports that assertion. Assuming with the vast majority of biblical scholars that Mark’s Gospel is the earliest, we could say the same about Luke and John as well. But Matthew – as is true throughout his Gospel – stays closest to Mark, which makes his additions and changes all the more interesting. That is, while he apparently felt a great affinity for and loyalty to Mark’s story, he nevertheless felt it needed something more, something a little different. And so Jesus’ resurrection is accompanied by an earthquake, guards positioned at the tomb to prevent Jesus’ disciples stealing his body and claiming resurrection fall to the ground in a fear-induced coma, the divine messenger is more dramatically angelic and impressive, the women actually go and do what the angel tells them to do, and Jesus appears to them along the road of their obedience.
Each of these additions extends the earlier story of Mark in order to attend to concerns of the specific community for whom Matthew was writing. And the willingness to adapt that earlier story to present needs and circumstances isn’t just an interesting historical detail or even a helpful interpretive lens through which to read the scene – though it is certainly both of those – it is also an example set for those called to proclaim the truth and meaning of Christ’s resurrection ever since. We are called, that is, to stay faithful to the earlier accounts of the resurrection precisely by retelling it in a way that addresses the immediate circumstances and lives of our present-day hearers with the dynamic and life-changing truth of God’s work to raise Jesus Christ from the dead. Which is why your sermon won’t be the same as mine – or anyone else’s – and shouldn’t be.
With this in mind, I want to focus on two elements of Matthew’s story that spoke to me and might provide suggestions for the message you will proclaim to your people this coming Sunday.
First, it struck me that one of Matthew’s additions is that the women, when confronted by the divine messenger and the news that Christ has been raised, do not just flee the tomb in fear and silence, as in Mark (1:8), but “left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy” (28:8). Isn’t that a wonderful reminder that fear and joy are not opposites but, as with doubt and faith, can be experienced at the same time and, indeed, might be inseparable? Fear, as we have noted before, seems quite frequently “in the air” these days and for all kinds of reasons. Jesus’ resurrection does not spell an end to fear for those who follow him, but rather makes it possible to experience joy amid what might otherwise be crippling fear. Resurrection, that is, doesn’t simply answer or end problems, but rather creates something new, and Christian faith does not remove us from the hardships, limitations, and challenges of this life, but creates for us possibilities that simply would not be available had God not intervened, first in the raising of Jesus and again by entering into our own lives.
Can we then, Dear Partner, hear in the Easter acclamation, “Christ is Risen,” an invitation to lay hold to the resurrection power of Jesus to see more possibilities in the people and situations around us than others might see. Might we encourage folks to seek the presence of God and the mixture of fear and joy that always attends encountering God? So many folks will leave our Easter celebration to return home to tense dinner tables, or an uncertain employment future, or a continuation of illness with no end in sight, or the loneliness of having endured the end of an important relationship. Christ’s resurrection does not wash those realities away, it makes it possible to experience joy in the midst of them as God continues to create something new.
Second, it struck me that after the note of comfort – “do not be afraid” – there is invitation, even command – “come and see… go and tell.” Comfort we associate with the Gospel, but command? Note, however, that this command is not a burden to be accomplished but a gift to be opened and delighted in. The resurrection of Christ creates the possibility to do spontaneously and joyfully what otherwise would be impossible.
Might we therefore also recognize, Dear Partner, that the Christian answer to fear is not simply comfort but also invitation to a life of courage? That participation and purpose are some of the gifts of the resurrection? That our people are not simply longing to hear “it will be okay,” but “here is the life and work God is giving you”? Perhaps in this spirit, we can not only bless people at the end of the service, but also send them forth to meet the challenges before them with confidence and to address the problems they will encounter with courage and joy, knowing that the God who raised Jesus from the dead is not done yet. Not done with the world God loves so much, and not done with them, the children of God, who God also loves so much.
And perhaps that’s the Easter message I would like to hear this week, that Easter isn’t over. That resurrection wasn’t a once-and-done historical aberration but rather reflects the dynamic and ongoing nature and work of the God we meet in Christ. Karl Barth once said that “the goal of human life is not death, but resurrection.” That does not mean that death is not a fearsome reality, only that it does not have the final word. Perhaps this Easter we can remind our people that the promise of the resurrection is not simply what God has done, but what God is still doing, still leading us forward into new life and possibility and forgiveness and love. Easter is not over, it is on-going, and perhaps the best response for 21st century Christians to make to that good news is the 1st century response, “Christ is risen, indeed!”
Blessings on your proclamation of the ongoing and life-changing reality of the resurrection, Dear Partner, for through your words God is still raising the dead, creating joy amid fear, and sharing words of comfort and invitation that continue to give life.
Yours in Christ,