A Resurrection for Our Time
By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Matthew 28: 1-15
April 4, 2021—Easter
“This world is like an antechamber before the world to come; prepare yourself in the antechamber so that you may enter the banquet hall.”
—R. Jacob, in the Mishnah
“Fear and great joy.” That’s the conflicted emotional state of Mary Magdalene and her friend as they rush from the tomb having witnessed an earthquake, unconscious guards, an angel with the appearance of lightning, and an empty tomb—after having heard that every natural law that could possibly be imagined, and everything that had happened in human history and experience up to that point had been completely upended, because God had raised Jesus from the dead.
Of course great joy—because their friend had been raised from the dead! But you and I take that Good News for granted because we’ve heard it for so long. What we forget is that fear may have been an even greater emotion. Everything they’d known, all of natural law itself, had been completely flipped on its head. The natural assumption we all have that if God is involved in human life at all it’s subtle, invisible—that’s suddenly turned upside down as well. God has decisively and incontrovertibly shown the Divine Hand. Suddenly, shockingly, everything is not as it seems. Suddenly, shockingly, human beings may not control history after all. Suddenly, shockingly—God.
It’s enough to terrify anybody.
The women running from the tomb are torn between the good news that God is in control—and the bad news that God is in control. It’s good news that God is in control if you believe that God is good and will fix everything that’s wrong. But it’s bad news that God is in control if you would prefer that you were in control.
And at some level, we all would prefer that in some way we were in control. At some level, all of us are uncomfortable, maybe even terrified, if it is true that God is in control. Because that means God will do it God’s way, and not my way.
And so we come to the guards, running into the city to report this disastrous thing that has happened: God intervening to save humanity. And the religious leaders need to devise a solution. And so they develop a lie—that Jesus’ disciples came in the night and stole his body.
They develop a fake news story that Jesus’ body was stolen and he was never resurrected at all.
And that gives them control again. It means that it remains up to them to fix everything that’s wrong. God has not intervened in some way that means they aren’t getting what they want. This is how they comfort themselves and stave off their fear that they aren’t in control and that things are not going their way.
At some level all of us struggle with what it means that God might be in control—that the resurrection, this impossible, and impossible to prove, world-shaking event might be true. If God is in control, and we aren’t, is that a good thing or a bad thing? That’s why Mary Magdalene and the other Mary run from the tomb torn between “fear and great joy.”
And that’s why, when the resurrected Jesus meets them the first thing he says to them is “Do not be afraid.”
What’s important is that it is Jesus who says it. After all, the angel at the tomb said it at the first, but it may not be so comforting to hear that from an angel with the appearance of lightning.
But to hear it from Jesus is different. Jesus, who taught that God is love, and taught us to love not only our neighbors but also our enemies; Jesus who taught that God cares for us so deeply that we need not even worry about what to eat or what to wear; Jesus who compared God to a king who forgives an unforgiveable debt and to a father who welcomes back a prodigal son; Jesus who says that God will judge humans by how they treat the least of these–the poor, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned. Jesus, who taught that “For God so loved the world that God gave the Only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For the Son came into the world, not to condemn the world, but that through him the world would be saved.”
It’s this same Jesus who reassures us that we need not be afraid. Jesus says, “You needn’t be afraid, because God is in control, but it’s not just any God who is in control: it is the God who I have told you about from the beginning—the God who loves you and loves the world. That is the God who is in control.”
In a way, the resurrection is God’s imprimatur on Jesus. It is God saying, if you are wondering who best represents me, look no further than Jesus. If you’re wondering exactly what God is like, well, just look at Jesus. Look at who he was, look at what he taught, look at how he lived. If you love who he is, if you abide by what he teaches, and if you try to live as he lived, then you will have resurrected life, but even more—you will bring resurrected life to a dying world.
You will be the living water that quenches the world’s desert thirst.
The Matthew resurrection story seems particularly timely for this Easter, an Easter in the midst of a pandemic, a lockdown, chaos on the border, massive unemployment and economic instability, and civil unrest. In Matthew the resurrection happens in the midst of an apocalypse. Earthquakes, massive stones breaking, the curtain torn in the temple—Matthew even tells us that the saints who have died leave their tombs and begin walking around Jerusalem, going to visit their relatives! But you know, one person’s resurrected saint is another person’s day of the dead Zombie. How do we know if what we’re experiencing is the good news of the resurrection, of God’s new day; or the bad news of everything falling apart before our eyes?
Ultimately it comes down to: do we believe the resurrected Christ, or not? The resurrected Christ is God’s message to us that destiny is not in human hands, but in God’s hands, and that is a good thing—that life always defeats death, that good ultimately triumphs over evil, and that whatever it is that we humans can screw up—and it’s a lot—God can completely and amazingly redeem and make better. Our destiny is not in our own hands, but in the hands of God who loves us, who delights in us, who overcomes our worst with God’s best.
It is the promise of redemption–that sometimes we do the wrong thing but God can fix even our biggest mistakes. After all, the message of the cross is that religion and government conspired to kill God and seemed to succeed; and the message of the resurrection is that not only did they fail, but they failed so spectacularly that their flawed and foiled plan actually has become God’s vehicle to save humanity and the whole world, and to bring life and hope to all. No matter how badly we humans mess up—God can make it better. God can even save us through it.
I’m not sure how many of you are aware of this, but our wonderful building superintendent, Dexter Wilborn, had a family emergency this past week. I’ve asked him if I could share this with you. Early Thursday morning, his mother’s home caught on fire. Entirely by the grace of God she awakened, smelled the smoke, and was able to alert the other family members in the house. They escaped to safety. The fire quickly spread until a third of the house is seriously damaged and a good bit of property has been lost.
Something you should know about Dexter. He is a rock. He is absolutely dependable. He is a rock here. He’s a rock at his small church, where he is a deacon and also cares for the building. And he is the rock for his family. Most of all, he is a rock of faith, someone who absolutely trusts in God and in Christ Jesus. His whole family is that way.
So on Good Friday and I asked him how things were for his mother and his family. He grinned ear to ear. His whole family is in his house, it seemed like, but he didn’t mind at all. He loved having them there.
“It’s a good Good Friday,” he said. “On Thursday the worst seemed to happen, but it didn’t. My mother and my cousins and my family got out in time. They are alive and well and thankful and we’re all so grateful. God saved them. It’s kind of like the Easter story, the worst happened but the best happened. It’s a good Good Friday.”
It’s funny, I could easily imagine myself being so caught up in the disaster and how much I’ve lost and what’s up with insurance and “oh, what a catastrophe!” But not Dexter or his family. They can celebrate the miracle that all escaped safely and their joy over that completely has washed over their concern about what they lost. From their perspective they didn’t lose property; they rejoice that they’re alive and safe. They do this because their faith empowers them to see the resurrection even in catastrophe. They trust the resurrected Jesus who assures us that we can trust God to bring resurrection out of apocalypse and new life out of death.
It seems like we are at last emerging from the apocalypse of the past year. We emerge with lessons learned, challenges ahead, and renewed confidence in the miracles of science; but also with intense political division, pain and loss and grief and new awareness of social and economic ills that should be addressed. If we face all these things with fear, we’ll try to control them, probably by burying them away or telling lies to ourselves about it.
But if we face them with confidence in the resurrection, we emerge blinking into the light of new day, with hard choices but also a renewed sense of possibility and a determination to get it right. By the grace of God, we have a new life and new vistas ahead.
Do not be afraid.