Two of the “Seven Stanzas at Easter” by John Updike:
Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.
It is sometimes said that Christians are the gullible ones – backwards folk who have put their trust in fairytales – and that the rest of the world are the realists. But as our short Gospel passage this morning shows us, that’s not the case. No one there on the morning of resurrection expected what came next. No got up that Sunday morning saying, “But of course, Christ is risen!” And actually, what I want you to do right now is to forget its Easter Sunday for a moment, and put yourself in the shoes of the group of women who become the first eye-witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. Verse 1 tells us, “On the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared.” These women were in a state of “loyal grief.” Exhausted. Barely thinking straight. They were like someone stumbling away from a car wreck. They were the last people on earth that anyone would be able to falsely convince that Jesus was alive again. They had seen the suffering, they had seen the bloody cross, they had seen the burial – and now they were going to anoint and preserve a dead body, not, in their minds, to meet a risen Savior. On that first Easter morning, they began, not as expectant disciples, but as defeated mourners.
In their minds, they were telling, not the story that Jesus had been trying to convey to them again and again – that the Messiah must suffer and die for the sins of the world and be raised again – but the only story that made sense to them. Jesus got in the way of the powers that be, he was snuffed out, and that’s that. You know, I really think that’s representative, in one way or another, of each person before they come to faith in Christ. We tell our own story – the one that makes sense to us – and in that story, Jesus couldn’t possibly have risen from the dead. How could that be? Kent Hughes puts it this way: each one, each person in the gospels, who becomes a witness to the resurrection goes through four stages: Bewilderment, rebuke, instruction, and witness. And that has to happen in the life of every follower of Jesus. The question this morning is, which stage are you in? If you are here this morning bewildered by the claim of Jesus’ Resurrection, then God is calling you out of your bewilderment, and into the glorious reality of Jesus death and resurrection for our forgiveness and reconciliation. He’s calling you to be rebuked, instructed, and, yes, made a witness.
But again, at the beginning of our passage, the women are obviously in the bewilderment stage: “How are we going to move the stone?” they ask. “I don’t know, let’s just get this over with…” But as these women are carrying out what they think is their one last duty to Jesus, their mourning and the mourning created by all sin and death and destruction is burst open and shattered. Interrupted in a way which shifts the trajectory of their life and entire the trajectory of history itself. Into the story of their mourning – their loyal grief – the Word of God is spoken, creating faith in them and making the first witnesses to the New Covenant. It first comes to them in the form of a rolled away stone and two angels who, just like at the beginning of the Gospel, announce glad tidings and now…a rebuke.
As the women bow their faces to the ground, one of the angels speaks: “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen!” To the angels, it’s blasphemy to look for Jesus among the dead – he’ll never be found there again. And that’s exactly what we must never do – we must not take the glory of a resurrected, never to die again savior, and try to fit him into the little box of our comprehension. That is what so many are trying to do today all the while rejecting our glorious and risen Savior. Keeping him in the grave of our own human ideas and categories – anointing his dead body with what understanding we can muster, unwilling to hear the rebuke of the angels who say – blasphemy! Yes, into the mourning and pain of these women, the good news of the Gospel breaks in. And that’s how it is for every person who becomes a Christian – as we look to Christ in his death and resurrection, the light and glory of the Gospel breaks in on whatever comparatively small and insignificant story we’ve been trying to tell with our life, and it shatters every pre-conceived notion and thought we might have had up to that point. Think about this – every witness to Jesus’ Resurrection started out not as a credulous believer, but as a skeptic. And into their unbelief, the power and reality of the resurrection broke in upon them. Look, there is no other way around it – the resurrection is either the most shattering, devastating, miraculous, meaningful, historical event to ever happen, or it’s not worth our time. Now personally, in response to those who want to honor Jesus and yet keep him in the grave, what I find to be more unbelievable than anything, is that that should be true, and that we’re yet nevertheless still talking about it 2000 years later.
No one commands the hearts of more people on planet earth today or throughout history than Jesus, and it’s because He is risen! Each one of us must be rebuked and instructed in these things if we are to come to Jesus by faith in his work.
Let’s look at that instruction piece a little closer. The angel who spoke to the women had more to say, actually. He continued on, “Remember how he told you… that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” See, the angel, he knows his stuff, because he really summarizes the instruction the Apostles receive after the resurrection. When he calls Jesus “Son of Man” it’s a shorthand way of identifying Jesus as God in the flesh. And he says, the Son of Man had to be delivered, he had to suffer, he had to die, and he had to rise. That’s the core of our message right there – man sinned, and God suffered for it. And because God made the payment for it, full and complete, the payment was vindicated in the glory of Jesus’ resurrection. Do you know yourself to be within that good news? Because it’s what changes everything. These women went from defeated followers of a defunct rabbi to being the first bearers of the news of resurrection. The news of the resurrection still does that today. It lifts us up out whatever little meaning or story we’ve been able to cobble together, and gives us hope – the hope that God really has defeated the grave, he really has dealt with our sin, and he really is on the throne. Have you heard this instruction, and have you believed it?
And now we see that one last stage witness. Because this Gospel not only saves, it also sends. In fact, that’s why we are here this morning. In this building. We have been sent. And my confidence is that we have been sent by the Risen Lord.
These women can’t keep the news to themselves for long. In a short time they’ll be telling others the good news of Christ’s resurrection. As David Roseberry notes, “[After the] Resurrection…everyone is running to the tomb or running to tell others about it. … At the promise of the Resurrection and the news of the Resurrection everyone starts running. The disciples are running all over the place; they are out-running each other (John) to get there first or be the first to tell others.”
Brothers and sisters and all here this morning who count themselves as disciples of Jesus: let’s just end by remembering that that race to run and tell others has never stopped or been silenced since. Why? Because the Church’s faith is built on the rock of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
This past week, Monday of Holy Week, we saw Notre Dame Cathedral gutted by an accidental fire. When I saw the video and images, my mind instantly went to the first verse of the hymn, “Built On the Rock”:
Built on the Rock the Church doth stand,
Even when steeples are falling;
Crumbled have spires in every land,
Bells still are chiming and calling.
In his Holy Week message, Archbishop Foley had this to say: “The truth is that the Lord always rebuilds His Church. It is true everywhere. We should remember this life-changing truth straight from the Gospel itself because it applies in the life of every believer, congregation, diocese, and province. Jesus promised that the Gates of Hell would not prevail against the Church. In this hope, we have entered Holy Week.”
As we now exit Holy Week and begin to rejoice in the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, I think is far to say that this hope is made even more sure. We go forward in it. May you know it for yourself. It changes everything. Amen.