Sunday, April 16, 2017

Easter A

Matthew 28:1–10




Beloved people of God, grace and peace to you from our risen Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. AMEN.


As the son of a Lutheran pastor growing up in Northern Wisconsin, I, of course, went to church every Easter to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. But I must confess that this time of year I was more concerned about the opening of the Major League Baseball season. I was an avid New York Yankee fan, maybe the only Yankee fan in all of Northern Wisconsin. I had an amazing collection of baseball cards and was especially proud of my Yankee cards.


As much as I was preoccupied with baseball this time of year, that preoccupation never kept me up at night. But as I share in the beginning of my book Coming Home to Earth, one night as a young teenage boy I lay awake worrying whether I believed in Jesus enough to get to heaven. We were taught that if we believed God raised Jesus from the dead, then we too would be raised from the dead to live with Jesus in heaven forever. The Christian hope of the resurrection focused, therefore, on life after death and seemed to have very little to do with this life on Earth.


It is striking that in Matthew’s account of the resurrection of Jesus, the risen Jesus does not focus on heaven or life after death. Matthew’s account does not preclude life after death, but the risen Jesus focuses on motivating his followers to continue the ministry he had begun with them.


In Julie Aageson’s final Lenten Gathering meditation, she lifted up the theme “Practicing Resurrection.” Practicing resurrection is not something we wait to do until after we die. We are called to do it in this life. Jesus’ resurrection is all about motivating us to live the resurrection now. As Julie writes, “resurrection is restoration of life and hope in all the places where death and hopelessness once held sway.” She adds: “Resurrection is the very essence of the nature of God, a call to life and a daily invitation to live with hope, mercy, love. Practicing resurrection is hard work, perhaps especially for ourselves but particularly for the broken world all around us.” And finally: “Resurrection is noticing God in one another and in the immeasurable ways people care for one another and for the earth that is our home.”[1] All of us gathered here today are very much alive. Jesus may have died and rose again, but our death is yet to come. It is premature to talk about life after death, when we are still immersed in this life. In the beloved hymn “Borning Cry,” the late John Ylvisaker writes in a moving way of God’s presence through the unfolding of our lives from birth to death. Verse one begins: “I was there to hear your borning cry, I’ll be there when you are old. I rejoiced the day you were baptized to see your life unfold.” He concludes verse three with these words: “When the evening closes in and you shut your weary eyes, I’ll be there as I have always been with just one more surprise.” We hope this surprise will be life after death. But we need to let our resurrection be a surprise. In this life the risen Jesus still has life for us to live and ministry for us to do. The risen Jesus wants us to preoccupy ourselves with living the resurrection.


In Matthew 28 the risen Jesus instructs his followers in what it means to live the resurrection. When the messenger from God announces to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary the amazing news that Jesus has been raised from the dead, they are overcome with fear and great joy. I love the image of them running to tell the disciples this amazing good news. Suddenly they encounter Jesus. They come to him, take hold of us of his feet, and worship him. His first command or instruction to them is: “Do not be afraid.” Living the resurrection is all about not having to live in fear. Tyrants and despots in any age tend to be adept in using fear to motivate and control people. In our time perhaps the most notorious despot is Kim Jong-un of North Korea. He seems to have no qualms about getting rid of anyone, including family members, who get in his way or question him. Followers of Jesus had to contend with tyrannical political and religious leaders. When the disciples saw what these leaders did to Jesus, is it any wonder that they all deserted Jesus and fled?


Again and again in scripture the people of God are exhorted not to be afraid. In Matthew 10:28 Jesus counsels the disciples: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” When Jesus comes walking on the water to the disciples and they cry out in fear, he says to them in Matthew 14:27: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Jesus did not want his followers to live in fear. The resurrection confirms that followers of Jesus have no reason to live in fear. The resurrection frees us to live with confidence, knowing that God will ultimately triumph over all despotic and tyrannical leaders.


The Apostle Paul, who faced persecution and death threats for the sake of the gospel, stressed the importance of prayer in overcoming fear and anxiety. In Philippians 4:5–7 he writes: “The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” As long as we stay focused on the risen Jesus, we can live the resurrection without fear.


The second thing the risen Jesus commands Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to do is to go and tell the disciples to go to Galilee, where Jesus and the disciples conducted so much of their ministry. Imagine how excited the two Mary’s were to share their resurrection experience with the disciples. They were filled with great joy. They had encountered the risen Jesus himself and worshipped him. Surely the disciples were heartened to hear that Jesus had risen and wanted to meet them, even though they had deserted him.


On this Easter Sunday millions around the globe are gathered to hear the good news of the resurrection of Jesus and to worship the risen Jesus. Christians have been celebrating Easter Sunday for nearly 2,000 years. But the celebration of the resurrection is not intended to be a once a year event. Every Sunday is, in effect, a mini Easter. What a blessing to be able to hear the good news of the risen Jesus and to worship him on a weekly basis. Furthermore, the resurrection of Jesus is intended to impact our whole life. The risen Jesus wants his followers to live the resurrection not just in the church but also each day in our home, our neighborhood, our church, our workplace, and our community.


When the disciples saw the risen Jesus, they worshiped him. But according to Matthew, some doubted. Jesus’ response was to commission them to continue the ministry he had begun with them. Jesus was willing to work with fallible human beings. Jesus commanded them to do at least two things. The first was to baptize people in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Today Hadley and Sophia Henry are being baptized. God is publicly declaring that they are God’s beloved children. Baptism is a gift from God available to every person. Living the resurrection is all about letting every person we encounter know that they are loved by God. Baptism is not intended to separate the saved from the damned or the insiders from the outsiders. Baptism is the assurance of God’s love and salvation. The risen Jesus commissions his disciples to continue the ministry Jesus began of assuring people of God’s love.


The second thing Jesus commanded his disciples was to teach others to obey everything he had commanded them. We believe that baptism is a two part process. The first part is the event that happens at the font in a given worship service. Hadley and Sophia are experiencing that today. The second part is a lifelong process of growing in our faith and learning to follow Jesus. To put it another way, we are baptized into a lifetime of living the resurrection. Jesus teaches his followers to love God, to love the neighbor, and to love all that God has created. Some of Jesus’ teachings in Matthew are particularly challenging: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” “You cannot serve God and wealth.” “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” Jesus had a habit of hanging out with the “wrong people”— that is why some of the religious elite called him “a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” Hanging out with the “wrong people” must be part of living the resurrection— a sign that the risen Jesus does not give up on anyone. In the Parable of the Last Judgment, when the risen Jesus comes in his glory, he tells those gathered before him: “Just as you did it to the least of these . . . you did it unto me.” The risen Jesus is present in the faces of those in need. Living the resurrection is all about feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the ill-clad, caring for the sick, and visiting the prisoner. Our words and our deeds are to bear witness to the presence of the risen Jesus.


The final command of the risen Jesus to his disciples was: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” The risen Jesus does not abandon us. We can count on his presence as we continue to live the resurrection.


Every Sunday in worship we are blessed to receive the gift of the body and blood of Jesus. At the Last Supper Jesus instructed his disciples to receive his body and blood in remembrance of him. When we receive his body and blood, the risen Jesus will be saying to us, in effect: never forget the life I lived and the ministry I carried out; never forget my suffering and death for your sake; never forget that God raised me from the dead; never forget that I have commissioned you to continue the ministry I began among you; never forget to live the resurrection; never forget that I will be with you until the end of the age, until that time when God blesses you with just one more surprise.

In the name of the risen Jesus, AMEN.















[1] Aageson, Benedictions, 41–42.