Easter is wonderful. No doubt about it. It’s exciting to think that Jesus rose from the dead. But what’s in it for us? What does the resurrection of Jesus do for us? That’s the question I tried to answer in my Easter Sunday sermon. Here’s an excerpt:
The women who came to the tomb in Matthew 28 received the same message we have received this morning: that Christ is risen, Christ is risen indeed! But it has a different effect on us than it had on these women. We’ve heard it so many times that the good news of Easter has become old news. “Christ is risen,” the preacher says, and we yawn and say, “Whatever!” But notice what happens to these women.
- They are filled with fear. And from the outset we need to notice that this is not the same thing as being afraid. The soldiers were afraid; “they shook and became like dead men.” But not these women. They were filled with fear, which must mean something else. I’ve looked up the Greek word. It’s phobos, from which we get phobia. And one of its meanings is “to be afraid.” But it can also mean “profound reverence,” or “awe,” and I’m not sure I have enough experience of that kind of fear to tell you what it means. But I’ve heard about it. People who have been bungee jumping talk about the rush of adrenaline they get standing there on the railing of a bridge getting ready to jump. They look down at the river, 300 feet below. They know that if the bungee cord breaks they will die. Their hearts are pounding. Their breathing speeds up. But then they do it: they dive off the edge of the bridge and scream all the way down, and then bounce up and down at the end of that long rubber band with the kind of relief you can’t experience unless you have almost died. I can’t know this for a fact, but I believe that when those women heard the news that Jesus was alive they were filled with that kind of fear: the kind that is like a shot of adrenaline straight to the heart.
- They are filled with great joy. And this is one of the things I love most about Matthew’s version of the Easter story. In the earliest and best manuscripts of Mark’s Gospel, by comparison, it says that the women “went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” And that’s the end of the Gospel! But Matthew tells us that the women left the tomb quickly “with fear and great joy” and ran to tell his disciples. Again, I’m not sure I’ve had enough experience with that kind of joy to tell you what it means but I’ve come close. I was there for the birth of both my children and the physical symptoms were a whole lot like bungee jumping. My heart was pounding. My breathing changed. Fear may be one of the words I would choose to describe what I was feeling, but the dominant emotion was joy—great joy! And I know: I’m one of the lucky ones. It doesn’t always work out that way. But if it has for you then maybe you know what I’m talking about: when that baby is born you are filled with joy and more alive than you have ever been before.
- They are moved to worship. There they were, running through the graveyard, filled with fear and great joy, when suddenly—there was Jesus. In most of our English translations he says something to them like “Greetings!” but that doesn’t sound right, does it? I’m thinking he must have used that traditional Hebrew greeting, that he must have held up one hand and said, “Shalom!” And when he did they saw the mark of the nail. So, there is no question in this Gospel about who it is; no momentary confusion as in John’s Gospel, thinking that it might be the gardener. These women are standing in the presence of the risen Christ and they know it. Without a word they approach him, fall at his wounded feet, and worship him. And if those other emotions—fear and great joy—are what we experience in those moments when we are most fully alive, then surely worship—genuine worship—falls into the same category. I’m not talking about excitement. I don’t mean pumping up the volume and pounding out the beat until you think you’re at a rock concert. I’m talking about worship, about suddenly finding yourself in the presence of the risen Christ, so that your heart beats faster, and your breathing changes, and the little hairs on the back of your neck stand up. And that can happen almost anywhere, even in a graveyard.
But it seems to happen most often in church.
In my work I sometimes talk with people who are unhappy. They’ve tried to make a life for themselves and fill it with every good thing they can think of, but it still hasn’t worked. They still aren’t happy. They come to me thinking I might have some clue about what’s missing. And often as they talk I think of that line from John’s Gospel, where Jesus says, “I have come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.” He doesn’t only mean that they will have more quantity of life; he means that they will have more quality of life, what we sometimes call “the good and beautiful life,” and that life, apparently, is found in his presence. So where would you go if you wanted to find yourself in the presence of the risen Christ? What about the kind of place where every effort has been made to enhance that possibility? A whole room that has been set apart for that sacred purpose and a whole hour when we turn our thoughts toward him: when we listen to his word, and stand to sing his praises, and sometimes, in the silence of prayer, almost hear him breathing beside us on the pew, and feel the little hairs on the backs of our necks stand up? Expectation makes all the difference. When we come to church like those women came to the tomb, expecting an encounter with Jesus, we will not be disappointed.
Because Christ is risen, friends. He is risen indeed. It’s the same news those women heard on that first Easter so long ago and it’s as true now as it was then. On this Easter may it fill you with fear, and fill you with joy, and move you to worship…
…the risen Christ.