This is the sermon that I gave during the Easter sunrise service this morning at St. John United Church of Christ in Manchester, MO.
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.
Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” - Matthew 28:1-10 (NRSV)
Celebrations like Easter that take place annually sometimes loose their significance to us. We become so accustomed to repeating phrases such as “he died and on the third day rose again” that the startling nature of this faith claim can become lost in the repetition of the words. Easter worship gives us the opportunity to reflect once again on the astounding story of resurrection that put “fear and great joy” into the hearts of the earliest disciples and ultimately brought about a new religion founded on the radical wisdom of Jesus who declared that human institutions built on power and pride were (and are) perversions of God’s will and in opposition to God’s kingdom where the “least of these” always come first.
Our reading from Matthew this morning reminds us of the central role played by women during the time of Jesus’ ministry. Women were present with Jesus during his life, during the dark moments of crucifixion and death on Good Friday, and in the first moments of new life after the resurrection. Matthew tells the story of Mary Magdalene and the other Mary being the first to remember Jesus’ predictions of death and resurrection and the first to worship the risen Jesus and the first to be commissioned by him. Mary and Mary are the two of Jesus’ followers who have the strength of faith not to abandon hope. When they entered the tomb both these woman walked into a place where others feared to go and then walked out to tell the people the world was forever changed.
Thomas G. Long, a biblical scholar who has written on Matthew, writes of Mary and Mary that “without even knowing that they had crossed the border, they left the old world, were hope is in constant danger, and might makes right, and peace has little chance, and the rich get richer, and the weak all eventually suffer under some Pontius Pilate or another, and people hatch murderous plots, and dead people stay dead, and they entered the startling and breathtaking world of resurrection and life.” It is easy to understand the mixed emotions of being both fearful and filled with great joy at a moment such as this. God had just intervened in human history in an amazing way and turned death – the ultimate reality – into new life.
The core story of both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament is that God calls humanity to live purpose filled lives where justice for the oppressed is central to they way we are suppose to live. Jesus lived in a time with many parallels to the period in which the people of Israel were enslaved in Egypt. In both the Exodus story and in the Gospel account of Jesus’ life the Jewish people lived under oppressive governments that deny God’s calls for justice. God is seen in these stories and others throughout the Bible as sending messengers and prophets to act as both guides and God’s partners in liberating God’s people from sin. God’s call to service produces mixed emotions in those asked to come forward. Serving God’s purposes may be the right thing to do but it puts you in conflict with human authorities that worship power and wealth – the false idols of every generation – and the work is difficult. You’ll remember that even Jesus was mocked by his own people and that in the Exodus story even Moses tried to talk his way out of serving God.
That Mary and Mary are chosen to be the first to announce the resurrection speaks both to their strength of faith and to the nature of God. There was no equal rights movement in ancient Israel. Women were considered unclean and had no control over affairs of state or even their own homes. Paul tells us in Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Part of Jesus’ mission was to break down the barriers that divided humanity – and that included gender barriers. Women were called just as men to serve God’s kingdom. God calls all of us to be partners in accomplishing God’s mission. Those who resist, like the Roman guards outside Jesus’ tomb, will simply become like dead men.
That phrase – becoming like dead men – suggests to me that the guards did not actually die when confronted by the angel. Can those who deny God’s purposes really be alive in a meaningful sense? If we spend our days trying to acquire wealth and power while ignoring God’s purposes for us are we really living? How can you die if you aren’t alive in the first place? We learned from God on that first Easter morning that new life is always possible. Let us hope that these guards experienced a moment so profound that they found new life in Christ and abandoned their life of sin in service of oppression.
The notion of sin is very important on this Christian holiday. We commonly claim that Jesus died for our sins. These days when sin is discussed it is normally to point a finger at this individual or that individual for acting in a way that is somehow considered destructive. There are, however, different ways of defining what is sinful. Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist minister who was a key figure in American Protestant church history, discerned that there were three different levels of sin: “sensuousness, selfishness, and godlessness, - are ascending and expanding stages (of sin), in which we sin against our higher self, against the good of men, and against the universal good,” he wrote. It was these last two categories of sin that he primarily concerned himself with. His 1910 book Prayers of the Social Awakening attests to this. He wrote few prayers about individual sin (sensuousness) but offers a long list of prayers concerning the plight of children, workers rights, and for immigrants. Issues like alcoholism and other “personal sins” take a back seat to his concerns about social injustice. Even his one prayer against alcoholism is directed more at those who sell alcohol than those who consume it. “May those who now entrap the feet of the weak and make their living by the degradation of men, thrust away their shameful gains and stand clear,” Rauschenbusch prays.
Sin is essentially selfishness. That definition is more in harmony with the social gospel than with any individualistic type of religion. The sinful mind, then, is the unsocial and anti-social mind. To find the climax of sin we must not linger over a man who swears, or sneers at religion, or denies the mystery of the trinity, but put our hands on the social groups who have turned the patrimony of a nation into the private property of a small class, or have left the peasant labourers cowed, degraded, demoralized, and without rights in the land. When we find such in history, or in present-day life, we shall know we have struck real rebellion against God on the higher level of sin.
Rauschenbusch’s definition of sin is important because it shows us that that to be faithful Christians truly concerned with sin we need to stop pointing fingers at others and look at our own institutions to see how we might benefit from sin without even knowing it. How will we respond to God’s call when we hear it?
Thomas Long looks at the story of resurrection and writes: “The way the world used to be, if something troubling got in the way, like a call for racial justice or a worker for peace or an advocate for mercy, the world could just kill it and it would be done with. But Jesus is alive, and righteousness, mercy, and peace cannot be dismissed with a cross or a sword. We have to decide where we stand and what we will do in this new and frightening resurrection world.”
This Easter morning we are called once again to consider seriously what our response to God will be. How will we live in the resurrection world? Do we stand with Pilate and the oppression of human institutions or do we stand with Jesus? Do we take the gift of new life offered to us? Do we have the courage of Mary and Mary? It is a pretty stark choice. Part of the words to Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy’s hymn “Awake, Awake, to Love and Work” provide us with the answer we should give this Easter morning.
Awake, awake to love and work!
The lark is in the sky;
The fields are wet with diamond dew;
the world awake to cry
their praises to the Fount of Life:
Christ Jesus passes by.
Come, let your voice be one with theirs,
Shout with their shouts of praise;
See how the great sun soars up,
God’s gift for all your days!
So let the love of Jesus come and
Set your soul ablaze.
To give and give and give again,
As God’s own grace is free;
To spend yourself nor count the cost;
To serve most gloriously
The God who gave all worlds that are,
And all that are to be.
 Harper Collins Bible Commentary, p. 899.
 Rauschenbusch, Theology for the Social Gospel, p .47.
 Rauschenbusch, Prayers of the Social Awakening, p 111.
 Rauschenbusch, Theology for the Social Gospel, p 50.