SERVICE FOR THE LORD’S DAY - April 26, 2020, Third Sunday of Easter
*WORDS OF WORSHIP from Psalm 9:1-2, 10-11, NLT
I will praise you, Lord, with all my heart;
I will tell of all the marvelous things you have done.
I will be filled with joy because of you.
I will sing praises to your name, O Most High.
Those who know your name trust in you,
for you, O Lord, do not abandon those who search for you.
Sing praises to the Lord who reigns in Jerusalem.
Tell the world about his unforgettable deeds.
Lord renew and strengthen our trust in you this day, that we may abide in a sure and certain hope of your resurrection. Make us so aware of your presence and blessings that we abound with stories to share as encouragement to others.
CONFESSION AND PARDON
We confess our sins and shortcomings to a God who loves us beyond our comprehension. Let us come before the Lord our God who offers us mercy and grace.
God of all love, we place our trust in you.
We seek your forgiveness for the hurtful things we may have done,
For the good we failed to do and the nudges we ignored.
We seek your forgiveness for words spoken harshly
Or encouragement withheld.
We seek your forgiveness for the kindnesses we haven’t returned
And the blessings we failed to pay forward.
Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.
I’m reminded of the song that says, “Jesus knows our every weakness.”
This is why we can bring everything “to the Lord in prayer.”
Jesus has already made the ultimate sacrifice for our sin
And rose to remind us that we live a new life in him.
We are forgiven, and we are made new.
Thanks be to God!
PASSING THE PEACE
May the peace of Christ be with you.
EASTER HYMN Thine is the Glory #122
PRAYER FOR ILLUMINATION
May we be reminded of your great love for us and of the assignment you have given to us to share your good news. May we be filled once again with hope and faith and obediently share it to encourage others.
SCRIPTURE LESSONS Matthew 28:1-8, CEB
28 After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the tomb. 2 Look, there was a great earthquake, for an angel from the Lord came down from heaven. Coming to the stone, he rolled it away and sat on it. 3 Now his face was like lightning and his clothes as white as snow. 4 The guards were so terrified of him that they shook with fear and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Don’t be afraid. I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He isn’t here, because he’s been raised from the dead, just as he said. Come, see the place where they laid him. 7 Now hurry, go and tell his disciples, ‘He’s been raised from the dead. He’s going on ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there.’ I’ve given the message to you.”
8 With great fear and excitement, they hurried away from the tomb and ran to tell his disciples.
9 And as they went, Jesus met them and greeted them. And they ran to him, grasped his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t be afraid! Go tell my brothers to leave for Galilee, and they will see me there.”
SERMON The Resurrection According to Matthew
There are some big differences between Mark’s gospel and Matthew’s when it comes to telling the story of the resurrection. Mark is brief. Matthew has more detail. Among these details you may have noticed the earthquake, the description of the angel, the guards, the instructions for the disciples, and the completion of the assignment by the women.
I read only ten verses of the last chapter of Matthew and last week only eight from Mark. That’s all there was to Mark. The remaining verses in your Bibles were later additions that gave us alternate endings. But in Matthew, we actually get more of the story as we read the remaining verses, and the final verses are quite well known as the Great Commission.
If we look back to the final verses of the crucifixion scene just as we did with Mark, we get even more details. Mark noted the tearing of the curtain and the Centurian’s declaration. Matthew gives us another curious story that we often miss. Let me read it to you. I’m in Matthew 27, beginning at verse 50.
50 Then Jesus shouted out again, and he released his spirit. 51 At that moment the curtain in the sanctuary of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, rocks split apart, 52 and tombs opened. The bodies of many godly men and women who had died were raised from the dead. 53 They left the cemetery after Jesus’ resurrection, went into the holy city of Jerusalem, and appeared to many people.
54 The Roman officer and the other soldiers at the crucifixion were terrified by the earthquake and all that had happened. They said, “This man truly was the Son of God!”
Matthew is the only gospel that tells us of an earthquake as Jesus died and another as he rose. I have always thought an earthquake to be an appropriate response to Jesus’ death and the cause behind the tearing of the temple curtain. I also connected the movement of the stone in my mind with the earthquake on Easter. This means I did hear the earthquake version of the story as a child.
But what about those who were released from their tombs to roam about Jerusalem. How many of you remembered hearing that part of the story? Again, only Matthew includes it. Paula Gooder points out that “the very thing Matthew knew his readers needed to convince them of the importance of what had happened, is precisely what makes it hardest for us – a modern audience – to believe.” (p. 30) She settles it in her own mind deciding that Matthew wants his readers to know that God is up to something new. Gooder writes that this is “a detail that reinforces as clearly as it can that Jesus’ death is about to change the world significantly, the end times are about to begin – though not completely; for that we must wait until the end of all times.” (p. 30)
While I don’t know what to make of it myself, I do see it as the beginning of the promise that we will all live again, because of Jesus’ death on that cross and his resurrection that first Easter. When I took a second look, I noticed that the tombs broke open on Friday, but the dead did not come out of their graves until Jesus was raised to life. Hence as Paul wrote to the Corinthians “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep…Christ, the first fruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.” (1 Corinthians 15:20, 23) We’ll look more at Paul’s thoughts on the resurrection in May.
The opening of tombs along with the splitting of rocks, the earthquake, are all signs that things have irrevocably changed. While the earth shook that day, the events of that day also shook the world. Just as an earthquake shifts our planet’s foundations, there was a major shift beginning from that day for how much of humanity would think about God, themselves, the world; there was even a split in how many of us mark time. In the few hours that encompassed Jesus’ death and resurrection, a shift occurred that would change the world for millennia to come.
To appreciate how Matthew used the earthquakes and other details, we need a better understanding of Matthew’s first century audience. Note that Matthew was a Jew writing to Jews. That’s his target audience. This is the reason he included more quotes from the Old Testament (the Hebrew scriptures) than did the other three gospel writers. You need to know your Old Testament to appreciate the references Matthew has included. Let’s move to the details of the Easter story itself.
Gooder writes, “Throughout the Old Testament, the presence of God was signaled by natural phenomena such as wind, lightning, thunder, hail, fire and earthquakes.” (p. 32) Isaiah 29:6 gives us an example, “I, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, will act for you with thunder and earthquake and great noise, with whirlwind and storm and consuming fire.” I also note the genuine surprise in Elijah’s story that God was not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire, which means there was an expectation that God’s appearance would be accompanied by such things. So the earthquake is an expected sign that God is on the move.
The next phenomenon in the Easter story is the appearance of the angel. A white robe and shining bright light could easily indicate a messenger sent by God or the Ancient One himself. In Daniel’s visions we find, “I watched as thrones were put in place and the Ancient One sat down to judge. His clothing was as white as snow, his hair like purest wool.” (Daniel 7:9) In another vision, “I looked up and saw a man dressed in linen clothing, with a belt of pure gold around his waist. His body looked like a precious gem. His face flashed like lightning, and his eyes flamed like torches...” (Daniel 10:5-6) In Matthew we have a similar vision of God’s glorious presence in the Transfiguration scene “As the men watched, Jesus’ appearance was transformed so that his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light.” (Matthew 17:2) Either at the Transfiguration or Easter, Matthew’s readers know from that description that God’s glory has broken through into their world.
Another detail in Matthew missing in the other three gospels is the reaction of the guards. They are not mentioned in Mark, Luke, or John not as being present on Sunday nor having received such an assignment on Friday. Given the volatile situation with the crowds and religious leaders, I find it quite reasonable that Pilate might have placed such an order for the tomb to be guarded the first few days. Later, however, it is the priests to whom these guards made their report. So these were temple guards not Roman soldiers. That puts a different spin on things.
The goal of the religious leaders that week was to get Jesus killed by the Roman government, but there were rumors of Jesus’ claiming to rise in three days. These leaders needed Jesus to stay dead. The guards were there to be sure the body stayed in the tomb, not stolen by his followers. I can’t think of a good reason for Matthew to make up such a detail, so I assume the others just didn’t find it important enough to include.
Matthew’s narrative places the details in this order. 1) There is an earthquake. 2) An angel appears. 3) The angel rolls the stone away. 4) The angel is described with a face that shone like lightening and a robe white as snow. 5) Seeing the angel, the guards were so filled with fear their bodies shook. 6) The guards fainted as if they were dead. Gooder plays with the irony. “Jesus who was dead, had now come alive; the guards, who were alive, became as though they were dead.” (p. 33) She goes on to say, “In the face of overwhelming, transformative life, the guards became like corpses.” In the Greek literally “lifeless, breathless bod[ies]” (p. 33)
This observation and the details from Matthew’s account allow Gooder to ask a significant question we wouldn’t get from the other gospel versions. “Overcome by fear, do we become lifeless and unresponsive to the whirling, challenging, inspiring presence of the risen Christ” Or can we allow ourselves to be open to the transforming – albeit unsafe – demands of the God who brings the dead to life?” (p. 33) Her devotion puts the question in a form that is hard for me to ignore. Just what does it mean to me to say, “Christ is risen!”
Before I try to give my 2020 answer to that question, I have to admit there are many in the world who doubt, and once upon a time I might have been counted among them. I remember the classic concept I read in college from Paul Tillich that doubt is essential to faith. Gooder takes time to consider doubt in her devotions, and I found her comments useful. “It is a word that stands precisely between belief and unbelief…It simply marks a lack of sureness.” (p. 34) That might describe my reaction to the dead released from their tombs on the first Easter, but for many it describes their response to Jesus’ resurrection. Those who grew up in the faith heard the story many times and may have simply accepted it as children. We did that with many stories as little kids, but at some point, we began to doubt their reliability. With regard to the claims of Christianity this often happens in the teens or twenties. It’s hard to predict what direction one will take from there: perhaps a fuller faith, perhaps denial of the whole thing, perhaps continued doubt in between.
The scene of doubt Gooder refers to in her devotional isn’t the empty tomb itself. It comes when the disciples meet with Jesus later. But first a side note about those guards. When they came to, I’m sure they also had some doubts about what they experienced. It might have been recognizable to them as Jews that God was acting that morning. I can picture them talking it over as they prepared to make their report to the religious leaders. If you read further, we hear the result of that report. They were given “hush money” not to tell the story, but to lie instead saying that the disciples had stolen the body. Since we have their story, someone must have had enough doubt, enough openness to the possibility, that he eventually told the story. How else would Matthew have it?
The disciples faced a similar time of questioning or doubt when they met with Jesus in Galilee as directed by the women based on the angel’s message. They were aware of Jesus’ horrendous death. John had witnessed it for himself. They knew of the earthquake and heard the women’s story after the empty tomb. In Matthew this is the first time they see Jesus face to face after he is risen. Matthew tells us, “17 On the mountain they saw Jesus and worshiped him, but some of them did not believe it was really Jesus.” (Matthew 28:17) They really hadn’t had time to process it all yet.
Gooder writes, “in these circumstances doubting is a good option – not disbelieving but keeping a mind open, unclosed, working on it until clarity arises.” (p. 34) I especially like that openness and waiting for clarity. It is an appropriate response in the midst of sorting through things. It’s like the clearness committee John Ortberg talked about as we explored his book “If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get out of the Boat. (See January sermons)
Actually Gooder refers to the same Bible story from Matthew 14 and compares the doubt of the disciples in Matthew 28 to the doubt Jesus recognized in Peter when his attempt to walk on water sank. She points out that in both stories one of the responses after the expression of doubt was to worship. That’s not what we expect, but perhaps that is the best response when we need clarity, because our human brain can’t wrap itself around the Mystery that is God and God’s actions in our world. If I worship God as mystery, I acknowledge both God and my human inability to understand God. It makes sense to me that the disciples also experienced Jesus in that way.
I need to go back the question raised earlier: what does it mean to me to say “Christ is risen!” In spite of any lingering doubts or my inability to grasp the Great Mystery that is my God, I still claim that this is my God. I choose to believe among many things that God certainly could raise Jesus to life. I choose to believe that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah awaited by the Jews and that Jesus’ resurrection completes the meaning of the cross. I choose to believe that in raising Jesus to life, God extends the promise and offer of new life to us. I choose to believe that in times of uncertainty or doubt, such as the global crisis we now face in 2020, that God is still in charge and in spite of loss God will somehow bring new life out of death. This much I choose to belief and to trust in faith.
We have one more aspect of Matthew to cover. The women at the empty tomb received an assignment as did the women in Mark’s version. “Go and tell the disciples.” Actually in Matthew it is, “go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead” as well as instructions for what the disciples are to do, to meet Jesus in Galilee. (Matthew 28:7) Unlike Mark’s version the women, according to Matthew, quickly obey running with joy and fear. Unlike Mark, they meet the risen Christ enroute, and Jesus repeats his instructions for what they are to tell the disciples. So, in Matthew, the women see Jesus first, not just Mary Magdalene, but all of them.
At the very end of the gospel, the disciples are given an assignment. It’s one we know as the Great Commission. “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20) Of course their assignment is still our assignment. Whether we are like the women calling the faithful to act on their faith, or like the men who were sent out to invite others to join that faith, we are still called to keep telling the story.
Like the disciples we may not feel ready to do this. We are still in training; so were they. The thing Gooder points out, I know to be true. We learn by doing; our faith grows through teaching others. I started sharing stories of Jesus and the rest of the Bible in a formal setting to little ones when I was in 8th grade and continued through my High School years. To one age group or another I have taught the Bible and faith most of my life. I still learn as I prepare and as I teach. My faith isn’t allowed to go stale. Some of my Bible study friends enjoy watching my excitement as I learn a new aspect of Bible culture and how that affects an understanding of the lesson or when I get a new insight in the midst of our conversation. The more I teach the more I learn, and the more I learn the more I have to share.
Having all the answers isn’t a requirement of sharing Jesus or the Bible or faith with others. Jesus accepts trainees as long as we have an openness to learn and grow. As Gooder puts it, Jesus will “send us out just as we are to carry on the task he began among the disciples, before we feel anything like ready. In the midst of our fragile, half-glimpsed understandings of God, in the midst of our doubting and uncertainty, Jesus still calls us.” (pp. 36-37)
Perhaps her most important point regarding the commandment in Matthew to “make disciples” is the reminder of how Jesus did that. It happened as they did life together. They talked, yes, but they also ate together and traveled together. Jesus asked them questions, but they could also ask their questions. They could express their faith and their doubts. They had a front row seat to how Jesus interacted with others in spite of social stigmas or boundaries. They witnessed Jesus’ relationship with God on a day to day basis, that it was a real living conversation not just static ritual. It did not deny tradition, but it was not limited by traditional views either. Jesus knew God’s heart, and he lived it, every day, in every situation. Being side by side with this day by day, that’s how disciples were made.
If you think about it, that’s doable. Live your faith, and others will notice. Be honest in how you share it. That is still the assignment to Jesus’ followers post resurrection. Ready or not, doubts, imperfections, and all, we deliver the message as we live it! How are you doing this right now? Are you reaching out to others stuck at home? Are you finding ways to thank those still going to work? Are you praying for those affected hard? Are you counting on God to bring new life out of this crisis and the deaths we can barely imagine? God is still counting on us to share the hope and good news of Easter with all nations, to live out our faith in a risen Lord!
AFFIRMATION Apostle’s Creed, Ecumenical Version p. 14
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
Almighty God we pray for:
Those fighting for their lives with COVID-19,
Those fighting to find a cure.
Those diagnosed or exposed who have been denied testing as yet,
Those working to make testing more available for all.
Those who have to go to work risking their lives for us.
Those who are without work, especially if funding is not running out.
Those making decisions about when to re-open
Those whose economic future is at risk
And those whose health is at risk by these decisions.
Prayers for clarity and discernment
Wisdom and increased knowledge.
Patience and charity for all.
Prayers for those who are grieving,
Especially the families of the victims and the shooter in Nova Scotia.
Prayers for all of us seeking safety and new ways of doing things.
PRAYER OF THANKSGIVING
We thank you for:
Health care workers, lab techs, rescue workers,
Sanitation departments, grocery and pharmacy workers,
Truck drivers and delivery services,
Restaurants that stayed open
Food, supplies, a safe home, the outdoors,
Family and friends,
Your presence in our lives.
And the gift of life itself.
THE LORD'S PRAYER
*CHARGE & BLESSING
The God of the resurrection offers us new life, each and every day.
We ask as the Psalmist wrote,
“Fill us full every morning with your faithful love
so we can rejoice and celebrate our whole life long.”
May the grace and peace of our Lord, Jesus Christ be with you each day. Amen.
Messages this season are based on This Risen Existence by Paula Gooder.
For the Easter Season video will be available of Kolleen leading worship, reading scripture, and sharing a message based on the resurrection passages throughout the New Testament, based on the devotional book This Risen Existence by Paula Gooder. Thanks to our tech, Mike, for setting up recording and editing to video