Monday, April 21, 2014

Easter 2014 Sermon: "He Goes Ahead of You"

Matthew 28:1-10

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 But Jesus met them and greeted them. They came and grabbed his feet and worshipped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Go and tell my brothers that I am going into Galilee. They will see me there.” (Common English Bible)

“He Goes Ahead of You,” Matthew 28:1-10

My feet are pounding against the hospital floor as I keep pace alongside the medical staff.

I am whispering prayers softly under my breath.

And pounding in my head is a throbbing headache that keeps time with my feet.

One day, one of the patients on my service is rushed down to the emergency room. I had just walked onto the floor to see the medical staff preparing to move the patient to the ER. I ask the patient if they would like for me to accompany them to the ER, they weakly say yes. I am suddenly and starkly aware of the trust that is being invested in me--it is one thing to talk to the chaplain in a laid-back setting of a hospital routine, it is entirely another to have him at your side as you are being brought into the ER.

On television shows, the ER is a place full of drama, attractive doctors and nurses, and of patients who either accomplish incredible come-from-behind recoveries, or die in the most heartbreaking manner. Television got it right in at least one respect--any death has the agonizing capacity to be heartbreaking. But sometimes, the similarities end there. And especially for family--in this case, the patient's father, who came down to the ER with us--it is a place for long waits, confusion, apprehension, and sometimes, outright fear.

As an intern chaplain, I could not tell a worried father why exactly his child is being taken in for x-rays, an echocardiogram, an MRI, or any other tests, but I could tell him that the x-ray is very close by, that they have not taken his child far at all, and that through it all, God's divine presence remains very much alive in the room and in his child and in her doctors. And through it all, I continue to give my own prayers, silently and spoken, as an offering to anyone, anything that was listening.

Days later, in the wake of this crisis, the patient referred to me as their angel. That meant a tremendous amount to me--I felt like it gave me far more credit than I deserved--but it was and is a powerful reminder of the impact we can have in a person's life, for both good and bad. While the word 'angel' often carries connotations of great personal virtue, I think that once you put aside that connotation, there is an interesting connection to be made. Just as angels are the ethereal go-betweens from heaven to earth, so too can Christians be earthly go-betweens from a person's fears to their hopes.  We are go-betweens from a parent's worry to their child's physical presence.

And so, I am sometimes seen by patients as a go-between from divine presence to the tangible, physical, fragile creation, even though to me I am, quite simply, human.  Even though I, like every other person ever born, will not resurrect the third day after my death and leave behind an empty tomb.  Even though I cannot begin to even come close to how divine Jesus was and is.  But choosing to follow Christ means being, literally, a “little Christ.”  That is what the word Christian literally breaks down into.  Little Christ.  We are images, go-betweens, reflections of the Christ who walked the earth and who, nearly 2,000 years ago, arose from the dead on this day.  But unlike the angel of Matthew 28, we do not—cannot—arrive on the scene by summoning a great earthquake.  We have to make do with our little, fragile, human selves to speak to the people who see the tomb.

And the source of that fright swings like a pendulum on Easter.  Previously, we might have been afraid for our safety with the execution of our Messiah, but now that He has risen from the dead, what are we to make of the world?  If death is no longer permanent, then is up no longer down?  Is cold no longer hot?  Death might represent an unyielding reality, but it is an unyielding reality that we could have been certain of, that we could have clung to, that we could have built an entire existence upon.  And now even death is no longer certain, because the stone has been rolled away.

And so while we know now, nearly 2,000 years after the fact, that this is good news—in fact, is the cause of THE Good News—the women followers of Jesus who are the first to discover the empty tomb understandably require a bit more convincing.  They require a bit more from this particular go-between of God’s.  And the angel delivers: “Be not 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 the Lord lay, and indeed, He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him.”

Now, the angel said, “Galilee,” but consider for just a moment the role that Galilee played in Jesus’ earthly ministry.  It was where He was raised.  It was His home base.  It was where he, in fact, spent much of his public ministry teaching and healing and praying.  Consider the role, then, and the subject, and look at what the angel is referring to by saying “Galilee.”  The angel is saying “home.”  He is going ahead of you to your home.  To His home.  He goes ahead of you not just to a geographical point that you can place on a map, He goes ahead of you to that which is emotionally closest to you, where you hang your hat, where you make your rest.  It would be like the angel saying to us, “Jesus is going ahead of you to Longview, or to Kelso, or to Castle Rock.”  Jesus goes ahead of you to that which is your own home as well as His.  He goes ahead of you wherever you may go.

For, once you draw the circle of homes even wider, the angel’s message becomes more profound.  Jesus goes ahead of us to our “forever home” as well.  He has died and risen again and will walk the earth and ascend for good 40 days from now.  He goes ahead of us to heaven as well.  He went ahead of us to heaven by being sealed away in the stone-blocked tomb, and He goes ahead of us again to Heaven when He ascends once more and leaves for us the Holy Spirit.

And in this going to-and-fro, from heaven initially then down to earth, as John says, to live among us, and then crucified and back to the afterlife, then resurrected and returned to earth, before finally arriving at heaven to stay, Jesus is that great, ultimate go-between for us as we search for heaven here upon the earth.  When we struggle in searching for answers to our questions, He is there maybe not to answer them with a simple yes or no, but to illustrate them with parables and stories and truths that are far more profound and dig far deeper than a one-word, magic 8-ball-type rejoinder.

Because there is a simple, earth-quaking, disturbingly unbelievable truth at work here on Easter Sunday: the tomb had a body in it yesterday, and now it is empty.  The man who was dead is now alive.  And nothing will ever be the same again.

Truth be told, that should probably frighten us.  There’s a reason the angel leads off with “Be not afraid,” and it isn’t just because of the earthquake that accompanies them.  It is because if you visit a grave, you expect for there to be a body.  And unless you already knew the resurrection had occurred, let’s be honest with ourselves: we would probably be scared stiff as well.  And, as an aside, the angel says “Be not afraid” so that the resurrection—the second life—of Jesus correspond to the birth—the beginning of the first life of Jesus.  In both scenes—here in Matthew and in Bethlehem in Luke 2—the heavenly host leads off with the immortal words “Be not afraid!”

And that is really what we take for granted here.  We know how this story ends.  It is like reading the entire Harry Potter series knowing that Voldemort would die at the end of the seventh book.  We have the advantage of two millennia worth of hindsight.  The female disciples of Jesus did not.

But they become the torchbearers of history that is made on this day.  The male disciples, having fled at Gethsemane 72 hours previous, are presumably still on the lam.  And it falls to the two Marys to assume the role of go-betweens from heavenly emissary to earthly disciple.  But Jesus goes ahead of them even to the male disciples: “But Jesus met them and greeted them,” Matthew writes.  Considering Jesus’ consistent welcoming of women into his inner circle, it is sublimely appropriate.

And now, today, Jesus invites you into his circle as well.  In point of fact, He already has.  It is a freestanding invitation to learn from Him, to follow Him, and to do so for eternity should you wish it, because by the empty tomb, that final barrier to eternal life has been shattered upon this day.  Earthly death has been conquered by divine love.  Love has won.

Which leaves perhaps only the most basic, most foundational, most profound of questions left for me to ask: are you willing to let that divine love guide you?  Are you willing to let it mold you, to reshape you, to go ahead of you?  Despite your fears?  Despite your worries?  Despite your trepidations and reservations and hesitations?  Are you willing to say yes?

If you are…then be not afraid.  You will see Him in your life.

For He is risen.  He is risen, indeed.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 20, 2014

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