Sunday, March 27, 2016
Homily for The Feast of the Resurrection of Our Lord (Easter Sunday)
Mark 16:1-8; 1 Corinthians 5:6-8; Job 19:23-27
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The women “went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Kind of an anticlimactic Gospel for Easter Sunday, don’tcha think? Imagine if this had been the response of everyone to the resurrection of Jesus, that they were afraid and didn’t tell anyone anything. How very few would actually believe. Truly, only a very few could be saved. After all, Jesus’ body could have been stolen from the tomb. Then, where would be the proof? All those sightings of Jesus raised from the dead, and other believers raised from the dead too? Only the hopeful psychotic delusions of the distraught, the naïve, and the superstitious.
And yet, here we are, two thousand years later, gathered in this sanctuary at the same time millions of others are gathered in their churches throughout this nation and, at one time or another this day, throughout the world, to remember, and to celebrate, and to praise and give thanks to God for the resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ, our Savior and Redeemer, from the dead. Apparently someone believed. Obviously a whole lot of someones believed. They believed and, afraid or not, they told everyone everything. In fact, they most often did so to their great risk and peril, which lends credence to the truth of Christ’s resurrection rather than doubt.
For, consider the zeal of the Apostles and the early Christians in the years and decades following Jesus’ death. Each of the Apostles, save John, were martyred because of their belief in Jesus’ resurrection and their refusal to be silent, but, rather, to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all without concern for their personal safety or well-being. Tradition holds that Peter was crucified head downward, humbly considering himself unworthy to die in the same manner as His Lord. Tradition also holds that St. Paul was beheaded in Rome, that James the Lesser was thrown from the temple wall, stoned, and had his brains beat out by a fuller’s club, that James, the brother of John, was slain by the sword, that Thomas was run through with spears, seared by heated plates, and finally burned alive, that Judas Thaddeus was beaten to death with sticks, that Phillip and Andrew were both crucified, that Matthew was beheaded, that Nathaniel (Bartholomew) was flayed alive and was crucified, and that Matthias, who replaced Judas Iscariot, was stoned to death while hanging upon a cross. While John, the beloved disciple, remained alive and presumably died an old man, he was exiled by the Romans and lived alone on the Island of Patmos. Truly, martyrdom takes many forms. Further, subsequent generations of Christians until the early part of the fourth century were met with similar persecution and death for their witness to Jesus, His resurrection, and the Gospel. And, there are still Christians today who are persecuted and martyred for their confession of the faith. There were the Ethiopian Coptic Christians executed last year by ISIS. There is the Indian Roman Catholic Priest Father Tom, right now, who was abducted in Yemen by ISIS, who murdered four nuns that were with him, and will very likely be crucified any day now. And, there are countless Christians in China, the Sudan, and throughout the world who daily risk their lives and livelihoods for their Confession of Christ.
Why would any of them die for something they were not certain of? Would anyone suffer such horrendous torture and evil death, and subject their families to the same, if they were not absolutely convinced of the truth and the Gospel meaning of what they believed about Jesus, His death, and His resurrection? No, not likely. But, what made them believe so strongly? What evidence was there that Jesus had been raised, just as He had said? Undoubtedly, the greatest evidence was the empty tomb itself. Only consider the facts of Jesus’ burial: The Jews and the Romans had no motive to steal Jesus’ body. In fact, they were extremely concerned about that possibility and so set a Roman guard at the tomb to prevent such a scheme. Further, before His resurrection, Jesus’ disciples were too fearful and cowardly to attempt such a feat. Some skeptics have suggested that the women went to the wrong tomb. However, this does not pan out as the women knew where the tomb was and the Sanhedrin could simply have produced Jesus’ body from the correct tomb and effectively falsified the account of Jesus’ resurrection. And then, there were the burial linens neatly folded and placed at the head and feet of where Jesus had lain, hardly what one would expect in the case of a hasty grave robbery.
Even the fact that the Gospels record women being the first eyewitness of the empty tomb and the resurrected Lord lends credence to the truth of the resurrection, for women were among the lowest in society in terms of respect and honor. Their testimony would not even be admissible in a court of law. Surely, if the writers of the Gospels wished to convince people of the truth of the resurrection they would have recorded the accounts men of renown and honor, whose testimony would have been received with greater credulity. The fact that the Evangelists preserved the eyewitness testimony of women and did not change the facts to something that would be more socially acceptable lends to the veracity and trustworthiness of their report.
Likewise, our Easter Gospel’s rather abrupt and disconcerting ending, “they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” The earliest manuscripts and fragments we have of St. Mark’s Gospel all end in this way, with those words. And, St. Mark’s account of Jesus’ resurrection has been read and heard in Christ’s Church on Easter Sunday since at least the seventh century. Truly, the Gospel reads and ends like a historical record of factual events rather than as a story intentionally constructed to lead the hearer or reader to a particular conclusion and belief. You have to acknowledge that the St. Mark could easily have ended his Gospel on a more upbeat note with an actual siting and even a conversation with our resurrected Lord instead of the women fleeing the tomb confused and afraid and saying nothing to anyone. However, St. Mark has recorded what actually happened. The preservation of these uncomfortable and often embarrassing facts lend credibility to the Gospels and the testimonies of both Jesus’ disciples and those who had no interest in lending credence to them at all.
Still, as interesting as all these signifiers to the veracity of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection may be, that is not why we are gathered here this morning, is it? No, it is not. We are here this morning because Jesus is risen from the dead, just as He said. He is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Regardless of their response to the angel’s announcement, the women found the tomb empty and they were astonished and filled with amazement and fear. As they approached the tomb they fretted about the very large stone sealing its entrance. However, when they arrived at the tomb they found that the stone had already been rolled back. You must understand that this was not for Jesus’ benefit, but your theirs and yours. Lutheran dogmatician Franz Pieper writes in his Christian Dogmatics, “Just as Christ came to His disciples clausa ianua (through closed doors), so He also arose clauso sepulchro (through closed tomb). The only purpose of rolling the stone from the door of the sepulcher was, according to Scripture, to exhibit the empty tomb to the women and to convince them by this very fact that Christ had truly risen.”
The stone was rolled away for you, that you might believe and trust and be confident in your faith that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead just as He said. Our Lord Jesus had already been raised from death, had visited the spirits in prison in hell to proclaim His resurrection victory, and was on His way to Galilee just as He told His disciples on the night in which He was betrayed. The stone rolled away was a sign for you. “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; He is not here. See the place where they laid Him.” Jesus had predicted His death, even by crucifixion, His rest in the tomb, and His resurrection on the third day. Everything He had predicted has been fulfilled. The stone rolled away and the empty tomb were the indisputable proof. Now, all there was left to do was to believe. If all that Jesus predicted had come to pass, then He must also be in Galilee just as He said.
What does this mean? Well, apart from Jesus and those whom He raised, who later died again, no one has ever been raised from the dead. That is because of the curse of our First Parent’s sin, which is truly our sin as well, the wages of which is only and always death. But, Jesus’ resurrection means that our sin is atoned for and we are free. Jesus’ death was our death – the death of the sinless Son of God as a man in our place – and, therefore, His resurrection is our resurrection. The stone that sealed Jesus’ tomb can be understood metaphorically as our sin which keeps us in death and in our tombs. But, it has been rolled away; our sin has been taken away and can no longer hold us in death and the grave. In fact, even if the stone were still in place it could not hold Jesus, and it cannot hold you who believe and are baptized into Jesus. But, as I said before, the stone was rolled away for you, that you may believe and be strengthened and be confident in the truth that your sins are forgiven and that, even though you die, you will live. As the Lutheran dogmatician Johann Gerhard wrote in his Postilla, “True believers cannot be damned on account of their debt of sin – it has been adequately demonstrated by the resurrection of Christ that God the LORD has been paid a complete settlement.”
Yet, still, how often are we silent about this Good News, our faith, our forgiveness, our justification, and our hope of resurrection to never-ending life? How often are we like the women at the tomb – afraid? We have this incredible Good News of forgiveness, life, and salvation, and yet, we tell no one, we say nothing, and, too often, we live as though nothing has happened, nothing has changed. Fear keeps us from sharing the Good News. Fear of judgment from our peers, fear of judgment from our family, fear that we don’t really believe what we think we believe, or fear that we are not strong enough in faith to tell anyone else. Well, my brothers and sisters in Christ, fear died this morning. The tomb is empty. He is not here. He is risen, just as He said! He is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Cleanse out the old leaven of sin and death and fear. You are a new, unleavened lump! For, Christ our Passover Lamb ahs been sacrificed! Therefore, let us celebrate this festival, not with the old leaven of malice, evil, and fear, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth! This is the Feast of Victory for our God! Alleluia! Alleluia!
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.