Easter Sermon 2020; Acts 10:35-43 Matthew 28:1-11 by Revd Tudor Vaughan Roberts.
It’s easy for a Christian to preach about Easter and sort of forget that Jesus really did die a horrible death, he really was laid in the tomb and the door was shut, in our enthusiasm to get going on telling people the Good news of Christ resurrected. Doctors treating people with the Covid 19 virus tell us that there is no cure for the virus, they can only treat the symptoms. Quite wonderfully many have made a full recovery, yet at the same time we are all sad at the deaths in the UK and overseas. More people have died due to Covid 19 in the UK than in the Titanic (1,517 lives) and Lusitania (1198 lives) sinking’s put together. There is no cure for Covid 19 and in essence there is no answer to death itself, at least not if we ignore Good Friday and Easter.
If we take the figure mentioned on Thursday of 8,000 deaths and suppose that each person has a network of say 50 family and friends and colleagues then this morning across this great nation 400,000 people are grieving for family, friends and colleagues. These are terrible statistics, for lives taken before their time. How does the Gospel speak to this and to us?
In Jerusalem at the time of Jesus there might according to experts have been up to a million people gathered in Jerusalem and the villages around for Passover. I guess that only a small proportion of those people on that first Easter weekend were mourning the death of Jesus of Nazareth. Although Jesus had seen huge crowds following him many turned back when he started talking seriously about the cross. Matthew 16: 31 says:
“From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life”
By the time Jesus had been arrested, tried, tortured, bound ,crucified and killed any “get up and go” in the nascent Christian community was squashed out, any hope they might have had that Jesus would indeed be raised to life on the third day was gone. So, come that first Easter Sunday there were no praise parties, the men were in hiding, but cometh the first light life stirred, and it was the women who walked out to visit the tomb of Jesus.
Now, says St Matthew, “after the sabbath at the dawn on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb, and behold there was a great earthquake for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning and his clothing as white as snow”.
The two women who saw Jesus die (Matthew 27:56) and saw him buried discovered his empty tomb on Easter Sunday morning. It was a custom of the Jews to watch the tomb of a loved one until the third day after death to ensure that premature burial had not taken place.
Its interesting in Matthews Gospel that its angels who announced the coming of Christ and now here they are again announcing his resurrection from death at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. But here they are not appearing in people’s dreams they are instead appearing in their very full glory to comment on an eschatological event that has occurred that wil be come to be seen of enormous importance. Now, nothing can ever be seen as the same again as George Ladd the US theologian says “we are in the resurrection of Christ from that moment on in a new era” St Paul wrote” For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead he cannot die again death no longer has mastery over him” Romans 6:9.The first Christians didn’t have to think up a message they were impelled to speak about Jesus, just as I am today. In Acts 10:43 St Peter says “And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that is he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” That’s the message we have today, what an amazing news for a world living under the shadow of death even though the Spring sunshine is burning bright.
So the message the angels brought was this “Jesus has conquered death he has risen” Now, the hard evidence that Christ had risen was slim, there was an empty tomb yes, but that in itself doesn’t mean Christ was resurrected, but that proof was to come and it will come through the testimony of women whose word had no legal weight in First Century Greco Roman culture. If this Gospel story was false, the writers went about it the wrong way, fancy choosing women to tell the Story! Of course, if they had been making it all up, they would have used men as the witnesses, but Women were clearly the first messengers.
They depart quickly in fear and in great joy and who do they bump into but Jesus, “Greetings” he says, and they come and fall to their knees and take hold of his feet.
The fact that they take hold of his feet could be seen as a reflection of the bodily position they took up when they saw Jesus which was to be prostrated before him. Certainly, if they fell to the floor prostrated in front of Jesus then that would make it easy to take hold of his feet. But why does St Matthew mention it, it seems not a terribly important detail?
It could be another way in which the Gospel writer says yes, the resurrection really did take place. So, let’s summarize things
No 1 We have women witnesses
No 2 The fact that there were soldiers means that the stealing of the Body was highly unlikely you dont get past a squadron of Roman soldiers very easily.
And here is argument No 3; Taking hold of feet meant something
In the Greco Roman world Ghosts didn’t have feet so the women taking hold of Jesus’s feet combats the concept that what the women saw was a ghost.(Jesus makes the same point in St Luke’s Gospel (Luke 24:41-43) when he asks the startled disciples, locked in a room, have you got anything to eat? and they offer him some broiled fish which he promptly eats; Ghosts don’t eat!)
So, Matthews account which is the set reading for Easter 2020 is worth reading again and again. We haven’t even got to the response of the men yet, simply the responses of the women .We don’t know how Jesus left the tomb, not one of the Gospels tells us how and in what way Jesus exited the tomb all we know is that he did. On this Easter day against a backdrop of eye watering statistics of death here is a message about life. This Easter Sunday we are brought into the presence of Angels in bright clothing, of women who in fear and yet with their hearts on fire, bump into the Risen Lord Jesus Christ. Have you bumped into him this year? Have you stopped for sufficient time to let his life effect your life? This Easter let us, like the women fall prostrated at his feet, reach out and touch him and let his life meet our life. Sometime indeed years after these events one Saul of Tarsus, now St Paul of Antioch wrote these words to the Church at Colossae.
“And you were once dead in your trespass’s and the uncircumcision of your flesh. God made us alive together with him having forgiven all our trespasses by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands, this he set aside nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame by triumphing over them (Colossian 2:13-15) Like Covid 19 there is no cure for death itself but there is a way out, the way the truth and the life, John 14:1-7) and that is putting our trust, however tentatively at first, and then in growing confidence in Jesus Christ who conquered death through the Cross, and through his resurrection, that was relevant in AD 33 and its more than relevant in today's world of 2020 and beyond because its a message of the Love of God for the world; "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life". John 3:16
Let us pray. God of glory,
by the raising of your Son
you have broken the chains of death and hell:
fill your Church with faith and hope.
for a new day has dawned
and the way to life stands open
in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen
Lord if today I admit that I don’t know you
or that my faith in you has become weak
and I have fallen away from you
I repent of my sin
I accept you as my Lord and Saviour
I know you died in my place, taking my sin upon you,
and rose again on the third day.
I know that you have now forgiven me everything
and I commit to following you in obedience
Fill me with your Holy Spirit today and fill me and all my household
with the love of God and his protection Amen