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Easter Sunday

April 26, 2011

“After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.

 There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”

 So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped 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.”

Mathew 28:1-10 (NIV)

In today’s service we once again sing “Alleluia.” Today’s also Easter, and Easter is the joyful celebration of Christianity. The Lord is risen, alleluia! Yes, we have reason to cheer! However, it could be that for one person or the other, this Alleluia is hard on the lips. It could be that for some grief overshadows the joy of Easter. One might think: I know it should be a happy Easter, and I have every reason to be happy, but this still will not bring me joy. All those who feel joy today may not know: you’re here at the right place where so much “alleluia” is sung and Easter is celebrated. For the first Easter celebrants of the world were not filled only with exuberant joy. They felt fear and terror as well. Do you remember how it is written in the Easter Gospel? “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid” (Mark 16:8).

The Easter reports written by the four evangelists give the unvarnished version of events in a much more sober way than do our Easter hymns. The first Easter witnesses were torn back and forth emotionally: their faith wavered up and down constantly. This went so far that they ignored the angel’s instructions. It was wonderful how Jesus led this confused crowd, so to speak, of his brothers and sisters, by the hand and led them, piece by piece, to the faith, and thus to the joy of Easter. We now want to observe how he did it.

We know it started with the women who went early Sunday morning to Jesus’ grave. The members of this small group are known to us by their names: Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, Salome and Joanna. When they realized that the stone has been rolled away from the grave, it was Mary Magdalene that returned to the place where the disciples were and threw the two chief disciples, Peter and John, from their beds. These two then begin their famous race to the empty grave, of which John wrote in his Gospel.

Meanwhile, the other women had experienced the following: An angel had appeared to them and had told them that Jesus is risen. The angel showed them the exact spot where his body had lain. And then these women were given the order of which the whole Church of Jesus Christ lives to the present day: “To say” – Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”

Of this heavenly order, the women initially completed only half: They went “hurried away”. They ran away, as fast as their legs allowed, – but not to let the disciples know as quickly as possible, but because they were seized with a tremendous fear. What they experienced there did not fit into their world view, and it was too much for their already strained nerves. Think about it: what these women must have gone through in the previous few days – and now, that! Maybe they meant well, but now they have all lost their minds. So at first there was no Easter joy and celebration! Would we have we mastered the situation any better? I don’t think so. Nevertheless, Jesus didn’t forsake these women, and he hasn’t forsaken us either. No Easter joy? Let us be clear what Matthew has written!

“So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples” How can this be: fear and joy? Have they told us more somewhere else? In Mark, it was written quite differently! Why the discrepancy?

To understand this sentence correctly, we need to know how the gospels were written with respect to time. The exact chronological order of events was often not adhered to, but rather the gospels were often written in the order of significance for the event. They also didn’t use headlines, but inserted summary sentences in the text every now and then. This is what the evangelist Matthew did when he wrote, “They walked hurriedly away from the grave with fear – and great joy, and ran around to tell His disciples.” Fear and joy, can one feel these at the same time? I don’t think so. Matthew has combined what each of the women felt: first fear, then joy! First she ran away from the grave with fear and no one wanted to say anything, as Mark has also reported. But then suddenly there was joy, and they ran to the disciples to let them know.

What was the cause of the women’s sudden change of mood? Well, that has been described in detail by Matthew with the summary sentences that follow. The evangelist makes it really exciting here, he writes about the women experiencing only fear at first and then of how this fear become joy. And how did that happen? Let us listen once again to Matthew in the original: “So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples”. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

Jesus is the risen Christ, who transformed the women’s fear into joy! When he noticed that an angelic appearance was not enough, he joined the frightened women themselves on their way and greeted them: “Greetings,” It was a normal greeting for that time, and yet it was also a very special greeting. For this greeting literally means: “Rejoice!” Let us remember who said this: “The Living Son of God! Consequently, this greeting, “Rejoice!” is the word of God. God’s Word has strength and power – it creates what it says. So Jesus handles with his word, what had not been handled by the empty grave nor the angels, namely the turning of the women’s fear into joy. “Greetings!” – “Rejoice!”

If you have come to this Easter Sunday service with sorrow or fear, it is not a shame. But listen closely, what the risen Jesus will tell you here. This is the same Lord Jesus, who met the women at that time as the Risen Lord who is still alive today, who is now among us. And in the many words of this service, he preached to you one thing: “Greetings! Glad you’re here! Rejoice! “Yes, you can look up, really. Because he who loves you beyond measure lives and speaks to you. He’s gone for you in death. He has taken your grief upon himself, your fear, your diseases, your suffering. Foregoing and in addition to the death, he has used the power as compensation for the punishment of the sins of the world. So you needn’t fear that you will face God’s anger on Judgment Day. So you are allowed to breathe a sigh of relief: “I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the LORD has done” (Psalm 118.17). This is what Jesus sealed up with his resurrection. Hallelujah!

What did the women do then, after Jesus turned their fear to joy? They fell down before Jesus. They worshiped him. They thanked him. Maybe they were crying with joy. But most importantly, they now believed! Not only that Jesus is alive again; they saw, yes, but also that he is Lord, the great King of heaven and earth. So they went before him and fell to their knees. They prayed to him. They knew: It is the living God who meets us here.

And they did something else: They embraced his feet. Why? Did they want to convince themselves that he was not a ghost, which evaporates on contact? Did they want to touch his crucifixion wounds from the nails as the doubting Thomas did? They would have experienced that it was not a ghost, but their living Jesus, who had been dead and was alive again. But something else was probably more important to them: They wanted to hold him; they wanted him for himself, their beloved Lord and Savior! The arms of the women who were there wrapped Jesus’ feet saying, “Better than a thousand words, what is faith, right faith, saving faith: hold on to Jesus, to comfort his wounds and to live with him, to live forever with him!

Today, we no longer have Jesus’ feet with us; we cannot wrap him with our arms. Nevertheless, Jesus is now physically among us: We have his body and blood, hidden inside bread and wine in Holy Communion. And if we take him with us in our mouth following his commandments, then it will be no less than if we touched his living feet. We should not do less than the believing women did at that time. Yes, you receive your Lord in the Holy Communion, and you can hold onto him because he gives you joy and the strength of faith!

We have always required that Jesus meets us with his word and his holy meal. It was the same for the women at that time and for the other eyewitnesses of the Easter message. Oh, how many detours are possible when we may still relapse and doubt! The disciples did not all go to Galilee as per Jesus instructions that were received via the women. Instead, they were frightened and hiding in Jerusalem. Jesus came to them with love and patience. He did not go to Galilee, but appeared to them there, where they were.

And this love and patience with his disciples, Jesus has to this day, also with us. But how quickly we lose our faith and mingle with doubt and laxity! How often we disregard what Jesus asked of us! How slow we often are, when we should hurry to go meet him. And how speedily we often escape from His Word and His church to indulge in our pleasures. But Jesus still has patience with us, loves and forgives us. Oh, Lord Jesus, it will be better. Help me, take me by the hand, speak to me, and give me joy and Easter faith! Then everything will be fine. Amen.

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