We Rise

Lesson: Colossians 3:1-4 (from The Message); Matthew 28:1-10

I heard a true story last week about a priest. It was Easter morning mass. The priest went to the pulpit and said, “You’ve heard the story. Think about it.” And then he sat down.

It’s tempting. How do you explain a story that defies explanation? I realize the question on many minds this morning is, “Did the resurrection really happen? Was Jesus raised from the dead?” I get it. Even though we all joined in saying, “Christ is risen!” in our call to worship, I know that if I asked you to be as honest as possible in answering the question, “Do you believe in the resurrection?” we’d get about 250 different answers on a spectrum ranging from, “Yes, absolutely,” to “No way” and everything in between.

Matthew’s version of Easter morning doesn’t make it any easier. Of all the Gospels, Matthew’s version probably wins the prize for “least believable.” Only Matthew has the earthquake, a bookend to the earthquake at the time of Jesus’ death.[1] The earthquake announces the angel, who really knows how to make an entrance. His appearance is “like lightening”[2] – I picture him sort of sizzling and popping with power, radiating danger; I’d cast Chris Hemsworth in the role, so just picture Thor in dazzling white clothing.[3] In the other gospels, the tomb was already open when the women arrive, but this buff angel rolls back the stone right then and there, as the women look on. Jesus is gone; apparently, the stone was no obstacle for him. The angel sits on the stone, crossing his angelic arms, and glances over at the security guards – only Matthew mentions these guards[4] – who are in some sort of terror-induced coma. You see the irony: the living look dead and the dead are alive? The angel doesn’t speak to them. His assurances are for the women only: “You don’t need to be afraid.”

The angel says Jesus has been raised – just as he said he would. This is a bit of an “I told you so;” Jesus predicted his resurrection three times in Matthew’s gospel.[5] The angel then says, “Go tell the disciples. Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee.” The women take off and run headlong into Jesus. In awe and surprise they grab onto him and Jesus echoes the angel: “You have nothing to fear. Go tell my brothers I’ll meet them in Galilee.” It’s the first time in Matthew’s gospel that Jesus calls the disciples his brothers.[6]

How did all this come about? We don’t know. Where has Jesus been? We don’t know. How will he get to Galilee? We don’t know. Not only does Matthew not explain how all this works; he doesn’t even explain what it all means. Matthew just announces. He proclaims. Like the priest, he tells the story, and sits down.

The thing is, the original readers of Matthew’s gospel wouldn’t have asked for the kinds of explanations we 21st century folks want. They didn’t put things in the same categories we do; they didn’t think, “Well, this event is scientifically provable so it’s true, but this other one is supernatural and therefore suspect, if not outright unbelievable.” They had entirely different questions, such as, “What unexpected truth does this unexpected event tell us?”

What unexpected truth does resurrection tell us? The Gospels don’t spell it out. They do show us a lot about the person who was raised – about Jesus. As a child, he was a refugee.[7] As an adult, he had no place to lay his head.[8] He broke the rules about holiness. He spoke out against the government.[9] He insisted that mercy triumphs over judgment.[10] He chose to love and live among religious and political outcasts, and called them beloved children of God – and that made him an outcast, as well.[11] He called proper, upstanding people hypocrites[12] and said that love was more important than money, power, status, everything[13] – so important we need to love even our enemies[14] – our enemies, for God’s sake. That’s why he was killed. As someone put it last week, Good Friday is not a celebration of religion; it’s a warning to religion.

That’s who Jesus was and that’s who was raised. That’s who God chose to raise. It wasn’t just shocking; it was positively scandalous. So what unexpected truth does that tell us? What does it tell us about God? What does it tell us about – us?

The New Testament has an unusual way of describing Jesus after the resurrection. He’s “the firstborn of the dead,”[15] or the “firstborn of all creation;”[16] the firstborn “of many brothers [and sisters];”[17] the pioneer of faith,[18] leading the way into a new day, a new era, a new way of life, a new creation. So it starts to make sense that the risen Jesus calls the disciples his brothers.

Easter doesn’t celebrate that one man rose from the dead. Easter celebrates new resurrection life, as the Colossians passage puts it, for all of us. For all of us, now. Jesus was just the first, but all humanity can rise from what is deadly – deadly to us, and deadly to our whole world. Not sometime in the future, but now, and ongoing. Again and again, the Gospel writers call Jesus “the son of man,” an enigmatic title that one of my seminary professors translates as the “the new human being.”[19] We tend to skip over all this “son of man” talk because it’s confusing, but maybe the gospel writers used it all the time because it matters. Maybe what they’re trying to tell us is that Jesus is the first of a new generation of humanity; Humanity 2.0, we might say.[20] Resurrection invites us to join him in Humanity 2.0, in “resurrection life.”[21] Resurrection life says, “You don’t have to wait for some distant future to start practicing kindness, nonviolence, reconciliation, reverence, joy, hope, neighborliness, and peace. You can leave the old humanity behind and start practicing Humanity 2.0 now.”[22] We can join the resurrection, now. We can rise. Now.

And that leads me to the reason I won’t ask you to raise your hands if you believe the resurrection happened. “Did it happen?” is the wrong question. The right question is, “Is it happening?”

The promise of the resurrection is not simply what God has done, but what God is still doing. Easter is not over; it is ongoing.

I read a story about a snapping turtle found crossing a highway in New Jersey. Snapping turtles aren’t especially pretty, and they can take off your finger if you’re not careful. This turtle was even more ugly than most. It was grossly deformed by a plastic bottle top, a ring about an inch-and-a-half in diameter that the turtle had accidentally acquired as a hatchling, when it, too, was about an inch-and-a-half in diameter. When they found it on the road, the turtle was nearly a foot long, and about 9 pounds. The ring cinched the turtle so that it looked like a figure 8.

The people who found the turtle realized if they left it alone, it would die. It could survive with the ring at 9 pounds, but a full-grown snapping turtle can weigh 30 pounds. So they snipped the ring. And – nothing happened. Nothing. Except for one thing: at that moment, the turtle had a future. It was set free. It was rescued. It was saved. It would take years for the animal to grow into more normal proportions, maybe decades. Perhaps even in old age, it would still be somewhat guitar-shaped. But it would survive.

In much the same way, our species has been deformed by a ring of selfishness, greed, injustice, fear, prejudice, arrogance, apathy, chauvinism, and ignorance. When we say Jesus is savior, it’s because he snipped the ring by loving, forgiving, teaching, suffering, dying, rising, and more. And he’s still working to restore us, to lead us, to heal us. Jesus is still in the process of saving us. Jesus is still calling us to rise, to be set free, to be rescued from that ring – to be saved.[23] Will humanity choose greed, apathy, and civilizational suicide – or will we choose resurrection, freedom, hope? Will we choose the Humanity 2.0 that God offers us?

Brian McLaren writes in the quotation on your bulletin covers, “As the sun rises Easter morning, everything changes. The emphasis shifts from what lies behind to what lies ahead of us, from what we have done to what God is doing, from what we have been to what we shall become.”[24]

My friends, Christ is risen, and we shall rise. We shall rise, indeed. May it be so for you, and for me. Amen, and alleluia!

© Joanne Whitt 2017 all rights reserved.

[1] Matthew 27:50-54; Herman C. Waetjen, The Origin and Destiny of Humanness (San Rafael, CA: Crystal Press, 1976), 252.

[2] Matthew 28:3.

[3] Chris Hemsworth plays Thor in the movies based on the Marvel comic character.

[4] Matthew 27:62-66.

[5] Matthew 16:21, 17:9, 20:17-19.

[6] Matthew 28:10; Waetjen, 254.

[7] Matthew 2:13-15.

[8] Matthew 8:20.

[9] Matthew 22:15-22.

[10] Matthew 5:7, 9:13.

[11] Matthew 9:10-13.

[12] Matthew 23:1-36.

[13] Matthew 22:36-40.

[14] Matthew 5:43-48.

[15] Colossians 1:18; Revelation 1:5.

[16] Colossians 1:15.

[17] Romans 8:29.

[18] Hebrews 12:2.

[19] Waetjen, 254-255.

[20] McLaren, “Joining the Resurrection,” April 8, 2012, http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Joining-the-Resurrection-Brian-McLaren-04-09-2012.

[21] Colossians 3:1, 3.

[22] McLaren, “Joining the Resurrection.”

[23] McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 106-107.

[24] McLaren, “Joining the Resurrection.”

1 Comment

  1. William Patrick Patterson

    Sat 22nd Apr 2017 at 11:20 pm

    Rev. Whitt,

    I’m a Christmas/Easter attendee so I don’t hear many sermons but
    your words I took with me and wished I could hear then again. Thank you for publishing it.

    William Patrick Patterson

    Reply

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