A Love Story in 2 Parts: Matthew 27:11-28:10- Easter Sunday

April 19, 2017
I chose these passages to be read this morning because it is important for us to sit with the story of the crucifixion before we can really appreciate the story of the resurrection. We don’t have a Good Friday observance here at Oxford Circle, and unless you’ve been intentional about reading through the story of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, trials, crucifixion, and burial, it can feel like we go from the Last Supper and Jesus washing his disciples’ feet straight to the joy of the resurrection. We just skip over all the traumatic stuff in the middle. But Pastor Steve asked a very important question in his sermon last week. He asked “Can we still shout “Hosanna” when darkness covers our world? Can you still stand in solidarity with the Jesus Movement when you realize that our Savior is not the Savior who you expected, but the Savior who is executed?” You see if we don’t sit with the fact that Jesus was executed in a brutal manner and was dead from Friday afternoon until Sunday morning, we can never fully appreciate the fact that on Sunday morning he came out of the grave and lives forever, the firstborn from the dead. We need to know that Jesus understands suffering and death, that He experienced that Himself, so that we can know He is with us in our own experiences of suffering and death.
The story of the Last Supper through to the Resurrection is one that is very personal. Throughout the series of events Jesus is experienced by people. It’s a story in which everyone who was there was a participant. At the Last Supper, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. We did that on Thursday night right in this room. As I was washing Natalie’s feet, I thought about what her journey in life had been and where her feet had taken her and where they will take her in the future and I found myself praying a prayer of blessing for her as I washed and dried her feet.
It made me realize that Jesus quite possibly was having similar thoughts as he washed the feet of his disciples. Where would these feet take them in the days, months, and years ahead? Maybe he was praying that these feet would be firm and steadfast in continuing to follow him even after he returned to heaven. It’s personal. He’s touching their feet, washing away the dirt and stinky stuff, feeling the callouses, maybe even getting nicked by ragged toenails. And when he comes to Peter, he gets resistance. Peter doesn’t want the Lord to wash his dirty, nasty feet. He feels it’s beneath Jesus. He’s denying Jesus access. But Jesus says, “If you don’t let me do this, if you deny me access to this part of yourself, you have no part with me.” It’s personal. Jesus loves us so much that he wants access to everything in our lives.
The second event at the Last Supper is when Jesus broke the bread and blessed the cup and said, “this is my body broken for you and my blood which is poured out for your sins.” Again, this is personal. He’s offering himself to his disciples. They need to have access to all of him in order to have eternal life. This is the new covenant, the new relationship we have with God through Jesus: a personal experience of him that is intimate and in which He is granted access to all the bits of our lives and we are granted access to him. This experience of the Last Supper wasn’t just for the disciples who were there. It was recorded and passed on and is remembered every time we celebrate communion. We take part in these events.
When Jesus goes to Gethsemane, he asks his disciples to stay awake and pray but they fail to do that. Every time he comes back from praying alone, they are asleep and he has to wake them up. Jesus is in agony in the garden. He’s wrestling with the very will of God. He doesn’t want to go through what is ahead. We often think of him not wanting to go through the physical pain of crucifixion, but I think he also was in agony because of the people he loved who would go through all this with him. Judas would betray him and then regret it to such an extent that he would commit suicide. Was Jesus praying for Judas, as he washed his feet, that even now these feet would turn from the path of destruction? Peter would deny 3 times that he knew Jesus. Did Jesus pray that Peter’s feet would stand firm through the days to come? All the rest of the disciples ran away. Did Jesus pray that their feet would bring them back and they would stick together in their despair and fear? In the garden he needed his disciples to be praying for him that he would stay firm, but they couldn’t keep awake.
We know from John’s gospel that Jesus prayed for each one of us on the night he was betrayed. In John 17:20-21 Jesus prayed “My prayer is not for them alone (meaning his disciples). I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message (that’s us), that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” We are in the garden with Jesus, in his heart and mind as he prayed.
Luke tells the story of Peter denying 3 times that he knew Jesus. He is the only gospel writer to include the detail that, after the 3rd denial, when the rooster crowed, Jesus turned and looked at Peter. That’s personal. Jesus knew when he heard the rooster crowing, that Peter had denied him 3 times. What was the expression on his face? What was he trying to convey to Peter in that look? I seriously doubt it was an “I told you so” look. It’s not just Peter that Jesus is looking at though. It is also us because each one of us has failed Jesus at one time or another. We’ve failed to be faithful. We’ve failed to pray. We’ve failed to love others. We’ve failed to extend grace to others. We are weak and we give in to our sinful nature. Jesus still looks at us. He doesn’t turn his face away from us. I believe that is what his look conveyed to Peter. I still love you.
When Jesus was before Pilate, Pilate asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Is that your own idea, or did others talk to you about me?” He’s asking Pilate, “What do you think? Am I the king of the Jews? Who do you think I am?” Instead of answering charges, as someone would do if they were standing before a judge, Jesus engages Pilate in a debate. He’s giving Pilate the opportunity to come to know him. This is personal. Jesus isn’t trying to defend himself but rather to open Pilate’s eyes to his own need. What is Jesus saying to each one of us? Who do we think he is?
As Jesus was being taken to the place of crucifixion, after being beaten and mocked, and having a crown of thorns put on his head, they met a man named Simon from Cyrene which is in Northern Africa, and they forced him to carry Jesus’ cross. This is personal. Simon was just going about his business when he got caught up in Jesus’ crucifixion. But perhaps through this experience he became a believer. Mark names him as the father of Alexander and Rufus, people known in the early church. Simon is not the only one to be affected by the crucifixion. The centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus exclaimed at his death “Surely he was the Son of God.” Here we have the first proclamation that the crucified Jesus is the Son of God and it comes from the mouths of the Romans who carried out his execution. This is personal. These men had carried out crucifixions before but they had never experienced anyone like Jesus. He cried out to God to forgive them, even after they had tortured and mocked him, and nailed him to the cross. He promised the thief beside him that he would be in paradise. He refused to curse those who cursed him, even as he hung in agony on the cross. He looked after his mother from the cross, telling his disciple to take care of her. Even as he was dying Jesus loved the people around him and invited them to love him back. This is personal.
I keep saying this is personal because each one of us needs to find ourselves in this story. We need to realize that this is about us. Jesus died for each one of us. Until we can accept that fact, we can never fully understand how much we are loved by God. It is our sin, mine and yours, that put Jesus on the cross. We often say that Jesus died for the sins of the world and that sounds like it’s everyone else. We think Jesus died because of the evil structures and powers in the world. And he did. But Jesus also died for my sins. It’s personal because I’m the one who put him on the cross. It’s personal because each one of you are responsible for putting him on the cross. Until we can grasp this truth, we can never truly appreciate the miracle of the resurrection. Jesus died because of us and our sins. He took the punishment that should have been ours. “The wages of sin is death,” says Paul. But instead of us dying, instead of me dying, “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all”, says the prophet Isaiah. This is personal. Jesus is dead because of me and because of you.
Read Matthew 28:1-10
If the story ended with us being responsible for the death of the Son of God, there wouldn’t be much hope. Jesus didn’t stay dead. How can the grave possibly contain the one who gives life? It’s like oil and water. They just don’t mix. Jesus is alive! And when he appears to the women, they grab hold of his feet. This could be a sign of honor and worship, but maybe it was as simple as they didn’t want him to go away from them again. They were determined to hold on to him. In John’s account of the resurrection, Jesus tells Mary Magdalene, “Don’t hold on to me; for I have not yet returned to the Father.” He couldn’t stay with them forever. He had to go back to the Father. But before that, he appeared to the disciples many times. And he kept inviting them to experience him. He tells Thomas to touch his wounds and believe that he is really alive. Jesus eats breakfast with the disciples. He talks to them about the Kingdom of God. He encourages them to stay together. When we read about the conversations Jesus had with his followers, there is a sense of intimacy in them. He knows these people and he speaks to their individual fears and concerns.
In each incident that takes place after the resurrection, people refuse to believe until they see Jesus for themselves. The couple on the road to Emmaus didn’t even recognize him as he talked with them. It wasn’t until he blessed and broke the bread at dinner that their eyes were opened and they realized they had been with Jesus. The men didn’t believe when the women told them Jesus was alive. Peter and John had to run to the tomb to see for themselves that his body was gone. But still Peter didn’t believe until Jesus appeared to them as they hid behind locked doors. Thomas wasn’t with them at the time and refused to believe until a week later when Jesus appeared again and said, “Here touch the wounds in my hands and feet. Put your hand into the wound in my side.” Each person had to have their own experience with the risen Christ in order to fully believe that he is alive. This is personal.
Just as we need to find ourselves in the crucifixion story, so we need to find ourselves in the resurrection story. The resurrection is for us. Jesus died for us and Jesus came back to life for us. He said, “I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” This is personal. We have the same Father and the same God as Jesus. This is because of the New Covenant. We no longer have to live separated from God because of our sin. The price for our sin has been paid and now we can live in a new relationship with God. We have been given new life. “If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation: the old has gone, the new has come.” Jesus is the firstborn from the dead and we are the ones who come after him.
What this means is that death no longer rules over our lives. Yes, we will die. But we will also live! We have eternal life even now. We can live in the power of the Holy Spirit and sin does not have to rule our lives any more. We can chose to live like Jesus and the Holy Spirit gives us the power to do that. And if we die, we are promised that we too, will be resurrected at the last day. Our physical bodies will be resurrected and we will live forever in the Kingdom of God. This is what we are celebrating today! Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. And those who die in Christ will live again. The resurrection is real and it is for me and it is for you.
In closing I want to read an Easter sermon by John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople in the late 4th century. Don’t worry, it’s short. Look for yourself in this reading.
“Is there anyone who is a devout lover of God? Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival! Is there anyone who is a grateful servant? Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord! Are there any weary with fasting? Let them now receive their wages! If any have toiled from the first hour, let them receive their due reward; If any have come after the third hour, let him with gratitude join in the Feast! And he that arrived after the sixth hour, let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss. And if any delayed until the ninth hour, let him not hesitate; but let him come too. And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour, let him not be afraid by reason of his delay. For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first. He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, as well as to him that toiled from the first. To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows. He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor. The deed He honors and the intention He commends. Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord! First and last alike receive your reward; rich and poor, rejoice together! Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!
You that have kept the fast, and you that have not, rejoice today for the Table is richly laden! Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one. Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith. Enjoy all the riches of His goodness! Let no one grieve at his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again; for forgiveness has risen from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free. He has destroyed it by enduring it. He destroyed Hades when He descended into it. He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh. Isaiah foretold this when he said, “You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below.” Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with. It was in an uproar because it is mocked. It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed. It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated. It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive. Hell took a body, and discovered God. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see. O death, where is thy sting? O Hades, where is thy victory?
Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated! Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down! Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice! Christ is Risen, and life is liberated! Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead; for Christ having risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!”