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Easter Transformation

A sermon on Matthew 28:1-10

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here]

Normally it is easy for me to find inspiration for an Easter sermon – Easter is kind of the point of my whole faith and ministry … but this year is not quite like any other year, is it?

I know how desperately we all need a message of resurrection hope as we daily face the threat, or maybe even the reality, of death and mourning. But it’s hard to find the right note of celebration about an empty tomb, when we are all still trapped in our own house-bound confinement, with no clear idea of when our stone will be rolled away. And it’s hard to speak with joy about the fullness of resurrection life, when I am preaching to a nearly-empty sanctuary.

A few days ago, I took my frustration to a book of blessings by Jan Richardson and read through the section for Holy Week. I didn’t really expect to find anything helpful in an Easter poem – given how Un-Easterish this moment feels – but then I read this:

“You had not imagined

That something so empty

Could fill you

to overflowing,

and now you carry

the knowledge

like an awful treasure

or like a child

that curls itself

within your heart:

how the emptiness

will bear forth

a new world

you cannot fathom

but on whose edge

you stand….”[1]

Of course, the emptiness that Jan Richardson is writing about is the empty tomb, not an empty church, but her words still shook me with the force of the earthquake described in today’s gospel.

You had not imagined that something so empty could fill you to overflowing…”

She is right. I had not imagined as few as 5 weeks ago that I could be filled by worship spoken into a camera phone… but I have been, many times in the last weeks. I had not imagined that I could feel so connected to you all during a season of prolonged separation, and yet you are in my thoughts, and prayers, and e-mail inbox in daily ways now, that are new and precious. And I had not imagined, although I should have, the way that the Easter story truly can penetrate stifling, grief-filled circumstances, if I will just be still and let it shake me as God’s angel shook the earth in rolling away the grave stone.

There is actually a stunning parallel between our awkward, fear-filled, isolated Easter morning this year, and the Easter morning lived by the two Mary’s, who crept through empty, shadowed, early-morning streets to go to see the tomb where their Lord had been laid.

We are not told what they expected to find at the tomb. In Matthew’s gospel, they are not carrying burial spices to anoint the body or worrying about how to roll away the stone. Perhaps they were going there simply to mourn. Or perhaps they were carrying in their hearts a secret hope, a clinging to the words that Jesus had spoken before his death, about dying and rising again in three days.

But even if that’s true. Even if they went to witness resurrection, they could not know what that would mean. Because resurrection is not the same as restoration. It is not a turning back the clock that returns life to the state before death’s shattering interruption.

How could it be? We cannot un-experience trauma and grief. We cannot simply put death behind us as an unpleasant interlude that makes no real difference in the end. The resurrection of Jesus – his own and his promised resurrection for us – is about NEW life, not old life.

So, whatever the women were expecting, it could not have been what they found:

A scene where soldiers faint in fear, while women are commissioned to carry’s God’s message;

An empty grave that filled them with both fear and joy;

An encounter with their Risen Lord who was both completely recognizable, and also deeply changed.

Because he was changed. The transformation in Jesus is perhaps the most overlooked but important aspect of the Easter story. Jesus was changed by death and resurrection.

Mathew’s portrait of Jesus up to his arrest had been that of an utterly uncompromising prophet, declaring divisions… between sheep and goats; between children of God’s kingdom and those cast into outer darkness; between those who are forgiven and those who are condemned. It is the portrait of a martyr moving inexorably toward execution, a martyr whose message against the God-denying empire will be vindicated when he dies a martyr’s death of total peace and exultation while the futile empire does its worst but cannot break him because he knows the righteousness of his cause.[2]

That is the end that we are lead to expect in Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ story. But that’s not how the story unfolds in the end. Jesus does not simply die in exalted peace… he also suffers. He finds in death the fullness of the pain and anguish that it holds for us, and he cries out in his final despair “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

This is NOT what we expect from Jesus, but – perhaps – it’s what we need. To see him so very close, sharing our pain and fear, in no way immune to human suffering. Such a Savior will not be offended if we are struggling a bit to capture Easter joy this year, because he really does understand what it is to fear death.

But that’s not the only transformation Jesus undergoes in this shattering, earthquake of a story. Death changes Jesus, yes. But, so does resurrection.

We see this change in his words of embracing grace to the women: “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

“Tell my brothers”… the ones who failed, and denied, and doubted and abandoned me… tell them that they are still my brothers and I am coming to meet them.

No uncompromising division here; no differentiation between the faithful and the faithless. Just grace. Just promise. Just a call to join. Jesus has apparently learned a deeper truth about God’s kingdom and God’s grace. A truth that goes beyond division into transformation.

The transformation that happens with resurrection is why our altar is decorated with butterflies today. Because butterflies are God’s most stunning created image of the kind of transformation that comes through resurrection. The transformation from caterpillar to butterfly is not an easy one. It involves a total disruption, a dissolving of almost everything that has come before, so that a new and more beautiful life can emerge from the cocoon.

The life that came before is gone. It cannot be restored. And we may well grieve that loss. But there is new life, new beauty that comes out of the cocoon… out of the tomb.

And that is the hope to which we hold today… we who are still, in a sense, in the tomb… still grappling with the grief, and fear, and dissolving of the life we have always known. We hold to the hope that while death is real, so is transformation! And at the end of this ordeal we won’t just go back to our old lives, the lives we had before. Because we have the possibility of NEW life, of resurrection.

This time of death, and fear, and maybe even of despair, can change us just as it changed Jesus. It can take away our instincts for division. It can teach us about grace. It can bring us through death to a NEW life that is unafraid and that embraces Jesus’s call to go and see him wherever he shows up, including where he shows up OUTSIDE the church!

The blessing I shared at the beginning of this sermon has a second half that is also worth hearing. From the revelation about emptiness bearing forth a new world, it asks a driving question:

So why do you linger?

You have seen,

and so you are

already blessed.

You have been seen

and so you are

the blessing.

There is no other word

you need.

There is simply

to go

and tell.

There is simply

to begin.[3]

We cannot yet “go.” We are still called to stay still, in our cocoons, stuck in the mess of lives whose rearranged shape we cannot yet discern on the other side of our virtual graves.

But, even so, we can still tell – we can tell the Easter story, the story of hope, the story of transforming resurrection.

And in that telling, perhaps our own resurrection can begin.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Jan Richardson, “Seen – For Easter Day”, Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons. Orlando: Wanton Godspeller Press, 2015, p. 154.

[2] For a full exploration of this theme, see Richard Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Matthew:A Storyteller’s Commentary, Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2007.

[3] Jan Richardson, “Seen – For Easter Day”

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