Sunday, April 9, 2023

Sermon: "Unlocking Salvation" (Easter Sunday), Matthew 28 (April 9, 2023)


Christ is risen! [He is risen, indeed!]

I just had to get that out of the way up front. There’s a common anxiety among pastors that arises every single year – “What on EARTH can I say about this story that hasn’t been said before?” The prevailing wisdom, of course, is that we don’t HAVE to say something new; our job is to preach the good news as it’s been given to us, just as the women did on that first Easter morning so many years ago. So, again, I proclaim: Christ is risen! [He is risen, indeed!]

But as wise as that insight may be, it feels more idealistic than realistic. The story may be timeless and unchanging, but the ways of telling it are definitely NOT. If it were, we would have ONE version of these events in our holy scriptures. ONE. But in fact, our faith tradition hinges on the fact that there are no fewer than FOUR versions of Jesus’ life that we hold as authoritative. Four different ways of telling this story, which are all considered equally important. Four different writers with zero sympathy for the task of coming up with something new to say on Easter Sunday.

To be fair, most of the bullet points of these four accounts are pretty similar – the parts that we reiterate every year. Early in the morning, the women (usually Mary Magdalene, sometimes with others, but always women) come to the tomb, where they encounter a heavenly messenger of some sort. The messenger tells them that Jesus is risen, and the women rush out, either in fear or excitement (or both), to tell others what they’ve heard and seen. At some point (sometimes before the rushing out, sometimes after) they meet the risen Christ himself, thereby having indisputable proof of the resurrection. Eventually, the word spreads, and Jesus sends his followers out into the world to preach the good news to everyone.

In this respect, the good news is consistent and clear: the stone standing between us and God has been rolled away. The door has been opened, and Jesus’ love is the key. There’s nothing left to keep us apart from God – not sin, not death, nothing! Christ has unlocked our salvation and assured our redemption once and for all through his life, death, and most importantly, resurrection. Can I get an amen?

But there are a couple of things unique to Matthew’s account that I want to draw our attention to, since it’s his particular version of the story that we’ve been following for the past six weeks. First, the stone. This narrative relies so fundamentally on the stone being gone from the tomb that we tend to take its removal for granted and don’t give it much thought. In Mark, Luke, and John’s gospels, the women arrive at the tomb to find that the stone has already been rolled away. But in Matthew’s gospel, and ONLY Matthew’s gospel, we get to watch as the stone is rolled away in front of them. “After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the tomb. Look, there was a great earthquake, for an angel from the Lord came down from heaven. Coming to the stone, he rolled it away and sat on it.”

Friends, we live in a world where the stone has ALWAYS been rolled away for us. Our relationship with God has never been predicated on purity rituals, animal sacrifices, or priestly intervention. In our faith tradition, we don’t have to pray to saints or confess to clergy in order to receive divine assistance or forgiveness. The door is wide open to us; all we have to do is walk through. And after a while, as with the stone, it can become easy to take that for granted.

But when we read Matthew’s account, we’re reminded that this is a BIG deal. At the tomb, the women actually come face to face with the enormous stone – the embodiment of everything standing between us and God. The stone in front of the tomb was meant to keep people out; it would have been impossible for the Marys to remove it for themselves. By all rights, it should have kept them – and us – cut off from God indefinitely. But in God’s unfathomable mercy and love, the impossible was made possible. Not by just making the stone disappear (after all, we can’t “undo” our sin) but by making it so that it no longer stands in the way: by rolling the immovable stone aside. This thing that God has done is no mean feat. And the women in Matthew’s gospel got to witness it in real time as it happened. They could see that something big was going on before they even set foot in the tomb.

Our sin isn’t gone – heaven knows that what we confess in worship every week is only a fraction of the things that we need to repent of. But the Easter promise is that in every single moment, God is STILL rolling that stone out of the way, offering us forgiveness before it even occurs to us to ask for it. Like the women at the tomb, we get to watch it happen in real time and rejoice that the door is once again open to us. [*knock*knock* “ALLELUIA!”] THAT is the good news of the tomb, friends. Today, let’s not just celebrate the barrier being gone, but recognize what God was willing to do – and is STILL willing to do – to make sure that the door to God will always and forever be open to us. And THAT’S good news worth sharing, no?

There’s one other unique part of Matthew’s gospel that I want to mention. According to Matthew, the guards see this impossible thing taking place just like the women, and they run to tell the chief priests and the elders. In an account that appears nowhere else in scripture, the religious leaders make a decision to bribe the guards, instructing them to spread the word that this so-called “miracle” was nothing more than a deception by Jesus’ disciples. And this manipulated report, Matthew notes, has spread to “this very day”.

The literal stone has been rolled away, but instead of embracing this news as the women do, the religious leaders choose to metaphorically create another one to take its place – a pattern that also persists to this very day. Human beings still take it upon themselves to regulate and selectively administer the Gospel, although God has never asked us to. Through Jesus’ life, ministry, and resurrection, it’s clear to anyone who cares to pay attention that Jesus hasn’t just handed us the key to the kindom to distribute as we see fit. Jesus has busted the door off its hinges; he’s opened the floodgates; he’s unlocked the lion’s cage. There’s no controlling this Good News.

The Gospel is loose in the world, and not just for some of us – it’s been unleashed for everyone! Yet there are still those who insist on constructing artificial doors to keep certain people away from the truth of the Gospel message and from God. They see the opened door, the empty tomb, but instead of following Christ’s commands – to love your neighbor, to love one another, and to teach this love to ALL nations – they stand in front of the open door, desperately trying to block it with their own bodies, crying out, “Move along; nothing for YOU to see here!”

As an Easter people hearing the Good News with fresh ears this morning, we have a choice to make: do we respond like the women at the tomb or like the religious leaders? Do we celebrate the news and share it joyfully with everyone we meet, or do we keep the truth to ourselves because it’s “too dangerous” for “those people” to have access to? Do we report it exactly as it’s been handed down to us, or do we twist it, modify it, change it to better serve our purposes? Do we point to the divine open door, or do we create a new human one to take its place?

Now, one could argue that the chief priests’ and elders’ motivation was malicious, while those who do it today generally have good intentions – wanting to “protect” the Church, to keep it from getting hijacked by secular culture or politics. From the Crusades to the current culture wars, people have hoarded the Gospel for all sorts of what they believe to be good reasons, but no matter what those reasons may be, they are, and always have been, wrong.

Jesus did not destroy the barriers between God and humanity just for us to create new ones. There is NO good reason to make the Gospel message anything other than what it is: a message of love and redemption for all of humanity. The fact that it’s controversially inclusive and socially disruptive is the very thing that makes it worth sharing at all. Christ has died for all, Christ is risen for all, Christ will come again for all, so that humanity might finally live in a kindom not organized according to merit or status or piety, but according to love, and love, and extravagant love. Alleluia and thanks be to God!

So I guess the conventional wisdom about preaching is right after all. There’s plenty of ways for us to tell the story, plenty for us to notice for the first time…but at the end of the day, the Good News itself is the same: Salvation is ours – and theirs, and everyone’s. Christ IS risen! [“He is risen, indeed!”]. The door to the kindom is unlocked [*knock*knock* “ALLELUIA!”]. And ALL are welcome. YOU are welcome. May we have ears to hear this Good News, and hearts prepared to live it. Amen.

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