We are accustomed to associating Easter Sunday with travel. What we are perhaps not accustomed to realize is that the Easter story involves travel, too. Today we don’t mind traveling in order to see loved ones, including on holidays like Christmas or Easter. Some of us routinely pack up our cars and hit the highway to travel from Omaha clear over to Washington D.C. because that’s where a precious family member currently lives. If you want to be together as a family for a day like Easter, you hit the road. It’s not at all unusual.
But what if someone proposed a long trip to you under very different circumstances? Suppose your daughter, who lives in the same Ohio town where you currently live, is going to have her first baby, your first grandchild. Finally, the day arrives when you get a call telling you that Jenny is on her way to the local hospital to have the baby. You wait, you pace, you bite your fingernails until later that day the phone rings again and it’s your son-in-law. “Mom! It’s a boy and we named him Jeremy. He’s gorgeous and perfect. We can’t wait for you to see him. To celebrate, we’re leaving shortly for Pittsburgh, so if you and Dad want to get in the car and drive on over to Pennsylvania, there you will see Jeremy!”
Well now, in this case the long journey gives pause. If you and the new grandson are both in the same town at the moment, why in the world whisk the tyke over to Pittsburgh! Why do you need to go all the way over there to see the little guy when he’s already right here?!
But something very similar happens in Matthew 28. Jesus died, was buried, and was resurrected in Jerusalem, where the disciples are still staying, too, following the Passover holiday weekend. They have not yet gone home. But wonder of wonders on the first day of the week, the women of Jesus’ entourage claim Jesus has been raised. They heard it from an angel’s lips first but then bumped into the master himself! The disciples must have been shocked and not a little intrigued. Surely their first inclination was to run over and see Jesus for themselves.
But there’s a catch: the women report Jesus as instructing them to head over to Galilee and there they will see him.
Punch up a Google map. Notice: Galilee is nearly 80 miles to the north as the crow flies, maybe 90-100 miles on the ground! In those days you didn’t do a trip like that in a day, maybe not even two days. At a decent walking clip of about 4-5 miles per hour on foot it will be 20 hours or so to get there (and since few people can walk 20 hours non-stop, it would be a trip of 2-3 days if you allow for time to eat, rest, and sleep.
The Gospel according to Matthew tells us that the grandest event in galactic history happened just down the road from where the disciples were, and yet they could not celebrate Easter until they walked a very long way. Jesus and the disciples who were so eager to see their Lord were in close proximity initially but the reunion came only after a long trip.
After all, in one sense Jesus was already in a prime spot after he was raised from the dead. Jerusalem was the place to make a splash. Herod was there, Pontius Pilate was there, the Temple hierarchy was there—shoot, everybody who had convicted and killed Jesus was there. These are the people whom we would have suggested the resurrected Jesus visit. But true to form Jesus didn’t do it. It was back to Galilee for the resurrected Lord of life even as it was to Galilee that Jesus journeyed first following his baptism by John earlier in Matthew. The gospel ends the way it began: in an out-of-the-way place and in a very quiet, unassuming fashion.
It hardly looked like the way to get the attention of the whole world, even though doing that is more-or-less what Jesus commissions the disciples to do in Matthew’s famous closing verses. In the wake of Jesus’ entire life, and now certainly of his amazing resurrection, we are to go out and tell everyone about Jesus. But how do we do that? Does Matthew 28 provide any hints or clues? In a way I think it does.
To start, notice what Matthew 28 does not provide. In Matthew Jesus proffers no explanation for just how his death and resurrection “work” to help other people. Obviously Jesus benefitted from his own resurrection, but how does it help you or me or anyone else? Jesus does not say. In fact, in Matthew 28 Jesus does not even mention the words “salvation,” “sin,” “atonement.”
All that we have is Jesus alive again, claiming that somehow he now holds all the authority in the universe. So what the disciples are commissioned to do is to tell people that Jesus is alive. Somehow we need to bring people into the presence of this supremely alive Person in the hope that once they meet Jesus, everything else will fall into place. Our message is life. Our message is affirming of creation and of our lives in it. Our message is joy and, even if it takes a long trip to journey to get to where Jesus is, it’s worth the trip because of the life-affirming exuberance that awaits us at our destination. We are supposed to be zesty people as Christians, radiating life and goodness in a world of death and rottenness.
The first Easter began with a long journey. But it was worth the trip for the disciples because life and joy and wholeness were waiting at the destination. The question Easter poses to us today is whether we exude that same life now, whether we are an attractive destination toward which people would be willing to travel to meet Jesus.
That’s a tricky question for us to face these days. Today there is a tendency to confuse exuding true life with exuding success in the glitzy way the world defines success. Today some confuse resurrection joy with spine-tingling excitement the way Disney World and Hollywood define such excitement. Matthew says that to get to Jesus the disciples had to head out into the sticks to a remote place where they encountered the quiet joy of Jesus. But today some prefer to keep Jesus on Main Street, packaging the gospel like a tailor-made, catered product for the “my way right away” generation of consumers.
There can be no doubt that churches should be places of deep-seated joy; they should be zestful places of life and holy liveliness, and not places of death and finger-wagging judgment only. But those precious features need to be on display in very Christ-like ways. Jesus tells us that our post-Easter job is to embody and also teach all that he commanded. But what kinds of things did Jesus have in mind? What has Jesus “commanded” in Matthew? After all, to the chagrin of the Pharisees Jesus had not exactly behaved like some morality cop. Jesus did not strut around Palestine like some moral drill sergeant. So what “commands” could Jesus have had in mind in Matthew 28?
Well, Jesus commanded that we love each other. Jesus commanded that we love our enemies and show compassion to all neighbors. Jesus commanded that we be forgiving, that we seek the lost, that we welcome those whose status in life is like that of lowly little children. In short, Jesus commanded a kingdom life even as he repeatedly said in parables that the kingdom of God is small, hidden, even invisible by the world’s standards. At the core of the kingdom is joy and grace, kindness and compassion, mercy and love. That’s mostly quiet stuff. Compassion doesn’t make a lot of noise typically, neither do grace and kindness. Yet Jesus says these are resurrection fruits. Jesus was God’s action in the world. If we want to get in on that action, we need to be like Jesus.
That is the irony of Matthew 28. We are so familiar with this famous passage that we maybe don’t recognize the irony but think about it: the disciples have Jesus back again. There he is, undeniably real and alive and in the flesh. It is highly dramatic. Surely the disciples wanted to show him off, rush him back to Jerusalem where they could drop in on King Herod or Pontius Pilate or the chief priests in order to say, “Look who we’ve got back with us! We win, you lose! Now do you believe in Jesus as the Messiah!?” But Jesus authorizes nothing of the kind. Why do you think he left Jerusalem? Probably to avoid precisely that kind of overly dramatic, loud, brash bashing of people with the drama of it all.
Go back to my earlier analogy about the grandchild being whisked to Pittsburgh: if such an odd thing really were done, there would have to be a very, very good reason for it. So also with Jesus leaving the disciples behind in Jerusalem, delaying their experience of Easter by a day or two: there must have been a good reason. Perhaps that reason was that the glitz and glamour of how a raised person would be received in so big a town was what Jesus wanted to avoid. So it is no surprise to discover at the end of Matthew 28 Jesus authorizing something much quieter, though no less sincere, vital, and alive. Indeed, do you know what Jesus left them with? Just water and words. Jesus gives them baptism and his own words from the gospel.
Why didn’t Jesus stay in Jerusalem that first Easter Sunday? Why didn’t he shake people up with the drama of a visibly resurrected body? Maybe it’s just not the way to reach people, not the way God wants to change the world. For the disciples Easter began with a journey. To see Jesus the disciples had to hit the road and go to the quiet place where he was waiting for them. You have to wonder what they talked about along the way. Maybe they grumbled some. “Nothing is ever easy with being a disciple,” they perhaps muttered to each other while trudging that long road to Galilee.
No, discipleship is not easy. Our world is not clamoring to trudge over to those out-of-the-way latter-day mountaintops to let us introduce them to Jesus. Easter is not easy, nor is the Easter life we are called to live. But we are not alone! We do have Jesus with us, after all! And we do have his gospel. We do have his life to proclaim first and forever. That is more than enough for us to go on, more than enough to save the world.
[Note: For a sample sermon on John 20 and John’s account of Easter, it is linked here.]
A friend of mine was frustrated some while back at a meeting where at least a couple of people were hemming and hawing about taking this or that aspect of the Bible literally. This prompted my preacher friend to relate a story of something that happened to him probably thirty years ago. One Sunday he preached about Jesus’ resurrection. Monday morning, first thing, the phone rang. It was a high-powered, big city lawyer who had been in church the day before. “I need to talk to you right away,” the lawyer said. The pastor invited the man over and as the lawyer came into the study he immediately said, “I have just one question for you: do you believe that Jesus was really raised from the dead? Do you really believe it?”
“Yes, I really do,” the pastor replied.
The lawyer smiled and said, “Thank you, that’s all I needed to know.” And then he left.
Jesus really was raised from the dead. He really is still alive and he really is still right here in our every act of love, kindness, grace, compassion, and hope. Jesus lives and so do we. That’s all most people need to know.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 16, 2017
Matthew 28:1-10 Commentary