A Resurrection Sunday Sermon:
The importance of the resurrection:
The resurrection of Christ must not be downplayed.“[The resurrection] stands as the heart of the early Christian message” (Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, 353). In fact, “… the resurrection of Jesus is at the heart of the Christian gospel. Without the resurrection, Jesus’ ministry ends in defeat. But everything changes if ‘he is not here, for he was raised, just as he said’ (28:6)” (Turner, Matthew, 682).
It is in the light of the resurrection that we see Jesus validated as truly the Son of God. Without the resurrection of Jesus, there is no Christianity.
With this in mind, we turn to discuss our passage today: Matthew 28:1-10.
But first, I must tell you of a funny thing happened to me as I was walking to church the other day. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a cockroach walking from left to right across the sidewalk in front of me. It is not often that I’ve seen a cockroach walking around outside in downtown Toronto, so this was strange, but not unheard of. At about the same time I saw a leaf fluttering down on the right side of my vision. Then the two met on the ground in the exact same place. What I thought was a cockroach was actually the shadow of the leaf falling.
Something is similar of Easter weekend. What looks like a nasty and pointless death is the dark, creeping shadow of the beautiful new reality coming down from heaven: the resurrection of Christ, “the firstborn from the dead” (Colossians 1:18), the “first fruits” of the harvest of the end time (1 Corinthians 15:23).
The Dawn of the New Creation at the Empty Tomb – A New Time!
1 Now after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the grave.
According to Mark 16:1 the women have come to anoint Jesus’ body. They know where it is because they saw him placed there. These faithful women have come, whereas the disciples have not. “Significantly, once again women are closest to Jesus at a crucial point in the passion story (Matt. 28:1; cf. 26:7; 27:56, 61). The disciples, who promised undying loyalty, are still scattered (26:31-35)” (Turner, 680). The disciples, it seems, really don’t want anything to do with Jesus at this point.
In this first verse, before we hear of Jesus’ resurrection and the new reality He has brought, we hear the faint whisper of His voice. We hear the gentle tick tock of a grandfather clock.
Now, I don’t want to make too much of this point, but I believe it is here in the text. What we see here in Matthew’s reference to time is, in fact, a reference to the reconfiguration of time.
It is not only the dawn of the first day of the week, but the dawn of the new creation in Christ Jesus. What used to be the holy day of the week – the Jewish sabbath – has been replaced by the day of the resurrection of Christ.
In Christ we see the opening up of a new time zone, a new timeline, a new era. In Christ we can say that “now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2); if we harden our hearts against God on this day of rest, then we can no longer call it “today” for we are no longer within the timeline of salvation (see Hebrews 3:1-4:11).
We must pay attention as we read on, for it is the dawn of the first day of the new creation.
The Dawn of the New Creation at the Empty Tomb – New Bodies!
2 And behold, a severe earthquake had occurred, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled away the stone and sat upon it.
Another reason to stay awake as we read! Such strange events! The coming of an angel caused an earthquake. The angel is majestic and apparently terrifying!
The removal of the stone from the opening of the tomb not so that Jesus could get out. What we read elsewhere in the gospels about Jesus’ resurrection body being different and able to walk through walls is true of this event. In Jesus, we see the new creation that He is bringing about; we see something of the resurrection bodies that Christians wait for in hope.
The removal of the stone from the opening of the tomb was a sign for the women. For the reader of Matthew’s gospel it is a sign of the strangeness of the new creation.
G. E. Ladd writes that Jesus’ very much bodily presence “seemed to belong to a different order of reality” in that “it had the amazing power to appear and disappear at will.” Ladd goes on: “Furthermore, a close study of the text nowhere suggests that the stone of the tomb was rolled away from the tomb to let Jesus out. The earthquake and rolling back of the stone are recorded by Matthew (28:2) as a sign of a wonderful event, not as the event itself. There can be only one conclusion: the body of Jesus was gone before the stone was rolled away. It did not need to be removed for him to escape the tomb; he had already escaped it” (Ladd, 361).
In other words, Christ has returned fully embodied, and yet there are things about His body that go beyond what we know as natural. Again, here we see the beginning of a new creation.
Christians eagerly await their new, spiritual bodies, which Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 15. In Romans, Paul writes: “For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.” (Romans 8:22-23). He is talking about the resurrection of the saints.
In their own way, each injured knee and grey hair is a lament, a longing for restoration. The sore back and pulled muscle, the dim eye and hearing aid are reminders that our body is falling down the mountain – not on its way up to the pinnacle. For Christians this strengthens hope, for we are sure of the new creation to come. Christians know that “just as we have borne the image of the earthly, we will also bear the image of the heavenly” (1 Corinthians 15:49).
Christ will come again and the things of earth will be shaken and will not remain. But in Christ there is a new creation and “since we [will] receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude…” (Hebrews 12:28a).
Now, after spending so much time on the first two verses, I want to read the next eight altogether. Again we will see that Christ’s resurrection opens up the possibility of a new creation for those who will follow Him.
The Dawn of the New Creation on the way to Galilee – A New Family!
3 And [the angel’s] appearance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. 4 The guards shook for fear of him and became like dead men. 5 The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; for I know that you are looking for Jesus who has been crucified. 6 He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said. Come, see the place where He was lying. 7 Go quickly and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead; and behold, He is going ahead of you into Galilee, there you will see Him; behold, I have told you.”
8 And they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy and ran to report it to His disciples. 9 And behold, Jesus met them and greeted them. And they came up and took hold of His feet and worshiped Him. 10 Then Jesus *said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and take word to My brethren to leave for Galilee, and there they will see Me.”
There is much to say here, but I wish only to draw out the implication of the repetition of the missions that are given to the women. It seems strange that Jesus meets these women on the road and affirms their mission to speak with the disciples. What is the need for this visit? Why are the women told twice of this mission?!
Perhaps Jesus simply did want to say hi to them since they wouldn’t be at the gathering of the eleven which was to happen later in Galilee. Perhaps also we are to see how important this meeting with the disciples is to be, so that it needs to be doubly affirmed.
Yet, there is one word used only in the second commissioning that catches my attention: Jesus here calls the disciples “brothers.” As Turner notes, “the ‘family’ metaphor shows much love and patience, since the disciples have just run away from home, as it were, when they deserted Jesus. But Jesus welcomes the prodigals back” (Turner, 682).
Another commentator, France, puts it more eloquently: “… there is one significant new element [to this second giving of the mission to the women], the description of the male disciples as “my brothers”(as in John 20:17). The concept itself is not new; cf. 12:46–50; 25:40. But now it follows the abject failure of the Twelve to stand with Jesus when the pressure was on, a failure which was hardly less shameful because Jesus had predicted it in 26:31. But now it is time for the second half of that prediction also to be fulfilled (26: 32), and that Galilean meeting will eventually restore the family relationship which they must surely have thought had come to an end in Gethsemane” (France, The Gospel of Matthew, Loc. 22813).
This one word marks a new post-resurrection beginning for the disciples. There is a tremendous difference between the message that the angels gave to the women and the message that Jesus gave, and it is in this one word: “brothers.” As is noted in Hebrews 2:11: “He is not ashamed to call them brethren.”
The same is true for you and me; this quote in Hebrews is not only about the apostles, but a word of comfort for all who are called by God. So, in our disgrace and lack of faith let us hear His voice afresh, let us hear it today, on this day of salvation: “I come to you and gather you into My family; I am not ashamed to call you my brother. I cover over your shame; I forgive you. And in Me you are made utterly new.”
Making an apologetic point, Ladd correctly writes that “… the transformation of Jesus’ disciples from a terrified, hopeless, disappointed band to the bold preachers of Jesus as Messiah and the agent of salvation was caused by his resurrection from the dead” (Ladd, 353). But there is more to their transformation than the mere fact of the resurrection. Forgiveness and renewal are essential to this story, as Jesus’ use of the word “brothers” shows, as well as the restoration of Peter and the showing of His body to Thomas.
Ladd continues on his apologetic point, combating the false notion that the disciples merely imagined meeting Jesus or hallucinated because of some deep hope they had in their hearts that they would see Him again: “The experience of visions requires certain preconditions on the part of the subjects concerned; and these preconditions were totally lacking in the disciples of Jesus. To picture the disciples after Jesus’ death as nourishing fond memories of Jesus, of longing to see him again, of expectancy that he could not really die, is contrary to the evidence of the Gospels. [i.e., they had utterly abandoned Him, very much unlike the women] … It may not be flattering to the disciples’ faith to say that it could come into being only as the result of an experience with some objective reality; but this is the testimony of the Gospels” (Ladd, 357-8).
Yet this experience of the resurrected Christ would have meant nothing without his accepting them, forgiving them, and drawing them into his new creation family.
The same is true for you and me. There is a new creation, a new life, a new family and identity in Christ. Today is the day of salvation. Take hold of Him in faith. The devil will say to you that your sins are too great, too many, too heavy and that this holy Christ would never want you. But the story of the cross and resurrection tell us otherwise. Here we learn that Christ came to die for sinners, taking their place, removing their sins. Here we learn that Christ came to bring a new kind of life, a life-beyond-death to those who would follow after Him, including those who had utterly turned from Him. It was His words and His presence that would make them new. We cannot make ourselves new. Our bodies will continue to remind us that they have not yet “put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:53). Only He can make us new, only he can cleanse us and give us a life that can never be shaken. And He does so graciously.
Though Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday seems separated by much (earthly) time, according to the reckoning of the “today” of salvation, they are intimately connected. Picking up on Paul’s language of “first fruits” in 1 Corinthians 15:23, Ladd observes: “While Paul is here [i.e., in 1 Cor. 15] concerned with the [end-time] resurrection of saints at the [second coming of Christ], this [end-time] resurrection is inseparable from the resurrection of Jesus because he describes these two resurrections as two parts of a single event. The resurrection of Jesus is the firstfruits of the eschatological resurrection (1 Cor. 15:20). All who are in Christ stand in solidarity with him as all who are in Adam stand in solidarity with Adam. All in Adam share Adam’s death, so all who are in Christ will share in Christ’s life [1 Cor. 15:23]” (Ladd, 362).
Have faith in this Christ. He is not ashamed to call you His brothers, his sisters, his family. In Him you are justified; in Him you are sanctified; in Him you are made new. No one can do this for themselves, no matter how great or holy. This is the gift of God. Hallelujah!
In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “When dark hours come, and when the darkest hour comes upon us, then let us hear the voice of Jesus Christ, which cries in our ears: victory is won. Death is swallowed up in victory. Be comforted. And God grant that we may be able to say then: I believe in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. In this belief, let us live and die” (Bonhoeffer, A Testament to Freedom, 299).
May God grant that the light of the resurrection of Christ warm our hearts, enlighten our eyes, and direct us in the way everlasting. Amen.