Sunday, April 07, 2024
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“Resurrection: It’s Not Just for Jesus”
By Rev.  Dr.  Jason Byassee
Sunday, April 7, 2024
Reading: Matthew 27:50-54

Someone wished me a happy belated Easter last week. I was pleased to tell him he was not late at all. Easter is a season in the church, not just a day. Lent is a 40-day season of repentance and self-denial. Easter is 50 days, ten days longer, because grace is greater than any sin. A scholar I admire sets aside difficult Greek interpretations for this suggestion: in Easter we should have champagne breakfasts every day. Death is defeated. Why aren’t we all celebrating all the time?

This is the first sermon in a two-month series called “More Resurrection.” Jesus’ resurrection isn’t just something cool that happens to him. It’s something he promises us too, and to every living thing he bothered to create in the first place. Jesus is the first one raised, but he is only the beginning. Resurrection is coming for all creation too.

Our reading this morning dips back into holy week to make the point. More than one of you told me in holy week that Good Friday is your favourite day of the year. The darkness, the sorrow. No one has to pretend to be happy on Good Friday. In fact, as you heard in our reading, all creation mourns when Jesus dies.

It was a few short verses you heard on the death of Jesus. And in those five verses I count four miracles. Which is a pretty good verse-to-miracle ratio, don’t you think?

One, the curtain of the temple is torn in two. To understand this, we need a moment on the Jerusalem temple. Only part of it is still there, part of the foundation, now usually called the Western Wall, it used to be called the Wailing Wall, but Jews do much more than wail there. They pray. And sway. And rock. And delight. And stuff handwritten prayers in the stones. This is the closest you can get to the ark of the covenant today. It’s as though God’s presence still permeates the rock.

The holy of holies in the temple is where the ark of the covenant was stored. If you grew up with Indiana Jones, like me, you remember the ark. That movie makes clear the two stone tablets with the ten commandments are inside, along with a legion of scary ghosts and Nazi face melting stuff. But there was also a container of the manna that the Israelites ate in the wilderness. There was also Aaron’s rod that bloomed in Pharaoh’s presence. But the key thing is the angels’ wings on top. They make a sort of throne, called the mercy seat. That’s God’s throne. It’s physically empty. God has no body. But that’s the symbolic throne for the maker of the world. Once a year on the day of atonement one priest would enter and splash blood on the mercy seat, to atone for the sins of Israel and the world. That place is the molten core of Israelite faith, the very presence of God.

And now the curtain protecting it is split. What does this mean?

Well, now the physical presence of God is the man on the cross. Vulnerable, naked, accessible to all. In fact, Jesus is closest to sinners, outcasts, all the wrong people. This is no critique of Judaism—remember Jesus and his family and all his disciples and first believers are all Jewish. This is a critique of religion in general. We set up vast structures and edifices and institutions with every good intention. But often these keep people away. The curtain’s tear would be like if a hurricane knocked down our south wall. Now anyone going past on St. Clair could see inside. Come inside. Not wonder what happens in this strange building but can see for themselves. And join in. In Jesus, God has left heaven. Left the temple. Left the church. And gone to the people farthest from God, the most mistreated. To scoop them up, heal them, make life with them. With us. On the way to healing all creation.

The book of Revelation says there is no temple in the city of God. No church. God is worshiped everywhere. Churches are temporary. In this world, we need them. They bear witness that God is alive, and reigns, and is coming for you. But in God’s full presence there is no need. The tearing of the temple curtain is a sign: God is loose in the world, bringing healing to all the wrong places, not couped up in our systems or structures. In fact, God never was.

There’s a very old Christian tradition, not in the Bible, but still a good tradition, that Mary of Nazareth grew up in the Jerusalem temple. Out of gratitude for her miraculous birth her parents dedicated her to God, like Samuel in the Old Testament. And Mary is a good seamstress. So good, she sewed the curtain for the temple. That’s her handiwork. Just like Jesus is her handiwork, knit together in her womb. Mary’s handiwork is torn in the temple, and her handiwork is torn on the cross. But paradoxically that’s also life for the world, glory born from sorrow. That’s why we call that Friday “Good.”

That’s just one miracle. You got time for three more? Never mind. You’re stuck in here now. You could pray for that hurricane if you want.

“The earth shook, and the rocks were split.” An earthquake. A seismic tremor. I’ve only been in two little bitty earthquakes, one in North Carolina, where I watched a picture frame vibrate on the wall for 30 seconds or so. Another in Vancouver, an odd sound, then one of our babies bopped into Jaylynn’s and my bedroom and said, “that was an earthquake.” Another tiny three on the Richter scale, like New York had last week. But big earthquakes must be terrifying, like the one that hit Taiwan a few days ago. They say the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 shook the faith of all Christian Europe. Lots of the thousands who died were in church that day for All Saints, holding candles that caused fires that burned the city. When the earth turns liquid, we are all in trouble.

And there’s an earthquake at Jesus’ death. The one who set the earth on its sure foundations, is dead. And the foundations give. The land becomes fluid. If we human beings could see aright, we’d thank God for every step on solid ground. Every single one of them is a gift. My dad is 75. When he goes to the doctor the first question is always “when was your last fall.” There’s only one reason any of us ever doesn’t fall. Solid earth beneath us. Balance within us. God making it all possible.

In the ancient world they didn’t know about plate tectonics yet of course. Didn’t know there were enormous sub surface plates that crash into one another, cause mountain ranges to soar, that our continents used to look very different. But they wouldn’t be surprised. Oh, that’s how God did it? Okay, great. And somehow all that molten volcanic destruction is necessary for life to come to be.

The earthquake in 33 AD shows Christ is the author of that life. The plates mourn his death. The earth wobbles. Showing us whenever it doesn’t wobble to give thanks. Every sure step on solid ground is a gift.

St. Frances was maybe the third most important person in Christian history. So holy that folks speculated Jesus might be about to come back, in the 1200s. His followers set up monasteries in only one sort of place: places where rocks were split. Any Franciscan monastery in the world you can ask the friars where the split rocks are, and they’ll be able to tell you. Why? Because of this verse. Those rocks were split during the crucifixion. Now anytime we see a split rock we should stop and give thanks and pray. Or even establish a monastery. A whole city for prayer in response to Christ’s earth-splitting work.

Miracle 3. “The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.” Uh, come again? Run that by me one more time?

In the 1990s one of the hurricanes in North Carolina so saturated the ground that coffins came up by the hundreds. I always wondered whose job it was to figure out which dead person was which, and how to get them back to their not-so-final resting place. There’s a museum of mummies in Guanajuato Mexico. My brother and I visited the town but not the museum. Yeah, I like people watching among the living myself. But our orange juice vendor invited us to come see her corpse one day. “Quando vuelvan, ven a verme a la casa de las mumias.” When you come back, come see me in the mummy museum. Uh, no thanks. I prefer my humans with skin on.

When Jesus dies, the earth quakes, and the tombs are opened. But these aren’t coffins floating or mummies on display. These are the dead come back to life. Many of the faithful, not Jesus’ followers yet, but Jews before his time, back from the dead. Imagine if some of the folks we’ve recently mourned in this church turned back up for worship and sat in their old seats. We’d be alarmed. As I said last week it’s no favour to Lazarus that Jesus raises him. He has to die again.

What’s going on here?

Remember I said resurrection isn’t just for Jesus? It’s a hint of what’s coming for all creation. There’s a reason Christians used to bury people facing Jerusalem, feet toward the cross. So, when Jesus came back, we could pop up, face the right direction, and sing his praise. A song by the Porter’s Gate inspired this series. Our new musician-in-residence has worked with them often. Audrey Assad sings, simply, “the dead will rise and give you praise.” God is so beautiful the dead can’t stay dead. They have to rise up at the resurrection.

If you visit the Mount of Olives today outside Jerusalem, you’ll see thousands of graves. These aren’t Christian graves, they’re Jewish ones. Our Jewish elder siblings want to be buried close to the Mount of Olives because that’s where the messiah will first arrive. You can still arrange to be buried there today apparently. When the messiah comes, the dead will rise and greet him first. This is called the general resurrection. The raising of all the dead to give praise.

We Christians agree. The messiah does appear on the Mount of Olives. That’s where Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a humble colt. Where he prays all night, and his disciples fall asleep and then abandon him. Where he’s arrested and led in chains to Jerusalem for his trial and death. Some messiah he turned out to be. I’m sympathetic with our Jewish elder siblings who have to say yeah, sorry, guess he’s just a failed messiah. Nice try.

We Christians agree with our Jewish forebears that graves will empty out. They’re all temporary. We’ll get our bodies back. When the messiah comes, the dead rise to give praise. Here’s where we differ: we think that’s already started. The only reason to think Jesus is not a failed messiah is if he rose again. The general resurrection of all people has begun. With one Jew. Jesus. The rest of us will be raised too one day. We don’t know when. But it will be as bodily as Jesus’ resurrection was. And it may be surprising. The great Catholic theologian Karl Rahner said that on Easter Sunday no one was more surprised than Jesus himself. Hmm, that was weird. Okay now where were we. Right, God is healing all creation, starting with me.

The other thing about these raised saints. They show Jesus has been busy on Holy Saturday. The day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday is not relaxing for Jesus. He spends it in hell. What’s he of all people doing there of all places? He’s liberating the place. Breaking every lock. Smashing every door. Preaching the gospel to the hopeless. And making a raid. Who’s with me? As Arnold Schwarzenegger says, “Come with me if you want to live.” In ancient Christian depictions Jesus has broken down the door of hell and is lifting out Adam and Eve. In another he’s inviting ancient Adam to life with him, and if you look closely, you’ll notice the devil is under the door he’s kicked in. There is no hell now that is not raided by Christ. That’s what you see in this mini resurrection of saints in Jerusalem. You know how they say nothing is certain but death and taxes? This sermon can’t help you with tax season I’m afraid. But death is no longer certain; it’s terrified. In fact, death is defeated, passing away.

Fourth of four miracles incoming. The soldiers are terrified, and their leader says, “Truly this man was God’s Son.” The centurion just crucified Jesus. Just put him to death in the worst way that the sadistic Romans could come up with. For us, it’s the heart of faith, this cross. But for these Roman soldiers it’s just another day on the job of eliminating Rome’s enemies: this is what happens if you cross Rome. You get crossed yourself. Jesus’ disciples have done the smart thing and fled. No cross for them, thanks very much. His thousands of other followers, who were happy when the lunch was free and the wine flowed, are nowhere to be found. A few women have hung around but who counts them anyway? In other words, all the people who’ve previously expressed faith in Jesus are gone. His executioners are there. And their leader says hmm, must be God’s Son. The first expression of faith in the crucified Christ. In the man he’d just tortured to death and discarded like refuse. It took the curtain tear and the earthquake and the dead saints to get him to do it. But now he’s in. Jesus’ blood still on his hands, pilfered clothes still in his bag. This wasn’t just anybody I killed. This was my saviour, and everybody else’s too.

Never be surprised at who expresses faith and who doesn’t. Folks who seem faithful their whole lives give up on the thing. That happened with the disciples. No great surprise. Folks far from faith, its executioners, take it up. Yeah, no surprise. Look at the centurion: this first Christian is the one who just scraped Jesus off his shoe like a squashed bug. You’d think that the earthquake and the curtain tear and especially the dead saints returned would convert all Jerusalem. They didn’t. Just this soldier apparently, the one who just murdered him. Faith is a mystery y’all. No one can explain it. But we can join in—we can confess his divinity, as this centurion executioner does.

But I can tell you this. If there is no curtain in the temple. If the plates under the earth mourn this death. If the nails in the coffins and the six feet of earth aren’t enough to keep the dead from rising and giving praise. If Jesus’ executioner comes to faith. I mean, who might be next? Amen.