Carla J. Bailey, Pastor
A sermon given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
I was raised in a family that adhered to many wonderful and strange traditions around religious holidays. Some of them were conventional – going to all the Sunday Easter services, dressed up in matching dresses my mother had made – except for my brother, of course, who always managed to look a little goofy in his suit. And, like many of you, we searched for the hidden eggs we had decorated on Easter eve, my parents hoping they could remember all the hiding places, lest one be forgotten only to be discovered the following Hallowe’en. Before eating one of the discovered eggs, we would crack it on someone’s head. Since my father was bald, he was the logical target. How on earth did we get into that family tradition, I wonder? Of course, there were rules. We had to actually eat the eggs we cracked on dad’s head, which cut the head-cracking activity down some, but with five children, I’m sure my father dreaded Easter a little bit. It’s a family tradition that hasn’t been passed on. Warren, whose head, for obvious reasons would have been the next best target, put a halt to that particular, peculiar tradition. Well, whatever your peculiar traditions, a joyous Resurrection Day to you all.
When Jesus was executed, those who loved him were too much in shock and fear to remember any of the reassuring words he spoke to them about his death. Matthew’s version of the events of those last days tell us there was an earthquake, and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Jesus was ridiculed while he suffered on the cross. His clothes became like chips in a poker game. Those who had plotted successfully for his execution appeared to have won the day and Rome, oblivious, powerful, and chillingly efficient Rome dealt the final blow. It was the most horrible few days for his disciples any of us could possibly imagine. It wasn’t just that a little part of them died with Jesus. It was more like their hearts had been ripped from their chests, and huge, strong hands were clasped over their mouths, stopping their breathing. They ran away in fear.
Fear is all over Matthew’s Passion story – fear and violence and betrayal and bartering and derision. Other Gospel accounts of the resurrection discovery are more restrained. The women came to the tomb and found it empty. But Matthew tells us there was a great earthquake and a vision of an angel, rolling back the stone from the tomb’s entrance and the guards were so afraid, they shook and went into shock. When the angel told them Jesus had been raised and that they were to go to Galilee where they would see him, the women ran in fear. Matthew’s version of the story is filled with discordant, disturbing things – earthquakes, derision, exploitation, and fear.
Jesus’ life, his ministry, so to speak, was a balance between two essential purposes. Jesus cared deeply for those who suffered, particularly those whose suffering was made worse by the arbitrary laws of his own religion and of Rome. The source of his drive to heal people was his compassion for them. He loved them, the demoniac, the bleeding woman, the lepers, the crippled. He loved them, he was moved by their circumstances, and he healed them. And, an equally essential purpose for Jesus’ ministry was to bring to fruition, in real time God’s justice. Why were these people poor? Who withheld essential care for them? How could they be so marginalized, so ostracized, these women, those children, all the legion who suffered and struggled just to live? The answer to those questions, of course, goes to the very heart of God’s desire for justice. Jesus was committed to doing both these things – embracing with love and compassion those who suffered, and confronting the very systems that brought such suffering about. A critical, secular appraisal of these goals would tell us that in these efforts, he was only marginally successful. He did ease the suffering of a few, but his confrontation of the restrictive laws of his faith served primarily to enrage the religious leaders, and his disdain for Rome resulted in Rome’s harshest penalty. Jesus lived as if there was nothing to fear in confronting injustice, nothing to fear in enraging those who exercised punitive and selfish power, nothing to fear in living a life of genuine generosity.
The critical point however, and it is the source of our relief and joy as we celebrate the resurrection every year, the critical point is that living life as Jesus lived does not spare us from the repercussions of such faithfulness. I’ll tell you something – it’s a lot easier to live in acquiescence to powers and principalities. It’s easier to give in, get along, and play nice. For many of us, Christian discipleship has come to mean unconsciously enjoying the privilege of participating in the dominant faith and culture. We get the best jellybeans and we haven’t had to do anything difficult for them! Yes, it’s good to be triumphant!
But here’s the thing, and it’s why Matthew’s disciples were so afraid – Christian discipleship as Jesus demonstrated it does not mean we get to watch Jesus relieve the suffering of others and to confront all the systems, prejudices and laws that exacerbate that suffering, as if it were a movie. No, there is a cost to living the way God demands of us, the way Jesus taught us, the way that led him to the cross – a high cost. Since we know the way the story of Jesus’ life ended, we, like the disciples, might just be a little afraid. But, the conclusion of the Christian story, God’s triumphant word is what we celebrate today, and everyday we work to alleviate suffering, love the unlovable, and work for justice – do not be afraid. Do not be afraid Matthew reminds us, the Risen Christ tells his disciples, all his disciples, even us, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Christ is with us always? There really is nothing to fear.
A most joyful Easter to you all. Amen.