A sermon preached by Pastor Robert Schaefer
First & Spring Creek Lutheran Churches
The Resurrection of Our Lord – April 11, 2004
Text: Psalm 118:15-16; John 20:6-10
Friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the risen Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
One of the strange blessings of being a pastor of the Church is the experience of standing in the midst of suffering, grieving people in order to speak to them words of joy and victory. It goes against our gut to do it – it’s hard not to feel your own heart breaking inside of you when your brothers and sisters are hurting so. It’s hard not to feel broken and defeated when death and mourning overshadow your friends.
Five times already in my short ministry I’ve experienced this odd gift – five times I’ve been called to stand with my people and tell them of God’s great victory over death even as death has struck a terrible blow in their lives. As we’ve stood by the graveside together, pastor and parishioners, I’ve read the words of today’s psalm…words that seem so out of place in a moment like that:
“There is a sound of exultation and victory in the tents of the righteous: ‘The right hand of the Lord has triumphed! The right hand of the Lord is exalted! The right hand of the Lord has triumphed!’”
Each time I’ve read them to you, I’ve been moved by the experience. When those words are spoken over the grave, suddenly we are aware of two equally powerful realities colliding. On the one hand we see the grave of our dear friend gaping before us, and we know without a doubt that death is real – terribly, crushingly real. On the other hand we hear those out-of-place words spoken with confidence, and our hearts flutter with the hope and maybe even the confidence that joy is possible even now, because the right hand of the Lord has triumphed. Right now. Already. Even – and especially! – at the foot of the grave, the reality of our Easter faith takes our breath away, bringing us peace at last.
Witnessing these two realities colliding across your faces and being called to read the words that speak God’s victory into your hearts is truly a strange, strange blessing.
As I’ve thought about those five moments of unexpected blessing, and the countless more that will no doubt be part of your lives and mine, I’ve realized that at those moments when the realities of death and resurrection come crashing together, we all find ourselves standing beside John and Peter at the empty tomb. It was there, on the first Easter Day, that those realities met head-on for the first time and in the most stunning way.
These two disciples knew a thing or two about death – they had received an awful education in its ways just hours ago. In fact, nothing could have seemed more real to them this morning than that life always ends. It can even be taken away, snuffed out as their dear Teacher’s had been.
But Peter and John were not only haunted by Jesus’ death. The truth was, they were scared for their own lives. When the soldiers had come to arrest Jesus, all of his followers had fled from the garden just as fast as their legs could carry them. These two disciples had followed along that horrible night, trying to blend into the crowds, constantly fearing that they would be arrested themselves, and put to death on the same ugly hill as their Lord. Just being seen in the city felt like a risk this morning, and standing openly at the grave of Jesus was practically an invitation for the Romans to take them away to their dooms.
You can see it, can’t you? – how heavily the hand of death pressed against John and Peter. It must have felt like the most real thing in the world; perhaps even the only real thing anymore, now that their Lord was gone.
But at the empty tomb, realities collide. Imagine the disciples, trembling at the threshold of the cave and straining to see into its darkness. Imagine their hearts thumping a mile a minute – at first from the breakneck sprint through empty streets to this place, but now from their growing sense that something was very, very wrong here. Imagine the sudden swell of insane, unspoken, unspeakable hope as they entered and the reality of the discarded grave clothes crashed over them. Imagine the mighty struggle within their hearts as they wrestled with the possibilities: Had he been stolen? Had he been moved by the keeper of the garden? Had the authorities decided to finish the job and destroy even the mortal remains of his body? Or had something else happened – a reality too powerful and unsettling for them to even speak it out loud? Could he somehow be alive?
Scripture tells us that Peter and John finally went back home that morning. They believed, we are told, but they did not understand. As they stood outside the empty tomb they couldn’t help but feel the earth shattering collision between the real power of death, and the even more real power of the Resurrection, even if they could not yet put words to their emotions. It was as if God had suddenly opened up all kinds of new possibilities before their very eyes, and yet their eyes were still filled with the sights of death all around.
That Easter morn the disciples John and Peter received the special, odd blessing of living in the tension of the death that comes to us all and the gift of life that came first to Christ Jesus and will be given to them and to each of us in God’s time.
It is nothing but the Resurrection of Jesus Christ that permits us to speak at the graveside: “The right hand of the Lord has triumphed! The right hand of the Lord is exalted! The right hand of the Lord has triumphed!” Without an empty tomb on the third day, such words are just whistling in the dark. They’re lies we tell ourselves in order to cope. If death is the only reality for us, then our world is truly a dark and awful one.
But today we stand once again at the empty tomb. We stand beside Peter and John. We stand as we did when we committed Chuck to the ground. And Alf. And Orden, Harry and Maggie. And our hearts are moved once again by the power of a new reality – the very real raising of Jesus Christ to new life. First Jesus, and then us. That’s how it works.
We’ll go home this morning like John and Peter did, and things will be the same as we left them. We’ll wonder whether the awe we felt as we stood before Jesus’ empty tomb was real after all; whether it wasn’t just the coffee at breakfast or the powerful music or the lovely flowers that got us all worked up. We’ll wonder whether the world has really changed at all. We’ll wonder whether death doesn’t have the final word, after everything’s said and done.
Let us capture the beautiful tension of this moment. Let us receive the strange gift given to heartbroken disciples, to humble preachers and weeping mourners. Let us stand in the presence of death and defy it by declaring God’s victory. Jesus Christ is risen today, this very day, and because he lives we too shall live. The right hand of the Lord has triumphed! The right hand of the Lord is exalted! The right hand of the Lord has triumphed!