Easter Sunday – Sermon by Janet Elaine Rasmussen

  • Matthew 28:1-10

With great joy. In Matthew’s resurrection account, the two women witnesses, both named Mary, leave the empty tomb filled with joy. They run, obeying the angel who instructs them to “go quickly.” The emotion and excitement would no doubt have propelled them rapidly down the road in any case. Welling up through their bodies, sprouting from a seedbed of intense sorrow, fueled by wonder and love, is a magnificent sensation—great joy!

Author Irma Zaleski notes that “joy is not a merely human emotion but a spiritual experience. . . Joy comes to us from a place outside of ourselves, or from so deep inside that we cannot reach it at will. That is why we are always, as C.S. Lewis has said, ‘surprised by joy.'”

For Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joses, there are two stupendous surprises. The first comes in clearly defined time and space–early morning, the first day of the week, at the tomb where Jesus’ body has been laid. Two days earlier, the women watched as Joseph of Arimathea wrapped Jesus’ body in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb. They watched while Joseph “rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away.” The women stayed on, sitting opposite the tomb, keeping watch.

After the other disciples abandon Jesus, the women remain—at the cross, at the burial, and now on the third day, at the tomb. Their faithful presence witnesses to their devotion to Jesus, devotion rewarded with an eyewitness encounter with the resurrection event.

The Marys experience God’s mighty intervention: the earthquake, the appearance of a dazzling angel, the rolling away of the stone that had been securely sealed by the attending soldiers. The soldiers, themselves a symbol of the political establishment, are sapped of power and life; in the presence of the angel, they become “like dead men.” At the same time, the prison of death is broken open and death itself is defeated. The proclamation of victory is given by the angel, who declares, “Jesus who was crucified . . . is not here; he has been raised, as he said.” The women have come “to see the tomb;” what they see instead is the awesome majesty and power of the transcendent God of Israel. This is the first surprise. It sends them scurrying “with great joy” to tell the news.

The second surprise is the meeting with the risen Lord, which takes place in a diffuse setting, as if outside of time and space. It’s as though the Gospel writer invites us into the scene. Awe-struck and obedient, the women are hastening to carry out their commission. They are literally on the way, even as they embody the way of Jesus.

In verse 9, we read: “Suddenly Jesus met them, and said, ‘Rejoice!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him.” In contrast to the fearsome, lightning-like appearance of the angel, Jesus appears as a familiar human figure – a beloved person who comes near and joins their company, confirming and deepening their joy.

“Rejoice!” Jesus says. Most Bible translations, including the New Revised Standard Version, supply the pedestrian English term “Greetings!” But the Greek word carries the literal meaning “rejoice” and several scholars prefer the literal meaning here, for it fits the mood and reality of the resurrection appearance: Rejoice! I live. I am with you, dear ones. The women respond with spontaneous, wholehearted worship. They kneel down and clasp Jesus’ feet in an intimate and reverent embrace.

Matthew presents here a lovely counterpart to the scene of joyful worship that appears at the beginning of Jesus’ life – chapter 2, verses 9-10: “When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage.” The wise men from the East see and comprehend a divine sign—the star—and are overwhelmed with joy; then they see and comprehend the Incarnation and worship the baby Jesus. In parallel fashion, the women witnesses named Mary see and comprehend God’s angelic messenger, are filled with joy, and then see and worship the resurrected Jesus.

Incarnation and resurrection. Birth and rebirth. Creation and new creation. Communicated first to receptive outsiders—wise men and women. Pointing to Jesus as the Son of God. Underscoring the privileged obligation to worship the Lord God and none other. All of it wrapped in great, great joy!

We just marked the first official day of spring. On a phone call back to the Midwest, I heard the exuberant words, “I’m smiling. Spring is here.” The natural world mirrors the transformation of the resurrection—winter to spring, death to life, sorrow to joy. The poet Christina Rossetti used this imagery to anticipate her own spiritual transformation:

My life is like a frozen thing,

No bud nor greenness can I see:

Yet rise it shall – the sap of spring;

O Jesus, rise in me.

During times of crisis, of being lost and in the wilderness, we may well feel frozen and barren. In her memoir When the Heart Waits, Sue Monk Kidd identifies with a chrysalis, the stage of butterfly development when the caterpillar is entombed in the cocoon. I reflect on my own midlife reckoning and second conversion, when new life finally blossomed and transformed a wasteland of grief and failure into a garden of joy. Quite naturally, my most important priority became worship of the One who makes all things new.

Easter teaches us this vital lesson. We revisit it whenever we tell the story of the passion and resurrection. In the words of the ancient church hymn recorded by the apostle Paul: “He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:8-11).

My experience, too, is that the joy of knowing Jesus is the joy of his intimate, enduring presence. Even as he carries the name above every name, he is Emmanuel, God with us. The Gospel of Matthew concludes with Jesus’ declaration, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” What wonderful assurance! We hear this same assurance in familiar words from Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice . . .The Lord is near” (4:4-5).

Thus, one way to practice resurrection is to follow the model of Brother Lawrence, the seventeenth-century French monk, who in his daily routine consistently acknowledged the presence of the risen Christ. This Easter season, I invite you to consider adopting a conversational prayer mode that addresses Jesus at regular intervals throughout the day. Claim the joy of his abiding friendship.

To quote again from Irma Zaleski’s essay “The Door to Joy”: “The true source of joy is love—love of God, love of beauty, love of wisdom, love of another human being. . . a joyful awareness of dissolving boundaries of our ordinary narrow self, of being one with the reality beyond, of being whole.”

Today, Christ is risen. We, like the two Marys, are filled with joy. Jesus joins us and accompanies us on the way. He greets us, “Rejoice, dear sisters and brothers, rejoice!” And as we worship and hold fast to the feet of Jesus, learning to walk as his disciples, we begin to experience Christ growing in us, Jesus living in us. Jesus who knows the depths of human pain and sorrow. Jesus who came so that our sorrow would turn to joy and our joy would be complete (John 15 &16).

This morning, we will celebrate the Lord’s Supper. We will take the spiritual food that signifies Christ’s presence and nurtures our corporate body. On this glad Easter day, may our communion also be a foretaste of the joyful heavenly banquet. “I am the resurrection and the life,” says Jesus, “those who believe in me will never die.” Joy to the world, the Lord is come, he is risen, and reigns forever. “Let us sing praise to him with endless joy!” (HWB #267)