A sermon drawn from Matthew 28:1-10
“Rejoice!” is literally the word Jesus uses to greet the women in this story.
“Rejoice!” It’s the essence of the Easter message, in one word.
Jesus is alive – here in the world – and that message – that reality – is the source of great joy.
Those women, running from that empty tomb, already feel some of that great joy. In spite of having just been scared out of their wits by an earthquake, and an angel, flashing like lightning and sparkling like snow in the sun. But they’re starting to get over that fear, and already feeling some of that joy, because the angel’s message was “Jesus isn’t dead, like you thought, Jesus is alive.”
And then suddenly that message is there in person – Jesus, alive, here, now – right in front of them, saying “Rejoice!”
That word “rejoice” seems to have been an everyday greeting in ancient Greek – something like the way we might say, “Hey, Glad to see you!!” So Jesus seems to be saying something here like “Hey, you all!!”
But in this case, the deeper meaning of that conventional greeting, the deeper meaning of the word “Rejoice!” really feels like it fits, because this is not just ordinary “glad to see you” kind of news, this is wild, unimaginable, this is too good to be true good news …
… so, honestly, they’re probably better prepared to receive this message because of the part of the story where they’re terrified by the earthquake and the angel, because isn’t that astonishing kind of messenger just who would tend to make someone believe something really astonishing …? The messenger and the message go together.
And then, when they literally run into Jesus, alive, there with them, his just being there, saying something as everyday as “Greetings!”, means “Rejoice!” because meeting Jesus, alive, in the world, after all they’ve been through, is a cause for joy all by itself. Jesus the messenger really IS the message of joy.
Because let’s not forget that this meeting with Jesus comes not only right on the heels of that meeting with the scary angel messenger, but also right in the middle of a lot of suffering: all the sorrow, grief, and loss they’d come to the tomb with at the beginning of the story.
By now we may be so caught up in the joy of Easter that we’ve almost forgotten …
… that these women arrived at this moment of joy by going through the horror of witnessing Jesus’ passion on Good Friday, and the pain of losing him to death, and that long silence of Saturday, when it seemed like all the good in the world had been crushed, so when we came in to this story this morning these women were still in the depths of mourning that loss of Jesus, their friend and teacher and prophet and Messiah, who’d just been crucified, and dead, and buried the day before yesterday …
So Jesus’ word of greeting, “rejoice!” meets them right in the middle of their sorrow and suffering, and transforms it, just by being there. Because Jesus is the one who’s always been able to convince them – to convince us – that there’s more good here, in Reality, than we begin to know.
Convince us that Reality is not limited to what we usually mean when we say “be realistic,” in an everyday world where “I’m a realist” means “I’ve learned to expect the worst, and then I won’t be disappointed;” means assuming that “things can always get worse,” and “if anything can go wrong, it will” and “if it sounds too good to be true, it is.”
No, says Jesus, Reality is not the closed and cramped prisons of this broken world, the world that could only betray and crucify the Christ.
No, says Jesus, Reality is made and ruled by God. And as theologian Peter Kreeft says, “God IS love, the way the sun IS fire and light.” And the God who IS love meets us, even in the middle of our sorrow and fear and disbelief, as Jesus Christ, the living Redeemer. Life, that defeats sin and death and the limits it imposes on the goodness of God’s creation, by the power of love, is God’s full and final word to humanity.
Jesus is God’s greeting, even in the midst of fear and sorrow: Rejoice! Something even deeper is in the works. And God in person – Jesus Christ – is with us through it all.
There is a story told about St. Francis of Assisi, by his friend and student, Brother Leo. [N.B. the original, as told in The Little Flowers of St. Francis, is available online at The Assisi Project.]
<< It was a cold winter’s day, and Francis and Brother Leo were walking from the city of Perugia to the monastery in Porziuncola. That’s about a 12 mile trip, and they’re on foot, so they were suffering from the cold. On the way, at one point, Saint Francis says to Brother Leo: “You know, if God desired that the Franciscans should serve as a great example of holiness to all people in all lands, this would not be perfect joy.”
They go a little further, and Saint Francis says to Brother Leo: “You know, if the monks could make the lame walk; and chase away demons; and give sight to the blind and speech to the dumb; and even if we could raise the dead after four days, this would not be perfect joy.”
And then, every so often, he breaks into Brother Leo’s thoughts with another statement like this. If the monks could speak every language; if they knew everything about science; if they could explain all the scriptures; if they could sing like angels; etc. etc.
So, finally, Brother Leo says – Father Francis, please teach me about perfect joy …
And Francis says, well, since you asked … say we get to the monastery … we’re soaked, we’re freezing, covered in mud, tired, hungry, all we want is a meal and bed, we knock on the door of the monastery, and the doorkeeper doesn’t recognize us … says, we’re imposters, leaves us out in the snow … and even, if we we knock on the door again, and beg him to let us in, and he comes out and beats us with a stick and curses us and drives us away … and if, in the face of this terrible, unjust, unkind treatment, we are able to be patient and think of Jesus Christ and give thanks to God … that, Brother Leo, that would be perfect joy.>>
Because, as Francis said, << Above all gifts of the Holy Spirit, that Christ Jesus gives to his friends is the grace to overcome oneself>> enabling us to share Christ’s journey through life, which, as we know, in Jesus’ case, led all the way to the cross … and, as we learn over and over again, from Jesus’ greeting on Easter morning, beyond the cross.
So that, even in the face of the real suffering and loss we still experience in this world, we can know the presence of the risen Christ, and the presence of Christ is always already a reality of beauty, goodness, and truth … and the ultimate source of our joy.
Someone – it might have been Friedrich Nietzsche, the famous 19th century atheist – said “I might believe in the Redeemer if his followers looked more redeemed!” Whoever said it, the point was that, given what Christians say we believe, we’d expect to see Christians living lives of tremendous joy.
And instead, admittedly, we Christians often look just like everyone else: grumpy, kvetching, worried, preoccupied, outraged when someone doesn’t treat us respectfully or kindly, crushed when someone criticizes our work, argumentative about our pet theological details, … I could go on, but I probably don’t need to. We have lots of ways of letting the world that is still under the spell of sin and scarcity suck our joy into its black hole of negativity.
We can get separated from our joy by minutiae; or by the work still to be done, the distance still to be traveled to erase the realities of sin, evil, sickness, the death still to be vanquished.
Or by those times in our own journeys through life when the challenges facing us are so stern, or the losses we’ve suffered are so deep, that Easter joy for us still feels some long days away.
Because as we know, the full reality of the resurrection and the new creation is still under construction; we can believe the words of the old hymn, “from sorrow, toil, and pain, and sin we shall be free” – without denying that the experience they describe is not quite yet.
Nevertheless, even in that “not quite yet,” when “being realistic” tells us things are looking dismal, and we need to blend in, that essential message – that Jesus, alive, here, now, wherever we are, whatever is happening, is the source of our deepest joy – can still get through to us.
Jesus’ word of greeting, Jesus’ “Rejoice!” stops those women on the first Easter morning, running from the tomb, stops them long enough to receive the message of his very being there, to get it, and to enjoy it – to acknowledge it in worship, to catch their breath and to realize that Jesus, the word from God, who IS love, IS there with them … speaking the truest word about Reality.
That same message – that Jesus Christ is alive, and meets us here, now, in our world – is still the essence of Christian faith. Christians, like the very first women on the first Easter morning, are people who’ve gotten that message, that Jesus lives, with all the joy that goes with it, … and who are still sent to share that with Jesus’ “brothers and sisters” – literally, to be its messengers, its “angels.”
Christian faith means taking the reality of God’s world, where joy is really possible, whatever the circumstances, completely seriously.
And when people live in that world, where God is already making all things new and where Jesus is an ongoing presence – felt, through the Holy Spirit, here in the body of Christ in this world – that way of life tells people, “Hey, you all! Rejoice! This is what’s real, and it’s a cause for joy.”
So, being “realistic,” and in spite of the sometimes truth of that comment by whoever it was, we DO see people looking redeemed here. There ARE lots of Christians now, and there have been lots of Christians right from the beginning, whose lives have overflowed with joy and who have embodied the message that Jesus is alive. Lives that send the message that the real ruler of the world is the God of love, not the false gods of power or privilege or productivity.
Not only saints like Francis and Brother Leo, but regular real-life Christians, who continue to see and feel this kind of joy in our lives, at least some of the time. If that weren’t true, Christianity would never have survived through the ages to have handed this story and this faith down to us.
We probably see it most clearly in Christian service – which simply amounts to showing up, being there for someone else, when they need us, which IS the kind of good news that is a cause for joy. Even something as “ordinary” as showing up with diapers when someone really needs them and doesn’t have a way to get them – as the diaper project does here every month – or dishing up a hot meal on a Monday night – or building a ramp for a boy in a wheelchair through a county-wide repair affair program – meeting people in the middle of their lives, with a word of greeting, and the news that what they thought was impossible is not only possible, but is already happening …
But for that matter, we can see it lived out in all the dimensions of the life of the people of God – in fellowship, where we reflect the peace and acceptance of Christ back to one another; in worship, where we turn our attention and hearts towards the living God through Jesus Christ … which is precisely what makes every Sunday a “little Easter,” when we pause long enough to receive the message of the presence of the risen Christ.
“Rejoice!” is the word of greeting Jesus spoke to the women on Easter morning, and also the word that greets us, inviting us to live lives that carry that message to our world, on Easter morning, and every morning.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Image: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Lightning in Sky” Felix Mittermeier, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons