What Do You Say on the First Sunday?

What Do You Say on the First Sunday?

Grace United Methodist Church

June 28, 2009

Matthew 28: 1-10

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

Well! Here we are, the moment many of us have been anticipating, or perhaps dreading, or maybe even a little of both for the last few months! No doubt, any expectations that any of us might have had about this day will be somewhat off or maybe even way off, but I pray that the excitement of new beginnings and fresh starts will fill our hearts, our spirits, and our lives, long beyond this single day. Only three months ago, I found out that I would be coming to serve alongside all you wonderful people here at Grace. While it seems like just yesterday that Al Bowles was telling me I would be moving up to Soddy Daisy, these last several months have been full and busy. As Christians, we have observed Holy Week and celebrated Easter. We have felt the power of the Holy Spirit yet again in new and powerful ways on Pentecost. The people of the United Methodist Church in this Holston area have gathered yet again for our Annual Conference. As a church in the past few months, Grace has cast a new vision: Celebrating God’s love by spreading it, teaching it, and living it. Two infants have been baptized here, six new members have been received into this congregation, and a wedding has been celebrated. You have spent countless man hours and lots of resources working to improve the parsonage. And I will offer here my profound thanks for all your hard work. It is a beautiful house, and you all have made it feel like a home already. Thanks also to all your help in getting me moved so efficiently last weekend. Also in recent months, Grace has seen the debut of its own “theme” song, written by Chris Lanier, that matches the vision. And thanks to the foresight and work of John Coniglio and others, Grace stands at the forefront of technology with live video streaming on Sunday mornings.

On a more personal level, much has happened in my own life in the last few months. As I wrapped up my time at First-Centenary church, I oversaw the confirmation of eleven young people and celebrated with them that significant mark in their Christian journey. I have closed the doors on one job, and opened the doors to a new one. In the midst of that, I have moved from the northern reaches of Walker County, GA, to the northern reaches of Hamilton County, TN. And oh, how wonderful it is to be back in Tennessee! But most significantly, just two weeks ago, I was ordained a full elder in the United Methodist Church, a momentous occasion in my life that came after six years of very hard work. Isn’t it amazing how much can happen in such a short span of time?! No wonder it seems like only yesterday that we first got word of the transition that would happen on this day! Though the days have been filled and busy, the one question that has been on my mind through this all is, “What will I say on my first Sunday at Grace?” As I reflected on this question, I decided that perhaps the best guidance for a word for the first Sunday would come from the Bible. I thought of two significant “first” Sundays in the Bible, that very first Sabbath, the seventh day of creation when God rested and admired the handiwork of creation. I also thought of that Resurrection Sunday, the day that Jesus rose again, when the disciples first saw the risen Lord.

So before us today is a Scripture normally reserved for Easter Sunday, but let us remember that the Resurrection story is central to the Christian faith. We shared together moments ago the account of the women as they returned to Jesus’ tomb on Sunday morning, the day following the Sabbath. The passage tells us the women have come to see the tomb. They have no expectations of seeing Jesus, only offering reverent worship in the place where his body is laid. And yet what they find in that place is something very different. In high drama, perhaps as a way of connecting Jesus’ resurrection to his crucifixion just days before, Matthew tells us that there was a great earthquake and an angel appeared rolling away the stone covering the tomb. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary look inside the tomb only to discover that Jesus’ body is not there! The angel interprets the event for the women, telling them that the crucified Jesus they are looking for is not here, he has risen. And then the angel further instructs the women to go and share the news with the disciples. So on this Resurrection Sunday, the first in history, as the women look on in fear and awe they likely wonder what to say. And the angel tells them, go and share the news with the disciples.

Not unlike Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, we stand at the tomb this morning. We’ve all experienced difficulties and pain in our lives, and our struggles are yet a very real part of our present experience. Yet the significance of the tomb is that it is empty, symbolizing new life, new beginnings, and new opportunities. We stand today at a crossroads. In my heart, I feel both fear and excitement, as I imagine the women at the tomb did and perhaps as some of you do. Since learning that I would come to Grace, I have prayed for this congregation daily, I have sat in on some meetings, and I have spoken with many of you individually. I have seen how you have embraced the new life of the empty tomb in your own lives and as a congregation; how you have already taken advantage of the good news of new life by preparing a new vision for Grace United Methodist Church. The excitement and optimism is indeed palpable as I listen to the hopes that so many of you have expressed to me. And yet, to think about change, to wonder about what exactly the future holds, strikes a chord of fear for many of us. Undoubtedly, the women standing at the tomb on that resurrection morning felt fear as the earth shook and the stone was rolled away only to reveal that Jesus’ body was not there. But even in the face of fear, a charge is given to the women. “Do not be afraid…Jesus is not here, he has been raised…go quickly and tell the disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’”

We know the significance of these words as they were spoken on that resurrection Sunday almost 2,000 years ago, but why beyond the resurrection proclamation itself are these words important to us today? First, we have before us a word of peace, “Do not be afraid.” We can put our fear aside and trust in our faith. We have the assurance of the angel of the Lord that indeed, things are not always as they seem. Each of us has experienced fear in some way in our lives or in our journey as Christians. In the face of uncertainty, God is present among us; maybe it is not the rumble of an earthquake and the words of an angel, maybe it is simply the still small voice of God. We cannot necessarily escape fear, but when fear seems to grip us, we must in turn cling to our faith and listen for the reassuring presence of God. “I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised.” The angel didn’t tell the women that Jesus was not there because his body had been moved or even stolen as perhaps the women expected. The angel tells the women that Jesus has been raised! What greater news! Do not be afraid!

After quelling the women’s fear, the angel of the Lord tells the women to go quickly and let the other disciples know of the great news. And herein, my friends, is the crux of today’s message. We have good news to share. We have a gospel to proclaim of the love of the risen Savior; our fear and uncertainty about what the future holds pale in comparison to the charge that is before us. The frustration, pain, and hurt of past experiences, while yet so real, are to be the motivation that spurs us to spread the good news. Because, you see, the crucifixion is not the end of the story. “Jesus’ crucifixion was not some temporary episode in the career of the Son of God,” some past event secondary to the resurrection. “Even as the risen one, Jesus bears the mark of his crucifixion and self-giving on the cross as his permanent character and call to discipleship.”[1] We will not ever quite know the pain of that crucifixion endured by Jesus on the cross, but I believe we all have an idea, and in some way, each of us carries the marks of trials past. But, this is discipleship, taking and the burdens of this world and of others, which is always going to involve pain. And, like Jesus, these marks of pain and self-giving serve as our permanent call to discipleship; our motivation to do as the angel instructed and share the news of the risen Lord and his victory over difficulties and pain, over sin and death. We are not only to share this story with the disciples or other Christians, but on in to Galilee. You see, Galilee was the place of the gentiles. In biblical language, Galilee represents all who have not yet heard or do not yet believe in the savior Jesus Christ. A modern version of the Bible, perhaps translated by a Chattanoogan, might instruct us to carry our story, the Good News, in to Soddy Daisy. Our task is to tell the whole world the news of the risen Lord, beginning right here on our own doorstep.

So we need not fear, we need go into the world and share the news of the risen Christ. And finally, we need go knowing that Jesus has gone before us and is waiting for us there in Galilee, in the world. Perhaps this is the greatest word of all this morning. We do not walk alone. We do not face the task of church building, and even more importantly, kingdom building, all alone. Christ has paved the way for us, but more significantly Christ is already out there. The love and grace of God is at work in the hearts of people all around this world, they just don’t know it yet. And all we have to do is help them understand the love of God already at work in their lives. We know that love ourselves, so I ask, how can we not share that story?

People of Grace, we’ve a great charge before us, and much to accomplish in the name of the risen Christ. I cannot tell you today that the road ahead of us will be always smooth and easy. I cannot guarantee you that the months and years ahead will be always joyful and perfect. But I can tell you this, if we can focus on the charge to tell the world that Jesus Christ is conquered evil and death and is risen and living among us; if we can celebrate God’s love by spreading it, teaching it, and living it, then we will be living as God would have us to live. And that is a great place to start! So what do we say on the first Sunday? We say, “Christ is risen!” We say, “Christ is Lord!” And we never stop sharing that message!

[1] NIB, vol. 8, pg. 499

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