The End of the Beginning

Text: Matthew 28:1-10
Date: Easter Day + 4/24/11
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

As preparation for the season of Lent, on the festival of the Transfiguration of our Lord, the sermon title catapulted us, ready or not, into Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season with the title, “The Beginning of the End.” For it was then that we were told of our Lord’s setting His face toward Jerusalem, that he began to teach His disciples what was coming, namely, his suffering, death and resurrection. It seems the closer we got to Holy Week the more the disciples remembered the suffering and death part. But did they remember, yes, did they hear or understand much less believe Jesus’ talk about resurrection, rising on the third day? Well, so for us. We can identify with suffering and even death since we have experienced the same to some degree or another. But resurrection? What are we talking about? What does it mean for the apostle Paul to say to us today that we are “raised with Christ” (Col 3:1)? Well, on behalf of the Holy Church throughout the world and in the name of God, welcome to The End of the Beginning, welcome to the “confirmation” of your faith, welcome to Easter! Our Lord’s successful earthly ministry is the beginning of saving faith in each and every heart that hears the Gospel. But it’s only the beginning.

This year we have followed the model of the early catechumenate represented by the traditional Gospel readings for Lent: the night-time conversation when Jesus invited Nicodemus of the Pharisees, saying, “You must be born again;” then the accounts of the Samaritan woman at the well and Jesus’ invitation to living water; then the man born blind who was given sight by Jesus; and finally the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Through all of that we were spoken to as if we were the ones preparing for baptism, seeking to become Christians, disciples of Jesus. And, indeed, there is a sense in which, no matter how long you have been a Christian, we are still, spiritually, always in a state of becoming Christian. The catechism calls it the daily repentance and faith of the Christian life. We have had our beginning in baptism. Now our beginning needs to be completed as we become also a people of the resurrection, people who “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Col 3:1).

The end of the beginning for our Lenten visitors would be their coming to faith in Jesus. We have evidence that Nicodemus became a disciple as he is seen assisting Joseph of Arimathea in Jesus’ burial. We don’t know the end of the Samaritan woman at the well or of the man born blind who received his sight except for his final words to Jesus, “Lord, I believe” (John 9:38). And then there was Lazarus who was raised from the dead. Did he, after all, have to die again? Or did God just take him to heaven after a time? But the question must come down to you. After your acquaintance with these Biblical characters and the words of Jesus calling you, have you now come to faith in Him? Well, if you do not deny Him but gladly confess Jesus as Lord, if you confess the Christian Creed as you have learned it, there is evidence of God’s gift of faith in your heart.

That gift of faith was planted in the hearts of Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, presumably the Mary of Matthew 27, “the mother of James and Joseph” (Mt 27:56). Remember Matthew said they accompanied Jesus all the way through the cross and even to sitting opposite the tomb when He was buried. After the Sabbath, whether they returned to Jesus’ tomb in sadness only to finish the details of His otherwise hasty burial on Friday night doesn’t matter. For an angel appeared and told them, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified.” Then the surprising announcement. The angel continued, saying, “He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.” We presume they saw the emptiness of the tomb where they themselves had seen Jesus placed. The angel said, “Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.”

That last part was as if the angel said, “Take my word for it.” Faith hears and responds to God’s Word and promises. “So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples” (Mt 28:8). Our emotions may be all mixed up like that. It was not because of their fear and joy that they believed but only because of the Word they had heard and faith in their hearts grasping and believing those words.

Now, let us pause right there. Is this what resurrection is all about for us? an empty tomb? a missing Jesus? After all, have you seen Him? All we have to go on is the testimony of the eyewitnesses. We are asked simply to take their word for it. No matter how they try to emphasize their witness as the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, to us it is still only a matter of faith, not sight. “We did not follow cleverly devised myths,” says St. Peter, “when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16). St. Luke prefaces his Gospel mentioning “those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word [who] have delivered them to us,” and that he wrote his “orderly account” in order that we “may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:1-4). Have you read it? How’s your certainty? The pastors at Ephesus said of the Apostle John and his Gospel, “This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24). How about that? Witnesses testifying to a witness of the truth!

But now, even the women themselves were not operating solely on faith, for on their way they themselves became eyewitnesses also! “And behold, Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him” (Mt 28:9).

In these first five-and-a-half weeks following Easter we will hear of a number of times the crucified and risen Jesus appeared to His disciples. How many times did He appear to them? Eleven that we are told of. And what was the point of His post-resurrection appearances? Among other things it was to teach His disciples and get across the important point that, even when they do not see Him with their eyes He is, nevertheless, with them, even in various places at the same time! So resurrection faith is not, is never in an absent Jesus. This is where His name “Immanuel,” meaning “God with us,” becomes important again. As He became Immanuel at His birth at Christmas, that God, the Son of God came to be “with us” in His earthly ministry, so, after His resurrection He promises “I am with you always to the end of the age,” and we journey in faith with the certain hope He gave that when we die we will be “with the Lord” (1 Thess 4:17). So to be raised with Christ even now, to have that resurrection faith, is to know that you are never alone, neither now nor all your earthly days, nor when the darkness deepens and death surrounds us.

The more you get to know and believe in the resurrection, the more faith will be expressed in that otherwise strange combination of fear and joy, a holy fear and joy, a reverent fear and joy, a humble, hopeful fear and joy. For the end of the beginning will be even greater than we ever imagined. Resurrection faith says with the apostle John, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). As we say and sing with confidence in the hymn,

We know not, oh, we know not
What joys await us there:
The radiancy of glory,
The bliss beyond compare! [LSB 672:1]