“Jesus’ Resurrection: Is There Hope?”
A Sermon on Matthew 28:1-10 for the Resurrection of Our Lord: Easter Day, Year C; preached March 27, 2016, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister
Part of a Lent preaching series: What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?
The women had followed Jesus all the way from Galilee, the scriptures tell us. Teaching, healings, the parade into Jerusalem on a donkey, turning over the tables in the temple, tussles with the religious authorities, and, of course, all the events of the passion—the supper, the arrest, the trial, the crucifixion, the death, the burial—they’d seen it all. In fact, it was the women who were there through the end, “looking on from a distance.” All those we usually call Jesus’ disciples, they “deserted him and fled.”
But not the women, not these two, Mary Magdalene and “the other” Mary. They “were there, sitting opposite the tomb” when Joseph of Arimathea laid Jesus’ body in it and rolled a great stone in front of the door. These two Marys, they were there.
And so, on one hand, we shouldn’t be surprised that they were there again, as the “first day of the week was dawning.” They had been there all along, to the very end.
But on the other hand, I don’t think we would have to apologize if we wondered why they came back. After all, they knew he was dead, buried, sealed in. What’s to come and see? All was hopeless, was it not?
Even here on Easter morning, we too gather as people who wonder if it is all hopeless. Some would say it’s just as fair to wonder why we are here as it is to wonder why the Marys went back to the tomb that morning so long ago. Just this week, we’ve stood by and watched another deadly terror attack, this one in Brussels—albeit one no more terrible than the one the week before in Ankara, Turkey, or the one a week before that in Baghdad, even if our society’s biases kept the other two out of the headlines. Meanwhile, we have presidential candidates spatting boorishly about each other’s wives… and institutions that give us our livelihoods facing ever more severe budget cuts… and people whom we love losing battles with disease and depression. So much can seem hopeless, can it not?
Much seemed hopeless for Tom Hanks’ character in the movie Cast Away from back in the year 2000. As I imagine many of us know, in Cast Away, Hanks’ character, Chuck, is stranded on a deserted island after the FedEx plane he’s on crashes into the ocean. As FedEx packages from the plane wash up on the beach, Chuck opens them, looking for items that could help him survive. Ice skates come in handy as a hatchet, a dental tool, a source of rope. Famously, he finds a volleyball and paints a face on it, turning it into his one and only companion, “Wilson.”
Among the packages, though, there is one he never opens. The package has angel wings on the outside. Chuck saves it throughout some four years alone on that deserted island… straps it to his raft when he finally departs.
In the final scene of the movie, we find ourselves in a car with Chuck, heading down a lonely Texas highway, the angel wings package in the passenger seat. The old Elvis song, “Return to Sender,” is playing on the radio. Chuck finally arrives at a house, but no one is home. So he leaves the package on the doorstep, along with a note. “This package saved my life.”
The truth is, my friends, that hope itself can save peoples lives. As one pastor puts it, “When people can keep hope alive, they somehow find the strength to take another step in spite of the darkness and pain of the present moment. Hope is a powerful force. Hope can save a person’s life in every way a life can be saved.”
But where can we find true, abiding, fool- and folly-proof hope? After all, if the only thing we have to hang our hope on is some general concept of our ability as people to somehow outlast and overcome evil, the sorry reality is that “[i]n the grand sweep of human history, there is [simply] too much evidence to the contrary to nurture hope in most of us.”
And that, my friends, is why we gather here today—at least that’s why I’m here…. To hear once again the good news that the tomb was empty. I don’t know why the two Marys went back to the tomb, but I do know what they found when they got there: “He is not here … he has been raised.” Such a reality is not merely about our human capacity for good. It is about God’s decisive choice for us and against death, God’s decisive victory over the powers of evil, God’s infinite capacity for good in the midst of our exact opposite.
The tomb was empty. I don’t know how it happened; in the story we’ve heard, it would seem the tomb was already empty by the time the Marys and the guards saw the stone get rolled away. But, you know, that’s the way it is with resurrection—it’s one of those things you can’t see but can experience the effects of, sort-of like gravity or wind. Or, as well-known contemporary theologian Stanley Hauerwas puts it, “We can no more see resurrection than we can see creation. We can only see the empty tomb and the resurrected Jesus.”
That empty tomb, it is our angel wing FedEx package. It is that thing we can look at and know we have something to live for in the midst of the desolation and deaths within us and around us. Better, it is that thing we can look at and know that God has something for us to live for, an ultimate reality for us against which the gates of hell themselves cannot prevail. We look at that empty tomb and find certainty that our crosses and our deaths have no real power over us, and most definitely have no real power over God. In the realization that the tomb is empty and that Jesus has conquered death, in that realization we find that true life is possible.
And so we gather yet again in this place on yet another Easter morning, because that realization, that news, that truth, that the tomb was empty and that Jesus is risen… it is so important that we cannot risk forgetting it for even a moment. In fact, that reality of empty tomb and resurrected Jesus is what we gather here to celebrate and to embody each and every Sunday. We come together to be the ever-living body of Christ in the world. We gather around a table where Jesus, still in our midst, continues to offer us his very body and lifeblood, that we may touch and taste and see that the Lord is, indeed, good. We gather in this place to discover how much of what the world takes for life is dead already, and how the places where death seems at its worst may very well be where God is making a way where there seemed no way.
And so, my friends, even though most of us have been here before, have heard this story before, I want to invite you—rather, I want to invite us—to gather around this empty tomb today as if it were for the first time. Recognize those places where you go looking merely for a dead corpse, and hear the angel’s words: “He has been raised!” Then go forth from here ready to meet the risen Christ who goes before all of us into the highways and byways where healing, hope, and life are made real.
Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto God, now and forever.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
 Matthew 27:55, NRSV.
 Matthew 26:56, NRSV.
 Although I have seen the movie myself, this retelling of portions of Cast Away is based on that of Martin Thielen, What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian? A Guide to What Matters Most, 2nd. ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 116-117.
 Thielen, What’s the Least I Can Believe, 118.
 D. Cameron Murchison, theological commentary on Matthew 28:1-10, in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year A, vol. 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminister John Knox Press, 2010), 348.
 Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), 246.
 Stanley P. Saunders, Preaching the Gospel of Matthew: Proclaiming God’s Presence (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 297.