Sunday, April 01, 2018

Beyond Belief (Easter Sermon) Matthew 28:1-20

Matthew 28:1-20
After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.  There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it.  His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow.  The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.  The angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified.  He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.  Then go quickly and tell his disciples: 'He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.' Now I have told you."  So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.
 Suddenly Jesus met them. "Greetings," he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."   While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, "You are to say, 'His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.'  If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble."  So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.  Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go.  When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.  Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.""(NIV)

I came across an interesting book a year or so ago.  “Eyewitness to History.” 

What makes this book so fascinating is that it contains pieces of diaries, letters and all sorts of other writings in which people describe some historic event.

Some of the writers are famous, but most are not.  They are just regular people who happened to be at the right place and the right time and saw some very important historic event take place.

There is an eyewitness account of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scotts; the battle of Gettysburg; the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906; and so forth – wonderful descriptions of history from the point of view of eyewitnesses.

The Christian religion is built on eyewitness evidence.

When Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians he made out a list of some of the eyewitnesses. (1 Cor 15:1-8)

“Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand.  By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.  For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”

To witness the Resurrection of Christ must have been an awesome experience for these people.  It changed their lives.

Paul was a witness to the Resurrection. 

It changed him from being a person who persecuted Christians and tried to erase the Christian religion from the face of the earth, to become the leading theologian of the faith who helped firmly establish Christianity as a world religion for all people.

But Paul was not the first eyewitness.  In fact, he says he was so late that he describes himself as “abnormally born.”

Before Paul, the resurrected Jesus appeared to all of the original apostles, except of course for Judas who committed suicide after betraying his master.

And for each of them, the Resurrection changed them forever.

Peter was once weak.  On the night of the trial of Jesus,  Peter was asked three times if he was one of the disciples, but he denied it every time.  After becoming a witness to the resurrection of Christ, Peter becomes a strong, dynamic preacher.

Other disciples took the Gospel into far countries and distant places.  Many of them – most of them suffered death for their faith in Christ.

But these men were not the first to see the Resurrection. 

Paul doesn’t mention them in his list on his letter to the Corinthians, but Matthew mentions them in our New Testament lesson for today.  Mary Magdalene and another woman named Mary were the first disciples to visit the tomb.  They were among the earliest witnesses of the Risen Lord.

And we often think of the women as the first witnesses.

But they were not the first.

There were other witnesses we tend to completely forget about – the first people to witness the Resurrection of Christ were, according to our New Testament Lesson, the guards.

And that amazes me!

Because these first people who were witnesses to the resurrection did not find their lives changed, or inspired, or motivated by the fact that Jesus rose from the dead.

These first witnesses, these guards left confused and bewildered.  They were bribed by the chief priests and scribes to tell others they had been asleep on their posts and the body had been stolen by the disciples while they had been asleep.  They were willing to destroy their careers for the sake of the bribe.  In fact, they were willing to risk death for the bribe, because sleeping on duty was punishable by death.
These guards had been the first to witness the resurrection. 

They had the best evidence. 

They knew beyond doubt.

They had been there all night long. 

They knew no one had stolen the body. 

They knew Jesus had risen from the dead.  They had to have known.  They had to believe. 

But it wasn't enough to believe.
It could have changed their lives.  But it didn't.  Because believing is never enough.

        If believing is not enough, what then is enough?

        Most of us believe in the resurrection.  Most of us here today believe that Jesus lived and died and rose again. 

        That is why we are here.  We are here because we believe.

        But believing is never enough.

        You must do more than just believe.

        James said in his New Testament letter (James 2:17-20), "faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead... You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that-- and shudder."

        In Matthew's Gospel, shortly after the resurrection, Jesus did not say, "Go out into all the world and make believers."  He said, "Go out and make disciples."

        There is a difference between being a believer and being a disciple.  It is not enough to just believe.  The guards believed.  They knew.  They had the best evidence.  They were the only ones there at the moment of the resurrection.  Everyone else came after and saw the empty tomb.  But they were there when the body of Christ came back to life.  They believed.  But it made no difference.

        It is never enough to just believe.  You must become a disciple.

        What does that mean?  If believing is not enough, what is?  How should our lives be different?

        First, if the resurrection is to make a difference in our lives, then we should become a people of a community.

        It is not enough to just believe.  One must join a community of believers.  It is impossible for a person to be a Christian alone. 

        When God created Adam, God looked at Adam and said, "It is not good for the man to be alone." (Genesis 2:18).  We need others around us.  We are meant to be part of a community of faith. 

        We need the nurture we receive from one another.  In Proverbs (27:17) we are told, "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another."

        When Jesus sent out his disciples, we are told in Mark 6:7 that he sent them out in groups of two. He never sent anyone out alone.

        Paul said in Romans (14:7)  "For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone."

        So often Christians are described in the New Testament as being part of a body.  A body is composed of arms and hands and fingers.  In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote, (1 Cor 12:18-21), "As it is, there are many parts, but one body.  The eye cannot say to the hand, "I don't need you!" And the head cannot say to the feet, "I don't need you!"

        You need the rest of the members of this church.  You cannot be a Christian in issolation.  You cannot be the Lone Ranger of Christians. 

        Granted, there are times when you want to be alone.  Jesus himself prayed in the hours before his death in solitude.  He went to the Garden to be alone with God.  But even in that solitude, he was constantly going back to be with the disciples.

        As a pastor, I often see the church respond to people in a crisis.

        A man's wife dies.  The church responds.  People call on the telephone to see what they can do.  Food is brought to the house.  There are hugs and hands to hold.  In the days and months that follow, the church members keep in contact.  Comfort is given.

        On the other hand, another church member experiences the death of a husband.  The pastor is there, but the church is largely invisible.  There may be one or two people who call, but there is not the outpouring of support found in the first crisis.  There is no comfort.  There is bitterness.

        What makes the difference?

        The difference is not that one person is more loved than the other.

        The difference is not that one person gave more money to the church than the other person.

        The difference is not that one person had more power or respect.

        I have seen this happen time and again.  The difference is that one family is part of the church and the other is not.

        Both believe.

        But only one is a disciple.

        It is not enough to believe.

        You have to become part of the body of Christ.  You have to become part of the church.

        Solomon in his wisdom said in Ecclesiastes 4:9-10, "Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work:  If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!"

        In the New Testament Lesson, the first to believe in the resurrection are the guards, but they do nothing.  They are afraid.  The resurrection doesn't change their lives for the better.  On the other hand, those who are changed were always drawn toward one another.  They were part of a community, so when they believed in the resurrection, the first thing they did was to go and look for one another.

        It is not enough to believe.  You have to become a disciple.

        Becoming a disciple means joining a church community and being part of that community.  Being a disciple also means that we become a people who worship.

        In the Psalms, there is a man who almost loses faith in God.  He says (Ps 73), "As for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold.  For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.  They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong.  They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills.  Therefore pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence...This is what the wicked are like-- always carefree, they increase in wealth.  Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence."

        This man believes, but in this world of violence, injustice, and discouragement, belief is not enough.  This man found faith strengthened through worship.  He continues in his Psalm, "When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood."

        In Matthew's Gospel, as soon as the disciples learn about the resurrection, they worship. (Matt 28:16-17)  It is not enough to believe.  One must also worship.

        To be a disciple also means that we need to become a people who grow in our faith.

        Paul tells us in his letter to the Colossians, "So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, (Colossians 3:1-2).

        Many people believe, but they do not have the mind of the disciple. They do not focus their minds on Christ.  They do not set their minds on spiritual things.  They do not grow.

        In the Old Testament, Moses leads the people out of Egypt and toward the promised land.  That is not a trip made in an instant.  That is a long journey.  It takes 40 years.  At the first sign of trouble, the Hebrews complain.  "We should have stayed in Egypt."  But God wants his people to move forward.  God wants his people to grow.  He does not want us to stay where we are.  He doesn't want us to remain children.

        One of the first things that happens after the resurrection is the disciples begin to grow.  Their faith grows by listening to God's Word.

        The Psalmist memorized Scripture so that he could always be nurtured by God's Word.  "I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you." (Ps 119:11).

        After the resurrection, disciples begin to turn toward Scripture. 

        In Luke, some of the disciples meet the risen Lord on the road to Emmaus.  Jesus begins to explain all of Scripture to them, beginning with the words of Moses.  When they realized it is Jesus who has been raised from the dead, the disciples say to each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?" (Luke 24:27-32).

        Many of us here today will neglect God's Word.  We believe.  But it is not enough to believe.

        We must join a church fellowship.  We must worship.  We must grow in faith through reading and studying God's Word.

        We must also get up, go out of this sanctuary, and make a difference in the world out there.

        In Matthew's Gospel, the disciples listened to Jesus after the resurrection.  He said, "Go into all the world and make disciples."

        We need to share the faith with others.

        In Matthew's Gospel, when the women come to the grave and realize that Jesus has been raised from the dead, the angel says, "Go quickly and tell his disciples: 'He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.' Now I have told you." (Matthew 28:7)

        The news of the resurrection is not news that we keep silent.  We tell others.  We share it with others.

        It is not enough to believe.

        We all believe.

        But are we all disciples?

        James said in his New Testament letter, (James 2:19-20)  "You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that-- and shudder.  You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?"

        We all believe in the resurrection.

        So did the guards at the tomb.

        It made no difference in their lives.

        It can make a difference in ours.

        Let's do more than believe.

        Let's become disciples.

And now unto God the Father,
God the Son,
And God the Holy Spirit be ascribed all might, power, dominion and glory, today and forever, Amen.
Copyright 2018. 
Dr. W. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved

Ministers may feel free to use some or all of this sermon in their own ministries as long as they do not publish in print or on the Internet without ascribing credit to the author.