Easter 2020 We Are Witnesses

Matthew 28:1-10
Acts 10:34-43

Many years ago I served as a chaplain at Parkland Hospital in Dallas. I did a three month internship during the summer after my first year in seminary, and then I stayed on as a part-time overnight chaplain for another school year. I witnessed things I had only seen on TV before, and was thrown into situations where I had no training or guidance. Early on in the internship, we attended a workshop and the leader said something I never forgot: People in trauma will not remember what you, as the early 20-something chaplain with no experience whatsoever, say to them; but they will remember you were there. Those words helped guide me through the rest of my ministry at the hospital. I didn’t need to have perfect words or wisdom to share; I needed to embody the truth of my faith in a way that communicated without words.

Mary Magdalene and another Mary, the mother of James and Joseph, were traumatized by the events of the previous forty hours. The teacher they loved, the one they affirmed as Christ, was dead, an innocent man murdered by the state. Watching Jesus’ death on the Cross was devastating. The trauma of the moment, it seems, absorbed all of their attention, because they don’t seem to realize what happened around them:
“Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’ Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.”

An earthquake. Did the women even notice it? The Roman soldiers noticed everything around them; not just the earthquake, but also darkness covering the entire earth for three hours, passers by arguing about offering Jesus something to drink, even dead followers of Jesus coming out of their graves a couple of days later. As soldiers, they were highly trained and skilled for times of chaos; they knew how to keep their cool. And to be honest, they didn’t care a thing about Jesus or the others who were crucified that day. They don’t have time to be traumatized; they are on duty. Still, the earthquake has an impact on them. “Truly this man was God’s Son!,” they say. The women watch from a distance, but all they see is Jesus’ death-- none of the details. Their focus is solely on him.

Then the same thing happens Sunday morning. The two Marys return, wanting to see the place where Jesus was buried. As the approach the graveyard, BOOM, another earthquake. Again, they do not seem to notice the earthquake; I’ve never been in one, but I don’t know that one can ignore it while it’s happening. But their focus is only on the tomb of Jesus. This earthquake was caused by an angel, dressed in white. The angel rolled the stone away from the tomb, and then sat on top of it. Just like before, while the women do not seem interested in what is happening around them, the soldiers notice every thing. Angel, in white, so bright it was like lightning, and they freeze in place, overcome by fear.

The angel tells the women Jesus is not there; he’s gone on to Galilee as he said he would. Not responding in any way, they turn around and leave the graveyard, running away to tell the disciples what has happened. On the way, Jesus greets them. They notice Jesus. Remember, he has been their entire focus the whole time. Not darkness covering the entire earth, not earthquakes, not zombies climbing out of graves. Only Jesus. They see him now and they fall to their knees to worship him. He calmly assures them everything is ok, and encourages them to find the other disciples so they can see him as well.

Trauma forced the attention of the women to be very focused. On Friday, they see only Christ and the Cross. On Sunday they see only the angel and the Risen Christ. The soldiers are not traumatized, so they see and experience everything: earthquakes, dead people walking out of tombs, universal darkness, an angel with a face like lightning. The women, freed from their trauma, flee the graveyard; the soldiers, frozen by the stimulation of it all, are unable to move.

We haven’t seen or heard anything from Peter since he ran away, crying uncontrollably, after denying even knowing Jesus. Unlike the women, Peter is nowhere near Jesus’ Cross on Good Friday. Unlike the other gospel accounts, Peter is nowhere to be found in Matthew’s version of Resurrection Day. He is part of a gathering of disciples, though unnamed, at the end of the Gospel. Everyone is gathered together in Galilee. From the mountain, the same place where he once delivered the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus commissions the disciples to go and spread the news of his resurrection:
“Go therefore 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 that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Jesus’ words “I am with you always” recalls how the Gospel of Matthew begins. The angel tells Joseph, the father of Jesus, that his son will be called “Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us’.” Remember, I am always with you.

Some time later, Peter is going about the business he’s been called to do: sharing the Good News of the Risen Lord. He and the others are focused on Jerusalem and the surrounding area, and it’s going pretty well. Then he has a vision to go and visit this guy Cornelius, a Roman centurion, just like the ones who guarded Jesus’ tomb. Cornelius has been trained to worship Caesar as a god, but he has questions. Like Peter, he also has recently received a vision. An angel (maybe the same one who sat on the stone of Jesus’ tomb??) tells him to send for Peter. They get together, Peter shares the same story he’s been telling people around Jerusalem, Cornelius hears it and he and his entire household are baptized.

Now that Roman soldiers, not just Jews, are hearing and believing in the Resurrection, the mission of sharing the Good News has a new focus. Now they can truly go into all the world, teaching and baptizing. Peter sees all this happening around him, all at once. And he has a moment of thoughtful reflection: “I am really learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Telling the story of Jesus, Peter says, “We are witnesses of everything he did… We are witnesses whom God chose beforehand, who ate and drank with him after God raised him from the dead.”

On Good Friday, the women were traumatized by the horror of witnessing Jesus’ suffering. They are so focused on him they cannot see or feel anything else. Peter was so racked with shame that he ran away, driven by fear. On Resurrection morning, the women are so lost in their grief they miss other details happening around them. But now, Peter, months later, is able to pause and reflect. Time has given Peter perspective on the events of the last few days of Jesus’ life. He has seen the Risen Lord. He has experienced the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. He has been changed. God transformed Peter’s shame and brokenness into joy and purpose. “I’m really learning…”

In the moment of the trauma, the pain/grief/tragedy is too overwhelming to allow for perspective. We aren’t able to remember words, but we can remember presence. Over time, the distance from the traumatic event allows for new learning to happen. There is a possibility for change and growth. Our tendency is to move on quickly from the pain of the moment to the recovery. In the Book of Job, Job suffered tremendous loss. His friends visit to offer him comfort, but they can only handle his grief and anguish for so long. Soon they are blaming him or defending God, the last thing Job, or God for that matter, needs. Presence is what we need in the traumatic moment. Perspective comes later. We have to wait for it. We are not great at waiting.

So our world is in the trauma of the virus. Churches are closed on Easter Sunday. Whoever heard of such a thing?? I've been thinking this week of Easters past; waking up to baskets full of treats, then after church having lunch with the entire family at my grandparents’ house. The year Christy and I spent in England, my first Easter away from home; how cold it was that morning at sunrise as a large community of Easter friends gathered for worship, then later enjoying lamb and mint sauce for lunch. Or here at Grace the day before Easter we host tons of neighborhood kids for the Walk through Holy Week. The kids are anxiously awaiting the egg hunt, but first they hear the entire story leading up to Easter. My favorite part of that day is when Jesus walks through the church using this walker type deal with donkeys on each side. Two years ago, Avery Kahl was Jesus; last year it was our son James. Next year I’m thinking Grant Dominick gets the honor???

But there was no Jesus using the donkey walker this year. There was no rush for eggs. There was no palm parade in worship last Sunday, but we still shouted “Hosanna!”, meaning, “Lord save us!” We have Easter lilies this morning, and even though there are only five, the smell is still somehow overpowering; but they are not given in memory or honor of anyone. There are earthquakes and the skies are dark and there is death and sickness. Our impulse is to move on. Get back to normal. Get back to work. Forget what has happened. But we are not ready for that. Not yet. It’s still unsafe and we have more learning to do. We are in the trauma of the virus.

What have we learned so far? The virus has changed so much. 20,000 Americans have died, 9/11 six times over. Millions have lost jobs. The cracks in our economy and health care system have been exposed and deepened. We’ve seen how dependent our children are on the schools; not just for learning, but also for meals. People are hungry. You may have seen the pictures from the food bank in San Antonio the other day. Thousands of cars lined up; it looked like the Super Bowl parking lot. Christy and I decided to donate the money we would normally spend on new Easter clothes for our family to a food bank so that hungry people will be fed. The virus disproportionately impacts communities of color and people living in poverty. Far too many people do not have access to the health care system. The suffering on this scale is unlike anything we have seen before; but if we look closer, we learn suffering like this is normal for many of our brothers and sisters. What are we going to learn from this?

Will we learn that the value of human life is not determined by what we produce for the economy? Will we learn that if we can afford to spend trillions on missiles and weapons we can invest likewise so that everyone has access to health care? Will we learn that the people we referred to as “unskilled labor” a couple of months ago, who are now “essential labor”-- farm workers, grocery and restaurant workers, etc-- are in fact the same people? Will we learn that every person deserves dignity and respect on the basis of being a part of the human family? Will we learn that the environment is a gift to be nurtured and loved and not exploited for short-term use? I saw photos this week of downtown Los Angeles on a clear, smogless day; another one was of a village in India. People there saw the Himlayas in the distance this week for the first time in decades. People are home, few cars are on the road, so less pollution is produced. What are we learning in the midst of the trauma? And will we remember it and act to make significant changes on the other side of the pain? After all, the angel said Jesus would be referred to as Emmanuel, God with us, not God with me.

“I am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another,” Peter said. “Rather, in every nation, whoever worships and does what is right is acceptable to him.” He adds in the next verse: “[Jesus] is Lord of all!” Peter’s vision and subsequent encounter with Cornelius, a Gentile, a Roman soldier, reveals God’s inclusive nature-- and the inclusive nature of the gospel itself. Jesus’ death and resurrection is for everyone. God did not allow the unjust murder of an innocent rabbi to be the end of the story, but the beginning. Our current grief and despair will not be the end of the story either. God did not allow the evil of Good Friday to define the ministry of Jesus; nor will the evil of the virus determine who we are as a people.

“We are witnesses,” Peter says-- twice. “We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” We are witnesses, Peter says, even though he himself did not witness Jesus’ death because he was hiding. You and I, separated from Peter and the two Marys and the other disciples by time but not by faith, are also witnesses. The truth and power of Easter is for all people, in every time and place. Resurrection is both a promise and a gift; new life offered to a hurting world. We are witnesses. And witnesses tell the story of what God has done, and will do. Death is not the end. The virus has exposed not only our vulnerability to sickness but the injustices so many deal with in their everyday life. We are learning that we are part of one human family, and in the unity of our grief and trauma we will find new meaning and purpose.

We are witnesses to Jesus’ presence. He said whenever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there. Well, I count six in our Celebration Center today, plus however many are watching from home. Even if you are watching by yourself you are part of a virtual community, so Jesus is present there too. Peter mentioned in his sermon that he and the others were witnesses, chosen by God beforehand to eat and drink with the risen Jesus. Jesus is present in the sacrament of Holy Communion, which we will share virtually with one another in a few moments. Jesus said whenever we clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit those in prison or who are ill-- whatever we do for the least of these, his brothers and sisters-- we do to him. Jesus is present when we share his love through acts of justice and mercy.

St Gregory of Nazianzus was an early theologian of the church. He lived in the fourth century, and was an architect of the Doctrine of the Trinity. Here are words St Gregory shared in an Easter sermon nearly two millennia ago:
Yesterday I was crucified with Him; today I am glorified with Him.
Yesterday I died with Him; today I am made alive with Him.
Yesterday I was buried with Him; today I am raised up with Him.

Let us offer to Him Who suffered and rose again for us … ourselves, the possession most precious to God and most proper.

Let us become like Christ, since Christ became like us.
Let us become Divine for His sake, since for us He became Man.

He assumed the worse that He might give us the better. He became poor that by His poverty we might become rich. He accepted the form of a servant that we might win back our freedom.

He came down that we might be lifted up. He was tempted that through Him we might conquer. He was dishonored that He might glorify us. He died that He might save us. He ascended that He might draw to Himself us, who were thrown down through the fall of sin.

Let us give all, offer all, to Him who gave Himself a Ransom and Reconciliation for us.

We needed an incarnate God, a God put to death, that we might live. We were put to death together with Him that we might be cleansed. We rose again with Him because we were put to death with Him. We were glorified with Him because we rose again with Him.

A few drops of Blood recreate the whole of creation!

Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! We are witnesses! Now may our lives reflect Jesus’ resurrection.