April 12, 2020 â€” Easter Sunday
PRELUDE Prelude from "Te Deum" MARC-ANTOINE CARPENTIER
CALL TO WORSHIP
HYMN NO. 245 Christ the Lord is Risen Today! EASTER HYMN/arr. RUTTER
CONFESSION AND ASSURANCE OF GOD'S GRACE
CALL TO CONFESSION
As those who have been raised with Christ, we are called to seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Therefore, let us cast off the sin that binds us and embrace the new life we know in Christ, so that Christ may be revealed in us.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
Like the women who came to your tomb as the first day of the week was dawning and found the tomb empty, we have such good news to tell. For you, Lord, have cast off your grave clothes and shattered the powers of sin and death. But we have heard this news before. How often have we let our "alleluias" fall silent as we passed through the church doors? How often have we returned to daily routines as if Easter changes nothing? How often have our actions belied the power of resurrection to transform our world? Risen Lord, forgive us for our half-hearted witness. Free us from the bindings of fear or indifference, disappointment or disenchantment. Fill us with the light of resurrection and send us into the world to proclaim in word and deed that we have seen the Lord!
ASSURANCE OF PARDON
Hear the good news: Christ has triumphed over the grave, and denied death its victory. Alleluia! Christ has cast aside the shroud of death and loosened the grave clothes that restrain and bind. Alleluia! Christ has risen from the dead, and delivered us to new and abundant life. Alleluia! This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our sight!
ANTHEM Cold December Flies Away HOWARD HAWHEE
PRAYER FOR ILLUMINATION
Living God, with joy we celebrate the presence of your risen Word. Enliven our hearts by your Holy Spirit so that we may proclaim the good news of eternal and abundant life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
SCRIPTURE Matthew 27:61–28:15 (NRSV)
61Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.
The Guard at the Tomb
62The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate 63and said, "Sir, we remember what that imposter said while he was still alive, 'After three days I will rise again.' 64Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, 'He has been raised from the dead,' and the last deception would be worse than the first." 65Pilate said to them, "You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can." 66So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.
The Resurrection of Jesus
28 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 lighting, 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 worshipped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."
The Report of the Guard
11While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. 12After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, 13telling them, "You must say, 'His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.' 14If this comes to the governor's ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble." 15So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.
SERMON Cancel Easter?
In the eyes of many people, Easter has been canceled this year. Church is online only. Easter egg hunts and family dinners are canceled. Malls are closed, and new outfits are unnecessary anyway. Easter lilies will not fill the worship space, and some will even forego chocolate bunnies and Peeps! No!
Can Easter be canceled? If we are talking about celebrating the resurrection of Jesus, this is not the first year that some have not celebrated the resurrection. For many, the resurrection of Jesus has been lost in a flurry of activity, the cuteness of children, and superficial wishes for a happy Easter. Even in churches, the busyness of multiple services and dropping Easter candy from drones has threatened to obscure the truth of the resurrection.
But not this year. This year, all of that is stripped away.
On the very first Easter, the Jewish power players anxiously conspired to make sure any plans for Easter would be canceled.
It is surprising that the Jewish leaders remembered what Jesus had said about rising from the dead. His disciples had heard him say it more than once, but Luke tells us that the disciples did not understand what he meant. The Jewish leaders understood what he meant, but of course, they didn’t believe it.
The Jewish leaders wanted to make sure the disciples would not try to perpetuate a hoax, by stealing the body of Jesus, and then claiming he had risen from the dead. Pilate agreed to help them “cancel Easter,” by posting guards. Yet he said something strange: “Go, make the tomb AS SECURE AS YOU KNOW HOW.” Understand—the disciples had only one sword among them, the one Peter had in the Garden of Gethsemane. The disciples had all fled when Jesus was crucified, except for the women, and Joseph and Nicodemus, who had buried Jesus. Who did they think was going to overcome 2 or more armed guards? And why would the disciples try to steal the body? As Paul said much later in 1 Corinthians 15:14, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” If Jesus was dead, the movement was dead.
In fact, there was no plot to steal Jesus’ body. After lying low on the Sabbath (Saturday), the men were hiding out somewhere. Only some women ventured out at dawn on Sunday—hardly a threat to the armed guard at the tomb.
Yet Pilate’s words became a prophecy: “Make the tomb as secure as you know how.” How secure was that?
The resurrection of Jesus went on as planned!
The guards felt an earthquake, and they saw an angel, bright like lightning in the dawn of the day. They were so afraid that they shook.
The women heard the angel say, “Do not be afraid.” Do not be afraid? Of course, they were afraid! Yet the angel challenged their fear, with news they could hardly imagine: “He is not here; he is risen!”
As the women hurried away, “afraid yet filled with joy,” Jesus met them. He too said to them, “Do not be afraid.”
Do you catch a theme here? “Do not be afraid.”
Many are saying that these days, because of the pandemic and the uncertainty and fear it causes. Why should we not be afraid? Not because we don’t see the danger; we do. Not because we have everything under control; we don’t. We should not be afraid because Jesus is alive.
Now if I had been there at the tomb, I think I would have been shaking—shaking with fear?...awe?…shock? In the words of the old spiritual, “Were You There,” “…sometimes it causes me to tremble…tremble…tremble.” The guards trembled at the shock and awe of the angels, but the women trembled as they heard Jesus say, “Do not be afraid.”
Our prayer on Easter is expressed by Paul in Ephesians 1:18-20, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead…” God’s power doesn’t make our fear disappear, but God is greater than anything we fear.
The Jewish power players were afraid—afraid that if people feared God more than them, they would lose out. They were still trying to cancel Easter.
The Jewish leaders did not want to DISCOVER the truth about what happened; they wanted to MANAGE the truth about the resurrection.
People do that, for truth they don’t want to face. Financial problems are managed, for a while, by credit card debt. Addiction in families might be managed by not talking about the problem. Sins are hidden, conflict avoided by the silent treatment, and depression masked by a smile.
As the coronavirus pandemic emerged, politicians and world leaders attempted to MANAGE the truth about the virus and its victims. The full extent of the epidemic and death toll was not revealed, to protect economies, governments, and political leaders. Only when the truth could no longer be ignored did the leaders admit the full extent of the pandemic.
The Jewish power players did not want to know the truth about whether Jesus rose from the dead; they only wanted to manage the situation. For if Jesus actually rose from the dead, it would threaten their way of life. They would no longer have ultimate religious authority, and they would lose status and support. The truth of the resurrection would threaten their way of life, and the entire Jewish establishment.
Even today, some people see the resurrection of Jesus as a threat, for if Jesus rose from the dead, Jesus is Lord. Jesus is the authority on moral behavior. Jesus demands total commitment to his kingdom of righteousness and transformation. Jesus asks people to humble themselves, take up their cross of service, and submit to his authority.
If Jesus rose from the dead, anything is possible. Forgiveness is possible. Emotional as well as physical healing is possible. Relationships can be restored, unhealthy habits overcome, and sins defeated.
That is good news! But it is also a threat to a way of life that denies the power and authority of the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, the risen Lord, claims authority over all things: our relationships, our habits, our favorite sins, and our pride.
The Jewish leaders recognized the threat, so they took steps to MANAGE the truth. The guards were paid handsomely to spread a story about the disciples stealing the body while they were asleep. (By the way, the stone in front of the tomb was heavy enough that the women knew they couldn’t move it. Moving the stone would have made some noise, and would probably have awakened the guards.)
The guards took the money and circulated the story—a story to CANCEL EASTER.
Yet Easter could not be canceled. Why? Because the resurrection really happened.
Mary and Mary Magdalene, expecting to find a dead body, saw and heard an angel. Then they saw Jesus, in his resurrected body. Mary Magdalene had a conversation with Jesus.
The women shared the news with the disciples. Peter and John, wanting to see for themselves, ran to the tomb, to find it empty. Peter believed, even though it made no sense to him.
Meanwhile, 2 lesser disciples were on the road the Emmaus, sad and disappointed. Jesus joined them on the road, and they did not recognize him until he sat with them and broke bread. They rushed back to Jerusalem, joining the disciples in time for Jesus to appear. He entered the room with the door still shut, and he spoke to them and ate some broiled fish.
Thomas, one of the 12, was not there with them, and he doubted their story. The following Sunday, Jesus again appeared, inviting Thomas to touch him. Thomas then said, “My Lord and my God.”
Paul tells us that Jesus then appeared to more than 500 followers. He also appeared to James, one of his brothers who did not believe in him, and had even tried to take him away as a crazy man. After Jesus ascended into heaven, the brothers of Jesus were with the other believers in the upper room, and James became a leader in the church. The only logical explanation for their changed view of Jesus was that they saw Jesus alive, after his death on the cross.
The resurrection of Jesus made it impossible for the disciples to stay silent. Peter and John, when they were warned by the authorities to stop speaking about Jesus, said in Acts 4:20, “We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
Cancel Easter? Not if you believe that Jesus rose from the dead.
Of course, some say we can’t know whether Jesus actually rose to life. It was a long time ago—almost too long for us to imagine the truth of it. Yet the story has not changed; if it was true then, it is true now. So which story is more compelling: the story of the soldiers, or the story of the disciples who risked their lives for the truth of the resurrection?
Even if the story is true, some try to avoid a decision on the truth of the resurrection, because it threatens their way of life. It threatens their moral standards, their hopes and dreams for worldly success, their prejudices and privileges, or the freedom they crave. They are not seeking to discover the truth, but to manage the truth to fit the life they choose.
Others believe that Jesus rose on the third day, incredible as that seems, and their lives reflect the life he gives to those who believe. All of us know people like that—people in the church, neighbors, co-workers. Many of us have felt the influence of ancestors, perhaps generations ago, who founded families and gave us the life we have, because Jesus gave them new life.
Can Easter be canceled? Church services can be canceled. Public celebrations can be canceled. But the truth of Easter, that Jesus rose from the dead, cannot be canceled.
Yes, this Easter will not be as festive as some. Yet this Easter, the reality of the resurrection might have greater impact, as we are humbled by our inability to control our health, our movement, and economy. This Easter, we are less distracted by endless activities, and we feel how precious life is. This Easter, we our forced to face the reality of death, in ways that we could otherwise avoid.
And this Easter, the words of the angel are no less true than they were at that pivotal time in history, when the angel said, “He is not dead. He is alive.”
Because he lives, he is Lord of all. Because he lives, we live. Because he lives, all of life is transformed, forever.
AFFIRMATION OF FAITH
Life in Christ is life eternal. The resurrection of Jesus is the sign that God will consummate the work of creation and reconciliation beyond death and bring to fulfillment the new life begun in Christ.
Adapted from the Confession of 1967, 9.26
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE AND THE LORD'S PRAYER
Almighty God, your promises are sure, your love unrelenting, your power unmatched. We bow before you, humbled by your grace, awed by your mercy, rejoicing in your kindness. We do not pretend to understand the mystery of resurrection, but we cannot help but recognize our risen Lord among us, present in our suffering, visible in new creation, made known to us in the breaking of the bread.
Gracious Lord, we cannot meet you on the outskirts of the graveyard and not fall on our knees and worship. You suffered and died to forgive us. You became incarnate to show us God's love for us. You healed and fed, taught and preached, prayed and ate with sinners to show us God's will for us. You went to the tomb and were raised from the dead to defeat evil and bring life eternal for the sake of the world. Hear our praise as we shout alleluia and tell all the earth of your glorious resurrection.
You call us by name, Lord of all. Hearing our weeping, you refuse to leave us alone in our grief. Trusting your compassion, we share our deepest hopes and our greatest fears. We lift up to your light those crying in the night. We give thanks for those who have fallen ill and then recovered. Comfort the many who mourn, families unable to hold funerals, doctors and nurses confronted constantly with death, people longing to touch those isolated by this pandemic. We remember your call to care for the least of these and ask that you would give us the wisdom to serve in ways that show your love for all people. When we cannot physically be present, send your Spirit as we send our notes, make our calls and do all we can to visit those in prison, house those without shelter, and heal the sick. Help us to feed those who hunger physically, spiritually, or emotionally. May your body, the Church, be united in our caring, radical in our generosity, and stalwart in our advocacy.
As this public health crisis lingers in the spring and likely drags into the summer, grant us courage for the living of these days. When our patience is slim and our frustration is misdirected, gently correct us. When we hurt those closest to us and fail to be our best selves, forgive us and remind us to forgive others.
When this season of isolation and sickness comes to an end, do not let us forget the lessons this forced physical distancing have taught us. Take this trying time, these struggles and hardships, and use them for good in ways we cannot now envision, but that you have the power and will to enact.
On this day of resurrection, filled with fear and joy, we worship, we sing, we weep, we give thanks, and most of all, we marvel at your unwillingness to leave us to the consequences of our actions, your tenacious desire to be in relationship with us, and your amazing grace through which you have saved us.
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.
INVITATION TO OFFERING
Your finance committee encourages you to continue your stewardship support by mailing contributions to Westminster Presbyterian Church, 353 E. Pine St, Wooster, OH 44691, Attn: Financial Secretary.
HYMN NO. 522 I Am the Bread of Life BREAD OF LIFE
HYMN NO. 251 Christ has Arisen, Alleluia MFURAHINI, HALELUYA
BLESSING AND CHARGE
POSTLUDE Lift High the Cross KITCHIN/arr. BEHNKE
Thank you to those who participated in the creation of this worship service: