Quite Suddenly (Sermon)

“Quite Suddenly”

Matthew 28:1-10

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Easter 2021 Sunrise Service

1-7 When the Sabbath was over, just as the first day of the week was dawning Mary from Magdala and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. At that moment there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from Heaven, went forward and rolled back the stone and took his seat upon it. His appearance was dazzling like lightning and his clothes were white as snow. The guards shook with terror at the sight of him and collapsed like dead men. But the angel spoke to the women, “Do not be afraid. I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here—he is risen, just as he said he would. Come and look at the place where he was lying. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead. And, listen, he goes before you into Galilee! You will see him there! Now I have told you my message.”

            8 Then the women went away quickly from the tomb, their hearts filled with awe and great joy, and ran to give the news to his disciples.

            9-10 But quite suddenly, Jesus stood before them in their path, and said, “Peace be with you!” And they went forward to meet him and, clasping his feet, worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go now and tell my brothers to go into Galilee and they shall see me there.” (J.B. Phillips New Testament)

         There may be no more appropriate place for Christian worship—especially on Easter—than outside in the embrace of new spring growth, beneath the natural light of the heavens, whether they shimmer with that light, silky blue that heralds a clear day, or whether they hang low and gray, heavy with the promise of rain.

         I love the sound of human voices singing Alleluias, too, but if there exists more unfettered joy than the morning chorus of birdsong, I haven’t heard it.

         Out here there are no doors that must be locked or pews to claim as one’s own. Our feet rest on the earth herself, and our faces feel the new day’s unconditioned air. Perhaps that same air, carrying tiny spores of pollen, irritates eyes and noses, but its perfume cannot be bought. It is pure grace.

         Out here we travel far more open pathways than we do in sanctuary aisles. Inside a church building we expect to be expected to feel the expectations of holiness in rooms that have been set aside as holy space. But out here, mystery slips up on us in the most unexpected ways.

         “Quite suddenly, Jesus stood before them in their path.”

         Perhaps far more memorably and more often than inside, the risen Christ invades our paths out here. And I say that not to diminish the ways in which we do encounter the risen Christ “in there.” But even for those of us who spend many of our waking hours inside those walls, we still spend more time out here, don’t we? So, if what we do in there fails to connect with who we are and what we do out here, we may never recognize that the risen Jesus is more than some theological doctrine about which to argue, or worse, some convenient tool for social and political control. That’s exactly what Constantine saw in Jesus, and Christianity is just now beginning to recover from—to be resurrected from—its one-thousand-seven-hundred-year bender as the most powerful, state-sponsored religion on the planet.

         If what we do in there fails to connect with who we are and what we do out here, then that place becomes a well-sealed tomb, and we its lifeless guards.

         Out here, along unguarded paths, Jesus stands before us. He gets in our way. This is where Christ surprises us with his presence—in the midst of all the poverty, the injustice, the grief, and the celebration of human life.

To be sure, we do claim the presence of Christ in the sacraments. And in his poem, How to Be a Poet, Wendell Berry reminds us that sacrament is also a way of life. “There are no unsacred places,” he says; “there are only sacred and desecrated places.” If this wide-open place of relentless challenge and wonder isn’t God’s house, then how can a church sanctuary be any more holy?

During Covid, we’ve all had to re-imagine sacred spaces, holiness, worship, service, and community. So, it is most appropriate that our first gathering in over a year is outside, un-tombed, on Easter. Outside is where the women heard the news of Jesus’ resurrection. Out here, where life is surging forth, again, is where the good news of Easter sends us to practice resurrection.

This is the perfect place to gather at the Lord’s table, too. For the earth herself gives us wine and bread. We come from the earth and return to the earth, and yet, while we’re here, in these fragile, earthly bodies, by the power of resurrection, we remain connected to the eternity from which we have come and toward which we, by grace, we are living, even now.

There has been nothing sudden about our shared Covid experience—except the way it began, perhaps. But as we go on living this life, Easter reminds us to be awake, to be awakened, to be ready, and not to fear. Quite suddenly things can change, and whether that change initially feels like it’s for the better or for the worse, Jesus is in the midst of it with us to celebrate, to comfort, to challenge, and to resurrect us into the newness and the wholeness called the kingdom of God.

He is risen!

He is risen, indeed!

Let all the world say Alleluia!

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