St Michael’s Easter Sunday 3rd April 2016
Readings – 1 Corinthians 15:50-58; Matthew 28:16-20
There is little doubt that the Easter story is the strangest and most dramatic story ever written. Here are two women who set out early one morning to look at the tomb of their Lord and Master. They are travelling without hope, expecting only to find a grave. Yet when they arrive, what do they discover? A stone rolled away, and an angel with a most amazing message: He is not here; He has risen, just as He said.
I for one find it really hard to imagine what it must have been like for the women at this point. They, along with everyone else, believed that Jesus really had died, and not unreasonably they expected this to be the end of the story. Yet here is the evidence of an empty tomb and the power of God at work. It must all have been so confusing, so upsetting, and yet perhaps so wonderful to behold.
And so Afraid yet filled with joy the women run from the tomb to tell the disciples. They cannot guess what has taken place, and they can have no idea what is going to happen next. Suddenly Jesus met them.
Now, as we saw last week, the reason why Matthew wrote his account is to show that the resurrection of Jesus really happened. He wants to leave us in no doubt that Jesus is alive, that He is victorious over death, that He has paid the price for all our sins. And if that isn’t a message that causes us to bow down in worship and praise, then I suggest we haven’t grasped the wonder and the power of the Easter story. This account isn’t something made up, or a cover up for something else. It is an account of God reaching into human history to raise His Son from the dead and offer the hope of new life to all who believe and trust in Him.
But the Easter story doesn’t quite end there. Jesus gives a message for the women to pass on to the disciples. Verse 10: Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me. And so today’s reading tells us what happens after Jesus’s disciples decide to make that journey from Jerusalem into Galilee, and what the risen Lord Jesus says to them.
Yet in between Jesus’ message and the disciples actually going, there is another one of Matthew’s little details we don’t find in any of the other gospels. It’s the story in verses 11-15 of the chief priests and the elders giving the guards at the tomb a large sum of money and instructing them to say the disciples stole the body. Now it’s worth stopping and asking ourselves why Matthew bothered to include this story. It seems to take the focus away from the risen Lord Jesus and to give us information we don’t really need. So what is this passage doing here?
I suggest Matthew is making one simple point: that the world in general does not want to believe that Jesus has risen from the dead. And you don’t have to go back through history to understand the point he is making. Look at all those TV documentaries about apparently lost gospels and the truths the early church covered up. Look at how many millions Dan Brown has made from his badly written books and totally implausible plots. Look at the claims folk make about science and how it has disproved religion, even though many scientists are in fact firm, committed believers.
The world does not want to believe that Jesus has risen from the dead. Why not? Well, the answer comes in today’s passage, in verse 18, where Jesus makes this most astonishing claim: All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. You see, if there is one thing the world does not like, it is the idea that anyone has absolute authority. Our culture tells us, “If it feels good, do it”, that we should live by our own rules, that we should be free to do what we like when we like. And it certainly does not have time for any person who claims that He Himself is the way, the truth and the life.
Of course it is so easy to criticise other people. But what about us? Jesus says: All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. So that raises the question, do we ourselves live as if Jesus has been given total authority? Or to put it another way, if we were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict us?
So for the rest of this morning, I want to consider, as briefly as I can, what it means for us to live under the authority of the risen Lord Jesus. Now I realise this is a subject that in many ways is too large for any one sermon, but I want to suggest that living under the authority of Jesus includes at least the following five points:
First of all, that we gather regularly in His name.
Now just before Easter we spent some weeks looking at Jesus’ teaching in Matthew chapters 5-7, known as the Sermon on the Mount. This was the first detailed instruction Jesus gave His disciples, and it took place where? On a mountain somewhere in Galilee. Fast forward to the end of Matthew’s gospel, and where are the disciples meeting the risen Lord Jesus? On a mountain somewhere in Galilee.
Matthew’s first readers could not have failed to recall how back in the book of Exodus the Lord appeared to Moses on a mountain and gave the law we now know as the Ten Commandments. But that was a one-off occasion, with access restricted to just one person, who acted as a go-between between us and God. In Matthew’s gospel, by contrast, every disciple is called to gather regularly in the name of Jesus, to worship and to hear the word of the Lord.
And in our culture today it is particularly important to stress that also for us the Easter story is not just about believing but also about belonging. Yes, it is true to say that Jesus died for my sins. Yes, it is true that thanks to Jesus I have a new relationship with God as my Heavenly Father. But Jesus also died in order to make me a member of His body, the church; He still calls each and every believer to gather regularly in His name, to worship and to hear the word of the Lord.
That is why coming to church and belonging to a small group should be such an important part of a Christian’s life, not as a chore or as duty, but out of a joyful expectation that when we gather, the living Lord Jesus still speaks to us, as clearly as to the first disciples on that mountain in Galilee. And if Jesus really is Lord of our life, why would we not make every effort to make sure we are there when His people gather in His name? After all, all over the world there are believers who risk their lives to worship together, because the church is so precious to them, and surely their example should be both a challenge and an encouragement to us.
Of course I realise that one reason why we are sometimes not so eager to gather is often the church is less than it ought to be, and in many ways always will be this side of heaven. Like the first disciples we make mistakes, we quarrel, we sometimes say things we shouldn’t. That is why living under Jesus’ authority means secondly, that we live continually in light of the cross.
What do I mean like this?
Well, consider the following verses:
John 13:34: As I have loved you, so you must love one another.
Romans 15:7: Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.
Colossians 3:13: Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
You see, the cross shouldn’t just be something that we remember once a year at Easter, or a religious icon we see in churches or wear round our necks. The cross should affect our thoughts, our attitudes, our deeds, continually. Yes, as a church, we will always fall short of being the people God calls us to be. But because we live under the authority of Jesus we should make our church a place of radical love, acceptance and forgiveness, where by His Holy Spirit we bear with other and show Christlike compassion to one another. That is why in teaching, in our preaching and especially in our prayers we must never tire of focusing on Christ crucified, because the cross should stand at the cornerstone of all our relationships.
And because the cross is so important it follows that thirdly, living under the authority of Jesus means that we make Jesus our top priority.
Now there are many good and right goals we should have in our life. We should want to provide the very best for our families, to find a good job, to make sure our children and our grandchildren are provided for. But in all the decisions that we make, how important is it that Jesus is Lord? So, for example, if we decide to move house, do we look for somewhere which has a church close by where we can worship? Or a school where our children will have the opportunity to learn about the Christian faith?
As believers we are told clearly not to conform to the pattern of this world. And surely that means committing every decision to the Lord, and learning to see every situation from His viewpoint. Yes, the flat may be lovely, and the agent may tell us the neighbourhood is wonderful, but surely the most significant factor must be whether the Lord is calling you to live there or not.
At the end of our first reading this morning Paul writes these words, in 1 Corinthians 15:58: Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain. Yet I know that somehow amidst all the demands of each day I can so easily forget why serving the Lord is so important – and I suspect I am not alone. Indeed, more often than not, we concentrate on the here and now, as if our hope was just a vague possibility, and we shape our lives according to the values of this world. Paul is telling us, however, that if Jesus is risen, He should make all the difference to every decision in every area of our life. Because, that after all, is what it means to call Jesus Lord. It’s not a religious title but a recognition of His authority and the proper place He should have in each and every decision we make.
We need to understand this if, fourthly, we are to understand that we are called to obey Jesus’ teaching.
Matthew 28, verses 18-20: 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, baptising 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.”
Now many years ago I worked for a year as a language assistant in Austria, teaching children English and aspects of English culture. As you might imagine, this eventually led to a request for me to explain the game of cricket. There were just two problems. First of all, although I watch a lot of cricket, I have never played the game. So I couldn’t actually explain what it was like to bowl a ball or hold a cricket bat. And secondly, I was supposed to teach the game in a classroom rather than out on a pitch. It was, as you can, imagine one of the most intensely frustrating times of my life and at the end we decided that cricket was most like the game of baseball.
Why do I mention this? Well, the church talks a lot about the need to make disciples. Indeed, the Diocese of Exeter commends every mission community and every believer to grow in prayer, to make new disciples and to serve the people of Devon with joy. But it’s hard to make disciples, if we ourselves aren’t that clear what it means to be a disciple. That’s why before coming on to these verses I have sought to explain a little what it means for us to live under the authority of Jesus – to gather regularly in His name, to live in light of the cross, to make Jesus our top priority. Because ultimately whatever we say, it will be the evidence of our lives which will lead people to decide whether Jesus is risen or not, and whether they want to follow Him.
Too often, however, when the church has talked about discipleship, it has made it sound that following Jesus is more about dull, dry theory in the classroom rather joyful, lived experience out on the pitch. And here one more is another reason why it is so important to show following Jesus affects every area of our lives. If Jesus has all the authority, then everything we do has to be lived in light of His final victory over sin and death and evil.
And that is why Jesus goes on to talk about baptising 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. Baptism, you see, is far more than a religious ceremony. It is about dying to an old way of life to where self is at the centre, and a new way of life where Jesus is at the centre. But Jesus can only be at the centre if we are obeying everything Jesus has commanded us and teaching others to do the same. That means not just following the parts of Jesus teaching we like or find comfortable, but learning to do everything He asks of us, even and especially when it is costly or difficult.
Does all this make the Christian faith sound like hard work? If so, then be encouraged by the final point I want to make – that living under Jesus’ authority means that we are filled with the Holy Spirit.
I love the last chapter of Matthew’s gospel. It begins in despair and confusion as the two women make their way to the empty tomb. It finishes with a wonderful assurance of hope as the risen Lord Jesus says: And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
Those are not just words given to those eleven disciples who gathered on that mountain in Galilee. Those are also words to us. If we believe that Jesus died in our place for our sins then He will come and live in our hearts not just for a day, or for a season, but forever. That presence of Jesus we call the Holy Spirit. And it is the Holy Spirit which turns obeying Jesus from a matter of chore and duty into a joy and an immense privilege.
But we also know from Scripture it is also possible to quench or to grieve the Holy Spirit. That is why it is important we keep on being filled with the Holy Spirit as we come back again and again to Jesus, as we seek to discover our Heavenly Father’s will for our lives, as we offer up our lives in willing, thankful service.
So what does it mean to live under the authority of Jesus? That we:
gather regularly in His name
live in light of the cross
make Jesus our top priority
are called to obey Jesus’ teaching
are filled with the Holy Spirit
And even though the world may scoff at our faith, when our lives are transformed in this way no-one will be able to deny the power of the risen Lord Jesus living in us.
So let us pray and let us indeed ask that Jesus has all the authority over our lives. For His name’s sake. Amen.