Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In religious circles, it is often said that the Seven Last Words of the Church are, “We never did it that way before.” Well, I can assure we have never done Easter like this before, and I can only imagine that you have never experienced Easter this way before either. This year, we are all perhaps a bit more like the two women who went to the tomb early on that first Easter morning, anxious and frightened, than the boisterous congregations ever since who have joined in singing, “Christ, the Lord is Risen Today.” Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb that Easter morning sad and sorrowful simply remembering the final words spoken by Jesus, their loving master and teacher.
The last words which people speak before their death are often the most memorable. Sometimes the last words are sublime. The poet Emily Dickinson whispered softly, “I must go in, the fog is rising,” while the inventor Thomas Edison whispered, “It is very beautiful over there.” Sometimes the words are inspirational. The martyr Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was killed in his Church, cried out, “I am ready to die for my Lord, that in my blood the Church may obtain liberty and peace.” Sometimes the more thoughtful pragmatists offer advice. Conrad Hilton the founder of the Hilton Hotel chain, is reported to have said, “Leave the shower curtain on the inside of the tub.” And of course, there are the witty last words spoken with an artistic, dramatic flare. When she woke briefly during her last illness and found all her family around her bedside, Lady Nancy Astor, questioned, “Am I dying or is this my birthday?” The composer, Ludwig van Beethoven, requested a spontaneous ovation on his deathbed, “Friends applaud, the comedy is finished.”
Such last words and final thoughts become indelibly stamped on our hearts and often go to the very core of the soul. Simply ask, friends and family who have lost a loved one. These last words become vivid in their memory. I recall poignantly the words of my mother-in-law as she prepared for her final journey, “Everything will be just fine.” It’s interesting how often these simple words that are spoken in the final hours or days before death become the most meaningful, comforting and important. That is why the pain and sorrow is so great for many families struggling with the corona virus. They have been denied speaking and hearing those last words.
In his own final hours on that tragic Good Friday, Jesus spoke the familiar “seven last words of the Cross.” These words and phrases haunt and color our way of understanding of Jesus’ mission in the world. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” “Today, you will be with me in paradise,” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and “It is finished.” But interestingly, none of Jesus’ seven words from the cross was his last. Though these final words before his death impress upon our hearts the amazing depth of his love for us, none of these was ultimately his final word. And the reason they were not his last? It is because of the resurrection. As an Easter people, we do not celebrate the last words of a fallen leader. Nor do grieve the last will and testament of a noble victim. My friends, we celebrate the first words of a victorious Savior.
That first Easter morning, however, did not begin with a spoken word. Rather it began with a frightening fanfare and a blazing gesture. After Jesus had been crucified and died on the cross, his body had been placed in a tomb outside the city wall and a great stone had been rolled in front of the entrance and then sealed in place. Roman soldiers stood guard at the tomb. In the early morning hour, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to Jesus’ tomb. As the light of day was dawning, there was an earthquake. An aftershock, if you will, of the earthquake that struck at his death. Then an angel of the Lord descended and rolled back the stone. The angel’s appearance was awe inspiring with a face like lightning and clothing white as snow. For fear of him, the guards shook and became like dead men. The women had every right to be frightened of him, but the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised. “
Of course, the Easter story doesn’t end there. The angel had nothing to hide and everything to reveal. Jesus’ body had not been stolen. The angel had not rolled the stone away in order to free Jesus from the confines of the tomb, but rather the angel had rolled the stone away to let the women to see the place where he once lay. Just as Jesus’ crucifixion had truly demonstrated his death, the empty tomb now revealed the truth of his resurrection. “Come,” the angel said, “See the place where he lay.” And they did. The women came in trembling and saw, and then according to the command of the angel, they ran to tell Jesus’ disciples the good news. “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.” Yes, that was the word of the Angel. But then came the real Easter surprise. Jesus himself met the two women on the road, and spoke to them. Jesus’ seven last words from the cross, you see, weren’t his last. Indeed, we now have a first word from the resurrection, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
My friends, that is the promise Christ gives to everyone who goes forth to tell the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. They are met by the living Christ on the way. That is a profound message to each one of us this Easter- as we have all been forced to live out the challenges of a world marred, and hindered by the corona virus. There are corners of this country which are today face the peak of the death surge. In other places, there are sons and daughters who cannot be with their parents who are in failing health. There are husbands and wives who cannot be with their spouse because it would jeopardize the health of their family. Here in our own community, there are grandparents who cannot be with their children and grandchildren this Easter. Yes, we all have obstacles and sorrows that greet us this day. But let me assure you, that day is surely coming when like the women who went to the tomb, you and I will be able to take hold of those we love and embrace them again. Do not be afraid, but be of good courage.
That is the good news this Easter which seems even more vital and life giving today than in years past. The story of Christ’s resurrection teaches us that there is nothing in all creation that can separate from the love and mercy and good will and forgiveness of God in Christ Jesus. Not disease, not death, not even a stone sealed tomb. Jesus Christ has the power destroy them, and to defeat the power of a devil who is always tempting us to doubt God’s love and will. Do not be afraid, my friends, even in the moments when you feel the most isolated and alone. Do not dwell on the last seven words of the church, “We never did it that way before.” Instead, focus on the first seven words of the church, “We can do all things in Christ.” In this new world, go and tell your brothers and sisters, that Jesus will meet them again. And tell them that Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen