I had the joy of being with the Gallery Church Downtown and Riverside Baptist this past weekend to preach. They have been going through the Gospel of Matthew for over two years! This is the second to the last sermon in the series, and I loved talking about the good news of Resurrection the Sunday following Easter.
You can listen to the sermon in its entirety here, but I am posting a most of my manuscript here and the litany/response we did at the end.
Today, we proclaim the good news: because of the resurrection of Jesus, nothing can or will stop the restoration of all things.
Stories are powerful. This is not a new idea for us. We grow up learning some of the most important lessons of life through stories: kids books, fairy tales, passing down family traditions and accounts of days gone by: we are people of stories who are moved by stories. And last week, we retold the central narrative for our shared faith: the betrayal, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
Yet, in more recent days, we have seen what happens when people have different stories to tell from one another: stories that clash. I’m not just talking about people telling the same story with different details or perspectives, but stories that conflict with one another. I think we see this as more evident than ever in the news cycle, in our social media feeds, in our families, and in the government structures both here and around the world. As soon as a news story breaks, the spin begins. And the spin exists because people know the power of stories and information to influence others to do everything from vote a certain way to buy a certain product. News has become commodified and when it is commodified, it can be leveraged for special interests-to coerce people into action (or inaction).
This is, at best, biased news and, at worst, propaganda. Which leads us to the infamous “fake news”. Fake news is at work in our text today, as we will see. But “fake news” is a phrase which was deemed by Politifact as the Lie of the Year for 2016. Now, contrary to what some (including our president) seem to think, fake news is not simply biased reporting, or even news we disagree with. It is outright falsehoods: made-up stuff, masterfully manipulated to look like credible journalistic reports that are easily spread online to large audiences willing to believe the fictions and spread the word. It’s a poplar lie that is popular because people want to believe it and share it.
We will talk about this a little bit more later on, but the point is not simply decrying the reality of fake news (though I could get on a rant about it, for sure!). This phenomenon of fake news, which many think is indicative of our post-truth world, speaks to the prevailing counter-stories we often live in. We are not moved by facts which do not, at some level, also move us emotionally and at the level of our desires. I believe this shows us that there are stories which are not simply untrue, they run counter to the core narrative of the resurrection of Jesus. And we Christians believe them and live from them all the time.
These counter-stories go something like:
“This life as it is, is all there is—and it’s up to us to make it better.” This is the classic modernist story of humanism, or the enlightenment. It is the air we breathe. And it comes out in how we tend to talk about the world around us. We hear it in the political discourse all the time: “We are regressing as a society.” or, on the other side of the political spectrum: “We are returning to the glorious good old days.” This is was never more present than in the two competing slogans of the presidential campaign: “Make America Great Again” and “Stronger together” (or the Democrat’s response to Trump”s “MAGA” was “We are already great. and we are great because we are good”. These slogans, and the parties/candidates which they represent, both share a pretty central assumption: greatness can be accomplished and realized in our lifetime, and it is up to us to make it happen. This is, oddly, what all of American politics have in common, regardless of party affiliation. The story they tell is: We accomplish greatness through the collective power of our own efforts.
If I’m getting your pulse rate up a little bit right now or you are wondering where the heck this guy is going with politics, you are kind of proving my point about the power that these stories have! But there is the other side to this narrative which gets us in further trouble: what if something stands in the way of our greatness, of our desire to be significant? How do we hold on to the power we have? How do we get it from others? This is where fake news comes into play: preying on our fears, manipulating our emotions, and feeding on the powerful motivators of guilt, shame, and greed.
Not only are we drawn to the stories which reinforce our biases, we are moved to anger by the stories which work against our deeply held beliefs. And this is not necessarily immoral. We hear about stories of abuse of power and we feel outrage. We read some of the things being done in our government or around the world, and we cry out for justice.
But there is a subtle turn that takes place: we think we should respond in kind, we are made to be afraid, so we respond with more fear. Guilt with more guilt. Shame with more shame. But this is not the way of the kingdom: this is not consistent with the story of the Resurrection. This is the way of the powers and principalities. This is the way of anti-kingdom. And this is what we see this at work in our text today. (yes, this was all just an introduction!)
Many have said, regarding this text, that as soon as the mission of witness to Jesus begins, a counter-mission begins as well. There is the mission of the women to go tell (and of Jesus to go ahead of them to Galilee) and the mission of the soldiers and religious leaders to discount and explain away the missing body of Jesus. The guards go to report to the chief priests. This is important, because they were the very ones who convinced Pilate that the tomb needed guards in the first place. (notice…the people in power seemed to take Jesus at his word that he would rise again in the three days, more than his own followers!)
So the guards give an account of what happened: not fake news yet, they just tell what has happened—but it is not good news for the religious leaders. So, the chief priests, after hearing the news do what anyone else would do, they hold a committee meeting! And who is on the committee, all the people who stand to lose power and influence, should the real message get out there. It’s here that they devise a plan. More scheming to preserve their power, and they know that the best way to do this is to spread a false story.
Now, this is not a very credible story. For one, Roman guards don’t sleep. They had a vested interest in protecting the tomb, and they are the best of the best. Even the attempt to undermine the news is feeble at best: “While we were sleeping, the disciples came and took the body.” Have you ever heard of someone’s testimony of something that happened while they were sleeping stand up in court? Of course not. Nor does this bode well for the soldiers: sleeping on the job.
But the leaders assuage the fears of the soldiers. They tell them to just spread the story and we will take care of the governor for you (i.e bribes, political power). The counter-mission against the resurrection is often includes the means of money, grabbing power, bribery, lying, manipulation, and appeasing those in power. Good thing this doesn’t happen today anymore! 🙂
This causes me pause. This is a lot of trouble to go through to spread a fake news story. I’ve often wondered that about fake news today: what motivates someone to craft fake news and spread it, beyond it just being a cruel joke? Most often, the motivation was money. And money was surely the motivation for the soldiers, but why the religious leaders? What did they have to benefit? I believe they were afraid. I think that the entire charade of Jesus trial and execution were rooted in fear. And now, the fact that Jesus could, in fact, be raised from the dead, was dangerous to the religious/political establishment. Why?
Resurrection was seen as vindication. It basically would have shown that all the accusations of the people in power in the Temple were lies. It would have stood the whole system on its head. And it would show that Jesus was rightfully the King of the Jews. A king which the religious establishment missed (and dismissed) and that Rome couldn’t ultimately destroy. Now, interestingly enough, Jesus was not the only one to talk like this about resurrection being vindicating. Other revolutionaries, like the Maccabees who tried to take Jerusalem back by military might almost 200 years prior, used similar language to talk about their coming hope in 2 Macabbees 7. Though this is a book not included in the protestant canon of Scriptures, it is historically supported and it captures well the hope the people of the first century had. In 2 Maccabbees, seven sons and their mother were all martyred by the reigning imperial king because they wouldn’t disobey God’s law. And they would exclaim to the king each time, right before their execution, that God would be merciful to them, raising them back to life to show the error of the king’s ways and that God was on their side. Resurrection vindicates the martyred. (My mind is drawn to the incredible example of our Coptic brothers and sisters in Egypt, who have the power to forgive those who murdered their family members…their hope for resurrection and the example of Jesus forgiving his enemies fuels their faith)
If you’ll allow me, let me give a bit of an excursus on resurrection, as we sometimes tend to conflate resurrection with heaven/life-after-death. St. Paul thought that the resurrection of Jesus was so central to faith (and to what new thing was breaking into the world) that if it were not true, then our faith would be futile, we would still be in our sins, and we would be pitied as people without hope. You can read this in 1 Corinthians 15 (which is one of my new favorite chapters in Scripture) where Paul makes a direct connection between our own coming resurrection and the resurrection of Jesus, which is a first-fruits of that resurrection. What this means is that, because Jesus is alive (though he was murdered), we will also rise as he has. We will rise with real, physical, immortal bodies to enjoy the fully redeemed and restored creation with our God.
This is what N.T. Wright often calls life after life after death. This is why Paul quotes Isaiah, saying “death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death is your victory? Where, O death is your sting?” The answer, nowhere. Death is done. Life is ours, in Jesus. And it is a forever embodied life which we get to enjoy in resurrected bodies. Not as angels in the clouds, not as disembodied spirits floating somewhere, but as fully restored human beings, enjoying a fully restored heaven and earth, in fully restored relationships with each other and our King. And Jesus’ resurrection shows us that this is not an empty hope. It has already begun, because he is risen!
We have the more fascinating and beautiful story in the resurrection, but we are so prone to forget it. And we are prone to believe the other stories around us. We often need to take the time to admit where we really are, because many of us give mental assent to the fact that there was someone named Jesus who was crucified and died and resurrected, but we are not believing the powerful story of resurrection. We aren’t living from it. We still fall victim to fake news and to counter-narratives in our own lives.
This is true for me way too often. I don’t know about you, but I have real, deep fears. I fear that things won’t get better in the world, when I continue to hear of the increasing violence in our world, whether it is bombings overseas or shootings two blocks from my house.
I also fear that I will be insignificant. I fear that I will never have anything to offer the world. I fear that you all will not find my preaching fascinating or moving.
My wife Kara and I have recently stepped out into a very scary time of life. As many of you know, I was one of the first people to be a part of this new church work in Baltimore, in helping to start the Gallery Church. I’ve journeyed with the Prince family, with Albert and Lauren, for almost a decade. With the Medina family for 7+ years. With many of you for a long time. And I stepped out into something new, feeling a pull and a release. But sometimes, to be honest, I think I was a complete idiot. I struggle with this often: just ask Kara how much of a mess I can be sometimes! I’ve stepped from known to unknown. There has, in a sense, been a sort of death; a loss.
In stepping out in this new season of life, I feel like the Lord has something to tell us and show us, but I’m afraid I will miss it. I’m deeply afraid that I will spend my whole life trying to find something, but will miss it. I’m afraid that things wont be restored or redeemed.
This is not simply fake news: it’s bad news. It’s bad news in desperate need of THE good news.
I need the power of the resurrection, which reminds me that nothing can or will stop the world from being restored. And this restoration, this new creation world, includes you and me.
Notice something interesting: Matthew seems to just sort of simply, calmly, and causally include this story in-between the account of the resurrection and the commission to go make disciples of the the Risen Jesus. He doesn’t combat it with a bunch of apologetic arguments. He doesn’t seem to be wringing his hands, saying, “So I really hope people don’t get deceived here.” He just tells the story: some people are claiming the disciples stole Jesus body: here is how that rumor came about. It almost seems as though Matthew wants this passage to be a bit of a footnote for us. Matthew doesn’t want to give too much space to fake news, because there is a much more powerful and important story to tell which was first given to us, not by powerful leaders and soldier, but by a few scared women: Jesus is alive.
What might it look like if we were to fully embrace the truth and power of the resurrection? What could it look like if you shifted from fear to enduring hope?
As soon as you will be on your way to simply tell what you’ve seen (as the women were), there will be people conspiring to produce fake news about Jesus. It’s not because they hate you. It’s not even really about you that much. It’s about what stories can do for us.
So as you move into the last passage in Matthew about the great commission, may you become emboldened and encouraged that you have the privilege to witness to the powerful reality of the resurrection. It is a powerful announcement which proclaims, in the words of Samwise Gamgee, all that is sad is coming untrue!
Samewise Gamgee: “Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?”
A great Shadow has departed,” said Gandalf, and then he laughed and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count.”
How will we respond?
I believe we are at a moment in history where it is absolutely essential for us to recover the beautifully dangerous, subversive, and powerful truth of the Resurrection of Jesus. We have the chance to retell this story by participating in it again and again. And we get better at telling something by practicing it.
Today, I want to lead us in what the poet Wendell Berry encourages us to do: to not simply believe resurrection but to “practice resurrection”.
In a world of fake news, fake claims, and post-truth, we proclaim…
Jesus is risen, and so shall we rise—with all things restored and finally made right. (refrain)
In our lives where we live in fear, isolation, disillusionment, and shame, we proclaim…
In our bodies which face weakness, decay, isolation, sickness, frailty, and death, we proclaim…
In our minds where we fight against the lies of the Accuser and of our own making, where we no longer wrestle with doubts afresh but acquiesce to their presence, we proclaim…
In our hearts, where we want the things which bring us and other harm, and where we struggle to allow ourselves to feel, for fear of more pain, we proclaim…
In our church which is holy yet tainted by sin, beautiful yet tragic, powerful, yet confused by violence, we proclaim…
In all creation, which groans under the pain of exploitation, pollution, human greed, and neglect, awaiting our revealing as daughters and sons, we proclaim…
Though we are taught to be individuals first, to seek our own welfare, our own interests, and our own desires, no matter the cost to others, we proclaim…
Though we face tragedy, loss, injustice, betrayal, derision, abandonment, death and sorrow, we proclaim…
And when we feel like our work does not make a difference, that our words fall on deaf ears, that our efforts are in vain, we take hope as we proclaim…Jesus is risen, and so shall we rise, with all things restored and finally made right!
Welcome to Eastertide: a most dangerous of the church seasons for all that is fake and passing away—for death has been swallowed by victory and we celebrate the continued and ultimate in-breaking reality of the new creation into this world, and proclaim that nothing can stop the restoration of all things to our King!
Jesus is risen, and so shall we rise, with all things restored and finally made right!
Benediction: 1 Corinthians 15:54b-58