The Last Shall Be First, April 16, 2017

Easter 2017 – Easter Sunday
WERE YOU THERE?  Finding Ourselves at the Foot of the Cross

The Last Shall Be First       Click here for audio



Luke 23:44-24:12
Pastor Donna Buell

During the season of Lent this year we explored the theme, WERE YOU THERE: Finding Ourselves at the Foot of the Cross. We focused on the people who were there, and who played a role in the events that led to Jesus’ death on the cross. We spoke of the woman who anointed Jesus’ head with oil and of those who scolded her. We spoke of the follower of Jesus who cut off the ear of the high priests’ slave when they came to arrest Jesus. We spoke of Judas who betrayed Jesus and of Joseph of Arimathea who provided a tomb for his body. We spoke of Pilate who chose to allow an innocent man to be crucified. We spoke of Simon of Cyrene who was compelled to carry the cross of Jesus, and of one of the criminals crucified beside him who showed Jesus compassion in his final moments. We spoke of the crowds who hailed Jesus as he arrived in Jerusalem and of the mob that called for his crucifixion just a few days later. We sought to identify with these very human characters, to see ourselves in them and in how they responded to what was happening, so that we might gain insights into our own lives.

On Thursday evening we gathered around tables in the Fellowship Hall for a simple meal, and were nourished by the bread and the cup of communion, shared in remembrance of Christ’s last supper with the disciples. Then we moved to the sanctuary to hear once again that whole painful story of Christ’s passion and death. And we lingered there in the darkness at the foot of the cross with the Centurion who said that certainly this man was innocent.

Today is Easter Sunday, and so it is time to begin shifting our attention from the Good Friday of the cross to the Good News of Easter, and we do so today by focusing on a group of people who were present not only at the cross but also at the empty tomb.

Though each of the gospels tells the story of that first Easter morning a little differently, they all agree that those who were first to discover the empty tomb and hear the news that Christ had risen were women. This morning we have read the story from the Gospel of Luke, who names “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them.”

But before we get to the empty tomb, I want us to spend a bit of time with these same women at the cross. Luke tells us that, along with other acquaintances, some of the women who had followed Jesus from Galilee stood at a distance, watching the events that took place. Why were they standing at a distance from the cross? Well, it’s possible that the Roman soldiers who were in charge of the crucifixion would not allow them to get very close. What Luke tells us is that among those near the cross were religious leaders who scoffed at Jesus, and that the soldiers themselves mocked him. I don’t know about you, but if I were one of Jesus’ close followers I would not have wanted to be in the midst of that crowd. I would have wanted to be surrounded by people who also loved Jesus and were grieving what was happening to him. And so I can understand why this group of women may have pulled themselves away from the scene near the foot of the cross and stood at a distance where they could still hear and observe all that was happening.

With quiet dignity, these women kept vigil with Jesus in his final hours. These were not just admirers of Jesus. They had chosen to follow him. They had left Galilee and journeyed with Jesus and the disciples and others who were his followers. And along the way they had helped to provide for the communal needs of those who traveled with Jesus. And no doubt they had stood at the edge of many crowds that gathered to hear Jesus preach and teach as they traveled. They were accustomed to watching things from the sidelines. That was what women did, for in the time of Jesus women were not highly regarded. They had no political or religious or legal standing in the community, except as it related to the men in their lives. They were women who lived in a world that was run by and for men, and who served at the pleasure of men in almost every respect.

We’ve come a long way since that time, though vestiges of that patriarchal culture still exist in our world today, and even in our own nation that mindset rears its ugly head from time to time. We’ve seen far too much of that recently, reminding many of us that we cannot take for granted the advances that have been made.
It was in the midst of a very patriarchal society, that the women named in the Gospels were fortunate to have encountered Jesus. And from the gospel accounts, particularly the Gospel of Luke, it is quite clear that Jesus treated women in ways that most men of that time did not. He treated them with dignity and respect. He welcomed them and included them, he healed them and forgave them, he taught them and had serious conversations with them, he sat at table with them and he came to their defense when others abused them, he encouraged them in their faith and gratefully received their gifts of love, devotion and service. It’s no wonder these women were willing to leave their homes and follow him.

When Jesus was arrested in the garden, the disciples fled, for they had a legitimate fear that they too might be arrested. Peter followed as far as the courtyard of the high priest’s house, but he too feared close identification with Jesus, and even denied knowing him, just as Jesus had warned. But because no one was likely to pay much attention to them, and because they wouldn’t have been considered much of a threat, the women were able to be present at the cross. So they were there, standing at a distance, observing what was happening.

There was not one thing these women could have done to change what was happening to Jesus. But in the midst of all the violence and hatred that swirled beneath his feet, they were able to bear witness to his suffering, and to the fact that he had not been completely abandoned by his followers or by God. By their presence they represented all those who loved Jesus, including those who could not risk being there. And by their presence they embodied the love, compassion, and faithfulness of God that Jesus had revealed to them in his own life.

The women remained there with him throughout those dark hours. They were there as he was nailed to the cross. They were there as he was scorned and mocked. They were there as he asked God to forgive those who were carrying out this deed. They were there as he extended grace to the criminal at his side. They were there as darkness came over the land. They were there as he commended his spirit into God’s hands and breathed his last breath. And though the spectacle of public execution was now over and the spectators likely left the scene, these women were still there when Joseph of Arimathea came and removed Jesus’ lifeless body from the cross, wrapped him in linen cloth and respectfully laid him in a tomb. These women were there at the last. They were there to the bitter end.

And because these women were the kind of people who were there to the bitter end, they were also the kind of people who were there at sunrise on the third day. They knew there wasn’t anything they could do that morning to change what had happened to Jesus, but by lovingly preparing his body for a proper burial now that the Sabbath was over, they could show Jesus in his death the kind of honor and dignity and respect he had shown them in his life.

And it was because they were there that they were the first to see the stone rolled away from the entrance of the tomb; it was because they were there that they were the first to go inside the tomb and see no sign of Jesus’ body; it was because they were there that they were the first to hear the great good news, “He is not here, but has risen!”, and it was because they were there that they were the first to go and tell what they had seen and heard to the disciples and to all the rest.

Luke tells us that at first the disciples did not believe the women – their words seemed to them an idle tale. After all, women weren’t considered to be reliable witnesses. But then, it was pretty incredible news, wasn’t it? The kind of thing you’d want to verify for yourself? It wasn’t until the risen Jesus appeared in the midst of the disciples and their companions, offering them his peace, and allowing them to see him and touch him for themselves that they could begin to believe what the women had told them. It wasn’t until Jesus opened the scriptures for them that they could begin to understand what God was doing. And it wasn’t until they were filled with the power of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, 50 days later, that any of them were ready to share the great good news of the Gospel with those beyond the immediate group of followers.

A number of years ago I came across a quote during my Easter preparations that has always stayed with me. It says: “Our faith is not in an empty tomb. Our faith is not in the resurrection. Our faith is in the risen Christ.” Perhaps I’ve watched too many episodes of CSI, but the empty tomb leaves too many unanswered questions. Intellectual arguments and attempts to rationally explain the resurrection may stimulate my mind, but they do not move my heart. It is the stories that speak to me; stories of ordinary people like Simon Peter, and Thomas, and Mary Magdalene, and all the others who encountered the risen Christ in those days following his resurrection. These were ordinary people, people like you and me, who were devastated by Jesus’ death on the cross, who were weighed down by their own feelings of sorrow and guilt and fear, whose whole world had just come crashing down around them. And yet, within just a few short weeks, these same people were transformed into a spirit-filled community of believers who courageously and joyfully shared the great good news of what God had done and was continuing to do in Christ.

Those first followers of the risen Jesus sought to live their lives humbly, as Jesus had lived, to teach as he had taught, to love as he had loved, and to serve as he had served. And in their faithful witness and by the power of the Holy Spirit they participated in God’s saving work in the world. It’s their stories that speak to me. Which is why I’m so glad that the gospel writers didn’t write theological explanations of the resurrection, but rather, they recorded the stories of those who were there, so that we who were not there might be drawn into those events, and led to recognize, in our own lives, the presence of the risen Christ and his power to transform our lives and our world.

When I think about the women who stood at a distance and watched Jesus’ death on the cross and who came to the tomb early on that first Easter morning with their burial spices, I think of all the humble servants of Christ that I have come to know in my own life and ministry, people who live out their lives, day in and day out, in quiet service to God and to God’s kingdom – people who live their lives out on the periphery, at a distance from the centers of power and privilege. Away from the society of the wealthy, away from the halls of governments, away from the board rooms of major corporations, away from the limelight of the media.

Out on the periphery there is a freedom that those who are in the center of it all don’t have. You don’t have to be quite so careful and calculating about what you say and what you do, because frankly there just aren’t that many people paying attention to you. It was to ordinary people, out on the periphery, that Jesus was born and by whom he was raised. Eric Kolbell describes what Jesus’ life with Mary and Joseph might have been like:

[They] would not pamper him because it would not be in [their] ethic or [their] budget. He would be forced to do chores and to live simply, and he would see the great disparities that separated people of means from people of need. When he walked with [his mother] to market, he would see how carefully she parceled out her denarii, and how infrequently she would buy the stuff of fine meals. He would see extravagance reserved for holidays, and deep into the night when his parents thought him asleep, he would overhear them as they wondered aloud how they were going to meet this month’s taxes.

Kolbell goes on to assert that it was in this setting that Jesus learned and lived the kingdom values he ended up preaching. And it was to ordinary people living out on the periphery; people of modest means and honest values and humble faith, that Jesus preached his message about the kingdom of God. They were not perfect people. They were ordinary people. And for the most part, they were the ones who responded positively to his message, they were the ones who left everything to follow him, they were the ones who grieved his death, they were the ones to whom he appeared after he was raised, and they were the ones empowered by the Spirit to carry on the ministry he had begun among them.

The good news of the gospel was entrusted, not to people of that day who had power and wealth and education and influence, but to ordinary people like Simon Peter and Matthew, Thomas and Andrew, Mary Magdalene and Joanna. And the fact is that most of us are much like them, living our lives out here on the periphery where, frankly, no one’s paying that much attention to us.

But if it was to people just like us that the gospel message was first entrusted, then it is for people like us to continue to tell the story of God’s love and grace revealed in Jesus Christ; in his advent and birth, in his life and ministry, in his death and resurrection. We do that by learning and telling those wonderful stories that have been handed down to us through the scriptures. And we also do it by sharing our own stories of the times when we have encountered the good news of the risen Christ in the midst of our own lives: times when we have experienced light in the midst of the darkness, hope in the midst of despair, forgiveness and acceptance and second chances in the midst of guilt and shame, deep joy in the midst of sorrow, and the comforting promise of everlasting life in the face of death.

When we bear witness to that which we have received and experienced, not just with our words but with our actions: when we share who we are and what we have for the sake of something greater than ourselves, when we treat those who have been excluded with welcome and dignity, when we come alongside those who are hurting with compassionate presence, when we respond to those who have faltered and fallen with the gospel of grace, when we stand in the midst of the darkness of suffering or grief as a beacon of hope, when we cry out in the face of injustice and oppression, we, too, participate with those earliest followers in the saving work of God that was made known in Jesus Christ.

There is a wonderful poem by Ann Weems called The Disciples which describes those first followers of Jesus, and all who have come after them.
The Disciples
Hurting, they came to him.
Healed, they followed him.
Grateful, they gave to him
what they had and what they were.
Blessed, they became a blessing
and went out to all the world
in his name.
Those who are hurt
and healed
and grateful
and blessed
still move among us
in his name. – Ann Weems (Kneeling in Jerusalem)

By the power of the Holy Spirit, may we be numbered among them.


Will you pray with me?
We come into your presence, Lord, like those women who came to the tomb on that first Easter morning. We come, seeking only to offer our love and gratitude to you who have blessed us in so many ways. We come with our sorrow and loss, with our failed dreams and our faltering plans, with our brokenness and our shame, with our fear and uncertainty. We come because that is what we must do, for in you we find a love, mercy and grace that we find nowhere else.

We thank you for the witness of those who were your first followers. We thank you for the times when they left everything to follow you and for the times when they seemed to get caught up in their own selfish concerns. We thank you for the times they hung on your every word and for the times when they couldn’t keep their eyes open. We thank you for the times when they really seemed to get it, and for the times when they clearly didn’t have a clue. We thank you for the times they proclaimed you as Lord and for the times they denied even knowing you. We thank you for the times they stood at a distance to watch the unthinkable and for the times they hid behind locked doors in fear.

We thank you for these ordinary, humble witnesses to the faith, for in their lives we see our own. And we dare to believe that if they could fail and be forgiven; and if they could deny you and be restored; and if they could know so little in themselves and yet witness to so much through your Spirit; and if they could survive the despair of your death and experience the joy of your risen presence among them, then so can we. So we thank you Lord, for these humble servants of your gospel message, and we pray that trusting in your mercy and relying upon your grace, we may be inspired by them to bear witness to your risen presence among us, by the power of your Holy Spirit. And as they learned to pray with you, hear us now as we pray together…

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