My first Easter sermon at First Presbyterian, Boonville. The text is Matthew 28:1-10.
Philip Gulley and James Mulholland tell a story in their book, If Grace Is True (HarperCollins: 2003), about a scene that is probably familiar to all of us (especially those of us who are parents). It goes like this:
When I was about five years old, I demanded my mother buy me a certain toy. She refused, explaining she didn’t have the money.
I recall flying into a rage and screaming, “I hate you!”
My mother was utterly unperturbed. She didn’t spank me and send me to my room, though that would have been understandable. She didn’t break into tears. She didn’t drag me to a therapist. She most certainly didn’t buy the toy. She simply said, “Well, I love you, and your hate can’t change my love.” (p.110)
I think most of us have been there, am I right? If you haven’t experienced it firsthand, you’ve probably seen something like it in public. As the father of a two-year-old, I’m intimately familiar with what goes through a parent’s head in a moment like that. I worry about making a scene. I wonder what other people must be thinking about me as a parent. I’m scared that, no matter what I do, I might be psychologically scarring my child for life.
But when I see other parents dealing with similar meltdowns in public, I don’t judge them. In fact, my heart goes out to them. I don’t think they’re bad parents. I see others like me who are just doing the best they can in a difficult moment. The only parents I worry about are the ones who return the rage in kind. You know what I’m talking about. All of us lose our cool with our kids on occasion, but it’s pretty obvious when a parent in public crosses the line verbally or physically. In the effort to maintain control of the situation, they lose control of themselves. Those are the parents that other people tend to worry about.
Imagine what people would think if the mother in Gulley and Mulholland’s story had shouted, “I hate you, too!” and stormed out of the store, leaving this five-year-old little kid to find his own way home. We would be horrified! We would run to the child’s aid and probably call the police. We would say that such a mother deserves to be locked up in jail.
Unfortunately, there are those among Christians past and present who believe that this is exactly how God behaves. Those who turn their backs on God, so they say, are doomed for eternity. Those who reject God will be rejected by God. They claim that God, who is infinitely holy and righteous, must respect the freewill of these unrepentant sinners and allow them to receive exactly what they deserve. Most Christians who believe this can quote lots of Bible verses to support their position.
What I can’t understand is this: if we would call the police on any human mother who abandoned her child in that way, then why wouldn’t we do the same for a parental deity who abandons even one of God’s children to eternal torment? Why should we worship God for doing that for which we would incarcerate a human? It doesn’t make sense.
Fortunately for us, that is not the God who we worship. The God of love revealed in Jesus Christ is more like the mother in the first story from Gulley and Mulholland’s book. When we scream, “I hate you!” at God, God responds, “Well, I love you, and your hate can’t change my love.” This God rejects the rejection of the rebellious children.
This God would rather leave the ninety-nine sheep in the field to go search for the one who is lost. Jesus tells us in Luke 15 that this good shepherd searches until that lost sheep is found and carries it home rejoicing. Jesus teaches his followers to love their enemies because that’s what God does. He says, in Matthew 5:44-45,
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
Not only did Jesus teach us about God’s love, he showed it to us in the way that he unconditionally accepted the most messed-up and undesirable people of his day as members of his own family.
More than any other story in the scriptures, the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection shows us just how far God is willing to go in order to reject our rejection. Last Sunday, and then again on Good Friday, we heard the story of how the powers that be in the world rejected Jesus. The political and religious authorities wanted to shut him up. His closest disciples betrayed, denied, and abandoned him. Last week, we also looked at the hard fact that you and I are really no different from the crowds who shouted, “Hosanna!” on Palm Sunday and “Crucify!” only five days later on Good Friday. The cross stands as a reminder of the lengths to which we, the people of this world, will go in order to reject Jesus. Like five-year-olds throwing temper tantrums, we scream, “I hate you!” to God at the top of our lungs. With all our pretended power, we lash out with the very worst torture and death that we can muster. Intoxicated by our ability to inflict death, we delude ourselves into thinking that we’re so strong. We can even make God go away… permanently!
But then, on the third day, on that first Easter Sunday, something happened. It says in today’s reading from Matthew that there was an earthquake. Matthew is the only one of the four gospels to record this fact. What does it mean? I like to think it means that something fundamental at the very heart of reality shifted in that moment. The power of life overcame the power of death. The very worst of human hatred was undone by the very best of God’s love. In the cross, the world rejected Jesus Christ. But in the resurrection, God rejected the world’s rejection. This is what Easter is all about!
As if this weren’t enough, look again at what happens in verse 10. Jesus appears to the two Marys and gives them a message for his “brothers” (meaning the twelve disciples). Remember that the last time we saw any of them in Matthew was in 26:56, when they were all running away from Jesus in his hour of need. They rejected him. But the risen Jesus nevertheless calls them “brothers” and invites them to return to the mission they had begun together. He rejected their rejection.
This is (very) good news for people like me who struggle with our loyalty to God. If God were to respect my freewill and give me what I deserve (and sometimes ask for), I would be abandoned like a five-year-old in a department store with no way home. I am thankful that God does not respect my freewill, but goes out of the way to seek after me until I am found. I am thankful that God has rejected my rejection.
What does this mean for all of us?
Maybe you are a Christian, but you struggle with things like sin and doubt. Well, the good news for you is that you don’t have to impress God with your morals or your dogma. The only thing for you to do, in the words of the theologian Paul Tillich, is “accept the fact that you are accepted.”
Maybe you’re here today and you’re not a Christian. Maybe you want to believe in something, but can’t wrap your mind around some theological point or maybe you’re sickened by the judgmental hypocrisy of those who call themselves Christians. The good news for you is that the God of love revealed in Jesus Christ is not the cold-hearted and small-minded bookkeeper of conventional religion. The God I believe in is not standing at a distance, waiting to burn you in hell. My God is just as angry about the pretended piety of so-called “saints” to which you have borne witness. Likewise, God is not threatened by honest questions on a quest for truth.
Whatever your individual struggle may be, what I want you to take away from this Easter is that, in the resurrection of Jesus, God has rejected your rejection. Sure, you might kick and scream like a kid having a tantrum. You might even deny God’s existence or yell, “I hate you!” to the empty sky, but in those moments, the God I believe in just holds you that much tighter with an eternal love that will not let you go.