Easter Sunday                                        
Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
Matthew 28:1-10 (Luke 24:1-11 ) Sermon                             
April 24, 2011

Hymns (from The Lutheran Hymnal):
199 "Jesus Christ Is Risen Today"
205 "The Day Of Resurrection"
200 "I Know That My Redeemer Lives" 

The Women, the Witnesses

TEXT (Luke 24:1-6a): "1 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. 2And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. 5And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, "Why do you seek the living among the dead? 6He is not here, but has risen."

             If I mention the name of Peggy Kessler to you, do you know who that might be?  Some of you might be thinking, "yeah, that name does sound familiar," but you just can't put your finger on how you know that name.  And some of you know exactly of whom I speak.

            In order to bring everybody up-to-speed, Peggy Kessler is the woman who appears in the television commercial for Cancer Treatment Centers of America.  She comes on camera, and talks about being diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer.  And then she explains how she received treatment at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America.  She presents herself as living proof that the treatment she received worked.  Her life was spared from the horrible death that comes from pancreatic cancer.

            This is all well and good; however Peggy's story isn't without its share of critics and skeptics.  I've read some of their accusations.  Some people believe that she is just an actress who was hired to make a commercial, and is not really a cancer survivor.  Others claim that the death rate from pancreatic cancer is 100%, so there is no way she could be alive today if the did in fact have pancreatic cancer in the first place.  The remarks are cruel, skeptical, and cutting--especially to somebody who has fought a horrible and fatal disease and won against all odds.

            If there were anybody who would be skeptical of such things, I would probably top the list.  As many of you know, my own father died from pancreatic cancer in 2006.  We thought we did everything we could to help him; we even went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.  But they sent him home again.  They continued to pump his rapidly diminishing body with some horrible chemicals, but to no avail.  And so we just watched him waste away. 

            And so, for somebody to come on television and claim to be cured, it would be very offensive to me if the story weren't factual.  So I decided to do a little in-depth investigating on my own to see what the story actually was.

            To begin with, the commercial was shot using the Wayne Country Store in Wayne, Indiana as a backdrop.  The store was rented specifically for shooting this commercial because of its picturesque and warm setting.  Peggy Kessler has no real connection to this store, or to Wayne, Indiana.  But that is immaterial to the subject matter at hand.

            Peggy Kessler is a real, live, breathing human being from Rapid City, South Dakota.  And yes, she does help to run a general store there with her family.  But the important part of all this, is that she is indeed a survivor of pancreatic cancer, an 8-year survivor to be exact.  She had stage 4 cancer, which means that the cancer was no longer localized, but had metastasized to other areas of her body.  Stage 4 is as high as the numbers go.  She was at the point where there was no hope for her, other than to wait around to finally die.  The medical professionals had sounded the death knell for her.

            But she had a miracle happen in her life, and she had to share her story.  As you can imagine, there's much more to the story than what you see in that short TV commercial.  And even though she probably realized that there would be many nay-sayers and skeptics in the crowd, she still wanted to be a voice of hope.  She had a miracle to share.

            Today is Easter, and there is another miracle to be shared.  It is the miracle of Jesus' resurrection from the dead.  This was a miracle beyond all odds.  On Good Friday, the death knell had been sounded for Jesus.  If the crucifixion itself wasn't enough to do him in, then having the Roman Centurion jam a spear into his side and disrupting various major organs would have been more than enough to do him in.  Jesus couldn't have just fainted from exhaustion.  Jesus was very dead.

            During the season of Lent, we have been looking at various key people in the passion during our Lenten services.  Each one has their own place.  However, the best is saved for last.  The women who go to the tomb on that first Easter morning are the first ones to hear the news:  "He is not here; he is risen, just as he said."  A miracle of life had happened, and it needed to be shared.  

            Some of the women had watched Jesus’ cruel death from “a distance.”  Then they followed Joseph to see the tomb and how Jesus was laid in it.  Finally, they returned home. The sadness and grief of that Friday’s crucifixion lingered with them through the Sabbath rest.  But there was one last thing they had to do.  Before they rested for the Sabbath, they prepared the various spices to finish the embalming process on Jesus' body.

            The morning after the Sabbath, they rose before sunrise.  As the dawn broke in the eastern sky, they approached the tomb of Jesus.  They came to finish the burial preparations, which they had to leave until after the Sabbath.  With heavy hearts they approached the tomb, wondering who would roll the huge stone away that blocked the tomb’s entry.  That was all that was on their minds that morning.  They never expected a miracle.

            Imagine their shock and amazement when they saw the tomb. The stone was already rolled away!  They went in, and they found no body!  Then two angels appeared in clothing that “gleamed like lightning.”  And as I mentioned earlier, the women were the first ever to hear the words: “He is risen!”  Those three simple words that forever changed their lives, and ours as well!

            “Go quickly and tell his disciples,” the angel ordered, and the women quickly left.  Fear flooded over them. “What did it mean?  How could it be?”  It was joy mingled with fear.  Jesus was alive!  Oh, how they would have trembled as they ran from the tomb.

            They could not have gone very far, when suddenly Jesus appeared and greeted them—his first appearance after he rose. The women approached him, tentatively at first.  They initially thought he was the gardener.  But no!  Could they believe their eyes?  The Bible tells us that they “clasped his feet and worshiped him.” “Do not be afraid,” Jesus said, and then he repeated the directive of the angel:  “Go and tell my brothers.”

            And that's exactly what they did.  It didn't take them long to find them.  You can only imagine how excited the women must have been to tell the good news!  “Jesus is alive!” they announced. “He is not in the tomb. He has risen from the dead.”             They had seen the empty tomb and the angels. They had heard the angel tell them he was alive. They had actually seen Jesus and talked with him.  They had all of their facts straight, and so they kept telling their good news.

            Now, you would expect the disciples to rejoice with them and celebrate.  But, no, they looked at the women as though they were crazy people.  Jesus had been killed, beyond any shadow of doubt.  Dead people can't suddenly will themselves to be alive again.  So virtually everybody who heard them dismissed their story as so much nonsense. 

            That's the kind of thinking people use when they hear about someone being cured of pancreatic cancer.  They have the preconceived notion that the death rate is 100%.  Nobody survives.  Nobody is cured.  So when it happens, people will go to extreme lengths to prove that it didn't happen.  But you can't dispute the living and breathing evidence of a survivor.

            I suppose we can hardly fault the disciples for their skepticism. But the women persisted, and they would soon be vindicated. While others ignored the women, Peter and John ran to the tomb to see what was happening.  Oh yes, it was empty, just as they had been told; but even they went away from it astounded.  It just didn't make sense to them.

            As the story continues, Mary Magdalene returned to the tomb shortly after Peter and John left.  She had not stayed with the other women long enough to hear the good news and to see Jesus.  Some skeptical people believe that this is a separate and conflicting account of the Easter story; however even the casual observer can immediately see that it is a continuation of the same account. 

            Mary Magdalene was still overcome with grief and sobbed bitterly.  That’s when Jesus appeared also to her.  He dried her tears even as he dries ours.  Her grief changed to unspeakable joy.  She also ran off to share the good news of what had happened.  “I have seen the Lord,” she announced.

            The word from the women began to spread through Jerusalem.  And, yes, the body was missing.  Was this a matter of a stolen corpse, or had Jesus really arisen from the dead as the women kept insisting?

            The Easter story continues with two men who were on their way out of the city to the town of Emmaus.  They wondered about the stories that were circulating.  They soon found out the truth when Jesus joined them on the way and ate dinner with them.  They, like the others, were slow to believe.  But when Jesus spoke the Scriptures to them, their hearts burned within them. They recognized him just before he vanished from their sight. So they turned tail and immediately ran back to the city to share the news.  What the women had said was indeed true.

            There, they found that Jesus had already also appeared to Simon.  Then, that evening, the Lord appeared yet again to the disciples behind closed doors. “Peace be with you!” he declared. He calmed their troubled hearts and began to prepare them for their future ministry. They would preach “repentance and forgiveness of sins . . . in [Jesus] name to all nations.”

            Gradually, more and more people believed the women’s message.  Those words the women shared on that day have been the foundation of the Christian message ever since.  The disciples included it in the sermons they preached.  The apostle Paul reminds us that our faith is meaningless without the resurrection.  Only a living Jesus can, and does, give us life.

            Today we are like the women on that first Easter morning.  In spirit, we have seen the empty tomb.  Through God's Word, we have seen and heard the risen Saviour.  His sacrifice for our sins is sure because he lives.  His promises are true.  He has gone to prepare a place in heaven, which is ready for us.  His glory shines for us.  He is risen.  He lives for us.

            Jesus died and rose again.  He lives for the entire world.  All who come to Jesus their Saviour in faith, and believe in him will have eternal life.  All who do not believe need to hear the truth again and again from us.  It is not nonsense.  It is real.  The message proclaimed by the women is the message of the church of today.  Our Saviour is not a dead corpse decomposing in a grave somewhere.  His tomb is empty, because he lives.  And we know that because death could not hold him, it will not hold us either.  Just as he lives, we too shall live eternally.  There is real life beyond the grave.

            This morning, I used Peggy Kessler's story to illustrate that miracles can and do happen.  Even though there are skeptics and naysayers out there, that can't change the fact that what she experienced in her life is very true.  People can deny it all they want to, but a living and breathing person is proof enough.

            As a pastor, one of the most pathetic excuses I hear for people not attending or being part of a Christian Church is the comment, "Oh, I don't believe in organized religion."  Have you ever heard somebody say that?  I'll bet you have.  It almost makes you want to cynically say, "Okay then, so what do you believe in; disorganized religion?" 

            Seriously though, all a person needs to do is look in the Bible.  The Old Testament is all about organized religion.  In the New Testament, Jesus responds to Peter's confession: "On this rock I will build my Church."  Jesus certainly believes in organized religion.  The majority of the book of Acts is devoted to the organization of the Christian Church.  Most of the New Testament Epistles were letters written to organized Christian congregations.  The Apostle Paul took three long journeys and even ended up in jail going about the work of organizing Christian congregations. So the Apostles and Evangelists certainly believed in organized religion.  Even the book of Revelation contains letters written to seven organized Christian congregations.

            So for somebody to say that they "don't believe in organized religion," they basically have to ignore or disavow what the Bible plainly teaches.  All they really want is a pathetic excuse to stay at home and sleep in on Sunday mornings.

            Think of what would have happened if Peggy Kessler had said, "Oh, I'm not going to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America.  I don't believe in organized medicine.  Just hand me a scalpel and a handful of drugs, and I'll be okay."  Just think of where she would be today.  No miracle would have happened, and her life would have not been saved.

            The church should be regarded in much the same way.  We're organized for a purpose.  We're not a group of perfect people.  Rather, we're people who are infected with the disease of sin, in search of a cure.  So for people to stay away from church because it is full of imperfect sinners, is exactly like someone not wanting to go to the hospital because it is full of sick people.

            The church is organized because of the message we have to share.  Faith in Jesus Christ as our Saviour is the cure for a sin-sick soul.  Our faith is strengthened as we come here to continually feed on the bread of life, which is the medication our souls need.   

            Yes, we know the message, and now the message is ours to tell.  Let’s tell it the way those women told it, persisting even when some call it nonsense.  We persist because it is true!  The message of the women on that first Easter is the very foundation of the Christian Church and our faith.  So, with all assurance, we can proclaim the same good news those women shared so long ago:  "He is not here.  He is risen.  He is risen indeed.  Hallelujah!"