St. Matthew 28:1-10
In the year 304, during the Diocletian persecution in North Africa, the Roman officials surprised a group of about fifty Christians who were attending the Sunday Eucharist to take them into custody for acting against the orders of the emperors and caesars. When asked why they defied Roman orders in order to gather on Sunday to have the Lord’s Supper, the Christians responded by saying “We have done this because that which is the Lord’s cannot cease.”
They were pressed even more. Finally, the Roman officials addressed a Christian named Emeritus, the owner of the house where they gathered. They told him that he should have forbid them entry. Emeritus responded: “I couldn’t, for without the day of the Lord, the mystery of the Lord, we cannot exist.”
Emeritus was saying that the Christian cannot exist without the Lord’s day and the church’s life which is formed by it. He was taking his cue from Peter and John in Acts 4:20 when the Sanhedrin gave the order to stop preaching the resurrection…”We cannot be silent.” The statement, “Without the day of the Lord we cannot exist” must be seen in relation to the resurrection of Jesus.
Going to Divine Service to hear the preaching of victory, redemption, and resurrection, and to eat and drink at the Lord’s table was not simply some hard rule that demanded obedience. Those early Christians understood one’s choosing between the meaning that sustains life and a meaningless life. “We live according to the Lord’s Day on which our life has also risen. How could we ever live without it?”(St. Ignatius, Magnesians 9:1,2).
Without the Lord’s Day we cannot exist. What consitutes the Lord’s Day? What institutes the Lord’s Day? St. Paul tells the Corinthians what establishes the Lord’s Day when he writes: “I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures”(1 Cor. 15:3-4).
That Jesus rose again the third day according to the scriptures refers to the Old Testament, when God would show himself to the people and speak to them on the third day. In one example, Israel meets God at Mount Sinai and we are told “They saw God and ate and drank.”
When the angel comes amidst an earthquake and thunderings adorned in heaven’s apparel in the white of lightning and snow to tell the women at the tomb that Jesus is risen, we begin to see the new existence that had been forged for the women, for the apostles, for the church, and for you and me.
In case there is any question, it becomes clear when we listen to the rest of the gospel reading and when we confess the creed. When we say in the creed, “The third day he rose again according to the scriptures” we are confessing a God who makes his entry into history as a “God you can put your hands on.” God has retained his power in history. He has not become powerless in the world of matter and embodied life…in fact, it comes to fruition at the Lord’s table as the church receives Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist.
If we question any of this, it becomes clear that Matthew begins the resurrection narrative with “as the first day of the week began to dawn…” To rise from the dead on the third day according to the scriptures is also the first day of the week. This is the day that the disciples will meet Jesus in Galilee. It is the beginning of a new dawn…a new day shines forth. And as the ladies go to tell the disciples at the angel’s bidding, Jesus met them. His first word to them is “Rejoice!” They came and held him by the feet and worshipped him.
Here we see everything culminate. On the first day of the week, Jesus comes to the ladies with words of hope. “Be not afraid.” “Rejoice!” Then comes divine worship as the women tangibly take hold of Jesus. It is here where we stop and ponder the early Christians in North Africa who attest that without the day of the Lord they cannot exist. Without the church’s life hearing the scriptures and dining at the table of Jesus, life is bankrupt and empty.
Just as God said on the first day of creation, “Let there be light,” so on the first day of the week, Jesus brought a new dawn. With it comes the distinction of a new life, a new hope. Sins are cast away. Our failures and our habits which make our souls hollow are brought the healing balm of renewal and substance. This Jesus does through holy baptism which St. Paul explains to the Corinthians: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold all things have become new”(2 Cor. 5:17).
This first day of the week, Sunday, is always reminiscent of Easter and resurrection. Sunday, the Lord’s Day, marks the escape from the history of death, the breakthrough and onset of a new life. The news that was reported that morning, brought a spiritual dawn, a light that brings holiness and forgiveness. It reorders the lives of those who come to the Lord’s table to hear the preaching and to dine. St. Paul can, then, tell the Ephesians “You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord”(Ephesians 5:8).
So, we learn as we listen to the book of Acts that the first Christians on the first day of the week, when it was customary for the disciples to come together to break bread (have the Eucharist), they listened to Paul preach (Acts 20:7). The Easter narrative gives us a better picture of the new life we have all been given. Do you want forgiveness? Do you need hope in your life? Do you desperately need the love of Jesus? Do you want death to be undone? Then draw near to Jesus.
Grab his feet; listen to his scriptures; eat from the Lord’s table.
For with Jesus, our everlasting existence, the preservation of our souls and eternal life are certain as we chant, “Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!
Rev. Chad D. Kendall
The Festival of the Resurrection, 2017