The Resilience of Love

April 24, 2022

Series: April 2022

Speaker: Rob McClellan


Today's Sermon


"The Resilience of Love"


Matthew 28:11-15         

           11 While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. 12After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, 13telling them, ‘You must say, “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.” 14If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ 15So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD.

The Resilience of Love

            In addition to Easter, do any of you know what last Sunday was?  Last Sunday was the 75thanniversary of Jackie Robinson appearing as the first black player in Major League Baseball. Sports fan or not, it’s pretty powerful to recognize that moment.  Drawing on themes from last week, that anniversary is a reminder both of ugliness of which people are capable and the incredible beauty people can make in the face of such ugliness.  Let it be inspiration.

            The Good111 Friday ugliness of the crucifixion may be overcome by Easter Sunday resurrection, but pretty soon it’s a new week again.  Today’s gospel tells how when people heard that Jesus had risen, they paid soldiers to say the body had been stolen.  I say “people” though the text says “the Jews” and I should take a moment to explain.  The last line of today’s reading read  “And this story is still told among the Jews to this day” (Mt. 28:15) is dangerous taken out of context.  Careless retelling has led to generations of Christians persecuting Jews.  The proper context is that this was an internal Jewish struggle playing out.  Jesus and many of his followers were Jews.   By the time of Matthew’s writing, the landscape was quite different.  There was Rabbinic Judaism, centered in the synagogue, and Messianic Jews who followed Jesus (as well as Gentiles who did) neither of which was Temple Judaism, the religion which Jesus would have been. The Temple, the center of Jesus’ Judaism, was destroyed about 35 years afterJesus’ death but before Matthew’s writing, so these are communities wrestling with identity. 

            Just staying within the bounds of the story, why would a people when confronted with testimony that Jesus had risen double down on denying him?  One, people like to double down, sometimes even when confronted with evidence to the contrary.  We’re in this bizarre historical moment where people seem to be rewarded for doubling down even when unequivocally proven wrong, as if that’s some display of strength, rather than a commitment to ignorance.

            Two, and more interestingly, because Jesus was, and I would argue is, a threat. He was a threat to the power structure of his own tradition, not because he questioned its foundations, but rather questioning its integrity, its ability to stay true to its foundations. He was a threat to his people’s safety. Jews had managed a relatively peaceful arrangement within the Roman Empire.  Yes, there were uprisings, and it wasn’t the same as being autonomous, but they had worked something livable out.  Jesus’ rabble rousing would have been cause for concern for his people for what it might and ultimately did spark among the powers of the empire.  And, you could say he was a threat to the empire, speaking of another, more powerful, kingdom, the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven.  This is why I actually question the line in The Brief Statement of Faith, a confession adopted by the Presbyterian Church in 1991 that says Jesus was “Unjustly condemned for blasphemy and sedition…”[1]  I am not the first to point out that Jesus’ ministry was, in fact, seditious.  At least one could make that case. 

            Jesus is a threat, or maybe a better way of framing it, a challenge, to us as well, we who claim to be his people.  Because the love to which Jesus calls us is incredibly hard.  Some Christians have cleverly avoided this by reducing the faith to singing love songs to Jesus, “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs we used to call them.  On one level, there’s nothing wrong with developing an intimate connection with Christ, receiving that divine outpouring of love, but Jesus spent more time teaching us about loving others than begging us to fawn over him.  If singing about him keeps you from actually listening to what he said, you’ve got the wrong lyrics.  The work of loving others is incredibly hard and tempting to avoid. 

            The human experience is not only to face hardship in the face of an amorphously hard world.  The human experience is to face suffering, or opposition, or disharmony from or with or at the hands of other humans.  I don’t know how many of you have experienced this, but I have heard a number of people reflect on coming out of the pandemic (even as cases rise again) that they’re having trouble being around crowds.  They’re not ready for unvetted exposure to the masses.  Look no further than the public sphere, which largely plays out digitally these days to see how well we are loving one another.  It’s becoming increasingly clear that a large faction in this is the result of targeted disinformation.  Studies are revealing that millions upon millions of twitter accounts, for example, are actually bots.  They’re not real; they’re created to push certain narratives.  For example, a Carnegie Mellon study found back in 2020, when the pandemic was inarguably more dangerous than now, that nearly half of all Twitter accounts calling for the reopening of society at the time were fake, fabricated, created to whip people up into a frenzy.[2]

            In a strange way, perhaps understanding this can help us be a little more compassionate with one another when we recognize we are being fed things intentionally designed to make us let’s just say not love each other.  Our propensity to take the bait, and fall for the trap, and not want to lean into the kind of love to which Jesus calls may reveal us uncomfortably similar to those in the story who paid off the guards to cover up that the body was gone.  Putting yourself or your position at risk for love is not the most appealing of options. 

            It’s understandable that people would want to do away with Jesus if he wouldn’t go away, then when he came back to deny it or cover it up.  Jesus causes trouble.  In fact, I have no doubt (at least most of the time) that were Jesus to come back today he would suffer the same fate, perhaps even faster.  Jesus got as many as three years on the circuit last time.  This time, I’m not so sure.  But the difference would be it wouldn’t be Jews who killed him.  They seem to have little problem with him.  It would be Christians.  Some who proclaim him the loudest would be the first to deny him or turn on him.

Betrayal is a timeless theme.  Recall the ancient Psalmist who sings:

I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised;
   so I shall be saved from my enemies.

The cords of death encompassed me;
   the torrents of perdition assailed me;
the cords of Sheol entangled me;
   the snares of death confronted me. 

In my distress I called upon the Lord;
   to my God I cried for help. (Ps. 18:3-6)

This is not a “Thank you God, for all these great people.”  This is a “spare me from these people” kind of prayer, and praying it can be strangely cathartic.  We are neither the first nor the last who will experience these kinds of feelings. 

            So, where is the good news?  Where is the hope?  This is resurrection season.  The hope is simply this – that love is resilient.  As Paul says in that famous passage from 1 Corinthians 13 that sadly seemingly only referred to in weddings anymore love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” and just before that says, love “does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth” (1 cor. 13:6-7). Love is resilient, which acknowledges it will have to endure some things, but endure it can. 

            David Pittle, who died a number of years ago, an ordained minister, a counselor, and a self-proclaimed heretic once send me an exchange between a reader and Bishop John Shelby Spong, one of David’s idols.  Now, I should say that self-proclaimed heretics are often in fact those who are quite orthodox, who “think rightly” which is all that means. They simply stand amid a dominant stream that misses the point, but David would be angry if I called him orthodox. The exchange between the reader, a “Katherine” and Spong, Pittle described as “inspired.”  It unfolds as follows.

            Katherine queries Spong:   “What is it about this Jesus that you find so compelling? When I hear the Christmas story from the Bible I believe that I am listening to fairy tales. Stars do not announce the birth of a human being. Angels do not sing to hillside shepherds. Virgins do not conceive and give birth. Is there something behind the old mythology that I am missing? Can you still, with any integrity, refer to Jesus as “the son of God?””  More Christians than you might think carry those very same questions, and whether Katherine was genuinely curious, or bitter, Spong responded at great length with care.  Spong spoke of how Jesus had always fascinated him, attracted him.  His described Jesus not in metaphysical terms but simply the one in whom he saw God most clearly.  He pointed to how others were drawn to Jesus, how miraculous tales of likewise power surrounded him, insight was attributed to him, and a certain incredibly grounded presence was ascribed to him.  As we’ve said, his way of being threatened those who held onto earthly power—it always does—and so it led to his death, from which he did not run.  Of the concerns about the plausibility of angels and miracles and birth-giving virgins, Spong ruminated, “Is it any wonder that people had to break the barriers of language when they sought to make rational sense out of this Jesus experience.”[3]

            Similarly, the Easter stories, with angels and stones and a dead person getting up, I don’t think it’s about figuring out exactly what happened, at least beyond a shadow of a doubt.  It’s about recognizing the force which moved people to tell these stories, not of victory in a traditional sense and certainly not to prop up a path easy to follow.  To me, like Spong, the stories are about the resilience of love, of God’s love, and our ability to experience and channel that love even in the face of ugliness.

            Jackie Robinson was a person of faith, as was Branch Rickey, the president of the team, that called him up, the Brooklyn Dodgers—we won’t hold that against him.  Rickey was also a person of faith, the same faith as Robinson.  Rickey once said, “Robinson’s a Methodist.  I’m a Methodist.  God’s a Methodist.  You can’t go wrong.”  We might hold that against them.  Rickey tested Robinson knowing what he would face on and off the field, from players and the public.  He pretended to be a waiter refusing him service, he called him names, and took a swing at his face while hurling a racial slur at him.  Robinson held strong.  Recalling Jesus’ commandment, Robinson said, “I have two cheeks, Mr. Rickey.  Is that it?”[4]

            The point is not that love is all about absorbing other people’s abuse.  It’s that love can prove stronger, more beautiful.  2,000 years ago love rolled away the stone.  75 years ago it knocked it out of the park.  What will we allow it to do in us today?



[1]The Brief Statement of Faith,


[3]John Shelby Spong newsletter sent by personal correspondence.