(A sermon for Easter A April 24, 2011 Matthew 28:1-10)
It was a joyfully sunny Easter Sunday, warm and full of daffodils, when a flustered Lucy, then a third grader, blew through the front door to tell me this story. She had gone down the street to play with some friends. They invited her inside, and their dad read the Easter story to all of them from John’s gospel. Lucy was puzzled that there were two angels in the story and said she hadn’t heard it that way before. Now, of course, the four gospels each tell the story of the Resurrection in a slightly different way, and perhaps having listened to Luke’s gospel at a Sunrise service that day, she hadn’t listened as closely to John’s gospel later in the morning! The mom down the street pointed out that the details vary. And then she asked the question that flabbergasted Lucy. Leaning over toward the little preacher’s kid, she inquired, “Do you have a Bible at home?”
Now, that was a silly question, and it annoyed us a little until we began to laugh about it instead. But Lucy’s puzzlement was not silly at all. The four gospels each give us slightly different versions of the Easter story, and to better understand Matthew’s it might help to back up a little, into chapter 27. At our service on Thursday night, we heard Matthew’s whole Passion narrative, from the decision of Judas to betray his teacher straight through the Last Supper, the arrest, the trial and the crucifixion. I’ll begin with the last verse we heard, as we extinguished the 12th candle, and I carried the Christ candle away into the night.
Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. (Matthew 27:50-53, NRSV)
How many of us remembered the two earthquakes in Matthew? And how many of us remembered the opening of the tombs? It’s a small, disturbing detail unique to Matthew. The moment of Jesus’ death, the sound of his cry, is enough to shake the earth and roll away the stones, to open the tombs and wake the dead.
Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Matthew 27:54, NRSV)
It’s enough to make even a Roman believe Jesus is the son of God. He’s turning the world upside down. The very nature of Resurrection is disruptive.
But we don’t have Jesus, resurrected as Christ, just yet, do we? We have a band of saintly zombies, either waiting patiently in their opened tombs until the big event on Sunday morning. Only then do they come to the holy city of Jerusalem and show themselves to many.
When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb. (Matthew 27:57-61, NRSV)
These friends of Jesus want to get his body safely into a tomb before sundown, because Friday is not only the beginning of the Sabbath, but also Passover, an intensely holy combination. They will do whatever they can on Friday afternoon, but the rest will have to wait for Sunday morning.
And the religious authorities have another concern. They remember that Jesus talked about dying and rising again, and they are afraid his disciples will stage a Resurrection by stealing his body. So they ask the Romans to place a guard. The author of Matthew will go on to tell us that rumors about the stolen body live on down to his time, fifty or sixty years later.
It’s no wonder that little girls, even preacher’s kids, are confused by the stories of the Resurrection. It’s no wonder we all are. Because we are modern and logical and scientific, we get hung up on the details that fill out each story and wonder why they are not the same. In truth, each gospel author had a different story to tell about Jesus because each gospel author heard the story from different sources and each had a different audience to inspire or reassure or shock into action.
There’s only one thing they agree on, and no, it’s not an appearance by Christ, who in our reading for today stops by the garden long enough to say “Hey, send the guys to Galilee, okay?”
No, it’s not even Christ. The only thing they agree on is the empty tomb.
|Tissot, “The dead appear in the Temple”|
And in Matthew’s case it’s a lot of empty tombs, an earthquake of the Spirit that sounds more like an indie movie than a Bible story…because we like our Bible stories safe and predictable, full of love and peace, don’t we?
But the very nature of Resurrection is disruptive. And earthquakes are only the beginning. Next thing you know the tide is too high and the water is washing over the walls of the nuclear power plant and life is changed, irrevocably. As if that weren’t enough, formerly dead people are walking around, and even if they were good people—saints—it’s disturbing! These arcane images tie Jesus to the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible, but we don’t need intensive study to get the message. This man’s death is not ordinary. And neither is what’s coming next.
On Easter morning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go back to the tomb. They’ve been at the cross, and they’ve watched their teacher laid in the tomb, and though in some gospels they bring spices to anoint the body, here they simply go to see the tomb. They must know about the guard. No one could possibly get into that tomb. The religious leaders and the political authorities have sealed things up tight.
Until there is another earthquake.
The ground shakes. The foundation of all life is thrown into disorder. The stone moves and the tomb is found to be already empty. The very nature of Resurrection is disruptive.
This is about the time the “recycled saints” begin to appear in the city. The past generations of the faithful appear in solidarity with the one who defeats death, Jesus Christ. Unlike the rejecting priests and scribes, unlike the fleeing disciples, the dead saints know him. They get the message.
And what is the earth-shaking message, the one that upset the authorities enough to kill the man Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee?
The message was love, for God and others. The message was care, for those who need it most. The message was service, from one who died the lowest kind of death, right next to the criminals, instead of using divine power to change the story. And it was a message for everyone, wherever they came from, whoever they loved, and whatever they lacked.
The world missed a chance at joy. God traveled in the midst of people, gently talking to them, sitting at their dinner tables, weaving stories to instruct, healing with the touch of his hand and the power of his heart. For the Marys, who knew as well as anyone what had been lost, that first day of the new week must have felt like the first day of a heart darkness unlikely to ever be healed. For the disciples, scattered to avoid arrest and torture themselves, that first day of the new week had no purpose but a guilty self-examination.
It’s as if the earth groaned and shook to cry out the bad news of how willfully people misunderstood God come among them.
But even in the midst of an earthquake, they’re all about to get another chance at joy. The women are a moment away from falling at the feet of their Beloved Teacher. The disciples will go to Galilee and redeem their denials and cowardice by taking on Christ’s commission to bring his message to all the world.
Have you ever had a second chance at joy? Maybe it was a third chance. Those of us who’ve been there may have a glimmer of an idea how they felt. The Good News is that the earth can be shaken. The Good News is that the very nature of Resurrection is disruptive! It changes lives! It sets us on a new course. It upsets our beliefs, not just about God, but about ourselves. We need not remain in darkness or despair. We need not live bound by destructive habits or bad relationships, wrapped in the grave-cloths of old ways or entombed in partial understandings of God’s love.
When the earth stops shaking, and we look around, we see the empty tomb. We recognize the presence of God. And although we rightly feel fear and awe, we know hope in seeing that no tomb can hold Love. No stone can seal away our chance for joy. Alleluia! Amen.