There is a Resurrection – and it is for us too!
Matthew 28: 1-10
Perhaps you come to Easter with a dose of skepticism. What do an apocalyptic angel, stories that don’t agree, and a story of a resurrected Jesus have to do with us? Most of us do wonder this…even if we don’t say it out loud. We’ve heard Easter sermons for years and we wonder if there’s anything new to be said, anything startling enough to break into our weariness today.
Perhaps. Just perhaps. Because the story of Easter is really the story about how God is at work in the world. And perhaps, just perhaps, we need to hear that right now.
Matthew 28 is NOT a resurrection story.
There’s a veil of mystery that lies over the resurrection of Jesus that the writer of Matthew doesn’t even attempt to reveal. In Matthew, all references to the resurrection are either in the future tense, when Jesus WILL BE raised, or in the past tense, stating that Jesus HAS BEEN raised. Perhaps the unprecedented action of God in raising Jesus from the dead is something that cannot be described, understood, or analyzed. The action of resurrection itself remains a mystery, shrouded from our view.
Instead, Matthew focuses on the human responses to God’s action in raising Jesus from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus is revealed to human beings and has an impact of human lives. Women come to the tomb, not to anoint the body of the Lord as in other gospels, but simply to keep vigil. Instead of a peaceful early morning for reflection, there were a series of signs pointing to something very different having happened: an earthquake, an angel with a face like lightening and clothes like snow who rolled the stone away and is now sitting on it. Guards shaking with fear until they seemed lifeless. That’s a lot of action for a quiet morning! Then the angel said that Jesus had been raised from the dead so the -- ahem, well-guarded, tomb is now empty. The women ran to tell the disciples, and met Jesus on the way, grabbing his feet and worshipping him.
God acted – human reacted. The guards, stationed to ensure nothing happens at the tomb are powerless, paralyzed, to stop what God is doing. The women are afraid, then full of wonder, and then worship Jesus and run to do as he has instructed. This isn’t a resurrection story – it is a report of God’s actions, and a commissioning of preachers.
This story in Matthew may make more sense to us than some of the other resurrection narratives. It isn’t trying to explain or describe the resurrection. Early Christians weren’t concerned about historical accuracy or the kind of details that we expect in stories. And this isn’t history -- it’s faith story, written with a lot of irony. The writer of Matthew wasn’t trying to convince an outside audience, or women wouldn’t have been the witnesses – women weren’t considered competent witnesses in Jewish or Roman courts. Only within the faith community would the women, who didn’t run away, be credible. The women were sidelined in the story of Jesus’ trial and death, incompetent as witnesses, impotent as bystanders at his crucifixion – and now they become the main characters in the story of Jesus’ vindication. Not only do they receive the good news of his resurrection, but they encounter the risen Jesus and are empowered to carry the witness of his resurrection to the disciples.
This story gives us God’s verdict on the actions of Good Friday, when the human powers of the day combined to put Jesus to death. And God overturned it. Jesus is vindicated and named as the Messiah. All of the worldly powers of the human beings who plotted and executed Jesus’ death are overturned. The stone which was supposed to keep his body in the grave is rolled away. Jesus is raised, the earth is shaken, and the guards who were the security detail to make sure nothing untoward happened are like the dead. All the human initiative that caused the death of Jesus is overturned by God’s action.
NO -- resurrection is never described or explained here. Instead, Matthew describes the activity of God in ways that shatter our normal expectations. Matthew’s narrative suggests, none too subtly, that human beings are largely ignorant of the power of God and God’s activity working in the midst of our own story.
There IS evidence for resurrection.
Sometimes we are thankful that everything doesn’t depend on us. We just don’t know enough. God’s actions offer new life and new possibilities – more than we human beings could ever have imagined.
Just because the stories don’t pretend to explain the resurrection, doesn’t mean that evidence for resurrection doesn’t exist. The world shifted that Easter morning. Frightened disciples stopped running and hiding and stood up boldly to defend Jesus, even in front powerful groups seeking their deaths. That newfound courage is evidence that something had profoundly changed. They had an experience of the risen Christ that fueled a daring proclamation that death wasn’t the end of the story. And what else could explain Paul? Saul in his previous life, was a death-dealing enemy to the church. Then an encounter with the risen Lord caused a complete turnaround and he became the greatest ambassador for Christ. For the church to have claimed that Jesus was raised from the dead was utter madness – unless it was true. The church itself is the primary evidence of a resurrection having happened, regardless of the lack of explanations or agreement in the testimonies. German scholar Adolph Harnack, said that of all the events that occurred in the world between 100 BC and 100 AD, the resurrection of Jesus is the best authenticated – with the testimony of many eyewitnesses in different places and times!
There is a resurrection. That’s important – because we need a resurrection! The resurrection of Jesus was a new beginning. Violence was be overturned by love. God acted, breaking into our sinful, broken world. God’s love and justice, and new life, interrupts our patterns of death and destruction. Life overturns death! The resurrection of Jesus reveals that God is still acting on behalf of what is right and good and true. It marks a beginning of restoration for human beings and the natural order…to grow into the dream that God has for us and for the world. Just imagine: a world made new to such an extent that human beings care for each other more than for status or wealth. Imagine, a world where every human being is valued just because they live, without arguments about whose rights are more important. Imagine, no more divisions on the basis of externals. Imagine life in our world as a better reflection of God’s kindom. There is resurrection – even for us, and that’s very good news indeed.
Resurrection is a Call to Action.
We can’t help but notice that this announcement that Jesus is raised from the dead comes with a set of instructions. The women are told to go and tell the disciples – not just so no one’s sad any more, but so they will go to meet Jesus in Galilee like they’ve been told! Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead simply to ease the guilt of the disciples who ran away. They are forgiven, renamed as brothers, and given instructions. There is work to do.
The resurrection is a call to action! The women and the other disciples are receiving their invitations to take part in creating the kindom of God on earth. THEY will be building the strange new world that God envisions for us, and which they have been glimpsing in the ministry of Jesus all along: the blind are given sight, the lame can walk, and those who are paralyzed or held captive by evil are forgiven and set free. Disciples will be doing this! The hungry will be fed – by disciples. People without family will find community – with disciples. And those in need of forgiveness will find it – through the words and actions of disciples living out forgiveness.
In the drama, The Trial of Jesus, John Masefield has the centurion Longinus report to Pilate after the crucifixion of Jesus. Longinus had been the officer in charge of the execution, and after his official report, Procula, Pilate’s wife, calls the centurion to come and tell her how the prisoner had died. Once the account is given, she asks, “Do you think he is dead?” Longinus answers, “No, lady, I don’t.” “Then where is he?” asks Procula. Longinus replies, “Let loose in the world, lady, where neither Roman nor Jew can stop his truth.” And we might add – let loose among his followers so that all that he did and taught will continue to change the world!
Of course world-changing activities aren’t limited to the 1st c. Those instructions are for us too – for all who would follow Jesus as Lord. For all looking for new life. New Life is available for all – it is available for us – and so are the instructions. We don’t have to go to Galilee to find the Lord, but we must go into our community. We’ll find Jesus where people are hungry – as we feed them. We’ll find Jesus where people are hurting – as we share healing and comfort. We’ll find Jesus where there is injustice as we share words of challenge. We’ll find Jesus among the homeless as we share our resources of shelter and possibility. We’ll find Jesus among the children and young people as we listen to their struggles and honor who they are.
This has been the task of followers of Jesus from the beginning. In one of the oldest and best preserved medieval manuscripts, called The Landisfarne, it provides instruction:
We are not citizens of this world trying to make our way to heaven; we are citizens of heaven trying to make our way through this world. That radical Christian life can be life-changing. We are not to love so as to earn God’s love, inherit heaven, and purchase our salvation. All those are given to us as gifts… We are to live as God’s redeemed, as heirs of heaven and as citizens of another land: the Kingdom of God…We live as those who are on a journey home – and there is nothing we can lose on earth that can rob us of the treasures God has given us and will give us.
Resurrection and new life are real. But not to assuage our fears and comfort our guilt. Resurrection challenges the status quo and invites us to be a part of God’s project of changing the world. There IS a resurrection, and it’s a call to action for us and all who would live differently.
Matthew doesn’t give us a resurrection story. He gives us something we need much more: a story of God’s activity that interrupts our own. He gives us a testimony of what God is doing that can interrupt the status quo of our lives with startling news of possibility for new life. There is a resurrection – and we can be a part of how it can reshape the world.
Dorothy Jean Weaver, “Matthew 28: 1-10,” Interpretation: The Gospel of Matthew, A Journal of Bible and Theology, October 1992, 398-99.
Douglas Hare, Matthew. Interpretation Commentary. 328.
The Landisfarne, via The Anglican Digest. Quoted in Jan Karon, “Patches of Godlight,” 23.