Scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan say that “Without Easter, we wouldn’t know about Jesus. If his story had ended with his crucifixion, he most likely would have been forgotten – another failed Messiah, just another Jew crucified by the Roman Empire in a bloody century that witnessed thousands of such executions.” He might have gotten a mention or two in Josephus, or in rabbinic sources – but he would be unknown to us without Easter. So Easter makes Jesus’ story important – but what do these Easter stories really mean?
The story of Jesus doesn’t end with his death. Death isn’t the end of the story – he is raised from the dead. His teachings, healings and last week have more significance because of the resurrection. Easter tells us that he is different – that death is not the end. There’s more! The Resurrection begins a new chapter about Jesus. Those first century disciples learned that Jesus didn’t come just to PREACH the gospel, good news, – but to BE gospel – in himself to BE the good news.
The Gospel of Matthew rewrites Mark’s story – simplifying a bit here, removing ambiguity there, heightening the effect with added details to the “bare bones” account in Mark. Some of these details offer important clues to key meanings in the Easter story.
Matthew offers an explanation for how this huge stone sealing the tomb was moved – an angel and an earthquake. Earthquakes were one of the ways biblical authors signaled to their audience that God wanted to get their attention. It was like a divine finger-snapping to get our attention. Earthquake – pay attention…something important is happening here.
Angel. Not a young man in the story like in Mark – a messenger from God. A dazzling, apocalyptic Angel with face like lightning and clothes as while as snow shows up to point out that the plans to “hem Jesus in” are overturned. An angel is SITTING on that large stone. As if to say, “Yeah – no. That’s not happening. Guess again.” And when the angel speaks it is in the words of an early Christian creed. “He is not here; for he has been raised.”
Guards. There are Roman guards in this story – guarding the sealed tomb – a bit of overkill, except that later Matthew has the guards telling the authorities what happened and they are bribed to lie about the story. All this emphasizes that something unusual happened at the tomb and Jesus was not dead in the tomb where he was expected to be. The presence of the guards as hostile witnesses to the empty tomb creates greater credibility for this incredible story.
Jesus greets the women. “Hail” or “Joy to you.” And Matthew’s Jesus isn’t a mystery – they know him immediately. Here they grab onto his feet – a gesture of allegiance or respect to a sovereign. This is a symbolic action of the greeting, “Jesus is Lord!”
The message to the disciples. In Mark the women left in silence and fear. But here, the angel directs them to go and tell the disciples that Jesus is risen and will see them in Galilee – and the women leave joyfully and do exactly as they have been told. Obedience is a mark of discipleship. The message they carry addresses the disciples as “my brethren,” a family relationship.
We see the empty tomb in Matthew as a sign, not as proof, of the action of God to raise Jesus from the dead and vindicate him from the judgment of the authorities. The story tells us that his death is not the end of the story – there is MORE, much more! Jesus wasn’t just a teacher and healer, wasn’t just a messenger of God’s God News. He IS God’s good news and he is raised from death to life!
There’s a second resurrection in this Easter story. Jesus wasn’t the only one raised from death to life. The DISCIPLES are raised from the dead too. At the death of Jesus, they were afraid and scattered. They gave up. Checked out. Done. But Easter morning changed that. Their minds were blown by the knowledge that God was at work in our world in ways they had never dreamed! Jesus was raised from the dead! God overturned death!
With the resurrection, the disciples saw that what Jesus had been teaching about, the kingdom of God, had actually happened in his new life! The new age had dawned in his resurrection! The early church reinterpreted everything they believed around this new reality. Jesus had been raised from the dead and reembodied… The reality of the resurrection of Jesus shaped the disciples into different people – and into a new community. Easter vindicated Jesus, and God overturned death – which gave them courage and strength again. Jesus was with them in a real way, although they couldn’t explain it very well. Their testimony was, “The Lord is Risen.”
The result was that a terrified group of fugitives became bold messengers, with a total disregard for personal danger as they carried the message of the risen Jesus into the world! They found the source of their superpower – The Lord had risen!
And that became their statement of faith: “Jesus is Lord. The Lord has risen.” There were implications for those statements. “Jesus is Lord” was both a personal commitment to serve and a political statement. If Jesus is Lord, then no one and nothing else is Lord. Certainly not Caesar. As N.T. Wright explains, “This is not gnostic escapism but Jewish-style no-king-but-God theology with Jesus in the middle of it.” And to insist “The Lord has risen,” meant that the powers of the world that condemned him and put him to death were not the ultimate power – God is.
It was a second resurrection – the disciples who had fled, denied Jesus, and hidden found new life with the events of Easter morning. Their minds were blown by a new knowledge that there is more to what God is doing than they had ever dreamed! Jesus had risen – and they had too!
But there’s more! The risen Jesus continues to create a new community to do the work of the kingdom…This work has now been going on for 2000 years – and is still going on today! We can be a part of this important work!
We may have caught a few glimpses….times when our breath has caught at what we’ve seen God doing. Maybe at work when people who have been on opposite sides of an issue catch a vision of what could happen if they work together. Maybe when we have heard one of the children or youth around us express an idea with such clarity that we wondered why we never saw it that way before.
LEE. In one Confirmation class we were talking about what it means to be a Jesus follower. We talked about the decision they would be making on whether or not to follow Jesus – that means to COMMIT to Jesus, to OBEY Jesus. They shared what they thought that meant: to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and shelter the homeless…to be welcoming of all persons no matter what they look like or smell like…. And to put themselves second to what Jesus wanted. One young person there groaned. “You mean I’ve been trying to hard to tell my parents that I need to be my own boss, and you’re telling me that to follow Jesus means that I’m letting HIM be the boss? You’re messing with my life!” And I said, “RIGHT! That’s exactly what following Jesus means. YOU are not the boss. JESUS is. Make an informed decision. This is a real commitment!”
If we aren’t obedient to Jesus, he isn’t our Lord. Hosea 1:9 tells the people of Israel, “You are not my people,” because they aren’t being obedient. Following Jesus means to live today…to live every day…as Jesus would want us to live – and to live as if today might even be our last day. Who knows? For any of us, it just might. How we live matters.
Butler Chapel. A week before Easter in 1995, an arsonist set fire to Butler Chapel AME Church in Orangeburg, SC. The church was destroyed. In the two years after the fire, volunteers came from all over the country to help rebuild the church. It was ready for worship in December 1997. The old church was a small, wood-frame building at the end of a dirt road. The new church was in a better location, was larger – seating 300 people – and had a state of the art kitchen. The congregation asked Pastor Jenkins from First Baptist Church in Bristol, PA to help dedicate the church and preach the first sermon in their new building. Pastor Jenkins’ church had sent work crews to help build the church and he knew the journey they had been on. His sermon focused on the call to discipleship. He ended with these words: “You have an elegant new facility here. The question God has for you today is this: what are you going to do with it?” After all, Jenkins said, if it isn’t going to be used for God’s kingdom, or kindom purposes, it’s only a building.
Matthew’s Easter story is a message for US! A message for our world! “We live in our contending nations amid dark, devastating powers. Not only is there the dreadful prospect of nuclear death…” now we find invisible death lurking in the very atmosphere! Into this frightening world of power beyond our ability to see or control, Matthew declares that God is greater. Even where death comes calling, Matthew declares that life will overcome it! Death is not the end – There’s more! And the story needs to be shared! “Go and tell,” we are commanded. God wants witnesses to share the story in new communities, shaped by the teachings of Jesus to live out radical righteousness in relationship with God.
Of course, it isn’t easy. The way that Jesus invites us to follow – the way of the Cross – is a way of personal transformation that involves dying to an old way of living and being reborn into a new way of being. And it is more than just a personal transformation – it comes with a political one as well. Jesus invites us to continue his work of confronting injustice and violence in the world – and telling others about a new way of living together, even a new world order. This is the world of God’s dream, of the prophet’s visions, and Jesus’ living. God wants people of pure hearts, NEW HEARTS, hungry for a new day when all people will have enough and live in right relationship with God. God wants a new community of love that is made possible and strengthened by the presence of the risen Lord. LOVE is at the center of this new community.
The empty tomb on Easter morning wasn’t supposed to PROVE anything! It was a SIGN of what God is doing. And it comes with a challenge for us. “Are we living each day as if God is working to bring good from evil, hope from despair and life from death? Are we living as if God can bring justice to the oppressed? Are we living as if we understand God’s blessing on our lives?” Are we living CENTERED in the love of God? If we aren’t, we may not understand what Easter means, what it means that Jesus is risen.
To say, “Jesus Lives” is not just a statement about something that happened 2000 years ago. This is the experience that Christians have had for 2000 years – of the presence of the living Lord experienced as a living reality. He’s set loose in the world! He’s at work in the world – and working with us for those kingdom/kindom purposes! Jesus says, a bit later in this story: “I will build my church – and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Mtt. 28: 18-19) THAT is the project he is asking us to join!
HOW we follow Jesus…is in right relationship with God, and with love. Living out love is the heart of Christianity. Jesus came because God LOVED the world. His ministry was to teach and embody the kingdom, kindom of God, with its touchstone being to love God and love neighbor. The love of God was revealed in Jesus, and is being poured out in and through those who belove like Jesus…who will commit to reflect God’s love in the world. That is the heart of who we are as Christ-followers.
The Easter story leads us into something more… a new life, not just for Jesus, not just for the disciples, but for us. THIS is “THE MORE.” Life in this new age, to live in the MORE is to be a part of the LOVE that broke into the world in the person of Jesus. It means to work for God’s vision of a world where there is enough love to ensure that each person has enough food, enough shelter, enough medical care… where love for neighbor means a moral world order with an end to violence and war...the kindom of God. 1 Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week. 190. 2 David Buttrick, “Easter: Proclamation 5, Series A,” 8. 3 Myron Augsburger, Matthew: The Communicator’s Commentary. 323-328. 4 N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, 131-137. 5 Augsburger, 326. 6 Wright, Challenge, 131. 7 Alyce McKenzie, Matthew: Interpretation Bible Studies, 98-99. 8 David Buttrick, Easter. 9. 9 Borg and Crossan, 291-2. 10 McKenzie, 96.