Sermon for Easter Sunday, April 20, 2014 on Matthew 28:1-10
Matthew 28:1-10 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
Resurrection to New Life
We have this same story of Jesus in all four gospels. The gospels tell us that Jesus came proclaiming the arrival of the kingdom of God, calling people to repent, meaning to change their thinking, and to live, risking everything on the God who is the world’s true king.
All four gospels agree that the powerful people who wanted to maintain the illusion that they were running the world felt threatened enough by Jesus and his kingdom message to get him killed. The local aristocracy that ran the economy of Jerusalem, including the high priestly families who ran the temple, as well as the authorities that represented the Roman Empire, found in Jesus’ message a common enemy. So together they conspired to have him killed. All four gospels agree.
Each time the story is told, there are deep echoes of other stories that sound beneath the surface. Each gospel writer uses rich symbols from Israel’s past to try to help us see what is happening and how important it is.
All four gospels agree that God raised Jesus from the dead. But here, they all tell the story differently. The tomb is empty on Easter morning, they all agree about, but the stories of the appearances of Jesus vary. Who saw him first? Who else was there at the time – angels, guards? Were they in and around Jerusalem or in Galilee? Lots of details differ.
Of course they differ. Each person experiences the risen Christ individually. Paul himself had an experience of the risen Christ that knocked him off of his horse and temporarily blinded him, according to the description Luke gives us in the book of Acts.
We will follow Matthew’s unique story, paying attention to the rich symbols he uses to try to help us understand the significance of the story. And in the end, I hope we will see ourselves in this story.
The climax of the part of the story we read today is that the living Jesus announces to the two Mary’s where he will appear next to the others:
Apparently, it is really important to see the risen Jesus. So, in Matthew’s version, Jesus tells the women where he can be seen. It turns out that the place is back where it all started, back in Galilee. Back where they started out, most of them, as fishermen.
So, here is how the story goes. Timing is important. The Sabbath is over, it is the dawning of Sunday, the first day of the week. Echoes of the creation story sound: The Genesis creation story said that in six days, God made the world, and called it good, then rested on the Sabbath. So now it is Sunday; A new creation is dawning.
Women arrive at the tomb
Two women who have just witnessed Jesus’ death on Friday, now come alone, Matthew tells us, to see the the tomb. Matthew leaves out any mention of spices for anointing. Maybe they have just come to mourn. But maybe these women have a deep understanding that there is a pattern of new life following death, at work beneath the surface.
Men, at least disciples, are conspicuously absent. Maybe they do not believe that life can follow death. Then something earthshaking happens. An angel comes from heaven, and following the biblical pattern, he is scary. The angel frightens the guards, and the tomb stone is rolled open.
The soldiers, representatives of the Roman imperial power that wanted to silence Jesus by death, fall down, as good as dead themselves. Neither death nor the empire is a match for what God is doing here. But overpowering people with fear is not the point, merely the effect. So the angel speaks peace to the women.
“Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.”
Seeing Jesus is important, so looking for him in the right place is crucial. Do not look for him among the dead, in tombs. He is not to be found there.
The next line is crucial. These women have a role to play. They have a task to accomplish. They have a mission. It is to bear a message. The divine messenger says:
“Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”
Jesus is alive, not dead in a tomb. Neither is Jesus to be seen on Herod’s throne, in Pilate’s Palace, nor in the gilded temple in Jerusalem. You will not see him at any of the power centers of this world. He has gone to Galilee, the marginal place where poor peasants and blue-collar fishermen live; the place where it all started.
So the women left with two emotions: fear and joy, Matthew says. The reason for joy is obvious – hope is possible. But after what they witnessed on Friday, women who take a practical view of life, know that nothing is certain; fear remains. But they accept their commission and immediately ran to tell the men disciples who still think that tombs are permanent.
On the way, they see Jesus, alive. He says, “Hello.” They fall at his feet in worship. He renews their missional mandate, telling them:
“Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
To be seen in Galilee
And they do. Matthew will tell us that the eleven disciples go to Galilee, to the mountain Jesus directed them to, and Matthew says, “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” This is one of the most amazing lines in the bible. On the one hand, it says that the eleven actually saw the risen Jesus. On the other hand, seeing him was not enough for some of them.
There is no way to read all of this on merely a surface level. Seeing Jesus risen seems to make a difference only to those who are willing to embrace the fact that he is risen and to see him with faith. There are lots of questions, but two big ones that jump out at me are: why was it important to Jesus to be seen in Galilee instead of Jerusalem, and why on a mountain?
Well, we know that mountains are where God-things happen all the time in the bible, and in Matthew’s gospel too. And Galilee is where the common folks live.
So what kind of God-thing is going on in Galilee? Just a few chapters earlier, before his arrest, Jesus told his disciples where to look for him and find him. He told them a story, a parable, about a king at the end of time who will separate people as one separates sheep from goats. The sheep go on the right, the goats on the left. The sheep are the blessed ones who get it. The goats are the ones who don’t get it. What is the difference? He tells the ones who get it:
“for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
They reply that they never saw Jesus in those circumstances. He replies:
“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me.”
Seeing Jesus in Galilee
How do you see Jesus in Galilee? You see him where he said he would be seen: among the common people, the hurting people, the people like you, the people in need all around you, right in front of you, right where you live, at home in Galilee, or in Gulf Shores, or Mobile, or in Daphne. So, how is it that some of them, on that mountain in Galilee, saw, but still doubted?
Who knows? but maybe this: These were the men who did not go to the tomb like the women did. They believed there was no point. Tombs are permanent. Death is final. Roman imperial power is the last word. There is no justice. The good die young.
Maybe to see the risen Christ you have to believe that there is a pattern in the bible and in existence itself, that death can be followed by new life. New creations can come from the God of creation. Dawn can follow the dark night. A new week can be born.
In fact, the sequence is crucial. Death has to come before new life; winter before spring. The message of Jesus had two parts that followed the same sequence
“repent, or change your thinking, the kingdom of God is at hand.”
Death before new life. Death to the old way of thinking and living before life can burst out of your old tombs.
We all carry around dead-end thinking. In the first half of life, we start with the small self. We think the universe revolves around ourselves and our personal needs, that we are at the center. We think that what matters is our own personal happiness, our status, our reputation, our superiority. We think that our security has to be protected by building up a big economic pile and keeping it safe for ourselves. We think we need to bend the will of the world to our perspective and be in control.
That is the small self way of being that leads to death. But if we are willing to let that kind of a self die, then a new life is possible. Transformation is possible. A new life can spring out of a tomb.
He will be found
If we are willing to go to Galilee among the commoners and sufferers and start looking for the Jesus, we will find him, just where he said he would be, among “the least of these.”
I don’t know what went through your mind when you woke up this morning and first became conscious. Maybe you woke up to a new day remembering the old days. Maybe there are parts of your life that you feel are dead ends. Dead zones. Tombs.
Hear the good news of the Gospel: Jesus is risen from the dead and is alive now, giving new life to all who trust him. Let the old self die. Let the small self-absorbed self die. Let the new Christ-consciousness be born in you.
Look around. It is a new day. You have a mission; a role to play. You are to announce the good news that domination systems do not have the last word. You have the mandate to go to your Galilee and find Jesus there.
He may not look pretty. He will have scars; he will have evidence of suffering and pain, of course, but he will be there to be seen and found. Even if your joy is mixed with fear, hear the message of peace and the call to go. You are now collaborators is new creation. You are agents of the kingdom. And you too have “been buried with him by baptism in to his death and raised with Christ to walk in newness of life.” Look all around: Christ is risen, and you will see him in Galilee, as he promised.