Sermon on Matthew 28:1-10 for Easter, year A, April 16, 2017
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.”
Easter is our celebration of resurrection, so it is an important and special day for us. Many people come here on Easter to participate in the celebration. I want to take a moment to say to people whom we do not see much, we understand that this day can be complicated. Some people have no problem taking this story literally – some even get offended at the suggestion that there is any other way the story should be read other than literally.
But other people have trouble with it all. And in this church, we understand. We, in this church, are friends with science. We believe in evolution. We are comfortable with the practice of reading religious texts religiously and scientific texts scientifically.
So, from the start, I want to put your minds at rest. But it is not a question of either believing or not believing; it is far more complicated than that. This is a religious text, and so we should read it religiously. We should ask, not what literally happened, but what does this text mean?
It turns out that this story is loaded with meaning. So let us look at the text from Matthew’s gospel.
Matthew’s Story of Resurrection
It begins with a time stamp. It is after the sabbath, Matthew says, the first day of the week was dawning. So, it is the dawn of both a new day, and a new week. It sounds like we should expect something utterly new to happen. And it also sounds a bit like the Creation story. Perhaps we should expect something new on the level of a new creation?
What happens on this new dawning day? The two Mary’s go to the tomb of Jesus. Why are they going? We are not told. In this story they are not carrying spices to anoint the body, as in other gospels, they are just going, the way people go to grave sites, probably to mourn, to grieve, to honor their lost Jesus.
The Death of Hope
They have just experienced death. Yes, Jesus’ literal, physical death; but also, the death of all that he represented to them. The death of their hopes that Jesus was going to start something new for all of them.
He spoke so much of the kingdom of God being present. He spoke of a radically new way of living that seemed possible when he was there – like, that you really could imagine that meek people were blessed, and that the poor were blessed, and that those who hungered and thirsted for justice were blessed. But without Jesus, how could that way of life be sustained?
When Jesus was present, you could imagine that there could be a community that would welcome everybody – including the impure, including non-Jews, including children and women along with men. But inclusive communities like that, that broke all the standard social rules, were unlikely in the extreme. Without the charismatic magnetism of a Jesus, how could it stay together?
So they were going to his tomb, mourning the death of idealism, of a future they had begun to believe in, and any hope of getting it, or him, back again.
But, a new day and a new week were dawning. Perhaps something new could happen?
The Apocalyptic Angel
The next sequence of events is right out of an apocalypse. We see an angel, whose “appearance was like lightening and clothing white as snow,” descending from heaven, and an earthquake happens.
All of those descriptive elements come out of apocalyptic literature; stories about the future, told in cryptic cosmological symbols. The angel does the impossible: rolls the stone from the entrance to the tomb.
If you were reading the story for the first time, you might expect Jesus to be there in the tomb, either lying dead, or perhaps getting up and coming out, all wrapped up, like in the story of Lazarus.
But no, he is not there; as the angel announced, it has already happened; he has already been raised from the dead.
We should pause here to notice that if Jesus has been raised already, as the angel said, but the stone door is just now being opened, then the Jesus that was raised did not have a body – at least not one like ours that require doors to be opened for us as we exit.
But that is just one of those details that I think shows that this is not an attempt at literal story-telling. This is a religious text.
Anyway, the apocalyptic-looking and earthquake-making angel then says,
“Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised”
Luke’s version of this has not one but two angelic-looking, dazzling creatures who simultaneously say:
“Why do you seek the living among the dead?” (Luke 23:5
I think that’s the point Matthew and Luke are both after. Look for Jesus, yes, but not among the dead. Look for Jesus among the living. You are living. The other disciples are living. Go to Galilee, back to where all your friends and family are living and look for Jesus there.
“There you will see him” says the angel.
The angel could have just told them that Jesus had been raised and was not to be looked for among the dead without removing the stone, but then how could the huge stone of incredulity and skepticism ever be moved from their hearts?
So, anyway, they see no Jesus there among the dead, in the tomb. So they leave this tomb in Jerusalem, with, Matthew says, “fear and great joy” and then, he writes:
“Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him.”
Seeing Jesus, Feet and All
If it is “suddenly” then they are not seeing him in Galilee yet, as the apocalyptic angel said they would, (which is 80 + miles away) but who cares? And now, the Jesus they see does have a body, including feet, which they fall down and take hold of, and do obeisance.
Jesus has the same message the apocalyptic angel had:
“Do not be afraid, go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
Why all this attention paid to Galilee? What is going on in this story?
You need an apocalyptic angel if what you want to do is to reveal the future. You need the stone to be there blocking your vision because that is how it always starts: with blockage that needs removal.
That’s why Jesus’ central message was “Repent (literally change your thinking) the kingdom of God has come near.” The repentance is about removing the blockage – the stone in your heart. A necessary first step to seeing Jesus.
The the stone needs to be dramatically removed, by the action of the divine, because only God can do that, and when God does it, it is earth-shaking. Even grown up Roman soldiers melt like butter when it happens. A new day dawns.
Among the Living – In Galilee
But Jesus is not to be seen among the dead. He is not to be, for you, a distant and fading memory. He is not like last summer’s beach novel; appreciated, then shelved and forgotten.
Galilee is where you first encountered Jesus. Galilee is where he said, “Follow me” and you left your nets behind, and did.
Galilee is where you heard him go up the mountain and say,
“Blessed are the poor, …blessed are the meek, …blessed are the ones hungry for justice, …the pure in heart, (even if they are not pure according to the purity laws), … blessed are the peacemakers.”
Galilee is where he told you “you are the light of the world…you are the salt of the earth”
Galilee is where he said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”
That is where you see Jesus; right there where you live.
Richard Rohr quoted Paula D’Arcy saying “God comes to you, disguised as your life.”
You see Jesus living where he said he could be seen. Jesus said he would be seen in the disguise of “the least of these”, the ones who are hungry, thirsty, laking proper clothing, incarcerated, so that inasmuch as you cared for them, you cared for him.
He is not among the dead, but among the living. If you get the stone out of the way, you will see.
It is not about believing in resurrection with your head, it is about living resurrection. This is why the Irish theologian Peter Rollins famously said, when asked if he denied the resurrection:
“Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you… I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.”
But then, he goes on to say:
“However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.”
This way of affirming the resurrection is the dawn of the new day, the new Creation, the earthquaking event: when God rolls the stone in our hearts away, and opens the door to living resurrection.
This is the is the dazzlingly apocalyptic future that God offers to us. That we would be transformed from self-important, self-protective people, into people who seek first the kingdom of God and his justice.
And when we do, we see Jesus as a living reality for us. His words live in us. His vision of a reconciled and healed humanity becomes our vision. It happens right here in our Galilee, in Gulf Shores, in Baldwin County. When we live so that God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven, we say, “Alleluia! Christ is Risen!”