Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
April 20, 2014: Easter Sunday
Matthew 28: 1-10
If there were only two stories we could tell about the life of Jesus, we probably would chose the beginning and the end: the story of his birth and the story of his death, both equally marvelous and mysterious. Just as we blend together the birth narratives so that we can have a full Christmas pageant, complete with a stable, shepherds, sheep and choirs of angels, as well as wise men, camels, gold, frankincense, myrrh and a bright star, we also blend crucifixion or resurrection narratives to make one, full colorful story. Hence sermon series and choir cantatas are written, for example, on the “seven last words of Christ,” while not in any one of the gospels does Jesus speak seven distinct sentences from the cross. But if you collect the sayings from all four gospels, you can come up with them.
Likewise, we blend the four different gospel accounts of the resurrection into one seamless story of sad, grieving women carrying spices to anoint Jesus’ body and worrying about how they are going to move the heavy stone from in front of the tomb, but on arrival they are surprised and frightened by an angel or two, an empty tomb, and a risen Lord. As we like to tell it, they run away from the tomb back to the disciples, who then do their own running towards the tomb to check out the fantastic story and see for themselves.
But if you were listening closely to Matthew’s account, maybe you noticed some significant differences from the generic version. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary do not go burdened down with grief and carrying spices to anoint Jesus’ dead body, worrying about the gravestone blocking the entrance to the tomb. As Matthew tells it, these two women have been close by Jesus the whole time, as if they were on watch. At the crucifixion, they looked on from a distance; as Joseph of Arimathea placed Jesus’ body in the tomb and rolled “a great stone to close the door of the tomb,” Matthew notes “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.” And then first thing the next morning, there they are again, not to anoint Jesus, but simply “to see the tomb.” They are there to check things out.
Why would they do that? Stanley Hauwerwas suggests it is because they believed what Jesus had promised them, that after three days he would be raised.[i] So there is no need for spices, no need to worry about the stone. They came to see the tomb, to see if it was empty as he had promised. And sure enough, with a great fanfare, much more than in the other gospels, an angel rolls back the stone in their presence, invites them inside to check it out, and then tells them to go and tell the other disciples. They leave, Matthew says filled “with fear and with great joy.” On their way back, they meet Jesus, and they know immediately who he is, unlike in John’s version where Mary Magdalene mistakes him for the gardener. He was their friend, and now their risen Lord. They fall down and worship him, an act of idolatry for sure, unless they realize that this is the Son of God, worthy of worship.
Both the angel and Jesus tell the women “do not be afraid.” And after that encounter, they do not act afraid; their great joy has obviously tempered their fear. And the disciples are not overwhelmed by fear either; they don’t even return to the tomb to double check the women’s report, but go directly, as Matthew says, “to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.” (v.16)
However, not everyone’s fear is mitigated by great joy in Matthew’s gospel. Fear is reserved for the governor, the guards at the tomb, and the chief priests. These people had staked their futures on the world as they knew it, the world they had mastered, the world of political power and military might, the world of religious privilege and authority, the world of money and influence. But the events of Easter morning had proven that none of those “sure things,” those supposed “real” sources of power had been enough to keep Jesus dead and buried and their world comfortable and secure.
I wonder though if Pilate was completely surprised by this turn of events. After all, his wife had sent word to him during his questioning of Jesus, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him” (26:19), and when the chief priests and Pharisees came to him after the crucifixion with concerns about security around the tomb, he told them perhaps with resignation, “You have a guard of soldiers; go make it as secure as you can.” (27:65) So they went and sealed the stone that Joseph of Arimathea had rolled in front of the tomb and stood guard over it. But that wasn’t enough. Matthew writes, “An angel, whose appearance was like lightening, and his clothing as white as snow” appeared and “the guards shook and became like dead men.” They were overcome by their fear, immobilized, frozen in place. I kind of feel for them! I think I would have had much the same reaction.
But, our gospel lesson this morning reminds us that the joy of our faith allows us to live with our fears and become immobilized. Fear of what may happen to our children in our increasingly dangerous world is balanced by joy at the blessing they are to us, and we pray will be to the world. Fear about the fate of a loved one struggling with illness is borne by remembering the joy in the gift that person has been to us. Fear about the future amid various problems, anything from job security to climate change to the possibility of war in Ukraine, is held in abeyance by joy in the present moment surrounded by those we love. And closer to home, the fears we have experienced during this past year from fire and displacement have been assuaged and comforted by the great joys we have experienced along the way through the kindness of others, and through what we can call none other than “God moments.”
It is important to remember that the announcement of resurrection did not take completely away every last bit of fear that the women or the disciples had. But the hope it gave them and the joy they experienced enabled them to keep faith amid their fears, control their anxiety, and do what had to be done. And this kind of behavior is what we call courage. “And courage is precisely what Easter is about.”[ii]
Some would have us believe that if we have enough faith, then everything in life is a rose garden, and if there are bumps along the way, or thorns on the roses to keep my metaphors straight, then it is because our faith is lacking. I don’t think that’s true. That is not the testimony of the Hebrew scriptures. That wasn’t Jesus’ experience. That wasn’t the experience of the apostles. Faith simply does not result in a charmed life. In fact sometimes it gives us problems we otherwise could have avoided. But faith does also give us the ability to keep on keeping on even in the disappointments, the difficulties, and the fearful events of life.
When Jesus tells the women “Do not be afraid” it reflects the reality of our lives in this world. We would be kidding ourselves if we denied there is much to fear in our daily lives. And yet the good news of the resurrection of Christ creates the possibility for joy, for hope, for courage because it changes our understanding of everything. It tells us that the sufferings and difficulties of life are transient – yes, they are real, but they do not have the last word. In the resurrection we have the assurance that justice will overcome injustice, love is greater than hate, and life is stronger than death.
It tells us that God is more than a match for any emptiness, any darkness that we face, and that fear cannot hold on to us for long; it does not determine our living. We can step over sleeping guards; go to Galilee, or do whatever else is necessary to take the next step. I think our being back here for worship this morning is testimony to that truth.
Fear, despair, and doubt may be inevitable parts of our lives, but in the end we have the resurrection promise that joy, hope, and faith will ultimately prevail. I have read that at the funeral of Winston Churchill – a service that he had planned — a single trumpeter stood at the west end of St. Paul’s Cathedral and sounded “Taps,” the music that is frequently played at the end of military funerals and signals dusk and the close of another day. But after a moment of stillness following the last notes, another trumpeter standing at the east end of St. Paul’s played “Reveille,” the song of the morning and the call to a new day.[iii]
The resurrection of Christ signals above and beyond all else that God is a God of a new day, a new life, and never-ending possibility. The good news of Christ’s resurrection does not take away our fear – wouldn’t that be nice? What it does is offer us courage and hope by fixing us within the sure promise that God has the last word, and that God’s word is always a word of light and life, grace and mercy, love and peace.[iv] Thanks be to God. Amen
[i] Stanley Hauwerwas, Matthew,2006, 245.
[ii] David Lose, ”Easter Courage,” workingpreacher.org., 4/16/2014.