After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 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. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 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.” 8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
11 While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. 12 After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, 13 telling them, “You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told by some to this day.
For the past several weeks when people have asked how I’m feeling, my standard answer is, “discombobulated.” The world is out of whack. We have lost our “normal.” So much is beyond our control, which means that our favorite illusion has slipped out of our grasp. We are experiencing grief and anxiety for ourselves and others, mixed with hope that we might be changed by this experience, as individuals and communities, maybe even as a nation.
And it seems to me like a provocative and useful coincidence, or providence, that we have finished the season of Lent, moved through Good Friday and have arrived at this resurrection Sunday feeling discombobulated. It puts us in sync with those who witnessed Jesus’s torture, execution, burial, then experienced him alive on again the third day. The discombobulation and confusion, the fear and terror that grip them at the foot of the cross and stay with them through that silent, shattered sabbath day, are not quickly reversed on that first Easter morning. They remain but move in a new direction.
All four gospels tell the story of Jesus’ being physically raised from the dead and appearing to his followers. But each gospel writer offers a portrait of Jesus that is prepared for their particular community, with unique theological perspective on Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. It is a gift that the Christian tradition has preserved all these ways of telling Jesus’ story, thus giving us something like a many faceted diamond that captures the full beauty and color and meaning of Jesus’ person and life.
Matthew’s story of that first Easter morning includes unique details that are packed with meaning. Only Matthew shows us Roman soldiers standing guard at Jesus’ tomb. Imagine them in their body armor and helmets, arms crossed over muscled chests, sharp swords hanging at their sides, watching for grave robbers. There presence in the story is evocative. They are the ones who do Pontius Pilate’s dirty work. The executioners. They are accustomed to hanging people on crosses. Now imagine two women, who have loved and faithfully followed Jesus coming to the tomb in the shadowy early light of day. The two Marys are first century Jewish peasant women. Not powerful. Not first in religious and socio-political realms. Their world is undone. Their grief is raw. Their confusion deep. Their fears sit right on the surface.
When they arrive at the tomb there is a great earthquake and an angel coming down and rolling the stone from the mouth of the tomb. There is more to say about the earthquake. But first, the response of these people at the tomb. The earthquake and angel scares the heck out of the Roman soldiers. These tough guys pass out on the spot. Thunk. They hit the ground. But the women are still standing. They are afraid, but they remain conscious. They hear the good news that Jesus has been raised. They see the empty tomb. With a mix of fear and great joy, newly discombobulated, they sprint off to tell the male disciples. They meet, touch, and worship Jesus on their way.
The soldiers are clueless about any of this. When they come back to consciousness they are unchanged by this experience. They go straight to the religious power brokers, discombobulated and anxious about what has happened. They are happy to have a fake news story to tell the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate and glad to have some extra spending money for their trouble. They imagine that they are off the hook. That the chief priests will protect them for failing to keep Jesus sealed up in the tomb.
Taken together, these two little vignettes: the soldiers fainting in fear, as the women are propelled forward into new life; and the plotting of the soldiers and the chief priest, are Matthew’s seriously funny way of asserting that the resurrection of Jesus is the sign and guarantee that ultimately, God’s love, peace and justice will win the world. The resurrection of this one man is the sign and guarantee that people who think they run the world, truly do not. This is the good news.
There is a force, a perfect love loose in the world that is stronger than death, more powerful than any nation’s military might or money, more robust than all our fears, betrayals, and infidelities. There is a realm appearing in which God reigns. With Jesus there is a kingdom arriving in which the first become last. The last become first. The meek inherit the earth. The mourners are comforted. The pure in heart see God. The peacemakers and the persecuted ones are called daughters and sons of God.
This whole compact story of the death and raising of Jesus is an earth-shaking reality. That’s why Matthew includes two earthquakes in his gospel. The first when Jesus cries out from the cross and exhales his final breath. And the second when he is raised from the dead. The earth is moved by Jesus’ death and resurrection. The earth shifts on its axis. The creation is shook up by the little bang of God’s new creation launched in the resurrection of the Son Jesus. And the women run from the tomb feeling a mix of fear and joy, newly, blessedly discombobulated and changed by the surprise of life from death.
Over the past several weeks, a tiny microbe has taken away our “normal” and left us discombobulated. A tiny microbe has exposed our vulnerabilities. Stripped away our personal illusions of control, and the illusion of our American exceptionalism. It has laid bare the perpetual inequities and injustices the exist between races and peoples. And deflated our foolish hopes in market economy that runs consumption.
During these weeks, mixed in with our grief, fear, and longing for “normal,” I have heard many people express the hope that we will be permanently changed by this experience. That we will not return to the “normal” that we have known. But that we will rise from our losses in the grip of this perfect love that is stronger than death. This love that looks out for the welfare of the neighbor and cares for creation. This love that draws us to risk our own safety and security to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to tend the sick and the dying, and to heal the divisions. This love that compels us to resist and protest the powers that lure us toward any other way of being and living. Today is the day to celebrate and embrace resurrection. Embrace the love that fills the whole creation and embraces you for good, for life, for now, forever. Hallelujah! Amen!