A sermon for the first Sunday in the fifty day Season of Easter
Today we arrive at the end of Matthew’s gospel only to discover it is the beginning of the story. Reading the gospels is like being in a company of actors who are performing a play in which the script is missing the second act. The first act tells the story of Jesus’ birth, of his baptism and temptation, of the calling of the disciples and his parables and ... well, you know the story. Today we find ourselves on the final page of the incomplete script. Tomorrow we begin to improvise the second act. We will remain in character, disciples of Jesus who are learning to follow him and to invite others to live in light of the good news revealed in and through him. Today we pay close attention to the surprising script so we know what to expect and how to act - how to live - in the days to come.
It is the day after the sabbath, the first day of the work week. We arrive at Jesus’ tomb. We are Mary of Magdala and the other Mary, the mother of James and Joseph. The men have fled. They are on their way back home to return to their former lives. They are convinced the great adventure is over. But here we are, two Marys. We were among the women who had followed Jesus from Galilee and provided for him, the women who watched his crucifixion from a distance. We are the two Marys who sat across from the tomb while Joseph of Arimathea placed Jesus’ body in it and rolled a great stone in place. Now here we are back to visit the tomb. We come back in grief, in heartache, in loss. We come back to place flowers, to light a candle, to keep vigil, to hang on as long as we can to what once was and is now no more.
We are not alone. The tomb is under heavy guard. Soldiers have secured it, sealing the stone to prevent a disturbance. Pilate has authorised them to “make it as secure as you can.” The authorities are fully aware of Jesus’ claim that “After three days I will rise again.” They are intent that nothing happens to change the course of history. As N.T. Wright observes: “The cross ... had a symbolic meaning throughout the Roman world, long before it had a new one for the Christians. It meant: we Romans run this place, and if you get in our way we’ll obliterate you ... Crucifixion meant that the kingdom hadn’t come, not that it had” (“Surprised by Hope,” p. 40). The powers that be do not intend to give way for this new king - this new Messiah - and his new kingdom - the kingdom of heaven on earth. To be honest we, too, share complicity in the attempt to keep God’s new world under wraps. After all, if Jesus is Lord of all creation then everything has changed and must change. While we like the idea in principle we are less enthused when it comes to putting Easter into practice. Then the world is turned upside down. Privilege and pride and the status quo are tossed out the window. We may sing the hymns and say the words but, truth be told, we are regularly grateful for the security detail that keeps everything as it is, under lock and key.
Then, “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 was white as snow.” A messenger from God arrives and the earth quakes. Matthew has already reported that on Friday, at the moment of Jesus death, “the earth shook, and the rocks were split.” Massive forces are at work. It is a cataclysmic shift from one age to another. This is way beyond the control of the empire. It is way beyond our control. No amount of security, no locked down tomb, not even a full compliment of security guards can prevent this eruption of life. “For fear of the angel the guards shook and became like dead men.” Roles are reversed. The guards quake in their boots and are like the dead. At that same moment a dead man is walking.
The angel tells Mary of Magdala and the other Mary: “Do not be afraid ... He is not here ... see the place where he lay ... go quickly and tell ... he is going ahead of you to Galilee, there you will see him. This is my message for you.” It is a lot to take in. The guards. The angel. The earthquake. And the news, the news: “He is not here. He is going ahead. Go quickly. Tell.” The angel tells them to be not afraid. They cannot help themselves. They are afraid. God is shaking up the world, breaking old certitudes, remaking lives. It turns out that the story they thought was surely ending is only just beginning. Now they will have to improvise. Now they will expect the unexpected, expect to meet Jesus no longer dead and buried, no longer a memory in the past but now already waiting for them out ahead, in the future. The two Marys leave the tomb “quickly with fear and great joy, and run to tell his disciples.” They run with fear and great joy. Fear because everything is new, everything is unscripted, because Jesus is on the loose. Great joy because it is not the end of the story. Great joy because heaven is not far off in some strange and distant dimension but is at hand in the here and now. In the words of C. S. Lewis, “Joy is the serious business of heaven.” Joy is now the serious business of the two Marys, for they have witnessed the shocking plot twist that transforms the crucifixion from end-point to turning-point. On Good Friday it seemed that the cross underlined the empire’s eradication of the gospel. On Easter Sunday the cross has become the exclamation point confirming God’s extraordinary power to liberate, to redeem and to reconcile - in other words, to create anew. Joy to the world, indeed.
While Mary and Mary are on the way “suddenly Jesus meets them and says ‘Greetings!’” The extraordinary thing about Jesus’ greeting is how ordinary it is. There is no earthquake. He does not descend from heaven appearing like lightning, nor are his clothes white as snow. The angel gets the pyrotechnics. Jesus arrives incognito. The word that Jesus uses to greet the women is best translated: “Hi.” Jesus’ appearance to Mary and Mary takes up two brief, moving verses. The women fall down and worship him. Jesus repeats the angel’s message: “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” Remember Peter Short’s time with us in February. Remember him titling our retreat: “Backstage with Angels” as he led us through the opening chapters of Matthew’s gospel. Peter sees the congregation as a company of actors gathered backstage before the curtains open on our future. He proposes that the angels are prompters who give us our lines, who tell us what to do next. Now on Easter Sunday we arrive in the final chapter of Matthew’s gospel and, sure enough, we meet an angel with a message. Not only that, we run into Jesus, raised from the dead, with the very same message. We would be wise to pay attention to the message. The prompters (the angel and Jesus) tell the actors (you and me) to let go of fear, to leave the empty tomb of grief and despair in the rear view mirror and to travel to Galilee - to the ordinary places where we live and work and study - spreading the extraordinary news that Jesus is out ahead in the gospel drama we have yet to live and tell. Jesus Christ is not entombed in the past. Jesus Christ is risen and comes to greet us from tomorrow. Hallelujah.