Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Risen Life: Matthew 28:1-10

Resurrection begins in darkness, and fear, and loss. That’s where we have to start.

I know that seems like a strange thing to say—our sanctuary is anything but dark this morning, nor is it particularly fear-filled. Voices and instruments are ringing forth with glorious, jubilant music. Flowers are sprouting from dry wood and chicken wire; lilies are nodding their lovely heads as if in blessing. There is an abundance of light, not darkness. There is joy, not fear. There is fullness, not loss.

But this is because we know the ending of the story, so we were able to plan for it—the giddy joy, the festal pageant. The two Marys who went to the tomb on Easter morning knew no such thing. They knew darkness. They knew fear. And they knew the empty, aching depths of sorrow and loss. So, that is where we have to start. In the darkness, with the Marys. In the fear. In the loss.

Hello darkness, my old friend, we can hum right along with those great prophets, Saint Simon and Saint Garfunkel. We have wondered when that proverbial point of light was going to show up at the end of that egregiously long tunnel. We have found ourselves shaken to the core—feeling real fear—when we heard the diagnosis, or understood the terrible news, or saw the pink slip. We have said goodbye—or not even had the chance to say goodbye—to someone who is irreplaceable in our lives. It doesn’t take too long for most of us to find a point of connection with the Marys, moving without a sound through that darkness.

Matthew tells us that the women went at the very first opportunity to “see” the tomb. That makes sense, emotional sense. It is not uncommon for us to respond to a terrible and sudden death by wanting to gather as much information about our loved one as we can—we want to see the poor, battered body, we want to see where he or she has been laid to rest. Other gospels offer other rationales for the early morning visit. But today we listen to Matthew: the Marys went to the tomb in order to see where their beloved Jesus lay.

Their first opportunity to do this came early in the morning after the Sabbath had ended. And so they left in darkness, made their way to the place. And suddenly, we are told, there was a great earthquake. Except the word used in the gospel, the original Greek, is a little more colorful than “suddenly.” It means more like, “Look here!” Look here! There was an earthquake—not because this was the moment of resurrection, but because an angel had burst through to this realm from wherever it is that angels live. Look here! Things are happening that are outside the norm, that cannot be explained by nature. Look here![i]

And then there was the fear. The Roman soldiers guarding the tomb were having their own bodily earthquakes, they were so terrified. And the angel says what angels tend to say, when they make their terrifying appearances: Do not be afraid.

I think it can be hard for us to find this point of contact, the kind of fear that must have overwhelmed the Marys and the big tough guys who were lying there quaking with terror. We have been so jaded by a culture that uses fear as a thrill, as a drug, to sell movie tickets and videogames. But this isn’t that kind of fear. We know all too well the kinds of fear I’ve already mentioned—the pink slip fear, the terrible news fear. But this is fear of another brand altogether. This is fear-of-God fear, a fear that has gone unfashionable in this era of “Jesus is my best buddy” spirituality. A professor of mine used to talk about how the ancients viewed God. He compared God’s holiness to radioactivity—God was understood to be powerful and terrifying, and best worshiped from a safe distance.

At the same time, this very fear contains within it a seed of joy—because that terrifying power has accomplished the impossible.

“Do not be afraid,” says the angel, who then reports the most astonishing, joyful, terrifying good news of all. I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified…He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him” [Matthew 28:5b, 7b]. Look here!

The angel tells the Marys the wondrous, inconceivable news. Jesus is not dead. He is alive again. And he’s not some kind of weird Zombie-Jesus-alive (you have to love the internet—keeping us aware of trends we didn’t even want to know about). No: he is truly, gladly, deeply alive again. And not only that… he is going ahead of them, back to Galilee, where it all began.

Galilee. A look back through Matthew’s gospel will remind us of what happened in Galilee.[ii] Galilee is where Jesus was baptized, throwing in his lot with humanity and hearing God’s words of blessing and affirmation. Galilee is where Jesus began to preach and teach the good news. Galilee is where Jesus gathered around him, first a small band of disciples, and then more and more people until he was being followed by crowds numbering in the thousands. Galilee is where he began to lay his hands on people to heal them—restoring sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, the ability to walk to the lame. Galilee is where Jesus began casting out demons, setting people free. Galilee is where Jesus began welcoming outcasts… women, children, tax-collectors, lepers… all those on the margins, all those who were powerless. Galilee is where Jesus fed those crowds of hungry, hurting people. Galilee is where Jesus started to show and tell the world what the risen life would look life, the life he described in that enigmatic phrase, the kingdom of heaven.

I think it has become common to think of Easter in terms of the celebration of God’s power and glory, in raising Jesus from the dead. And—yes, a thousand times, with my whole heart to that. Nothing is impossible with God, not even this. And yet—if that is all Easter is to us, a time to simply lean back and admire our powerful God from a detached position, to cheer and applaud and then go home—I fear we have missed the point of Easter, the heart of what it is really all about. Resurrection is not a magic show God did to entertain us, empty tombs, angels and earthquakes notwithstanding. Resurrection is a life God invites us to participate in, right where we are, starting now.

Look here! Resurrection is about the risen life. And the risen life, Jesus has already shown us. We can see it. It looks a lot like the life he lived back in Galilee. Gathering together with people who long to follow Jesus. Sharing the good news with others. Healing, drying the tears, mending the tears in our own and others’ lives. Living a commitment to radical welcome—no outcasts. Feeding the hungry. This is the risen life.

From the most ancient days of the church it has been the custom to receive new members into the community—gathering together those who want to follow Jesus—at the first service of Easter. Today we welcome such a follower into our midst, someone who wants to do that work with us—sharing the good news, healing, welcoming, feeding. P. wants to share in the risen life we have found here, in this place.

Look here! The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia! And he invites us to the risen life, each and every one. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Richard S. Dietrich, “Exegetical Perspective on Matthew 28:1-10,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching on the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 349.

[ii] D. Cameron Murchison, “Theological Perspective on Matthew 28:1-10,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching on the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 350.

Art: Empty-Tomb by He Qi, at He Qi Gallery

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