Sermon Easter Sunday 2023 Matthew 28:1-10 Rev. Betsy Hogan
So here’s a thing I never noticed before, in the Easter Sunday stories that we have in our four gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
It’s NOT the fact that they don’t all completely agree as to the details, because they don’t. In all four gospels it IS the women who followed Jesus who are the first witnesses -- who come to the tomb early in the morning of the first day of the week, after the Sabbath was over –
But writing these stories down so many decades after the resurrection, precisely WHICH women come to the tomb, for the writers of the four gospels, is different in each. So no, they don’t completely agree on all the details.
Mary Magdalene, yes – she’s there in all four. But in John she’s alone, and in the others she’s variously with a couple of “other Marys” or Joanna or Salome – it’s all a little vague. But still -- easily conflated without having to WORRY about the details into the broad narrative of “it’s the women who followed Jesus, who come to the tomb early and become the first witnesses and messengers of the good news to everyone else.”
So that’s not what I never noticed before, different details in each of the four gospels. In John there are TWO angels who proclaim that Christ is risen, in Matthew just the one, in Luke it’s two young MEN dressed in dazzling garments, in Mark just the one – whatever.
In all of them it’s women who come to the tomb, and the proclamation that the tomb is empty comes from beings who are sparkly. Set the finicky details aside and it’s all one broad narrative across all four gospel expressions.
Except – except for one delightfully weird thing that only turns up in the gospel of Matthew. In the version of the Easter story that Marg read for us earlier.
Not that it contradicts anything else about the whole broad narrative notwithstanding the detail differences, because it mostly doesn’t. It’s more of an addition.
Like a tiny little prequel that Matthew must have remembered or heard, and he thinks is important. Even though Mark and Luke and John apparently don’t.
And it’s this. It’s only in Matthew’s story that the women actually SEE the stone rolling away from the tomb. In Mark and Luke and John, when they arrive it’s already been rolled away. But in Matthew, they’re there when it happens.
And it’s pretty amazing. It’s quite literally, as Matthew describes it, a crashing and thunderous earthquake – remember the words of Psalm 46 “Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea” –
it’s a crashing and thunderous earthquake. And as the land heaves and shifts for those terrifying few seconds… the great stone that had been placed in front of Jesus’ tomb ITSELF heaves and shifts for those terrifying few seconds. And begins to move.
As the women are watching. Clinging to one another, presumably – falling to the ground, searching for purchase, for stability on the upheaving land.
And then it stops. The great stone that had been placed in front of Jesus’ tomb has been lifted, shifted, moved away from the tomb-cave’s entrance – and then it stops.
And the aforementioned sparkly being, who for Matthew is an angel who’s apparently caused this whole earthquake – when the stone stops, the angel simply neatly and tidily gathers up its sparkly clothing and I suppose folds up its wings… and sits on it.
Because calm has been restored.
I mean, not for the guards, who Matthew says “shook and became like dead men”, which presumably means they pretty much collapsed to the ground, fainted dead away…
But for the angel and for the women, calm has been restored. The earthquake’s ceased, the stone’s stopped rolling, the angel’s just sat himself down upon it quite comfortably, and now it’s time for a chat.
So “Don’t be afraid,” the angel says to the women, “I know you’re looking for Jesus who was crucified, but he’s not here. Come inside and see! He’s been raised, as he said he would be! Now go and tell the others.”
So the women do. And again Matthew’s gospel rejoins the broad narrative conflation with Mark and Luke and John – the women leave the tomb, in this case they briefly meet Jesus on the way, and they go and tell the disciples: “come and see!”
Is it maybe the case that in all the excitement, in all the retelling over subsequent decades before these stories were actually written down, the fact that they’d actually witnessed the stone rolling away – instead of just arriving after it had already rolled – somehow got lost in most of that retelling?
It absolutely is. Which is why it’s kind of glorious that Matthew remembered it. Because it’s a beautiful thing.
It’s just so matter-of-fact. I mean, the earthquake, the heaving, the shifting, the huge stone rolling – all of that is breath-taking in the extreme – but when it’s over?
It’s just so matter-of-fact. That huge stone that’s just heaved itself up and rolled in an earthquake. The angel just… sits down on it.
I like to imagine him sort of brushing away what must have been a massive amount of dust, and just kind of settling himself down.
Like “Now,” he might’ve said to the women, “I’ve gotten the tomb opened for you, so now you can go in and see. He’s not here. He’s risen. Just like he said.”
I love that calm. I think there’s real beauty and a real gift in that calm.
It’s by far the greatest sticking point for those who appraise the Way of Jesus as it translates itself from following his teaching and embodiment of radical and generous love and forgiveness and responsibility for all… to embracing also its embodied triumph at Easter over whatever powers tried to destroy it.
Because what does it mean, the resurrection? What can it possibly mean? How does it even compute? Where can we possibly put it, in our brains that know the limits of human physiology quite as fully as people did in the first century – and now with 2000 more years of scientific inquiry in there too? It’s by far the greatest sticking point, when it comes to Christian faithfulness.
But it’s worth noting that our difficulty with it is manufactured. Because the Apostle Paul, who gives us the first Christian writing, who writes his first letter to the Corinthian church in the immediate aftermath of the resurrection, who writes out of the prevailing Jewish conception of body and spirit as wholly intertwined and inseparable, he has NO difficulty AT ALL simply translating the resurrection of Jesus into the shifting and changing “lifeness” that’s embodied for example in a seed.
That’s the metaphor he uses. It’s how he explains the resurrection to the Corinthians. It’s like Jesus is a seed. Which falls to the ground and dies, but yet shall it live – its spirit remains, it’s a new way of being alive, in the shoot and the green and the flower and the fruit that arises.
Paul had no difficulty with that at all. He says to the Corinthians that he has seen Jesus. But he patently empirically hasn’t. He NEVER saw Jesus alive and walking around. He’s really clear about that. He’s had an experience. He’s had a vision. He feels. He has an encounter – his heart is strangely warmed. And THAT for Paul, is Jesus risen, alive, present, real, resurrected.
It's only when that indivisability of body and spirit in the Jewish conception that Paul and the disciples and the women all would have shared… when that indivisability of body and spirit meets and gets overwhelmed by the Greek concept of body versus spirit as two separatable pieces of our selfhood, that the resurrection starts being something that has to be “proven”. Because for the Greeks there’s only one way for someone to be “alive” and that’s inside the material physiology of earthly flesh.
So our difficulty with the resurrection – it was manufactured. To be fair, of course, it was manufactured really solidly – within only a few decades after Paul when the gospel writers now have to deal with all that Greek-worldview concern about “proving” it was real in a way the Greeks would accept –
But it’s still manufactured. And then… into it is dropped by Matthew, in this one little beautiful piece of his gospel that RETAINS that Jewish holistic conception of body and spirit enwined because Matthew is a Jewish writer writing for a Jewish-Christian community…
… this lovely moment of calm. Where there’s no difficulty at all. Where the reaction to this upheaval-ing overturning miracle is all just matter-of-fact. Where an angel simply neatly and tidily sits himself down on a stone that’s only just come to rest after moments before crashing itself away from the entrance of a tomb and just says “See? It’s just as he said. The world thought it could kill this, but this can’t be killed.
“This Way of love that embraces and connects and transforms and heals, this can’t be killed. This Way revealed in Jesus, embodied in Jesus, this Way you experienced in Jesus, it can’t be killed.
“The world thought it could kill it, thought it could kill HIM – it couldn’t. Just as he said.”
I love that calm. Because it places the focus of Easter, I think, exactly where it should be placed. In that restfulness and firmness and security of when the earth STOPS imploding, when the mountains STOP their shaking in the midst of the seas… and God is still with us.
And we’re restored, reminded, that some things don’t change. That God’s way of love and peace and justice, whether it’s lived or it’s embodied or both, it can’t be killed.
And the world will try. King assassinated, Mandela imprisoned, Romero martyred, Malala shot, protesters scattered in Canada’s north, in Iran, in Palestine, people who are sick and desperate and living in tents all winter –
But when the thunderous crashing’s finally fallen silent, there’s an angel sitting quietly atop all the rubble and saying to us, “I know. I know you think all the goodness is dead. But it’s not. Come and see. The tomb they made for it is empty. The goodness can’t be killed. It will always rise again. It already has. Just as he said.”
Thanks be to God indeed. Amen.