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We know this old, old story.
We know that the story begins in darkness and death. We know that on the day we strangely call “Good Friday,” Jesus was killed in just about the most brutal and torturous way possible. We know, too, that on the morning of the third day, some women went to the tomb where Jesus’ body had been laid to rest. And we know that, when they arrived, they found the tomb empty, and an angelic messenger telling them that he had been raised from the dead!
We know all these things: this is the story of Easter, the basic story of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and most of us could share it with someone, at this level of detail, and convey everything accurately.
But the bible contains four gospels, four accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. And they don’t give us a basic resurrection story. Each gospel provides us with a very particular resurrection. Think of the gospels as members of a family, brothers or sisters to one another, each of whom experienced the same events, but from their own perspectives. So when they tell the story, each account is shaped by an individual personality, with different needs, with different parts of the story that gripped them.
Let’s start here: The women went to see the tomb.
If you were to ask me even earlier this week, why the women went to the tomb, I would have said something about their wanting to properly prepare Jesus’ body for burial, because they hadn’t had time to do that before the Sabbath. No work was to be done on the Sabbath, not even the tender work of caring for a beloved, battered body.
But Matthew, our gospeller, says nothing about any of that. He tells us, the women went to see the tomb.
And we can understand that. The Riverside Cemetery, just a few blocks from here, contains the graves of many beloved members of this congregation, going back a good two hundred years. So many families have laid their loved ones to rest there, and stood, in sorrow and wonder, gazing at the markers with their names and dates.
And I have been a family member, at other cemeteries, lost in my own grief, looking at a dear name on a marker in wonder and even a little confusion.
And we read, even, of animals who seek out and stay near the final resting places of the humans they have loved.
It is a powerful instinct, not limited to our species. To go there, to be near, to look, and weep, and remember, and wonder. The women go to see the tomb.
And then, another item particular to the gospel of Matthew: this is the one with the earthquake.
Earthquakes can be anything from slight, barely felt trembling, to something that sends dishes crashing off shelves, to something that sends buildings crashing to the earth. This earthquake is that last kind, the kind angels ride to tombs, all dressed in lightning and snow.
This earthquake does something else: it opens the tomb right up—the tomb that is already empty, lacking the one thing the women had come to be near: the body of Jesus.
This earthquake is even mimicked in the response of the guards—they quake, they shake, they are terrified.
But so are the women. Who wouldn’t be? We go to the tomb to be near our beloved dead. Instead we are confronted with lightning, earthquake, a stone rolled away. Absolutely terrifying.
Except… the message of the angel is strangely hopeful, uniquely compelling. And it is a particular message, the unique resurrection message of this gospel story.
“Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 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.” ~ Matthew 28:5-7
Someone, somewhere, said that those words, “Do not be afraid…,” they are gospel words. They are good news words. They alert us to the fact that something good, something “of God,” is coming. Resurrection dawns, and it dawns in those words. Earthquake, lightning, tough guys passing out, empty tombs notwithstanding: Do not be afraid. Here comes good news.
Jesus is no longer among the dead. He has been raised from the dead. He is among the living—in fact, he’s heading home, to Galilee. And he wants his followers to meet him there.
Why would Jesus go home to Galilee? Was it a touch of resurrection nostalgia? Or was something else afoot?
Galilee was where it had all started. Jesus sends his followers back to the beginning, to where they first encountered him as he embarked on his astonishing project of ushering in the reign of God.
Galilee is “where he called disciples, taught the crowds, healed the sick, …showered compassion on the suffering, offered the weary rest, spoke in parables, fed the multitudes, blessed the children, challenged a rich man, and taught about a Messiah who would suffer.”[i]
Galilee is where they will find him. And, guess what kinds of things he’ll be doing when they meet up?
This is the resurrection story that starts with the women facing the hard truth of his death head-on. They go to see the tomb.
This is the resurrection story that brings us an earthquake—to remind us that this is not a tale about the natural cycles of life, wondrous and God-made as they are, but an account of God breaking in, in a radical and dramatic interference in the laws of nature, to do something entirely new.
This is the resurrection story that sends us back to the beginning—the beginning of the gospel, the beginning of Jesus’ story. Or maybe, the beginning of our own lives of faith. The beginning of our noticing that Jesus’ work was something we wanted to be a part of. That, if following Jesus is about showing compassion to the suffering, offering the weary rest, feasting on his words and the bread of his life, blessing and welcoming the little ones, and challenging today’s powers and principalities, maybe, just maybe it’s something the world sorely needs, now more than ever. Maybe we get to show this hurting world that he is risen, and this, his work, is what resurrection looks like.
This is the particular Easter story we are given today. A story that begins with death, and moves into God’s action, transforming death into life, and refuses to come to a neat conclusion. It is a story that tells us, not, “this is the end,” but “this is the beginning.” It is a story that invites us to be a part of Jesus’ risen life, here, and now. There we will see him. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] D. Cameron Murchison, “Matthew 28:1-10, Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year A Vol. 2, Lent Through Eastertide, David L. Barrett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 350.