A Sermon based on Matthew 27: 57 thru 28: 1-15
The Gospel of Mark (whose original telling of the events of Easter we heard last Sunday) preceded Matthew’s version by a decade or so. And yet, when Matthew tells the Easter Story, he includes significantly more details. For example, he mentions the earthquake which rolled the stone away from the entrance to the tomb, and he describes an angel who appeared like lightning sitting upon it! And Matthew tells us about the guards, petrified by fear, left speechless and powerless to act ("like dead men"); and Matthew says that Jesus himself gave the women the message: "Do not be afraid. Go and tell my disciples to go to Galilee, and there they will see me." It was the Risen Christ himself, not just a young messenger in a white robe, who commissioned Mary Magdalene & the other Mary to be his first preachers – the original Easter Evangelists!
Obviously it’s the same basic story that we talked about last week from Mark’s Gospel. But Matthew gives us more physical descriptions, introduces more characters, and he gives us a glimpse into the political background.
We are allowed to listen in as the chief priests negotiate with Governor Pilate about posting guards at the tomb… sealed by order of Rome. These secret meetings -- collusions between Jerusalem’s civic & religious leaders and their Roman overlords to derail Jesus’ ministry – sound like what goes on among world politicians even in our own day!
By the time Matthew’s Gospel was written, his nation, Judea -- which had been so prosperous and secure in the days of Jesus -- was (by now, by Matthew’s day) in great in turmoil, because the Romans had waged a successful war against the Jerusalem Liberation Army (those Zealot insurgents who had wanted Judean independence & autonomy).
The Jewish nationalists had expected a powerful, political Messiah sent from God to be the Savior of Israel -- one who would rule from the Throne of David, as promised in the Bible. Jesus had come and gone years ago, so far as they were concerned, without fixing anything. So, they took it into their own hands to expel the Romans by violent force!
Since there were no outside allies in their day to give the Jews aid in their insurrection -- their separatist, nationalist agenda -- the political power of Caesar and the military might of the Roman Legions eventually crushed the Jewish rebellion. Even the last hold-outs, sequestered in the remote desert fortress of Masada, were conquered in the end, and the Judaism of Jesus’ day was forever changed.
By the time Matthew wrote his book, the Temple that Jesus knew was gone -- reduced to a heap of rubble -- and the Capitol City had been burned. The Arab "Old Town" that stands today was built on the mound of rock, rubble, & ash of Jerusalem’s former glory. The Jews desperately needed a resurrection of their faith! Matthew’s task – his hope – was to demonstrate that Jesus -- who had been crucified some 35-40 years earlier -- was (in fact!) the God-sent Savior/Redeemer that Israel had been offered… and whom they still needed.
Matthew wrote his version of the Jesus Gospel in a setting in which hundreds of thousands of Jewish men had been killed in the bloody revolt against Rome (a war which lasted for four years, from 66 to year 70) -- a war in which hundreds of thousands of Jewish women & children had become "refugees" in a world controlled by Caesar.
The Jewish priests were dead. The "presence of God’s Holiness" (which had been represented by the Temple in Jerusalem) was no longer the center of their religion. In fact, only one wall remained standing: the western wall of the Temple Mount -- the "wailing" wall it came to be called, because of all the tears and prayers that were offered there in subsequent generations. Only the widely-scattered communities of "rabbinic" synagogues remained as havens for the Jews in the Gentile world which surrounded them.
These "remnant" Jewish people (in their Diaspora) were the "target audience" for Matthew’s Gospel.
If you asked them, they would have said: "It’s the worst of times." Everything the Jewish community in Israel had known and loved was lost! Everything that they owned was gone; everything they believed in had been dashed to pieces by the invading Roman Army. It would have been somewhat like the horror of the Jewish Holocaust undertaken by the German Nazis during World War II. Left hopeless, helpless, hapless!
Matthew wrote his version of the Gospel not primarily to record for posterity the memories of the life and teachings of Jesus -- after all, Mark had already done that! (And Matthew fully incorporated Mark’s Gospel into his own manuscript, verbatim.) -- but, rather, in order to reassure the scattered communities of Jewish believers that God’s will could still be done on earth without resorting to the Temple… and without relying on the traditions of the elders… without a priesthood, and without sacrifices… by relying on Jesus, God’s Anointed One, & his Way.
Matthew’s message was an important one, now that the political, economic, and ethnic "home land" of his Jewish people had been utterly destroyed. The question he wanted his version of the Jesus Gospel to address is this: Is it possible that God’s will can be done, after living through the destruction of one’s national identity, one’s basic security, and (for many people in their community) after losing one’s very life? Is a new beginning possible after one has seen the center of one’s hopes consumed in death... and have witnessed your people over-whelmed with grief and loss...? If so, how is it possible?
In a world as consumed by wars as ours is – profoundly destructive wars in Iraq & Afghanistan, in Syria & Yemen, between Israelis and Palestinians, in several African nations (and now there’s even talk of nuclear North Korea starting something!) -- the question of whether or not it is possible that God’s will can be done, after the destruction of one’s national identity, is more relevant than ever. The flood of refugees that overwhelms Europe is a symptom of those wars.
Well, I suppose one way to keep the "hope" alive is to wallow in grievance -- stoking relentless resentment -- keeping the memory of what has been lost fresh by keeping the pain alive… by re-telling the horror (even though you know that it will further infect the venom of bitterness & resentment into later generations!)
For a lot of folks, it seems, they just can’t help it! After all, these are the people you BLAME for what has happened to you! You name them, and you blame them, and that gets your "base" all stoked up! (!) You retell the stories of injustice that you (and your people) have suffered. You emphasize the need to retaliate… (perhaps tinged with the desire for revenge!) … until an appropriately "apocalyptic" moment coalesces which will allow them (the next generation) to rise up and renew the battle in hopes of restoring what used to be. Pay them back!
I wonder: is it even possible to fight the wars of one’s ancestors? How can anyone win their grandparent’s war? How sad a choice that is! How destructive in the long run. And yet, how common it is to have that reaction: resentment and desire for retaliation. Revenge becomes the promised sweet fruit whenever seeds of resentment are buried alive.
Matthew (and the early church that he represents) take a different approach to the grief & loss of death & destruction -- they say (in effect): it doesn’t matter! Even the Crucifixion of Jesus didn’t stop anything. Get over it, and get on with it. Period!
The death of Jesus was just a three-day "glitch" -- a speed bump --along the unfolding story of God’s relentless love for the world. The brutal execution and unceremonious burial of Jesus was just a last, futile attempt of the death-dealing ways of the world to stop the Gospel... and it failed. (!) God’s promised "new life" won out over death! That’s the awesome message of Easter. Hallelujah! Jesus’ Way was vindicated!
At the empty tomb, the disciples can say: "Grave, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?" ... for the end is not the end if God is involved in the process. The death of Jesus becomes not the defeat of, but the source of greater strength for the new "resurrected" Gospel of Christ. Matthew wants the broken and bereft Jewish people to see in Jesus the potential resurrection of their own faithfulness to God.
The early church did not see itself as the "victims" of religious cruelty and Roman crucifixion -- even though Matthew makes it clear they were to blame for it! – They do not see themselves as "victims" but rather as "victors" over all the powers and principalities that had been arrayed against them. (!)
Rome can do no ultimate harm to a faith that survives the grave! These Jewish believers, who continued to follow Jesus as the Christ/the Messiah, started the church! (Praise God!) It is this Gospel of "Resurrected Possibility", instead of "buried resentment" -- of commit-ment to a New Creation (Jesus’ Way!) instead of yearning for the old ways -- that Matthew offers to the crushed & defeated Jews scattered throughout the Roman Empire… and to us!
According to Rabbi Jesus, there’s no need for a Temple to mediate God’s presence -- no need for God to be "boxed up" in a specific setting, and served by specially "set-aside" priests. There’s no longer need for sacrifices, beyond the blood of Christ, which was already poured out...
According to the Jesus Gospel, there’s no need to be resentful toward the Romans, nor committed to revenge for the deaths of the martyred Zealots... because Jesus had already prayed for their pardon, (even those men who crucified him) and had given his life on their behalf. To "follow Jesus" is to see things as he did, full of grace, truth, and love.
You see, God’s New Creation (the Kingdom of Heaven, on earth) includes all parties to the conflict, in a covenant of mutual repentance & forgiveness, with special empathy toward those who suffer. (!) What Jesus and his followers modeled in their day was a ministry of reconciliation, instead of recrimination; the promise of resurrection, instead of retaliation.
"Love your enemies," said Jesus, "and pray for those who persecute you." To do so would be an example of this new way of understanding history; not with an eye toward recriminations (& desire for retaliation) but toward reconciliation as a new foundation for peace.
Matthew wrote his Gospel some 40 or 50 years after the events of Jesus’ life were finished, but he assures his readers that Jesus’ life-story is not over. He assures us that Jesus continues to be with his disciples (his followers) as the head of the church… that we are Jesus’ resurrected Body on earth, living with his Spirit, speaking his word, doing our best to "do God’s will" on earth as it is in heaven. We are followers of the Resurrected Christ, and we believe that everyone (anyone, who-ever you are!) has the potential & the call to join the Jesus movement!
I would like to end my sermon right there, with the clarity of the Jesus Gospel ringing in our ears! But there’s a lingering problem, I feel I must address. It’s the fact that not everybody back then (and not everybody even now) believed that Jesus was raised from the dead, and that he continued his ministry beyond his death. Among the Jews in Matthew’s audience, and among some people even in Christian America, the very idea of "resurrection" seemed impossible… incredible ! "Dead is dead, right?" To say differently is silly, if not down-right crazy!
It's easy for me say: "Jesus’ life-story is not over. To say that Jesus continues to be with his followers as the head of the church to this very day… that we are Jesus’ resurrected Body on earth, living with his Spirit, speaking his word, as we do our best to "do God’s will" on earth as it is in heaven, right here in Alpena! That we at First Church are followers of the Resurrected Christ… but how can I speak for anyone else? Huh? How can I prove to anyone’s satisfaction that the Easter miracle really happened, if they don’t already believe it?
One would think that the very existence of the Church (in Jesus’ name) some 40 years after his Crucifixion should have been evidence that something powerfully real had happened on that first Easter. Something had happened to reverse the normal course of grief & fear -- the process of anger & denial & resentment over the unjust death of Jesus, their Leader -- and had given his disciples the boldness to go on! To my way of thinking, what better "proof" was there of the Resurrection, than the continuing services and sermons of those early disciples, whose whole world-view had been changed by their encounter with Jesus… after his death!?
The transformation of the disciples themselves -- from , fearful depressed men & women, who saw Jesus die on a Cross, and who had seen his body being carted off to a Tomb by a Pharisee; who saw Roman guards seal shut the stone slab, and who had wept in grief for three days... To see those people’s fear changed to faith -- their cowardice change to courage, their doubts to bold assurance that Jesus was alive, never again to die! -- there is your PROOF!
And if that’s not sufficient evidence that something powerful happened at Easter, how do you explain the emergence of the early church?
How do we explain the gathering of 120 of Jesus’ followers in the upper room praying 50 days later, on Pentecost Sunday...? Why were they still together if Jesus had not somehow reassured them that he was still alive -- then and again -- and would be with them forever!
Or how do you explain the boldness of Peter’s preaching to the very face of the very same authorities who had arranged for Jesus’ execution? (!) If Jesus and his Spirit were not still moving among the believers, how do you explain the conversion of the Pharisee Saul to become the Apostle Paul...? … How do you explain the spirit of forgiveness & love, of caring & sharing that characterized the first Christians, if Jesus did not rise from the dead and continue to bless them, just as he had said he would?
The changed lives of the disciples and the continuing presence of Jesus’ Spirit in the church are indisputable proofs that Jesus Christ had come alive! And he’s still alive -- here at First Congregational -- in you & in me! And, oh yes, there’s also that matter of the empty gave...
In Matthew’s telling of the Easter event, we find this peculiar little part of the story:
The chief priests and elders devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them: "You must say, ‘His disciples came by night, and stole [Jesus] away while we were asleep.’ If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble." So, the guards took the money, and did as they were directed. And this story is still told... to this day."
Matthew wrote his version of the Jesus Story 40 years after the event, and yet he tells of this rumor... that Jesus’ disciples stole the body and that the church made up the claim of Jesus’ resurrection.
But why would the disciples do such a thing?
It is understandable that Governor Pilate may have posted a guard (seeing as how "what that imposter had said while he was still alive -- ‘after three days I will rise again’ -- and if his disciples steal him away, and tell the people ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ that this deception would be worse than the first." Matt. 27:63-64).
It is understandable that those who resisted Jesus’ teachings in life (and who felt threatened by him) may well continue to resist Jesus beyond his death.
But by the time the disciples heard the rumor being spread by the graveyard guards that they had stolen the body of Jesus, it probably made them laugh! Because, by then, they’d already met the risen Christ, alive! I mean, just think how amusing it must have been to hear this rumor about themselves as "grave-robbers!"
First, because it suggested that the disciples were braver than they really were. After all, these are the guys who fled from the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus was arrested. Except for one of them, they all were absent from the Cross. They were hiding out behind locked doors in the days immediately following Jesus’ death. Only the women (apparently) had courage enough to come to the tomb, with spices to bury Jesus properly.
This rumor assumes that the disciples were bold enough, after Jesus’ death, to defy a squad of soldiers in order to steal his body! Breaking a Roman seal was a capital offense. The disciples themselves would be hung on crosses as enemies of Rome, if they dared do such a thing! What makes us think that these guys would be more faithful to Jesus’ dead body than they had been to him when he was alive!?
Furthermore, how would any of the disciples have had the nerve to preach about their continuing experiences of the presence of the Living Christ, if they had in their possession (secretly) the dead body of Jesus!? I mean, what wild "hypocrisy" would that have been!? (!) The fact is: here we are, 20 centuries later, still preaching the good news of Jesus’ Gospel, while "the lie" is just a footnote in Matthew’s story.
The importance of Easter to us, is that it assures us that the worst the world can do can be overcome by the power of God at work in us, as it was at work in Jesus. No amount of lying or denying, betraying or even killing, will stop the life-giving, life-changing power of Jesus Christ, which has been set loose in this world. We just need to let His story become our story!
I believe the resurrection power of Jesus’ ministry can be set loose as an alternative to the hate-filled, hurt-filled, unjust histories of resentment, by which the identities of so many victims & victors are being twisted. (!)
To me, Jesus’ resurrection means that God’s path of loving service, forgiveness, and reconciliation -- even the willingness to lay down one’s own life, if needs be, in the cause of justice -- has more enduring power than the worst of what the world can do.
The promise & power of Easter can be turned loose in your life just as it was in the lives of the early disciples: replacing their fear with faith, their cowardice with courage; their grieving memories of bitterness & betrayal with new boldness. That’s the personal meaning of our faith. The resurrection is our ultimate reality! I believe that the life-giving, life-changing power of Jesus Christ can change our world even as it changed his world 20 Centuries ago. We need a little resurrection every day!
Against all the empty lies and self-serving efforts of this world --despite all the generations of festering fury – I believe that God’s Realm will be victorious! Easter says "New Life is possible." May you be an Easter event for someone this week!