"The Gospel of Resurrected Possibility...Instead of Resentment
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. (!)