April 20, 2014

“An Upworthy Story”
Matthew 28:1-10

We have gathered to celebrate the resurrection. But a close reading of the Gospel lesson reveals we have been invited to a funeral. Jesus is dead. He has hastily been placed in a tomb by one disciple, a secret disciple, a man who had one foot in the opposition and another amongst the disciples, just like most of us.

The women come to the tomb. It sounds as if they have come to sit there, a ministry of presence, to keep vigil there. Customs related to the passing of our loved ones have changed over the years. One such custom was the “sitting up” of loved ones and friends in the home of the deceased with the body until burial. Some cultures still keep a family member with the body of the deceased until burial as is their custom.

In our past, the night after death when the body had been prepared and displayed was accompanied with many people visiting and some staying all night. They consumed lots of coffee and snacks throughout the night. A member of the family usually took turns with the sitters in keeping the vigil so that the deceased was never left unattended. 

The women have come to sit. It is foreign to us but there is a Jewish tradition of sitting with a dead body until burial, This is called shemira. The women have come to keep watch.

They do not have to sit long.

Suddenly, the earthquake takes place, and the angel rolls back the stone. As a story, the stage is now set for a marvelous event. We might expect Jesus to rise and come out of the tomb (as Lazarus does in John 11:41-44). Yet that does not happen. The resurrection has taken place already, while the tomb was sealed. The tomb is empty (28:6).

Like the women, we too arrive too late. The resurrection has already happened, even though we don’t realize it, even though there isn’t any visible evidence that anything has changed.

In this gospel, as in the others, we do not actually have a “resurrection account” in the strict sense, but a “post-resurrection account.” The transformation of the physical to spiritual body has taken place (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:42-57), an act of God that took place apart from human view.
The angel commissions the women to tell the disciples of Jesus’ resurrection and to let them know that they shall see him in Galilee (28:7). He is coming to them.

Since Galilee is the “doorway to the world” in the thinking of Isaiah, Jesus, and the Gospel of Matthew, the light of the gospel is then for the whole world, not just the Jewish people, not just the original disciples, and not just for us. It is to be taken to the world. God seeks to have fellowship with all people, not just us.

When the disciples meet Jesus on the mountain in Galilee, Matthew tells us “but some doubted.” That’s okay. The resurrection is big enough to handle our doubt. “Thus the same elements of worship, doubt, and little faith exist in the church after Easter as before. Whatever the nature of the resurrection event, it did not generate perfect faith even in those who experienced it firsthand. It is not to angels or perfect believers, but to the worshiping/wavering community of disciples to whom the world mission is entrusted.” (New Interpreter’s Bible) It is to these ‘little to normal faith folk’ that Jesus comes.

This is what is exciting. The resurrection hasn’t ended. It is still going on in your life and in mine. We have the opportunity to participate in it by our life lived in the name of Christ. That’s why it is so beautifully fitting that we gather around this table, being with Christ even while we do not see him. This is a story worth remembering and re-telling!

You may remember that many things have happened in the gospel before this moment. For some, the excitement of this event so overshadows the rest of the good news that it is nearly dismissed, rejected as if it is only a prelude to what is important. Don’t you hate that! You are going to see a movie. For me, it is more likely I say “I am reading thus and such a novel.” A friend blurts out, “the butler did it, in the servants quarters.” Really? Does the whole of the story matter, or only the conclusion?
If so, then what happened along the way to the poor who were to have the good news preached to them? What about the captives in prison? The paralytics, the hungry, the anxious, the storm-tossed? And what of the victims of corrupt institutions? And those whose souls need washing? Are they just some kind of stage dressing in this drama? What of the fate of humankind; does it no longer matter?

It does matter. You see, the Romans killed lots of people. Often right on the spot; no muss, no fuss. No time consuming, expensive trial, flogging, mocking, marching off to Golgotha, stripping naked, nailing to a cross, more mocking and taunting, poking with a spear to make sure he’s really dead.
So why the showy death for Jesus?

Because they wanted to kill more than the person of Jesus. They wanted kill what Jesus stood for. They wanted to kill any thought in any followers of carrying on. They wanted to kill any future; any hope. The Romans tried to erase Jesus’ words and deeds from the face of the earth forever. But God raised Jesus to resurrected-life then, and now. This is a story worth remembering and getting involved in!

That’s what happened to Mary. If fear and joy struggle for mastery of Mary’s heart. That is how the text describes her departure toward Galilee. Even with the knowledge that God has gone ahead there is fear and joy. God waits for her – and us – to get moving. So, like the women at the tomb, we find that God is not only a fond memory from the past. God is ahead of us – in our future – as the one who will yet forgive sins, free paralytics, feed the hungry, make peace, wash our feet, comfort the grieving, raise the dead.

See, the women may have gone to the tomb so his body was not unattended. Instead, he came to them so that they would never be unattended. Along with his real presence at this table and day by day in our lives, what he stood for is with us still whenever the church does these things. That is the good news.