Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St John’s
To The Core 2.0
21 April 2019, Easter
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, ‘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.’ So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’
I have always pictured that first Easter morning going something like this: really early, like 4am early, just before Ann gets up to start cooking bacon for the Easter breakfast, the Spirit of God blows like a wind that can break rocks and rolls back the stone in front of the tomb, allowing the breath of life to rush in. Jesus breathes deep, opens his eyes, stretches a bit, and strolls out of the tomb into the dewy darkness of early morning. He obviously goes for a walk or something, to limber up and clear the morning fog, and then when the women appear at the tomb with their burial spices and oils, he comes walking back through the garden to show them the power of God’s love, which completely freaks them out so he has to say their names repeatedly, telling them not to be afraid. The women run back to tell the men, who don’t believe them until Jesus appears to them too, and voila! Easter Alleluias!
Well, in three of the four gospels, when the women arrive at the tomb, it is indeed already open and the angels are inside waiting for them. But in one—this one, Matthew’s telling of the Jesus story—they arrive to a tomb still sealed shut, with guards at the door. It is not until the women arrive, the sun barely peeking over the horizon, that the light explodes around them and the earth moves beneath their feet and a dazzling angel rolls the door back, then sits down casually and invites everyone to take a look.
The tomb was already empty. Before the door was opened. Before the angel arrived. Before the sun came up. Before anyone could even think to look inside. The tomb was already empty.
The earth was not the only thing quaking that morning. All who saw it were shaken to the core—the fundamental truth about the world, that death is final, the end, had just been broken open and changed everything we thought we knew.
Where once it was possible to believe that force equals power, now there is an empty tomb.
Where once it was possible to believe that might makes right, now there is an empty tomb.
Where once it was possible to believe that one race or class of people is better than another, now there is an empty tomb.
Where once it was possible to believe that capital punishment worked, now there is an empty tomb.
Where once it was possible to believe that shame and silence could keep people in their place, now there is an empty tomb.
Where once it was possible to believe that faith, hope, and love were nice feelings but not very useful, now there is an empty tomb.
Like the cross shining in the burned shell of Notre Dame, life rises from the ashes of everything we thought we knew.
The guards couldn’t take it. They were paralysed by their fear, and Matthew tells us in the next few verses that their inability to allow God to do a new thing sent them running to the chief priests for a cover story. The political and religious powers, those who made the rules and enforced them, the ones to whom people looked for guidance and answers, for help and hope? Their reaction was to find a way to maintain the status quo, to rationalise the story into something that would make sense, and then to spread that story far and wide—far and wide enough that Matthew, writing 50 years later, knows it. Those with earthly possessions and power were, at their core, unable to let resurrection be true.
But the women…after all this time with Jesus, hearing him teach and seeing him heal, they recognised the words “do not be afraid.” And while they were afraid anyway, there was somehow just enough space opened up where the certainty of death used to be for new words to sink in to the core of their being: “he is not here, he has been raised, as he said.”
Somewhere deep inside, the two Marys heard Jesus’ voice echoing in their memory. They saw and heard him, and began to put the pieces together…and in the empty tomb of their hearts God did a new thing: joy triumphed over fear, love triumphed over hate, life triumphed over death. They heard the angel’s message and turned—with a little fear and great joy—to run and tell the others.
And it is then—with their backs turned to the grave, no longer able to see the angel in bright raiment—then they see Jesus.
Contrary to my mind-movie, they do not see him at the grave. They only see him when they turn away from the grave and go to spread the good news. They only see him when they put the tomb behind them and allow joy to edge out fear. They only see him when they cannot rely on their vision of the angel any longer.
Then they see Jesus—on their way to tell the others.
They practically run right into him, actually. I imagine they nearly knock him over in their excitement, as he appears in their path. And immediately, they touch him—he is not a ghost—and they worship him. Unlike the last few verses of the story we will hear next week, which say of the disciples “they worshipped him, and some doubted” these women, who have stayed just as close to Jesus this whole time, attended to his needs, soaked up his words, and were first to feel the ground move and the stone roll—the women worship him.
But Jesus doesn’t want them to stay there, any more than he wanted Peter and James and John to stay on the transfiguration mountaintop. Jesus has a mission for these women. He commissions them—you might even say he ordains them—to tell his story, to give instructions to the others, to share the good news. And off they go. Not a moment’s hesitation. They are ready to tell the other disciples. The message Jesus gives them to tell? Go. Get out of your locked upper room, stop hiding, and go out in the world. Go back to the place that birthed you. Get out of this capital city with its trappings of wealth and power and mockery of religious piety. Go back to the margins of society, to the edge of the province, to the place where only peasants live and where people believe nothing good can happen. Go there, to Galilee. It’s when you get going that you will see me.
Jesus gets right to the heart of the matter: resurrection is not confined to one empty tomb. It’s not just a story of this one time God did something amazing—resurrection is the core reality of who we are as God’s people, and therefore it is something we look for, something we practice, all the time. If we keep the story to ourselves, we will never run into Jesus. If we insist on gluing our eyes to the messenger with his dazzling appearance, our eyes will be blinded to Christ. If we keep looking at the tomb, remembering how things used to be, we will miss Jesus waiting for us on the side of the road…sleeping under a bridge…riding next to us on the bus…sitting in the next desk over…meeting their children at the family contact centre…in the lead story of the nightly news…at the till in Sainsbury’s…behind the bar at the Spinnaker…cutting us off in traffic…lying dead in the street…teaching our children…collecting parcels from the food bank…sitting at the other side of the sanctuary.
If we keep resurrection to one day a year, filled with great music and beautiful flowers and new clothes, we will miss out on the earth-shaking truth that God wants in, to the core of our being, to make us new. Jesus’ resurrection is a sign of the world’s transformation—the first fruits of the kingdom of God, coming here on earth as it is in heaven. And our resurrection, little by little, day by day, moment by moment, story by story, step by step, is part of that transformation into the eternal. It may shake us…we may not understand…we may be afraid.
We may want to find a way to make it make sense, though we never can, because, frankly, mystery never makes sense, and God is beyond our comprehension. We may want to hold on to the moment, to the memories, though we never can, because memory fades while God’s mercies are new every morning. We may want to boil it down to a moral, or a nice platitude about heaven, but we never can, because God’s story is so much bigger and because Jesus demands we meet him on his terms, not ours. We may want to tell a cover-up story because we can’t handle the enormous change, and the enormous risk, of what God is doing.
And we may not want to turn our back on the tomb. We may want to stay and lament, to remember days gone by, grieving that the world is not the same as it once was. There’s something strangely comforting about staring into the abyss and claiming we don’t understand.
But ultimately the truth is this: the tomb was already empty. And the women only found Jesus when they turned away from it and went out into a world that would never be the same. He said he was going ahead of them—and he is, going ahead of us, even now, into the future God is still creating, a future of life in all its fullness.
Christ is risen—he is risen indeed! And those who tell the story, and live the story, and let it live in the very center of who we are and what we do…we are resurrection people, Easter people, and when we turn out away from the tomb and toward the world, we see Jesus alive and on the loose, changing everything we thought we new. Hope wins. Life wins. Love wins.
May it be so.