Grace Presbyterian Church
April 16, 2017, Easter Sunday A
The Undone Execution
The women were the first ones there.
They had been the last ones remaining days before, after all the disciples had fled in shame or in fear. As the centurion and his soldiers had marveled at the darkened sky and the earthquake, the women were the only ones of Jesus’s followers who made it that far.
They were there when a rich man from Arimathea showed up, unknown to them, claiming to be a follower of Jesus (even if they didn’t recognize him), and wanting to claim the body and bury it in his own tomb, one that had been newly hewn out of the rock. They didn’t know him, but Pilate evidently did, and Pilate granted the request, and this man named Joseph did as he said he would. Two of the women followed, saw the tomb and Joseph’s care over the body. Then they sat there, perhaps not knowing what else to do.
Maybe they also went to that tomb the next day, to see the guard of soldiers authorized by Pilate newly installed around the tomb.
We know they went back to the tomb on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the one Matthew now calls “the other Mary.” We really don’t know much about them. “The other Mary” had previously been identified as “the mother of James and Joseph” in chapter 27. As for Mary Magdalene, she shows up about this time in all of the gospels, and Luke adds earlier in his gospel that Jesus had cast seven demons out of her. And that is all we can say we know about them.
It seems that they had barely arrived before all heaven broke loose.
For the guards at the tomb the moment had to be strange enough already. Assigned to guard a new tomb where a crucifixion victim – a common criminal, most likely – had been buried? It made no sense.
But what happened next – another earthquake, like that of a few days before; an angel descending from heaven and rolling away the stone – frankly, that was a good reason to faint dead away. What for the guards was a terror was, for the women, frightening to be sure – but, also, maybe a reason to hope?
More than one commentator has observed that when angels show up in the biblical narrative, in most cases they have to say “Do not be afraid” before they can say anything else effectively, and that’s the case here. The angel offers his message – “He has been raised, as he said” – and invites the women to see that, indeed, he’s not there.
The instruction to spread the word to the disciples and to get them to go to Galilee becomes, in effect, the first missionary commission given by the risen Christ. Most people remember the famous one at the end of this chapter – “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” – but that one doesn’t happen without the women fulfilling this one. These women, persons who in their society were accounted of so little status that their testimony would not have been judged reliable in court, were the first to be given the news of the resurrection.
And a few moments later they became the first witnesses of the risen Lord. Unlike Mark, who ends the story with the women running away from the tomb in fear, Matthew continues the story, just a little further as the women are returning to fulfill their commission “with fear and great joy” when on their way they are greeted by no less than Jesus himself. Jesus repeats the angel’s instructions; go and “tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” The two Marys, we are led to assume, live up to their task.
So many reversals at work here. Jesus isn’t supposed to be alive. Rome had decided, however fitfully in Pilate’s case, that he needed to die, and had executed him in the way they executed those who most needed to be made an example of. Then Rome, again in the person of Pilate, had taken the unusual step of putting guards at the tomb. But also, if Jesus was going to be raised from the dead, shouldn’t the first news of this miracle have been shown to … well, somebody important? Why not show up in front of the religious leaders and give them their ultimate nightmare? Or show up before Pilate himself?
But no, the “important” ones – the ones who needed to see, who needed to know, who needed to be given the task of bearing witness – were Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary,” women who had, as described in chapter 27, been following Jesus all along and even providing for him and the disciples, even if Matthew somehow hadn’t seen fit to mention them before the end of his gospel. Not even the eleven disciples had been chosen for that first witness. No, it was these women, the ones serving Jesus quietly and without notice, who became the first to see the risen Christ and to bear witness to that resurrection.
Of course, that is our call too, lowly and anonymous as we may be. We bear witness to the resurrection by being here today. We will bear witness to the resurrection again on Saturday when we commend our brother Ray Ferguson to God’s eternal care. We bear witness to the resurrection when we live out the gospel that Jesus spent his entire earthly life living and teaching to his disciples and to all who chose to follow, who chose to turn away from what their society said was the way things have to be and to follow Jesus, who pointed to something so much more.
We bear witness to the resurrection by being followers of the resurrected Christ in every part of our lives, through the sorrow and the joy, living in ways the world around us can’t understand.
And we can do so because Jesus is risen. Christ is risen! Alleluia!
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #248, Christ Is Risen! Shout Hosanna!; #239, Good Christians All, Rejoice and Sing!; #233, The Day of Resurrection; #245, Christ the Lord is Risen Today!