Grace Presbyterian Church
April 12, 2020, Easter Sunday A
This is the day we celebrate that what happened in the tomb didn’t stay in the tomb, right?
Every gospel’s retelling of the resurrection has its own quirks (remember how Mark barely tells you anything at all, and you never even see or hear the resurrected Jesus?), and Matthew’s definitely has its own distinct features, but there is one thing all four of them have in common: in none of the accounts does anyone actually see the resurrection happen. As Barbara Brown Taylor points out in Learning to Wait in the Dark, there is technically no such thing as a “witness to the resurrection.”
Aside from Mark’s aforementioned gospel, all of the others show us the already-resurrected Jesus, some quite extensively such as Luke’s several encounters seemingly all on the same day, and John’s extensive retelling of Thomas’s particular encounter in Chapter 20 and that breakfast scene on the lakeshore in chapter 21. Matthew’s account is a bit more terse, and appearances of the risen Christ only add up to two – the encounter with the two Marys in today’s reading, and the Galilee appearance to the disciples that culminates in possibly the most famous verses in this gospel, the ones at the very end that constitute what we have come to call the Great Commission – “Go ye therefore and teach all nations…” for those of you who have it memorized still in the King James Version.
The odd thing about Matthew’s account is that even though the two Marys witness quite a spectacle when they arrive at the tomb – an earthquake, a lightning-like angel descending from heaven and rolling back the stone, the guards becoming “like dead men” – all of this spectacle is prelude to the announcement that “he is not here.”
Somehow, Jesus is already gone from a tomb that had (presumably) been sealed before the angel rolled it back, if 27:66 is to be believed. So for all we talk about the resurrection on Easter Sunday, we never see it. We might be witnesses to the resurrected Jesus, but there are, as far as the scripture account goes, no actual witnesses to the resurrection itself. Somehow, before the dawn at which the two Marys arrived, Jesus was raised up out of that tomb and set free. All out of sight, in secret.
That’s not the only thing that happens in secret in Matthew’s account. The incident in verses 10-14 follows after a curious insertion at the end of chapter 27, in which a handful of religious authority figures get all conspiracy theory-minded and pester Pilate into adding extra security around the tomb. This is why those guards – the ones who “became like dead men” in verse 4 – are there at all, ending up as an added bit of spectacle to the grand scene. Once their contrivance has totally gone south, these religious authorities resort to bribery to keep any contrary narrative (besides their “disciples stole the body” story) from getting any traction. Of course, how they ever figured that a bunch of disciples who fled all the way back in chapter 26 were ever going to pull off such a feat is beyond me, but I guess the one point we can take from this is that there will always, always be those who will never believe no matter what happens. There are segments of the church today who are convinced that if we’re just nice enough and say our little spiel the right way then the whole world will say “of course!” and all get saved instantaneously, or something like that. It just isn’t so. There will always be those who will not believe, and they will always be capable of going to great lengths to preserve that non-belief.
Meanwhile, what the two Marys get is not to bear witness to a miracle. Instead, they get a job to do.
First the angel gives them the word to go find those other disciples and get them headed towards Galilee, where Jesus will meet them. While they were headed off to do just that, with the curious mixture of “fear and great joy” Matthew describes, Jesus himself makes his appearance – just as in John’s gospel, Jesus appears to the women first – and basically gives them the same message: go tell the disciples to meet me in Galilee.
Somehow it feels appropriate that Matthew’s account is the one that rolls around this particular awkward and constricted year. The great spectacle doesn’t happen in front of great crowds, but only to two women, isolated from the rest of the world that was going on as if nothing had happened. No great crowds, no great gathering: just the two Marys. Later the disciples get their turn. As far as Matthew’s gospel goes, that is maybe thirteen witnesses to the resurrected Christ? It’s almost as if it’s a secret.
The brief excerpt from Acts also seems to play upon this idea. Peter, in his speech, makes the point that the risen Christ did not make large-scale public appearances, but showed himself to those “who were chosen as witnesses,” suggesting it was a relatively small number. The witnesses are few, it seems, and – as in Matthew so also here – those witnesses have a job to do; to preach and to testify to who Jesus is.
Our isolation, on this day normally given to large gatherings, might just be a lesson or a reminder for us of this task. Maybe we can stand to be reminded that the point of Easter isn’t necessarily about great big gatherings with big orchestras of trumpets and lilies all over the place, but it’s about our job: to bear witness, to testify. And we can receive that commission no matter where we are, even socially isolated as we are today. Whether anybody saw it or not, Christ is still risen, and still calls us to bear witness.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #232, Jesus Christ is Risen Today; #245, Christ the Lord is Risen Today