Back from the Dead — Easter Sunday

As we are all staying at home during COVID-19, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog. — (Rev) Andrew Jensen

Back from the Dead

Reading: Matthew 28:1-10

When you look at the resurrection in the gospels, it is amazing the differences you encounter.

Mark was the first gospel writer. He wrote like he was always in a hurry: everything was “immediately this” and “immediately that”. His gospel is only 16 chapters long and ends with the disciples hiding in fear because of the empty tomb. They had the promise that Jesus would meet them in Galilee, but Mark leaves us wondering whether they’ll gather up the courage to set out on that road.

Today’s reading is from Matthew, who copied a lot of what Mark had written word for word and often expanded on it with all kinds of extra information.

But in the discovery of the empty tomb, it is really shortened. First, the women – Mary Magdalene and the Other Mary. Matthew’s shortened the list: The Other Mary is the mother of James. Also, Mark mentions Salome, who disappears from Matthew’s version.

In Mark, the stone is already rolled away when the women arrive, and the angel is simply a man in a white robe.

When Luke writes it, there are two men and their clothes are shining.

Matthew shows us the action: an angel descends, terrifies the guards into unconsciousness, rolls open the stone and then sits on it.

This is wonderful imagery: God’s messenger overcoming the power of the civil authorities and sitting rudely on the symbol of death. The angel (remember: the word “angel” means “messenger”) tells the women that Jesus will meet them in Galilee, just like Mark tells us.

But in this version, while the women are still on the road to tell Peter and the others, Jesus himself appears to them to confirm the message. He makes it personal – never mind that terribly impressive angel – this is Jesus whom they know and love, talking to them personally!

The other disciples will have to travel for days, for miles before they encounter the risen Christ, but these women see him right at the beginning of their journey.

Why them?

Maybe because:

— It was the women who were faithful right up to the cross while the men hid in fear of their lives. This was a legitimate fear, but it pulled them away from what Jesus was doing.

— It was the women who went to the tomb while the men were still in hiding.

— Jesus had given women more of a place in his ministry than anyone we know of in that time. They were with him from the beginning and had important roles in his work. And in the end, they were the ones he could count on.

Matthew and Mark show us Jesus leading his disciples back to Galilee; back to the place where his ministry began. In contrast: Luke and John show us Jesus working in Jerusalem from the Resurrection onwards.

According to Luke, the first people to see the risen Christ are two disciples leaving Jerusalem on the road to Emmaus on the day of the resurrection. Jesus meets them on the road.

Luke is the only one who takes away the first meeting from the women; he also is the one who insists in Acts that the replacement apostle for Judas had to be one of the men. (Luke clearly had issues with women.)

And of course in John’s gospel, the first one to encounter Jesus is Mary Magdalene, who had already gone to tell the disciples He had come back and was again turning away from the empty tomb to go to find out where someone had put Jesus’ body, when Jesus meets her.

This is such a rich source of information about early Christianity that I took an entire course on Resurrection appearance texts. I was quite startled to learn that the oldest text, the first one written down where someone sees the risen Christ, is when Paul writes about his personal experience on the road to Damascus where he has his vision of Jesus that converts him from a violent foe of Christianity to the faith’s most passionate Evangelist.

We shouldn’t worry too much about the differences. After all, as soon as we take into account human nature and the way we emphasize what we consider important, including the communities we know best, it’s not hard to see how differences creep into the stories.

Now, let’s look at the similarities.

All the writers agree that God raised Jesus from the dead. Paul sees this in totally spiritual terms. He has no sense of a physical resurrection. John makes it clear he believes it was physical, while still showing Jesus appearing mysteriously inside locked rooms.

Matthew, Mark and Luke let you wonder how it worked while making it clear that the tomb was empty and Jesus was alive again, somehow, even though his followers didn’t recognize him until he wanted them to.

But look how often the followers of Jesus meet his risen form as part of a journey. They have to travel somewhere. Sure, there are some appearances of Jesus in locked rooms where the disciples are hiding, but the purpose of those visits is to get them out, to get them back into their journeys, their lives, outside of their fearful self-imposed prisons.

All the gospel writers bring this same message: of hope beyond hope, life after the worst death a person could experience, a new existence after the greatest power in the world had killed you. Free from any worries about mere human power ever again.

And the thing that has always inspired me the most is the immediate effect of that message: the transformation that we see in Jesus’ followers. These fearful people with limited educations – most of them couldn’t even read – who were hiding from the authorities. They became confident, powerful messengers of Jesus’ teachings. Most of them died bringing their message to others, because they were no longer afraid of death.

They had experienced the risen Christ; they knew the truth of Easter.

They didn’t get everything right, if they had, the women who were so central to Jesus’ ministry would have had a place in the structures of the church right from the beginning. It has taken 2000 years to start correcting that error.

But we have learned patience; we have learned that God can see us through the challenges of the day, or the century.

So here we are in 2020 and all kinds of assumptions are being turned on their heads. Life will be forever changed by this Pandemic and we don’t really know how, yet.

We would love to get out of our rooms and start on the road to Emmaus, or Damascus, or Galilee or anywhere! Just let us out!

But for now, while physical roads are denied to us, we still have the spiritual road God provides.

Is our community more spiritual than physical right now? God can handle that! We are the ones that need to adjust.

Does death threaten us in the form of disease and invisible infection that makes us wary of every person we see? We should remember that God has defeated death already.

Of course, we want this life to continue. God has given us so many blessings; why would we want it to stop?

But right now, we are reminded that there are bigger questions. We have to face the fact that we aren’t in control of everything; we can’t know whether we will be fine and stay healthy, or have a struggle with our health and maybe even face death.

These are questions that every generation has had to face, sooner or later, and it’s always hard when it happens.

But like countless generations of Christians that have come before us, we also have the knowledge that God has already handled it.

In the resurrection of Jesus, God has shown us that we are all safe, and loved, and protected: in this life, and the next.

Thanks Be to God.

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