Suppose you are hanging out at the market after Passover, and some women come up and say, “Boy have I got a story for you! We were going to Jesus’ tomb and as we went there was an earthquake, and an angel appeared and rolled away the stone that had sealed the tomb, and then sat on it and told us to go tell the disciples that Jesus was not here—he was risen!
Even before they get to the end of the story—that they had run into Jesus himself along the way!—I’m pretty sure you would be grinning and saying, “What were you smoking last night?”
Only in the gospel of Matthew do we have this theatrical version where the angel rolls away the stone!
Only in the gospel of Matthew do Mary (and the other Mary) meet Jesus on the way and get to hold onto his feet, before telling the disciples what has happened.
These differences in the gospel accounts of that first Easter morning may make some uncomfortable. Why can’t they get their story straight? For me, it makes Easter morning more believable. If you have more than one witness to any event, there are going to be differences in the way they remember it. In fact, if detective shows are to be believed, only when you are making it up do various witnesses have exactly the same account. The fact that there are these little differences—who was there; when the stone was rolled away; who announced the good news—feels truthful to the way humans remember and retell a great event: Each with their own slant.
What doesn’t change, in all the recounting, is that on Easter morning, Jesus who was dead, has Risen. The same Jesus, who we betrayed and spat upon and abandoned or even worse were complicit in his death, that Jesus, when he comes back on Easter morning, it isn’t for vengeance, it isn’t to taunt us, it is to greet us as brothers and sisters. It is to send us out, send us on, call to us from the future, a future that includes his presence with us.
So let me muse about what this particular telling of the Easter story awoke in me.
First, Resurrection happens in the dark. It happens before the first light of day. It happens behind closed doors. This seems like a given. But think of a time when you were really low, almost dead, in darkness—as Psalm 23 puts it, in the valley of the shadows. Imagine that dark place. Then imagine Resurrection. Don’t you imagine God changing the landscape, bringing sun to the valley, AND THEN Resurrection? But today, we are asked to think about resurrection in the dark. Resurrection before the stone is rolled away. Resurrection in the midst of whatever is happening in our lives…
The timing of this momentous event is important, because this story isn’t just about Jesus, it’s about how God works, it’s about what can happen to us.
Second, Matthew makes a really big deal about that stone. Having the angel swoop down out of heaven (attended by quaking earth) and shoving the stone out of the way of the tomb is like God putting a bright red stickie note saying—look here! Ok, what’s so important about the stone being rolled away? In all the other gospels this event happens off-stage. Our witnesses arrive at the tomb afterwards. What point did the Matthean community see in that over-the-top stone moving? Judith Jones in her commentary on this passage stopped me short when she said, “The stone wasn’t moved to let Jesus out, but to let witnesses in” (Working Preacher).
The stone wasn’t moved to let Jesus out. Resurrection had already happened. God wasn’t stopped by a stone or guards or even death. For that is the nature of God—breathing life into dust, sending spirit into dry bones, coming into the dead, dry, dark, secret, shameful, scary parts of our lives—and offering newness, rebirth, resurrection.
The stone wasn’t moved to let Jesus out, but to let people in, to let people see the good news, to let people experience the empty tomb. What might that mean for us? I hear in this message that whatever impediments we think we have, whatever keeps us from God, from being the best people we can be, whatever stones we have rolled in front of us, and sealed shut—for protection, or in fear—those things don’t have to be moved before God works God’s magic, God’s miracle, God’s reforming of us. What would it mean for us to realize that when burdens are lifted, when injuries are worked around, when hurts are let go, that is not what makes us new, that is only to let us see we are already new and whole?
Lastly, I’m caught by the fact that the women meet Jesus along the way (like the more familiar story of the Emmaus Road). Resurrection has already happened in their lives. When we last saw them, they were camped out across from the tomb, stunned, sorrowful, unsure. Now they are following the angel’s instructions, they are on their way, and it is there they bump into Jesus. They get to have a quick moment with him, to hold him, to worship him, and then they are sent to do their work, to tell the brothers and sisters who do not yet know the good news.
That is the call to us. We are those who have heard the angel. We are those who are sent on our way. We are those who are to tell our brothers and sisters about resurrection, about God, about what it has meant to us.
This may be more important now than it has been in a generation. The religious researchers tell us that those who do not identify with any religious group, who they have nicknamed the “nones,” are growing. One vocal advocate in this category is Ron Reagan, whose ad championing keeping church and state separate (with an undertone of getting rid of church altogether) has been running for two years. He ends his message with a wry smile, saying, “Ron Reagan, lifelong atheist, not afraid of burning in hell.”
How sad for Ron, and how damning for the church, that Ron thinks hell is the major message of the gospel. I’m afraid he is not alone. We can not let that stand unanswered. So what do we say? What is the good news?
The good news is the power of God’s resurrection that sneaks into our lives before we even know it,
The good news is that God crashes our pity parties and shakes everything up with earthquakes,
The good news is that God shows us miraculous things and asks us to be a part of it all.
The good news is that Easter morning is about life, and about the victory of God’s steadfast love.
That good news is why I proudly call myself a Christian.
For I have experienced the gift of resurrection in my own life, more than once.
And I believe that our world is desperately in need of the gospel message, for it can be so much more—if we only open our eyes to fantastic stories and our hearts to improbable events.
Finally I believe, God wants, and plans, and offers the chance to each of us—the chance to roll away stones, the chance to recognize the new that has already happened, the chance to be part of God’s loving action in the world.
That is the story of Easter.
May Easter blessings touch us all this day.