Sermon originally delivered on April 5, 2015 at Calvary Community Church in New Berlin, WI. Text: Matthew 28:1-10
So often we find ways to sanitize death. Often times, death happens in a hospital or some other facility. The family may or may not be there and may or may not witness the death itself. But for the ancients, death happened at home. Everyone saw it, saw the events that would precede and accompany death.
Death was a reality for the ancients, even more than it is for us.
Death was, and is, inevitable. Death is a result of decay. The world decays. Bodies decay. Death is often not something intentional, it just happens. In the end, decay seems to always win. No one can escape the looming shadow of death which, in our experience, consumes everything. Even Jesus did not escape the reality of death.
In the gospels, Jesus died. It was not that he appeared to die, it is not that the human side of Jesus died. Jesus died. Dead. In the tomb for a couple of days. Rigor mortis had already set in as his body began decomposing.
A few days before, the heart monitor went flat with the long steady tone which signals the ending of a heartbeat. Breathing stopped. Had be been in a hospital, a physician would have called the time of death to be written on his death certificate. He was placed in a tomb and the tomb was sealed.
Yet, he had previously told them that he would die and rise again. Although, I can imagine that they would have believed it in such a way that we would believe it if someone told us that they will die and then rise from the dead. Sure. Nothing — nothing — escapes the grip of death.
But Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. In Mark’s and Luke’s version, they brought spices, but no mention of this is made in Matthew. We are simply told that they went to see the tomb, their eyes still red and puffy from crying, the taste of the salty tears still on their lips. Why did they want to see the tomb? Perhaps as with Mark and Luke they came to anoint the body with spices. Perhaps they were coming to grieve and pay respects as we often do in cemeteries. Perhaps they came to see if this words were true, that he would rise from the dead. Making their way out of the city limits of the day they came to the place where he was buried.
But suddenly, the earth shook, they could see an angel appear, roll back the stone, and sit on it, his work being completed. His clothes were so bright, they shone like the sun, they could barely look at the angel. I can imagine that perhaps they didn’t even know what that bright light was. The Roman guards who were placed there, probably to ensure that no one would steal the body and claim he rose from the dead, they were so surprised, so shocked, so afraid that fainted. The women, however, did not have the same experience.
And as they shield their eyes with their hands, peering through a crack in their fingers, the angels speaks to them with the familiar, comforting, and confident words of God’s messengers. “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.”
The angel offers an invitation and an instruction.
Come and see, the angel invites. Come and see the place where he lay. Come inside the tomb. Come inside the place from which people are not supposed to leave. Come and see the place that houses death, come and see the place where the door is to only swing one way, but has swung both ways. Come and see the place where he lay, the place which is now empty. The angel invites them to come and see, to have an experience.
But this is not it. The angel then tells them to go and tell. Go from this graveyard, go from this place of the dead. After all, they no longer have a purpose there, they no longer have a reason to be there. No longer are they to look for Jesus in the place of the dead, but amongst the land of the living.
Go and tell the disciples what has happened, go and tell them that he is not here. Go and tell them that death did not have the final say. Go and tell and decay is not the ruler of creation, go and tell them that the inevitable is not necessarily the inevitable. Go and tell them what has happened and that he is going ahead of you to Galilee, and there you will see him.
This is an old story, an old, old story. One which many of us have heard all our lives. Others of us have heard this story for many years. We are all familiar with it. So why do we tell it over and over again? Why do we tell it clearly every year at this time, and who do we speak about it so often?
This is about one person, but it is not about one person. This is about Jesus, but it is also about all of creation.
What is so amazing about the resurrection of Jesus is not just that one man who was dead became alive again, the amazing thing about this is that it shifts the whole created order. Perhaps the earthquake was symbolic of the shaking of the foundations of the broken order.
Death is a door which swings one way, the tomb is a place from which there is no return, decay is the force that nothing or no one can stop or thwart. But with the resurrection of Christ, these things which are constants, do not seem to necessarily be constant any longer. No longer does death or decay write the script or run the drama of life. Indeed, God writes the script and directs the drama of life. Death does not have the final word, decay is not the final movement, the tomb is not the place from which there is no escape.
Jesus’ resurrection is a foretaste of the resurrection which we shall experience at the end of all things, when Christ returns to redeem all things, when the broken order is returned to a perfection which even exceeds the original order.
Even though we experience death, death does not have the final answer. Jesus experienced death, and death did not have the final answer. In our experience, there is no return from death, but there is more to existence than our experience. Death is not ultimately the end point, but on the final day, God will raise us, too, from the grave, just as God raised Jesus from the grave.
The rules are different, that which is assumed is to be questioned. Not only was Jesus not there, but he was going on ahead of the disciples to Galilee, and there he would meet them.
The resurrection is the sign that creation has begun its process of restoration and redemption. The resurrection of Christ ushered in the kingdom of God which starts small and slowly begins to encompass everything. It is a transformation which begun at this moment and will continue until the final consummation when all of creation will be redeemed, and God reaches out God’s hand and raises up the faithful to the glorious rest after a life well-lived.
But this hope is not just something for after death, it is something which impacts our lives here and now.
The Marys were not just told to come and see, they were not just told to think and believe, they were told to come and see and then go and tell. Go and tell the disciples what has happened, and that I will be going ahead of them into Galilee.
Jesus was going ahead of them, and he will meet them there.
And we find ourselves in this position too. Christ has been raised, but this is not just something that we just think about and use to cheer ourselves. Truly this is good news, we must remember that. Christ has conquered the powers — Christ has conquered death. Christ has overcome decay.
And because Christ has been raised we can continue to heed Christ’s call to follow, while Christ goes ahead of us. Christ calls us to follow along the way, loving God and loving others. Showing forth grace and mercy. Living into the redemption which God is effecting.
Come and see, go and tell. I’m going ahead of you.
We have journeyed through the betrayal of Maundy Thursday, the death of Good Friday, the silent emptiness of Holy Saturday, and now life on Easter Sunday.
Far from simply just focusing after-death, today is the reason that we can wave our fists in defiant protest in front of death and proclaim with St. Paul, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55)
Death has been swallowed up in victory. Death has been swallowed up in victory. We, then, are called to live like it, and Christ goes ahead of us.