The Rev. Clare Fischer-Davies
St. Martin’s Church
April 24, 2011
This is the end of Chapter 27 in the Gospel of Matthew – what comes right before the Gospel lesson we just heard: “The next day, … the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first.” Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.” So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.”
Make it as secure as you can.
That sounds like a very 21st century instruction. We are obsessed with security – with the safety of our possessions and our persons – and there are whole industries sprung up to feed that obsession. Those of us who have reached a certain age remember days when cars didn’t have seat belts, airports didn’t have security lines, and your social security number was on your driver’s license.
Make it as a secure as you can.
Pilate has had a bad week. The Passover week in Jerusalem always has the potential to explode into riot and rebellion. The city seethes with pilgrims and Jewish emotions run hot against their Roman invaders. Pilate’s job is to keep the peace, to exercise Roman authority – that’s at least one reason he crucifies Jesus of Nazareth – to remind his fractious subjects that Rome is in charge, and that nothing can get past Roman security.
What could be more secure than a tomb sealed by a huge stone, guarded by a quartet of soldiers who will work in three-hour shifts, so that the guard is alert around the clock. No matter what Jesus’ disciples may have planned, Pilate is confident that no one can get past the guard. The tomb is sealed and as secure as human effort can make it.
But of course, Matthew isn’t telling a story about what human beings can do – about what lies within our power. Matthew’s story is about what God can do – and for God, the guard, the seal and the heavy stone itself have no more substance than tissue paper. God gives a snap of the fingers and guard, seal and heavy stone are history.
All of this supernatural detail in Matthew’s Gospel isn’t meant to be a distraction, it’s not supposed to drag us into a debate about what did and did not happen, about what is and is not possible in a world governed by the laws of physics. Matthew would say – “Physics Schmysics. If the power and the will of God are stronger than the Roman Imperium, than what do a few atoms and molecules matter?” The point is how finite human power is and how infinite is the mighty power of God.
The earthquake is only a sound effect – it’s the angel that rolls away the stone and strikes terror into the guard. The tomb is already empty – Jesus doesn’t walk out of it the way Lazarus came out of his grave – all of the Gospels agree that when the women go to the tomb early on Easter morning – the tomb is already empty. Jesus cannot be held by any earthly power. Not even by the power of death.
That’s the point. That’s the only point. And whatever we think happened to Jesus’ atoms and molecules, we can be sure that the first followers of Jesus believed that something pretty amazing had happened. They believed that something amazing had happened, and the news spread fast – amazingly fast in a world where all news could only travel as fast it could be carried by human contact.
And there are a couple of details that I think tell us a lot about the validity of the story – tell us a lot more than details about earthquakes and angels with faces like lightning.
The first people that Jesus appears to are the women. They are the first witnesses of the resurrection and they become the apostles to the apostles.
Why is that important? Because in the ancient world, women were held in such low esteem that their testimony couldn’t be entered in court. They had no public voice – no status at all. If you wanted to make up a story about Jesus rising from the dead, and if you wanted your story to have weight and importance and credibility – you wouldn’t have the women receive the news first. It doesn’t do your story any good at all.
No – the fact that all the Gospels report that the women went to the tomb early in the morning and took the news of the resurrection back to the male apostles, means that there’s something going on. We know that the Gospel authors edited and pruned and tweaked stories to make their points – and I don’t doubt they would have been glad to edit out the women, to get rid of that embarrassing female testimony – but they couldn’t – because the women’s eyewitness accounts were already bedrock, foundational tradition.
There’s another detail I think matters much more than earthquakes and angels. Jesus says, when the women meet him, “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” My brothers. Jesus is talking about the same men who betrayed and deserted and denied him. This is also consistent in all of the Gospels.
If you were going to make up a story about someone rising from the dead – then the story would probably contain some kind of vindication, some kind of vengeance or judgment against those who had put that person to death in the first place. But there’s not a speck of that in these early resurrection stories. There’s no hint of payback to the Jewish authorities, or to Pilate and not even punishment for those who couldn’t manage to stay awake the garden.
Instead. the resurrection appearances are all about reconciliation and oh, they are about second chances. As Larry said so eloquently in his sermon on Friday night, Simon Peter – who has personified the failure of all the disciples by denying Jesus three times, in the Gospel of John, is commissioned three times by the Risen Christ, given holy work to do serving the lambs the Good Shepherd has gathered. The Risen Christ is not coming to trample down his enemies, but to forgive and heal and bless those who abandoned and betrayed him.
And finally, although this is not a detail that’s contained in the resurrection stories themselves, it’s something that set the world on fire and speaks to just how deeply the Easter experience changed human lives.
The first followers of Jesus weren’t afraid to die. The powers and principalities of this world no longer held any terror for them.
A few weeks ago, in our weekly enewsletter, I wrote about the play “Paul” that a number of St. Martin’s folks saw at the Gamm Theatre in Pawtucket.
The play, written by British playwright Howard Brenton, is not written from a attitude of belief. According to Brenton, Jesus never dies at all on the cross, and his disciples hide their wounded teacher and make up a story about his rising from the dead. When Paul has his conversion experience on the road to Damascus, his newfound faith is based more on epilepsy than on a meeting with the risen Christ.
In the play, Simon Peter is in on the deception – he has spent his life telling people lies about the resurrection. When both Peter and Paul are in prison in Rome, about to be executed, Peter tries to explain to Paul that everything he has believed is false.
And finally, in the last ten minutes of the play, the Emperor Nero comes to speak to the condemned men – he likes to taunt his prisoners before they are put to death. Paul – who is confused and bewildered by Peter’s story, and who might be expected to curse God as his world crumbles around him, instead stands and rebukes Nero – for his depravity and moral emptiness. The powerless rises up to speak truth to power – Paul has lived since his conversion as if death had no dominion over him, and he chooses to face his death defying its supremacy.
It was an electrifying moment. And it brought into sharp focus for me what I think the Easter experience was all about for the earliest Christians.
What had happened to Jesus’ atoms and molecules wasn’t important to them – the tomb was empty – there was nothing to be learned by poking through Jesus’ burial clothes. What did matter is that the powers of death and hell were broken; what mattered is that reconciliation was offered to heal guilt and that new and unimaginable possibilities opened up for those who believed.
The Gospels all come to a close quickly after the resurrection. Jesus is on the move, telling those who love him that he will meet them in Galilee. He cannot be contained – resurrection power can’t be corralled – something new has been unleashed on the world. Death has no more dominion over us – we are free.
“Make the tomb as secure as you can.”
Poor Pilate. The best he and the Roman army can do vanishes before the life-giving power of God. The tomb is empty – and Jesus is going before us into Galilee – Let all the world see and know that things which had been cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new.
Christ is risen. And nothing will ever be the same again.