Easter Sermon: April 16, 2017
I’m glad to be preaching Matthew’s version of the resurrection this year, because in Matthew, Easter is BIG. There’s an earthquake and the angel descends from heaven and he looks like lightening. Things happen “suddenly” and “quickly” in Matthew’s version. The women see the empty tomb, meet and worship the resurrected Christ, and then run to tell the disciples the good news.
There is no uncertainty, no doubt, no hesitancy with Matthew’s version of events. The news of the resurrection comes suddenly and decisively . . . and that is what I need this year.
I want the resurrection life to be big, because the death and destruction seem so big right now.
We hear of policy and funding decisions that will lead to death—approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline, cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, health care reform proposals that would leave thousands without insurance, removing federal requirements for reforming racist police departments . . . just to get the list started. And we see government actions that destroy lives instantly, immediately, irrevocably: a rush to execute people on death row in Arkansas before their lethal drugs reach their expiration date; U.S. airstrikes in Mosul that killed over 150 civilians; 59 missiles launched on Syria; the “mother of all bombs” dropped on Afghanistan.
This world is in the midst of one huge Good Friday, and I, for one, am longing for an equally huge Easter. I welcome the earthquake and the lightening angel and the confident women running to announce the Good News.
And there is another reason I’m glad to be preaching Matthew this year, something else Matthew gives us in addition to the spectacular power of it all. In his version of the resurrection, Matthew gives us the guards. The guards who are so startled by the angel that they become “like dead men.”
It’s odd, right? To guard a tomb. To be fair, they weren’t there to keep Jesus in the tomb. They were there to keep the disciples out of the tomb. The religious authorities were worried that Jesus’ followers would come steal the body and then claim that Jesus had been raised. The chief priests and Pharisees had gone to Pilate with their concerns and Pilate said, “Sure, go ahead and secure the tomb. Station guards. Whatever you want.”
So that’s why the guards are there. And they probably would have been effective against sneaky disciples trying to steal a body. But there is not much they can do about the lightning angel and the resurrected Christ.
We ended our reading this morning with verse 10. With Jesus sending the women to the other disciples to share the Good News. That’s where the Easter story ends.
But Matthew also tells us that while the women ran off to tell the disciples about the resurrection:
“some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, ‘You must say, “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.” If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ So they took the money and did as they were directed.”
This part of the story is not in the Lectionary reading for this morning. In fact, it’s never in the Lectionary readings. We don’t hear this story very often, which may help explain why, when we talk about witnesses to the resurrection, we almost always—and only—talk about the women. The faithful women—in this version, the two Marys—are the ones who heard the angel message, saw the empty tomb, and went to tell people that Christ was risen.
But, according to Matthew, there were guards who also heard the angel message, saw the empty tomb, and went to tell people that Christ was risen.
We don’t know exactly what happened when the Marys got to the eleven disciples. We assume they told them what the angel and Jesus told them to tell them: that Jesus was risen and they should go to Galilee to meet him. We assume that because six verses later we read: “Now the disciples went to Galilee.” But we don’t really know how the conversation went.
But the guards . . . we know how that conversation went.
The guards say, “Ummm . . . earthquake . . . angel . . . lightning . . . Jesus . . . not dead . . . “
And the religious authorities say, “No, no, no. We can’t let this resurrection story get out. Here, take some money. Take some more money. Tell people that the disciples came and stole the body while you were sleeping.”
And the guards say, “Pilate will not be happy about us sleeping on the job.”
And the religious authorities say, “Don’t worry about Pilate. We’ll keep him off your back.”
And the guards say, “Thanks for the money. I can’t believe how we all fell asleep and those sneaky disciples broke into the tomb and took the body.”
You might remember that last Sunday, Palm Sunday, we talked about the two crowds in Jerusalem—the one joyfully welcoming Jesus and the one dutifully welcoming Pilate. Jesus’ crowd and Pilate’s crowd.
This week, we have two groups of witnesses—the women who report what the angel and Jesus tell them to report, and the guards who report what the religious authorities tell them to report—which, not coincidentally, happens to be what Pilate would want reported. We have Jesus’ witnesses and Pilate’s witnesses.
Jesus’ motivation for telling the women to report that he has risen seems pretty straight forward. For one thing, the report of the women is the truth. Unbelievably, against all odds, it is the truth: Jesus is risen! Jesus wants people to know the truth of the resurrection: that God’s presence with us is not conditional, that the powers of violence do not win, that God’s way of love and justice overcomes the corruption of empire. Christ is risen! This is the true message that the women bear to the world.
What about the motivations of the authorities who tell the guards to lie? Well, they wanted to stay on Pilate’s good side. And Pilate wanted to stay on Emperor Tiberius’ good side. And they all wanted to maintain the Pax Romana. The Roman peace. Which, we should note, wasn’t really a peace for the sake of people living in fullness of life, but a peace for the purpose of allowing the rich and powerful to remain rich and powerful. And it wasn’t a peace earned through sharing and equity and justice, but a peace carried on the backs of oppressed peoples. But those who benefited from the Pax Romana very much wanted to maintain the Pax Romana. And they thought that saying Jesus’ body was stolen would help them do that. So that is the message that the guards bear to the world.
The last thing Pilate cared about was the truth. In John’s gospel, Pilate asks Jesus, during his trial, “What is truth?” It’s hard to read tone of voice across 2,000 years, but I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that it was not so much “What is truth?” as “What is truth?”. Pilate doesn’t seem to believe that there is such a thing as truth. Or, if there is such a thing, that it is not particularly relevant to him.
People complain that we are living in a “post-truth” society, as if that’s a new thing. As if, before our current president ran for office, those in power—and those who hoped the powerful would help them out–were champions of truth. It’s not true. Truth has never been the friend of the rich and powerful. And those who tell the truth have often found themselves hung out to dry.
The women did as Jesus told them—they went forth and proclaimed the truth. The truth of love; the truth of peace; the truth of life—the truth about real power. That truth is in our world.
But the guards also did as the authorities told them—they went forth and proclaimed the lie. The lie of animosity; the lie of violence; the lie of death—the lie about real power. Those lies are also in our world.
The lie that dropping bombs is helpful and will make us safe.
The lie that building a wall will keep out the bad guys and make us safe.
The lie that letting police departments continue with racist practices will improve morale and make us safe.
The lie that executing criminals will deter crime and make us safe.
The lie that churches need armed security forces to make us safe.
The lies are often about keeping us safe. Which really means keeping those in power safe. Maintaining the Pax Romana. The Pax Americana.
Theology professor Gilberto Ruiz notes that angels and earthquakes in scripture signify grand eschatological events. And the Resurrection was indeed such a grand event—an event that has ultimate and eternal significance. The resurrection of Jesus Christ signifies God’s intimate and eternal presence with us—with all of creation.
The Resurrection is Good News. It is truth. And human lies cannot change the truth. Human lies cannot change the ultimate reality of God as manifest in the risen Christ.
But human lies can change how the resurrection affects our lives and our world in this moment.
It matters if we take the money—or security, or comfort—from the powers that be and join the guards in their lies:
- We must sacrifice the few for the many.
- We should trust the power of the authorities.
- Violence keeps us safe.
- Death wins.
It matters if we worship Jesus and join the women in proclaiming the truth:
- All are beloved and must be cared for.
- We should trust in the power of God.
- Violence begets more violence.
- Divine life is more powerful than death.
The call of Easter is at once simple and difficult: to tell the truth of the Resurrection in a world obsessed with death.
Even when they offer money or status or comfort or safety if we would only repeat their version of the story—we tell the truth.
Even when people look at us like we’re crazy, and we start to feel a little crazy—we tell the truth.
Even when the lies are so loud they seem to drown out our tired voices—we tell the truth.
There we no sleeping guards. No sneaky disciples.
There was an earthquake and an angel and a risen savior.
There is the power of God in this world that has overcome, is overcoming, will overcome all the forces of death.
We tell the truth: Jesus Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.