"And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it." (Mt. 28:2 NRSV)
I remember my mother pinning an Easter hat of some sort on to my older, maybe 8 or 10 year old, sister Jan one Easter morning in preparation for church. It's just a glimpse of a memory, stored away because it was unusual, or maybe meaningful, or perhaps because it was associate with family joy (or resistance - who knows anymore?) But when I was little, Easter was all about Easter eggs, dressing up, and a nice ham dinner with my cousins. There was also a story about Jesus coming out of a cave or something and being raised from the dead, but I'm not sure I knew what that was all about. Still, to this day I don't fear death and I have an abiding confidence is God and the goodness of life. This is what I was taught, and "Teach a child in the way they should go . . ."
Today, of course, I am older - 61 years old. I'm a professional religious person. I have studied theology and deconstructed the the Bible. I stand on the shoulders of 2000 years of contemplation and prayer around the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. So do you. Our lives are different. Our world is different. Our questions are 21st century, seven billion people, techno-advanced, bio-sphere collapsing, alternate facts forays, into the unknown. To say that differently, I am no longer a child and I don't read the Bible the way I used to.
The Gospel of Matthew's story of the death and resurrection of Jesus is unique. There are a lot of earth quakes in it. Have you noticed that? In Matthew 27, as Jesus breathes his last, there is an earthquake, and Matthew says the graves of the saints were opened up and they come out. After Jesus is resurrection, two days later, these same saints wander into town and start talking to people. I've never heard a sermon on that. I wonder what they were doing all of Saturday?!
And then, of course, there is this angel descending from heaven on Easter morning. Apparently angels don't descend from heaven without breaking the sound barrier and causing shock waves all over the place. I'm sorry to bring this up again, but three days ago another payload from above descended on Afghanistan and did much the same thing. I apologize for my brain, but it puts these two things side by side. One story I like. The other I don't. I don't believe Matthew had the mother of all bombs in mind when he wrote this Gospel, but there you go. I'm not Matthew and this isn't first century Palestine.
Matthew did have the military in mind, though. I mean, at the end of chapter 27 Matthew clearly tells us that the religious leaders go to Pilate to request an armed guard at the tomb of Jesus. They're afraid the disciples will try and come steal the body. And, when this angel descends from heaven - the earthquake and all - these Roman guards faint in fear. The women at the tomb are okay, but the army guys turn white and keel over -"like dead men" Matthew says. Nothing personal, here, against our fine men and women in uniform. I didn't write the Gospel. It's just the story. I'm sure these men had names and feelings and family and all. In the real world that matters! Here, though, they just represent an abusive, power pushing super power - the Roman Empire. I'm pretty sure that's right. I suppose Matthew could have left all this out, but he didn't. I suppose I could leave it out, too, but - well, there's my weird brain thing again. This part of the story pops out at me. Like the prophet Jeremiah if I don't say something it just gives me heartburn.
So, read Matthew 28 for yourself. The angel descends, the earth careens off to one side, the soldiers faint from fear (so would I!), the women survive okay, and then apparently the angel just sort of steps over the soldiers and says to the women, "Do not be afraid!" Why doesn't the angel tell the soldiers not to be afraid? They seem to be the ones in need of triage! But, of course, the story isn't really about people here, not as individuals. The story is about power. Who has it, how it is to be used, where do we find it, and who's it for?
The Bible is clear. The power is God's. It is used to give life. You find it in Jesus, and it is for the healing of all creation.
I think that's worth repeating. The Bible is clear. The power is God's. It is used to give life. You find it in Jesus, and it is for the healing of all creation.
And that's why we have colored Easter eggs, and little yellow chickens, and soft white bunnies and jelly beans. Because the message is about life, and joy, and hope and a future and a world in which everything matters. Or maybe that's not why we have all of that stuff, but this is the message. Life matters. Life matters to God. Your life matters to God, especially.
Now the rest of the story. The angel tells the women to go tell Jesus' disciples that he's alive and they should regroup in Galilee. Galilee, not the center of anywhere. No-wheres-ville. Galillee. Home. And so the women go, and Jesus finds them on the way and tells them the same thing. So they go some more. And at the same time the soldiers wake up and go give a report to their superiors. A cover up story is put in place. (Some might call it a lie.) People are paid off and frankly this part of the story is neither new, nor old, nor very interesting. We know all about this stuff. For some reason, though, Matthew wants to remind us about it. "Praemonitus, preaemunitus." That's Latin like the abusive, lying, power mongering Roman super-power people spoke. "Forewarned is forearmed." Just sayin'.
Finally, Jesus meets all the disciples in Galilee as promised. But that, boys and girls, is a story for a different day. Who would like to pick a treat out of my Easter basket as you return to your seats?
Bp. Dave Brauer-Rieke