Ps. 16; Acts 10:34-43; Col. 3:1-4; Matthew 28:1-10
Earthquake, Now after the sabbath, at the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the grave. And behold, a big earthquake happened, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven, and approached and rolled away the stone and began to sit on it. (Now his appearance was like lightening, and his clothing [was] white, like snow, and because of the fear of him, those who were guarding [the tomb] were shaken, and they became like dead men) (vv. 1-4).
St. Augustine of Hippo says of Christians, “We are Easter men and alleluia our song”. The church’s acclamation reflects her release to freedom from sin and death in consummation of God’s promises in Christ crucified and risen; our new place of worship place at the feet of Jesus expressed in the two Mary’s recognition of their Lord.
The prostrate worship of the women is not comprehended as an isolated act of piety. The women connect us to the cross, remaining until Jesus declared, “It is finished”, and handed-over the Spirit.
These women, departing the empty tomb, are a bridge between grave guards, who at the appearance of the Angel became as dead, and the apostolic body to whom they were returning with their news that Jesus was coming. For the unconverted guards the Angel’s presence portended judgment and death; but what would Jesus’ coming mean for his disciples; death or Life?
The apostolic problem was: would they hear of Jesus risen as good or bad news? Peter had denied Jesus three times to the religious authorities; the others as well abandoned their witness for fear of the Jews.
Earlier Thomas scorned Jesus’s decision to return to Judea for the funeral of Lazarus, and coming under the Jewish jurisdiction and a sentence of death (see Sermon, Lent 5/A, 2020, “Twin”).
Thus, the news that risen Jesus was on his way would have been met with less than universal applause, perhaps engendering a response as the guards at the presence of the Angel; would Jesus confront them as Angel of death or of Life?
The Angel’s appearance, inducing the “big earthquake”, is described like Jesus’ transfiguration and resurrected appearance in St. John’s Revelation (Mt. 28:3; cf. Mt. 17:2; Rev. 1:13-15), so likely the Angel of the Lord; now risen Son of Man, into whose hands all judgment is delivered. The earthquake Angel was seated on the grave’s tombstone, a bema-judgement seat furthering the end times picture of the Son of Man as the guards lay for fear as dead at his feet.
A natural response of the Apostles to the news would have been to disbelieve the news of Jesus’ coming or worse its avoidance; both emotions a week later were expressed by Thomas, “I will never believe” (Jn. 20:25b).
But to the women the Angel imparted absolution, “Do not be afraid; for… you seek Jesus who was crucified” (Mt. 28:5). A bit later, on the road, Jesus appeared in less stern aspect, greeting the two Mary's in the flesh and blood they recognized.
Once again, Jesus imparted Absolution, “Do not be afraid” sending the women, to the disciples to assuage about his imminent arrival; not for judgement, but a reunion of “brothers” (v. 10; cf. Gen. 45:4, 5).
At the cross and in the Resurrection, God has finally made his reply to Cain’s accusation, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9b). No matter the offense of men, Jesus is keeper of his bothers; in Christ we all possess the same parentage, God as Father and church as mother.
Amid today’s “alleluias” there is some marginalization of the Resurrection; of seeing Jesus as merely taking a victory lap at the expense of sin, Satan, and death; of God ratifying all his Son said and did; and inviting us to share in a new physicality on a Last Day. All this is true, but such an Easter message is unfairly truncated.
When JB identified Jesus, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”, the reference was to singular sin. Certainly, all sins are comprehended in God’s forgiveness; but that which ultimately condemns is unbelief of God’s gracious word for Christ’s sake, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mk. 16:16).
The belief that is required, to paraphrase one politician’s words, is “a willing suspension of disbelief”. The guards after recovering from their shock-induced fugue, went to their Jewish masters to report the Resurrection as experiential truth.
From the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, certainly at its end, Jewish rulers not only knew whom Jesus claimed to be; and by irrefutable proofs and signs knew him Son of God, Christ, and Son of Man come to reign and judge in his kingdom.
When Jesus, said, if they destroy the Temple of his body he would raise it in three days, temple Jews eventually understood; fearing loss of place, position, and office in the OT cultus. They refused to “suspend their disbelief” of God’s prophesied new epoch in his Christ.
Knowledge and belief are not the same; but both are distinctives of original sin. Paraphrasing God’s original commandment, “you shall not seek knowledge of good and evil independent of my Word; for to know evil is to experience evil, participate in evil, and reject Me in unbelief.”
The tomb guards knew Jesus was resurrected; yet did not suspend their unbelief. Rather, like their Jewish masters, selfish considerations prevailed. In the case of the guards, mere bribery was sufficient to suspend Truth. At Jewish urging the guards claimed the disciples stole Jesus’ body while they slept (a patent self-contradiction).
At reportage of Jesus’ resurrection, Peter and John, suspended their disbelief, running to the grave; the others however remained, slandering the women as hysterical messengers. The apostolic band, at that moment was betwixt faithfulness and unbelief; salvation and condemnation; Life and curse.
Still by the women’s advance word, sufficient faith was generated for Jesus to appear; the disciples now believing did not faint dead-away. The women’s message of brotherly status with Jesus to be sons and daughters of God absolved fright of God in their midst; but what of you and I?
Again many relegate the Resurrection Jesus’ victory lap; thinking him off in distant heaven, to return at an unspecified time to judge, by separating sheep from goats. In other words, they refuse to “suspend disbelief” that the crucified and resurrected Jesus is in our midst now, judging faith and faithlessness from his Altar bema and throne.
St. Matthew does not record the Ascension of Jesus; for him it is important that congregations galvanize around word and Sacrament; the reality of heaven as Temple of Christ’s body, “…behold, I Am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mt. 28:20b).
The women at the tomb, like Elijah in Horeb’s cave, were “earth quaked” preceding the Angel’s still small voice, “Do not be afraid”. The Lord chose his “advance-women” well in the NT.
Later when Jesus greeted his women on the road, they responded to the Resurrection in worship; suspending all disbelief, for Eucharist knowledge of God, clasping their Lord’s nail scarred feet. This then is the church’s Easter joy and “alleluia” song, the same faithfulness that Jesus will urge upon St. Thomas next Sunday.
“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah…” (Ps. 95:8a). Amen.