It is early in the morning, on the first day of the week. We who are gathered here this morning know the story so well that we are unlikely to be astounded by what happens next. But as darkness eases, and the dawn breaks through two women make their way towards the tomb of a rich man named Joseph from Arimathea. Unlike us this morning, they did not know the events which were about to unfold. All that they have believed, all that they have invested in over the last few years, has come crashing down to nothing. After slowly journeying with Jesus, the final acts of his life came to an end so quickly. The one who these women had given their lives to is now dead.
In just a few short days he went from being heralded with palm branches as he entered Jerusalem as a hero, to being rejected by the crowds, accused and condemned to death, and then nailed to a cross. And now, these women, in the dull light of a new day venture to the tomb of Joseph where Jesus’ body is laid. In the reflection on this event in Matthew’s Gospel these two women, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, do not come to the tomb ready to anoint him and prepare him for his final burial, as they do in some of the other accounts in other Gospels. They come simply as mourners to see the tomb, to be as close as they can be to the body of Jesus – just wanting to be there to pour out their sorrow in as much peace and quietness as possible.
As they walk towards the tomb they realise that all of the power which had been caught up in the life of Jesus, and that had been strong enough to give them dignity and hope in a society where women were only slightly better than slaves – that all of this power had now gone, it had died with Jesus. What they had experienced in him, was now a mere interval in the powerlessness of their own lives. Now as they drew nearer to the tomb it becomes clear to them that there is no way that they can get as close to the body of Jesus as they had hoped to.
The religious leaders of the day feared that Jesus’ followers would come and steal his body in order to pretend that he had risen, and so they had placed a large stone, probably the weight of a small van (only movable by a number of soldiers with levers) – they had placed this large stone across the entrance to the tomb and sealed it. This stone was being watched, on the orders of Pontius Pilate by a guard of soldiers who were there to ensure that no one came close.
So, it was not hard for these women to see where the power lay now. It certainly was not with them – heart broken, exhausted, trudging with low shoulders and downcast eyes. As we read Matthew’s reflections on this moment it is hard to not be overcome with pity for these sad women. The power of Jesus (the power of the Kingdom of God) to transform the society in which they lived has vanished away – or so it appears – and the power of these soldiers, this stone, reminds them of what life will be like from now on. It is a moment of sheer grief for Jesus, for themselves, for his other friends, for all that they had hoped, yes – a moment of sadness for the whole world.
Matthew’s reflections on the Easter moment (so central to our Christian faith) are the most dramatic of the four that we find in the Gospel narratives of the New Testament. The various extraordinary things that are about to happen are designed to show us that a momentous shift back is about to take place in the dynamics of power. An Earthquake shakes the ground. Feet start stumbling as those present try to control their balance. And then an angel turns up, so radiant that shafts of lightening burst away from him. Everything around becomes lightness not darkness.
For the Jewish writers of Matthew’s Gospel the arrival of the angel is simply another pointer in a long Jewish tradition of angels who point out that amazing God-orchestrated things are happening. Just as an angel heralded the birth of Jesus, before King Herod tried in vain to have him killed, so now the angel is about to herald his resurrection. And this radiant angel, this messenger of God, rolls back the stone as if it were polystyrene, then jumps up and sits on it. Well, the power balance is certainly changing now. These signs deliberately and carefully remind all those who will hear about them, that they are the deliberate and purposeful actions of God himself.
As the power of the soldiers (and the worldly-Empire that they stand for) simply drains away they shake and swoon and become like dead men, which is fairly ironic, because another dead man is already living. It did not take an angel to get Jesus out of the tomb, he isn’t on the inside of the tomb waiting for someone to let him out, he doesn’t wander out when the door is opened, like a trapped prisoner being released by the power of those outside. The tomb is already empty, Jesus is already out there – people just don’t realise it yet.
So… who is strong now, and who is weak? With the arrival of the angel the roles have been reversed again. But just in case anyone doesn’t get the message, the angel entrusts to these women (seen as being untrustworthy in their own society) the greatest task of any Christian in the life of the Church – he tells them to be witnesses to their friends that the love of God is alive, that Jesus is alive. “Go quickly and tell his friends,” says the angel to the women “‘he has been raised from the dead, he is going to Galilee, and there you will see him.’”
Well the women don’t have to wait that long, because as they run to pass on the message, with both fear and joy, with excitement and awe, they are met by Jesus himself. The final confirmation that he is truly alive. So, powerful things are getting out-done, again and again, by things we (or they) assumed to be weak.
The women arrived in weakness, as if the world was ending, but they left with the news that what they thought was going on was wrong. The soldiers went there with strength, confident that there power (the power of the Emperor) was greater than any power of God, but they shrank away as if dead, when the news of God’s life-giving love broke through. In the resurrection of Jesus we find the final word of the God who remained apparently silent on Good Friday.
God is answering the taunts of the man who hung next to Jesus on the Cross. God is answering the unspoken questions of Jesus’ followers – these women, the disciples huddled up in a room for fear of a world in which God’s love may no longer be present. And more than that God is answering the spoken question of Jesus himself in the agony of the cross. In all of this God says, “Whether it felt like it or not, whether it feels like it or not — I have not forsaken any of you.”
Because the wonderful news of Easter is that God has indeed had the final word, that all in the end will be well, despite how it seemed yesterday, or seems today, or even how it will be tomorrow. In the end God’s resurrecting love will have the final word.
When the women went to the tomb on the first Easter morning it appeared to them that the dynamics of power had changed so dramatically. It can feel like that for us sometimes as well. But if the writers of Matthew’s Gospel were here with us this morning, they would say simply to us: “not everything is as it appears.” The power of God’s love, seen so supremely in Jesus, can never be destroyed – not even death can hold it down. Which is why Christians around the world today, in their many different cultures, and contexts, and styles and denominations will sing the great ‘alleluia’ of our faith; because God’s final word in Jesus, means that everything, in the end, will be well. That message of hope is not just for a special week or a special day, it is for every week and every day, as we strive to live as disciples of our Risen Lord.
The words of Saint John Chrysostom, preached over 1,600 years ago:
Let no one grieve at their poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one mourn that they have fallen again and again; for forgiveness has risen from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the death of our Saviour has set us free. God has destroyed it by enduring it… O death, where is thy sting? O Hades, where is thy victory? Christ is Risen, and you, O death, are annihilated! Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down! Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice! Christ is Risen, and life is liberated! Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead; for Christ having risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! Dear brothers and sisters in the risen Christ, let us celebrate the Feast!