A Tale of Two Easters

Matthew 27:57-28:20

There are always two stories going on in any situation, and Easter is no exception. I suppose we might say we have the religious story of Jesus rising from the dead, which people either fully believe and trust in, believe in as some kind of theoretical idea or metaphor, or completely reject. And right alongside it we have the story of the Easter bunny. A fun day to celebrate Spring and eat marshmallow peeps and jelly beans.  Often, with powerful and dangerously true stories, there is a childish and commercialized version, safe for mass consumption, and, especially for, commerce – something mild and marketable. There is no money to be made in empty tombs and rising from the dead – (unless it’s zombies. There is big money in zombies).

But Jesus wasn’t a zombie; he was fully alive, real, out there in the world ahead of them.  And even without the whole bunny thing, Matthew’s own version of the Easter events contrasts two stories of Jesus’ death and resurrection. One from the way of fear; and the other from the way of God.

It goes like this. This guy Jesus, was either the Messiah, God-with-us as a human being, or was a dynamic teacher and healer, a viral sensation who didn’t seem to care about money or success, and was always hanging out with losers and talking about another Kingdom, either way, he had become a hazardous threat to the secular Roman and religious Jewish establishments, so he was publicly killed as a criminal. And some weird stuff happened when he died – like an earthquake, and the heavy temple curtain separating God’s holiest private meeting place from the general public being torn in two from top to bottom, and apparently real zombies of dead people coming out of graves, but we kind of ignore all that because we don’t really know what to do with it.

So Jesus died, and his body was prepared and placed in a tomb, with these two women sitting there, across from the tomb, watching the whole thing.
And then, right in the middle of the action, the sabbath happens. So the women go home, along with everyone else, and they rest, as God has commanded. Because God is still God. And we are not God. And no matter what happens, we do this thing that reminds you who you are and who is in charge of the whole thing.

My friend Phil shares that in the hours after the 9-11 attack, in the midst of the world in chaos, people leaving work, stores closing, all bets off, he noticed cars pulling into the parking lot of the church he pastors.  At first he thought there was a need or emergency, but the people got out of their cars, headed inside, and began setting up folding chairs, because it was time for AA. And you go to AA, no matter what else is happening in the world. It reminds you who you are and who is in charge of the whole thing. So it’s like that. They kept the sabbath. 

Except not all of them did - not the leaders, not the very most religious people, the chief priests and the Pharisees who had orchestrated Jesus’ death - this group got spooked. They remembered that Jesus had said he would rise from the dead, so what if his followers steal the body and go around saying he had risen?  This fear, this need to protect their place and power, and secure this thing they had finally accomplished, was enough to send these most devout of people scrambling on the sabbath day.

Breathlessly, they rush to Pilate, who, God bless him, thought he’d washed his hands of the whole affair, and they made the case for some extra protection around the tomb, to prevent what could be a PR disaster for them all.  Pilate says, fine, you have your guards, station as many as you want, and yeah, go ahead and seal the tomb. So they place guards there, and seal the tomb closed, and say a few prayers for missing the sabbath for this super important errand, and then sit back mostly satisfied that all this ugliness is finally behind them and now they can rest.

But the following morning, the women, the ones who hung around the tomb before, came back.  And when they did, there was another earthquake, the ground shook and this figure came from the sky who looked like lightening, if lightening was a person wearing glowing white. And he slides away the enormous, sealed stone, and sits on top of it, calmly looking at them.  And the military professionals with the boring gig of guarding a dead man, were so afraid they shook and became like the dead themselves.
And, as it always does in the Kingdom of God, the script gets flipped. The powerful and strong – whether those who guard, or those who scheme, or those who rule, or the very technology, weight and strength of sealed stone – they are of no consequence.  And instead, the angel turns to the women.

Now, Mary Magdalene got a bad rap in the Middle Ages with an unfortunate label as a former prostitute, as many, many paintings can attest - again with the spinning a tale to devalue something and make it more palatable and profitable and less powerful – and it’s a charge that stuck.  But in fact, she was never a prostitute, and the bible never calls her that. Mary Magdalene was one of Jesus’ most devoted disciples, rivaling Peter in importance, a woman of great respect and honor who was close to Jesus, and she is the person whom all the gospels agree was first to know of Jesus’ resurrection, and who was given the job of delivering the news to the others. 

And “the other Mary,” the text tells us earlier, is the mother of James and Joseph – who were two of Jesus’ brothers, so it is assumed she is Jesus’ mother Mary. But she is not referred to here as that, because everything has changed. The earth has shaken, the world has turned, God has acted, the powerful and mighty are struck down, the humble and meek are lifted up. 
In his life and death, she was Mary, mother of Jesus, but in his resurrection, she is Mary, the witness, Mary, the preacher, the other Mary charged to deliver the news of the resurrection to the rest of Christ’s followers.

So here, among the scattered bodies of passed out soldiers, there is perched atop the giant stone, an angel, who says to these two women, “As for you, you stop being afraid. I suppose you’re looking for Jesus who was crucified? Well, he’s not here; he has already risen, just like he said he would.” And then, because the whole moving the stone and getting the soldiers out of the way thing was for them, not for Jesus, he invites them, “Come, come, see where his body was laid – but then go quickly to the the disciples and tell them that Jesus will meet them in Galilee. This is the message I have been sent to deliver to you.”

So the women peek inside, and then they take off running, with fear and great joy, that is, with their own trepidation and hesitation but also with bubbling over, euphoric and grounded happiness, they become the bearers of God’s message to the world.  But before they reach the rest of the disciples, Jesus appears to them. Like he just couldn’t wait. And the translation we have has him saying, “Greetings!” like he is delivering their mail or something. But in scripture, this word is hardly ever a hello or goodbye, most of the time, this word means, “Rejoice!”  So I imagine Jesus coming to them, throwing out his arms and shouting, “Rejoice!” And the women shriek in joy and embrace him and fall at his feet and worship him. And then Jesus pulls them up and says, “Ok, now, don’t be afraid any longer. Go to my brothers” - And again identities have shifted, they are no longer disciples, followers, now they are brothers –“ and tell them to leave Jerusalem and head back where we used to hang out and I will see them there.”

So the women deliver the news that indeed the Kingdom of God has come, that nothing has stopped God’s way from breaking in, which, indeed, now rules the world.
And back at the tomb, those groggy and stunned soldiers peel themselves off the ground and stare in horror at the unsealed and clearly empty tomb and the impossibly heavy, tossed-aside stone, and their predicament sinks in. The last thing they remember seeing was this smug walking lighting man that came from the sky and these two insignificant Hebrew women. But the women are gone, and the angel is gone, and the dead body is unfortunately gone too.

So they head back, hat in hand, to the religious leaders, and they tell them what happened.  And wow does the scrambling amp up then – those guys rustle up a shocking amount of cash as quickly as they can, and they pay off the soldiers to keep their mouths shut. Tell nobody about what happened. Who would believe you anyway, fools? Instead, say they overpowered you and took the body. And if you get in trouble at all with your bosses, we’ll cover for you. So they spread that story far and wide, and it stuck.

But the 11 disciples, having received the news from the Maries, headed out to Galilee, and hiked up the mountain where Jesus said he’d meet them. And there they saw Jesus. And they worshipped but some doubted, that is, with their own trepidation and hesitation but also with bubbling over, euphoric and grounded happiness, they hung out with the Life that death can not end.  And Jesus said to them, All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  This is my world now, and you’re all living in it. So go live it, share it, spread the love and the joy, bring people into the freedom of belonging to God and belonging to each other, invite them to live in this reality too, show them how it works and teach them how to remember the real, and I will be with you to the very end of eternity.

And that’s how Matthew ends his gospel.

There is the narrative of fear. The one that says the powerful keep their power, and the weak do not matter, and money buys all, and back room deals and corruption can accomplish anything, and the wicked prevail, and those who say otherwise will be silenced, and the dead do not live again.

But the other narrative says God’s Kingdom has come. God has broken down, torn open, and shaken apart the very foundations of all we think strength and might are.
And we are invited, over and over again, to put down fear. To set down the quest for personal safety, security, and worry about our lives, and rejoice.  Rejoice! And spread the news the love is stronger than hate, and hope endures beyond despair, and life triumphs over death. 

Because in weakness our God came in with us, and he took on our suffering, our shame, our pride, and our whole system that sees healing for the sick and freedom for the slaves and good news for the poor as a hostile threat to the order of things.  And darkness and evil threw at him the worst it had, killing him and putting the whole matter behind it. But it was never really over. There is no rest for the weary in that game.

While, as Martin Luther said, “Jesus sabbathed in the grave,” and both of his dear Maries left their tombside vigil and sabbathed back home, and all his disciples, and the whole community of believers, and all the faithful people of God in the land sabbathed where they were - stopping, as their ancestors did for generations, to remember that God is God and they were not, stopping to recall that they belonged to God instead of to Pharaoh and fear, remembering what it means to be free and practicing living it -  those who had killed him were not free.
They had to work to keep their tenuous victory. In this game of power and deceit, you could lose your place, even your life, at any moment. And so, bound to fear, anger, hatred and the root of sin itself - self-preservation, they missed the reality of God in their midst. They, whose whole lives’ longing was to see the Messiah, whose role in the community was to seek God and follow in God’s way for everyone to observe, they traded the way of God for the way of fear.

But Mary and Mary saw Jesus, and heard the words of God to them, “Rejoice! Stop being afraid. Go tell the others I will meet them.”

So here is our Easter message today: no matter how it looks at any given moment, the Kingdom of God has come. The end is decided, the trajectory is set. And in the middle, there are two stories. The story of self-preservation, rivalry, threat and fear, and it’s a powerful story. There’s a lot of evidence for this story all around us, and it has some persuasive spokespersons: the serpent, the Pharaoh, Herod and the Pharisees, the voices called “us and them,” and “not enough,” “you’re alone,” and then the loudest one - that speaks in separation and whispers permanency - death itself.

And then there’s the story that makes no sense.  The one where people love each other even though they are supposed to be enemies. And where people give what they have to others instead of hoarding for themselves. And where people confess when they’ve hurt each other, and forgive each other for the hurt they’ve caused.  

And in this story doubt, trepidation and hesitation go right along with bubbling over, euphoric and grounded happiness because the lost are found, and the least are most, and the wrong people are chosen, and the things that last, like - love and hope and peace - happen, inexplicably, in weakness, and show up in suffering, and the most vulnerable people turn out to be the strongest ones of all.

This is the story where after the ending comes a new beginning. Over and over again.  And it has repeated refrains like, “Stop being afraid” and “Rejoice,” and “I will be with you forever, no matter what,” and “Be still, and know that I am God.”

This is our story, this is our song. This is why we are here today. Here we rejoice, because the living God whom death cannot contain, summons us. Come and meet me, he says, right now, out there in the world, right here in your own life, where I already am, and always will be, no matter what, and until only one the one true story remains, for all eternity.

Happy Easter.

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