“He is risen! He is risen indeed!” The resurrection of Jesus that we celebrate on Easter Sunday is the bedrock on which we build our faith. Do we fully comprehend the significance of this event which happened over 2,000 years ago, or are we simply hindered in our ability to express it by the limits our 26-letter alphabet imposes? Without a doubt, the bold faith claims we profess through the resurrection are earth-shattering. Faith in Real Life discussed this, and how we live into those claims, this week.
1After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And 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. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
Easter Sunday is the single most important story in our faith but talking about it is like trying to describe a symphony with music theory. Theory and words are important but they utterly fail when it comes to describing the experience. In fact, theory and words can become more a distraction than an enhancement. Yet we need our words. We tell our children and grandchildren, ‘Use your words, we can’t understand you if you don’t use words.’ So I will try to use words and hope you hear a few chords of the symphony.
A fairly common first reaction to the resurrection is a subdued incredulity. We know that the resurrection faith is the linchpin of Christianity. We see the unmistakable conviction and joy of other worshipers but have trouble making any real sense of it. Better to follow the script, enjoy the music and keep questions to yourself. This was certainly an issue in our Faith in Real Life discussions. When we are told, ‘you just have to have faith’, it is not at all clear what faith we are supposed to have, much less what it might mean in our ordinary lives. The biblical accounts are confusing. One minute the risen Lord is walking through walls and another, he is having breakfast. And even beginning the process of sorting any of this out is impeded by the hesitancy to question such a fundamental belief.
One of the problems is that throughout the entire New Testament, Jesus is often confusing. He uses words and images that seem to make sense and then turns around and uses them in totally unexpected ways. Nicodemus had every reason to be confused when he was told he must be born again, the Samaritan woman could not know what ‘living water’ was and who is blind and who sees is turned completely upside down in the healing of the blind man. At least Jesus’ ministry prepares us for the unexpected. If we read enough about Jesus’ life, we will start to be more cautious about what we think we know. Hopefully, we become more open to God.
Ordinarily, we think of life and death biologically. But not so much for Jesus. Jesus viewed life as unity with God and death as separation from God. In the raising of Lazarus, Jesus first says Lazarus’ illness does not lead to death. But shortly thereafter, he says Lazarus is quite dead. It is a foreshadowing of the resurrection truth that there is life with God that is concurrent with and separate from life on earth. It is difficult to comprehend —but Jesus is forever shaking the very ground we stand upon.
Of the four gospel accounts, our Matthew text is the only version that includes an earthquake. True for all of us, but perhaps especially for the women, Jesus demonstrated a God who loves. He broke through our assumptions of acceptability to say I love you. He preached to the rejected, the outcasts, the people of no account. In the the first century, this would be profoundly good news. Jesus loved ‘the least of these’—and in the first century that included a very large part of the population. Jesus taught that every person matters. There is love and hope for each of us—no matter our gender, station in life, accomplishments or our failures. That is revolutionary. That is earthshaking. It is no wonder that they followed him.
But now he was dead. All of that hope, all of that new possibility was ridiculed, tortured and dead. It was a harsh and abrupt end to the window of new life that Jesus promised. So the women go to tomb to grieve. (There is no mention in Matthew of spices or preparation of the body). By definition in the first century, women were near the bottom of the social structure. The loss of Jesus must have been particularly devastating.
And suddenly there was a great earthquake. Once again, human assumptions about life and the meaning of life are shaken to the core. It certainly appears that death is the end. The resurrection faith says the opposite. The guard quaking with fear becomes like a dead man. The earth changing reality was too much to deal with. The women, with heavenly assurance, tolerate the ground shaking beneath their feet yet again—and they run with fear and joy to announce the good news. The Jesus who treated nobodies like somebodies; the Jesus who treated women like disciples, the Jesus who loved them was not destroyed. “ I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here.”
There is no real way to describe what it is like to rest secure in God’s love nor the wonder of realizing that this love can not be destroyed. But without explication, here is some ‘music theory’ about the symphony of the resurrection. Our faith claim is that all of these things which were alive in Jesus over 2000 years ago are alive and with us here and now.
Though, biologically, vulnerability is what we are hardwired to fear, it is the pathway to all intimacy and love. We can risk because we are safe with God. ‘The body they may kill, his truth abideth still.’ Jesus is with us.
Suffering and pain are not signs of estrangement from God. Over and over Jesus tries to tell his disciples ‘the son of man must suffer and die’ but over and over the disciples don’t get it. If the innocent Son of God can be betrayed and suffer, we should not think we will be exempt from hardship. God sustained Jesus and he sustains us.
Love is a gift. It is silly to ask why we are loved—that thought is our human need for predictability and control. It is silly to make rules about who ‘deserves’ love. This is good news and bad news. Our sins are not held against us but our accomplishments do not earn us favor. Jesus loves deeply and radically.
Loving as Jesus loved is what gives meaning and purpose to life. Long after humankind forgets our names, our loving matters. Love transcends death. Love is eternal. That is the resurrection promise.
This is not a pie in the sky kind of hope—these are claims made in the face of Syrian children being gassed, claims made in the face of personal loss, failings and tragedy. It is hope that is founded in crucifixion. A quote from a POW in Viet Nam war is relevant here. Jim Stockdale was held for eight years. He survived when many did not. In explaining his experience, he wrote what has become known as the Stockdale paradox: “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
The resurrection promises God will prevail in the end. And it does so in the full knowledge of human cruelty. That paradox gives great power and joy. But it is fearsome getting there.
Do you feel the ground shaking? Will we be like dead men or will we run with fear and joy to announce the good news. He is risen. He is risen indeed.
Live like you’re loved. Live like love matters. Let it be so.