If someone who is not particularly familiar with Christianity were to ask you, What is Easter all about?, what would you say? I suppose I would say that it is the day, above all days, when we celebrate and proclaim the good news concerning the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the day of resurrection. Today we rejoice and exclaim, "Christ is risen!" The powers of death have done their worst, but out of death God has brought new life by raising Jesus from the dead.
To someone unfamiliar with Christianity, however, such an answer would no doubt provoke further questions requiring further explanation: "What do you actually mean, 'Risen from the dead?'" "Why is this good news?" "What does this have to do with the rest of your religion?--or the rest of your life?" "How is this Jesus related to your God?"
If we think about these and all the other questions that might arise in connection with the message of Easter, we may be puzzled by the account that Matthew has provided us in this morning's Gospel reading. Matthew spends just two verses relating the meeting between the risen Jesus and the two Marys on their way back from the tomb. The other twenty-three verses in the passage I read have to do with the tomb--with Jesus' burial in the tomb, with the guard posted at the tomb, with the visit of the two Marys to the tomb, with the angel's descent to the tomb, with the report of the guards and the attempted cover-up by the chief priests, who pay the guards to rumor that Jesus' "disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep." In short, there is only the barest story here about resurrection, and only the slightest note of celebration. Why do you suppose that is?
One reason may be that Matthew is writing for those who already know the Easter message. They already know the claims about the risen Christ. They already know that the Christian Church affirms the continuing and living presence of this Christ in their midst. Matthew's primary reason for telling this story does not seem to be simply to persuade his readers of the reality of their living Lord.
But why then all this emphasis on the empty tomb? None of the other Gospel writers devotes as much space to the tomb as Matthew does. First he describes how the crucified Jesus receives a proper burial. Then he describes how precautions are taken to make sure that the tomb is sealed and a guard is posted so that Jesus' disciples will not be able to take away his body and then falsely proclaim his resurrection. Next he tells how an earthquake is accompanied by an angel who rolls away the stone that sealed the tomb. The angel says to the women who had come to visit the tomb that Jesus is not there. The stone has been rolled away, not so that Jesus can get out, but so that the women can go in and see. Finally, he reports the conspiracy between the soldiers and the chief priests to spread the story that Jesus' disciples have taken his body away.
In all of this, no one witnesses the resurrection of Jesus. No one sees him emerge from the tomb. The women leave the tomb in fear and great joy, at least half-believing the testimony of the angel. The soldiers, on the other hand, having witnessed the same events, once they get over the shock of their encounter with the angel, seem all too willing to be paid to spread a false story.
For some of the early Christians, as for many Christians today, reports of the empty tomb must have seemed like evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Matthew goes to some length to refute the story of those who rejected Jesus, claiming that his body had been smuggled out by his disciples in the night. But there is a profound irony in this story. The empty tomb itself does not prove anything. It is circumstantial evidence at best. It leaves open for belief, or denial, the testimony of the angel.
My hunch is that Matthew, while surely expressing his own belief in the resurrection, also had a larger purpose in mind. He was making his case to those who denied that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God. The idea of resurrection itself was not anything new. The basic question to be settled was not whether resurrection could have taken place, but what was the identity of the one who had been crucified and was now being proclaimed by his disciples as their living Lord. Was Jesus the Messiah or was he not?
Matthew's account, from chapter 1, verse 1, all the way to the end, is about Jesus, the Messiah, who was simultaneously acclaimed by sinners and multitudes of people in need, while being rejected by the established religious leaders of his day. Those who reject him do not merely ignore him. They take offense at him. They put him to the test. They charge him with doing the work of Beelzebul, the ruler of demons. They question his authority. They try to entrap him. They plot to kill him. They condemn him with false testimony. They insist that he be put to death. And finally, as the conclusion of our reading this morning relates, they spread false rumors about him and his disciples. It is not just that after Jesus' crucifixion there were those who refused to believe in his resurrection. Those who do not believe in the resurrection had not believed that Jesus was God's Messiah, either. That is, they had not believed that he was God's anointed one. They had not believed that he was a true prophet or teacher or healer from God.
Matthew seems to understand, intuitively if not consciously, that the crux of the matter for Christian faith is not simply what happened between Good Friday and Easter morning. The Gospel message is not just a matter of persuading people that a resurrection has taken place. It is first of all a matter of identifying who has been raised. Is the risen Lord the one-and-the-same Jesus who was crucified? And is this crucified-now-risen one truly God's Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God? [cf. 16:16]
The angel at the empty tomb says to the two Marys, "Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised" [28:5]. Matthew's empty tomb stories underline, and put in bold print, and accent with exclamation points (!), the claim that it is none other than the crucified Jesus who has also been raised! Therefore, the one whom Christians now encounter and experience as their living Lord is also the one Jesus who was crucified. This must not be a case of mistaken identity! And this Jesus who was crucified is the one who was rejected by the leaders of his day. And he is the one whose teachings and whose ministry lay at the heart of their rejection. And he is the one whose preaching and healing and magnanimous love and compassion made him the friend and savior of sinners and those in need.
All this may seem obvious to us, but it is by no means trivial. In fact, it has been the tendency of Christians almost from the beginning to center their claims and their proclamation of good news so emphatically upon the Easter news of resurrection that the larger story of how Good Friday came about is ignored if not forgotten. Christians sometimes proclaim the risen Christ, celebrate God's victory over sin and death, and rejoice in the promise of new life without saying much at all about the historical identity of the one who proved to be God's Messiah. Matthew clearly wants to say that Jesus died in faithfulness to God, and that God raised him from the dead, but I think that is only the beginning of what he wants to say. The point is not just that an awful crucifixion has taken place, and that God has turned it into a resurrection. If that is the nub, why did God raise Jesus, and not somebody else? The point is who God raised!
That ancient creed we call the Apostles' Creed says of Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord, that he "was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead . . ." From this we can say that who God raised was Jesus Christ, God's Son, our Lord. We can say that he was born, and that he suffered, and that he died. But there is nothing said here about the life of Jesus, nothing about his teaching, nothing about his ministry, nothing about why he might have suffered under Pontius Pilate, and nothing about why he might have been condemned and crucified. The creed is clear about the suffering, the death, and the resurrection, but between the statement of his birth and the placement of his suffering there is only a comma: "born of the Virgin Mary"--comma--"suffered under Pontius Pilate."
What I want to say this morning is that the Christian Gospel is not just about Christmas, Good Friday and Easter. In fact, the real story comes in-between, and without it, none of the rest makes much sense. If you do not know who Jesus is, what he taught, how he lived, the crucifixion is merely an absurdity, an outrage, or an accident--but hardly a meaningful event. And if the crucifixion is a meaningless event, something that just happened to a fellow named Jesus, then why the resurrection?
In Matthew's Gospel, there are 25 chapters between the account of Jesus' birth and Jesus' trial before Pilate. In Mark, all but the last two chapters tell the story of Jesus' ministry and teaching. Similarly in Luke and John, except for a chapter or two at the beginning and two or three chapters at the end. In this morning's text from Acts Peter sums up the ministry of Jesus in terms of "doing good and healing all who were oppressed." The good news that Christians proclaim at Easter and on every other Sunday of the year would be little more than bluff and bluster if we had no idea what the ministry of Jesus was all about.
What I am saying, in part, is that the Jesus of history matters. For Christianity proclaims that the Word was made flesh, that God has been revealed to us in a human life. The resurrection did not happen to just anybody. It is for good reason that there is much debate in the Church and in society at large these days about the historical Jesus. People want and need to know what manner of man he was. There is so much that we do not know about the life of Jesus. But there are also some very important things that even the more critical scholars believe that we do know. The witness to Jesus is there, in the Gospels. The challenge is for us to discern it ever more keenly and faithfully.
The resurrection is not just a demonstration of God's power. It is not just the un-doing of an unjust execution. It is not just a confirmation of some theological doctrine about the person of Jesus Christ. The resurrection is a confirmation that Jesus was God's man, God's anointed one, God's Messiah. And, again, that is not simply a theological compliment bestowed on Jesus by an obliging church. It is an affirmation that in Jesus' life and ministry and teaching we see what it means to be faithful to God. We see what it means to live in accordance with the purposes of God. We see what it means to be true disciples. Matthew's Gospel begins by identifying Jesus as Messiah, and it ends with the Great Commission that Jesus addresses to his disciples: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them . . . and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you . . ." The resurrection is a confirmation of the life and teaching of Jesus.
God does not just raise anybody from the dead. What happened on that first Easter to Jesus, and to Jesus' disciples, can hardly be understood apart from all that happened to them before. Here was a man who trusted God, and who entrusted the whole of his life to God. He taught with an exceptional wisdom. He healed with a remarkable power. He gathered about him a following of disciples who were infected by his vision of God's coming reign. He challenged social injustices and religious hypocrisies that weighed against the outcast and the poor. He spoke and acted with an authority that must have offended the sensibilities of the keepers of convention and the brokers of social power. This, in broad strokes, is the way that I see Matthew portraying Jesus' life and ministry to all who read his Gospel. Here we can see what a human life looks like being faithful to God, faithful even to death.
It is this sort of life, and it is this sort of faithfulness, that God honors with resurrection. That is the good news for us on this beautiful Easter morning.
But the news is even better than that! For Christianity has always recognized in Jesus an embodiment of grace and trust and goodness so full and so complete as to lie beyond our grasp. So we do not say, You must be just like him in order for God to bestow upon you the gift of new life. We do not say, You must do just as he did, in order for God to honor your faithfulness.
Rather, we say that in him the graciousness of God is both revealed and offered to us in profound abundance.
In him are disclosed possibilities for our existence that we might never otherwise have fathomed.
In him we find resources of mind and heart and will to live with greater fidelity, integrity, trust, and compassion.
In him we receive energies of spirit that enable us to embody more nearly, and enjoy more fully, a goodness that is not our own.
In him we affirm that God is with us always, to the end of the age. AMEN.