by Ellen Sims
text: Matthew 28: 1-11
I’ll let you in on a secret. As Easter approaches, preachers sometimes sigh and say: “I just don’t know if I’ve got another Easter sermon left in me.” Think about it. How many ways could you say, sermonically, year after year, “Christ is risen!”? It’s challenging because that explicit sermon theme is required each church year when attendance and expectations are highest—and made more challenging because resurrection is arguably the most central, distinctive, and confounding facet of Christian theology.
So with some trepidation I’m leading us once again to that empty tomb—knowing that once more we’ll find it empty but still hoping that what was originally an unexpected plot twist might still today jolt us with a surprise. And amazingly, despite my own doubts, something new inevitably does greet me at Jesus’s tomb each year. Again and again that place of early morning emptiness allows me the space to see afresh. Surprising myself like this happens, in part, because something in my life is different every year, so the changes in me allow me to search the well-worn scripture, peer into the darkness of the tomb, and walk away with a fresh and lifegiving vision. Which is itself kind of the point of resurrection: taking a tortured-to-death story, bringing it out again to the Light of a new day, dusting off the cobwebs of old assumptions, hearing in it the very heartbeat of God, and knowing it continues to live.
What particularly surprised me this Easter is the way a minor detail has hijacked the story for me. We’re going to get to the resurrected Jesus. I promise. But first we have to get past the guards.
Yes, the intimidating guard (or group) of Roman soldiers. This Easter sermon based on the first ten verses in the last chapter of Matthew really should focus on Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the Angel of the Lord, and certainly on the risen Jesus! These characters speak and take action in today’s reading. They declare the hopeful message of Resurrection. In contrast, the ineffectual and anonymous soldiers make their appearance today without saying any words or performing their assigned role. We don’t know how many solders there were. We don’t know their names or how they felt about the duty they were given. (Though we learn a few verses later some were bribed by the chief priests to spread the lie that the disciples had stolen Jesus’s body.) But in this story of Resurrection Day all they do is shake with fear and “become like dead men.” And it’s that last phrase about the guards that “arrested” my attention.
Let’s picture the opening scene: it’s daybreak at the tomb of Jesus as the women arrive. They have bravely ventured there to honor the man who’s been executed by the empire and whose body is now guarded by soldiers of the empire. What courage it took to display their love for the man the Romans killed to quell an anticipated rebellion.
As the women approach the tomb, the earth shakes violently and an angel descends like a lightning bolt only to appear like a man dressed in white. After moving the heavy stone away from the tomb’s entrance, he sits upon it as if he’s arrived to give the women access to the tomb. He assures them they have no need to fear. He focuses on the women. But also at the tomb are the Roman guards. And they “shook and became like dead men” (Matt. 28:4).
The representatives of the powerful Roman Empire that took the life of Jesus– has become like dead men. While the dead Jesus becomes like a live man. The armed soldiers, like those who put Jesus to death at the command of the powerful empire, are completely disempowered. While the dead Jesus who had never sanctioned violence has conquered even death. The empire of might and glory that Matthew has consistently contrasted with God’s kingdom of humility and compassion—is revealed as impotent, defeated by the power of love. While the kin*dom of God has been immobilized, stunned, and stopped the empire—at least in that moment. The hyper masculine uses of power embodied by the soldiers are neutralized, while the lowly women, there to enact their traditional womanly duties of care, are empowered to speak the angel’s words to the disciples as the first evangelists, being the first to meet the risen Jesus on the way, to hear him, touch him, be commissioned by him.
Throughout Matthew, Jesus has lifted up the lowly, thus defying this world’s categories of who’s important and who’s not. Matthew’s resurrection story climaxes with the ultimate dismantling of the empire’s false power of domination, threat, and violence: by elevating the women, by demonstrating that Jesus’s love and forgiveness (even of his enemies) is more powerful than hatred, by predicting that his message would outlast Rome’s armies, by siding once again and for all eternity with those who are cut off from this world’s power. This story of resurrection is not just about a body coming back to life— but about God’s kingdom coming closer to realization, a realm where the meek and merciful reign, where peace holds sway, where love is the greatest power. In Jesus’s resurrection story we glimpse the upside down kin*dom where death dies.
It turns out we do need to pay attention to what happened to the guards–because Jesus’s story as told by Matthew concludes not only as God raises him up but as God’s power exposes the false power of domination and military might. This is a needful story in our own empire’s time of saber rattling.
Yet this story is also a very personal one. God’s kin*dom is built one soul at a time, one disciple at a time. And those terrified guards at the tomb require me to ask myself if I’m participating as a guard against something potentially new and freeing breaking into this world. Am I guarding my own heart against some fresh expansion? Am I protecting an outmoded way of being in the world? Am I barring the inbreaking of God’s liberation and life?
I’ve certainly done that in the past. For nearly a decade I let my own internalized sexism interfere with hearing my call, as a woman, to ministry (despite the fact that even then I understood that the resurrection story presents the women at the tomb as the first evangelists). I also guarded myself at one time against increasingly overwhelming evidence that homosexuality was NOT wrong, so it took many years and many deepening relationships to confess my heterosexism and to unconditionally affirm and celebrate LGBTQ persons. In protecting my sense of my own goodness, I was slow to recognize my hidden (even from myself) racism. I still must admit that vestiges of prejudice remain deeply embedded in my brain and spirit and in the culture I inhabit—so I must discipline myself to override impulses and uproot biases and act decisively against racism in my community. I confess that I have posted guards to protect myself from recognizing who and what I am and from exploring the fullness that God offers and asks of me.
But like Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, I have also known that the very things I’ve feared have often given me the most joy. Verse 8 tells us that the women left Jesus’s tomb “with fear and great joy” as they ran to tell the disciples. You might not expect that fear and joy can go hand in hand. But it’s in facing our fears and stepping out in courage that we experience life’s greatest exhilaration: when we commit to our life’s partner, or decide to become a parent. Or face our prejudices. Or strike out on a brave, new path. I can’t tell you how grateful I am that pastoring an Open and Affirming church in the United Church of Christ has both challenged and delighted me and enriched my life and OUR ministry. I don’t have favorites among you. Each one of you is dear to me. But what blessings I’d have missed without the stories and love of those I serve who identify as gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender.
Is it possible to find joy in something you fear? I know it is. It’s the thrill of the roller coaster. It’s the joy of doing the difficult. Especially when the difficult is a spiritual challenge. I was hesitant to explore a Christianity that differed from the version I’d known growing up Southern Baptist. But that exploration started in earnest as a college student nearly forty years ago and intensified later as a seminarian fifteen years ago. My deepest experiences of God have not been about certitude but rather about stretching, never about answers but always about questions.
I believe the Christianity that many people are guarding so fearfully these days is not the one that will survive. It’s a precarious time for the Church as worship attendance and the number of people in the U.S. identifying as Christian continues to decline markedly. We’re in one of those periods that Phyllis Tickle said happens about every five hundred years when the Church has a big rummage sale and throws out a lot of broken stuff and starts over. So it’s a difficult time to be a Christian or even say what Christian means. And it’s definitely not an auspicious time to start a new church. But how exciting to be on the front row to see the changes and help say what we Christians should keep versus what we need to put in the rummage pile in order for Christianity to evolve and mature.
Chief among the things I predict will remain as essential to Christianity may seem obvious. It’s what the early church came to call the Christ, which evolutionary Christians call the Cosmic Christ. Some early Jesus followers named him the Christ because they hoped he would be the Messiah (the Hebrew word for Christ), the anointed one from David’s line who’d lead the Jews into a new Messianic era. But others who saw more in him took that title of Christ and expanded its meaning. They saw in him a new way of being human, and a new face of the Divine. The oneness he experienced with the Divine and with other human beings (even his enemies) was something available to everyone else, he said. Jesus of Nazareth—prophet, healer, rabbi—became in the language of later followers—the Christ, which really describes not so much a specific person as a process whereby we all can understand and live out our deeper connections with one another, a way in which we intentionally take down walls, live vulnerably, let down our guard.
What are you standing guard over today? What in your spiritual/religious life is being carefully guarded so you don’t have to change or risk? What is your heart guarding against right now? How have you allied yourself with what is safe and powerful? Where might you need an earthquake in your life to shake up the status quo? Where are you willing to go, despite fear, to find your joy?
These are questions that may lead to your personal resurrection—and to humanity’s fuller evolution away from power and violence and into the peaceable kin*dom, the Christ event, a oneness with God.
Remember the guards at Jesus’s tomb remained stuck in their fear. The women moved forward in fear AND joy.
One: Christ is risen!
All: Christ is risen indeed!
CALL TO CHRIST’S OPEN TABLE
At this table, we let down our guard in hopes of meeting Jesus here, in hopes of being the re-united body of Christ. It’s a risky thing we do. We probably ought to feel a little fear to risk this Christ encounter—and a whole lot of joy.