Unhinged at the Empty Tomb
Published 23 April 2012
Rev Dr Max Champion at St John's UCA Mt Waverley Easter Day Sunday 8 April 2012
Lessons -- Isaiah 25:6-9; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 27:57-28:15
'Suddenly there was a violent earthquake . . .' (Matthew 28:2a)
Only Matthew tells us about a natural upheaval that accompanies the resurrection of Jesus. We do not know what happened. But we do know that his 'resurrection from the dead' caused an upheaval in world history.
Without it there would be no Christianity -- and no hope for humanity!
Without the resurrection, Jesus may have been remembered as a 'great moral teacher' or a brave reformer who met a tragic end. Few records of his short ministry would have survived. There would have been no reason to write Gospels and nothing to explain the courage of Christian martyrs. The events of his life, crucifixion, ministry and birth were important because they culminated in this earth-shattering event.
What kind of event could stir the bold thoughts and actions of the early Church? Is it an 'historical fact' or merely a 'subjective experience'?
Is it only another way of saying that every cloud has a silver lining or that, in the natural cycle of life, good times will always follow bad?
The early Christians preached and wrote about the profound mystery of Jesus' resurrection as an historical event unlike any other! They were adamant that it could not be understood within the limits of normal experience. It is a stunning reality that does not conform to our ideas of what is possible -- a real event that can be personally experienced when we are open to its uniqueness. It is an event in space and time that is radically different from our normal experience of what takes place in space and time -- an event that is 'too large for our small world of fact'! (Together in Song 649.)
In any field of human endeavour it is only possible to know the reality of a thing if we are so curious that it engages our whole being. If we come to a subject expecting it to fit with what we know already it will not disclose its riches to us. Likewise, if we want to know the reality of Jesus' resurrection, we must be curious, open to its riches and personally engaged so as to let it shake our preconceived ideas.
The fact that the resurrection does not fit our normal ways of thinking is made clear in Matthew's account of what happens after the crucifixion, at the empty tomb and in Jesus' appearance to the two Marys.
* There is an earthquake (28:2) to match the one that, according to Matthew alone, occurred after Jesus' death (27:51). No doubt he saw in
earthquake(s) around that time a powerful symbol of God's unique eruption into history. It would have reminded him of the earthquake that accompanied God's revelation to Elijah (1 Kings 19:12) and the Psalmist's description of the earth trembling at God's presence (Psalm 114:7).
Matthew links the earthquake to the opening of tombs and the restoration to life of martyrs ('saints'). The historical basis of this episode is tenuous. Matthew himself is a bit confused. He speaks of 'dead men walking' before his report of the resurrection. And he probably mistakes symbolic language that was originally used to describe it for a report of an observable event (27:52,53). But the theological meaning is clear.
Jesus' resurrection is an earth-shattering reality that brings hope to people who have suffered for their faith.
The images of restoration are drawn mainly from Ezekiel's dramatic promise of hope to people who have long suffered contempt, exile, infidelity and persecution. The skeletons of the faithful will be restored to life -- the dead shall be raised to life. 'See, you will know that I am the Lord when I open your graves and raise you from them. (Ezekiel 37:12-14)' By connecting hope to the dispirited people of Israel with the awesome event of the resurrection of the crucified Jesus, Matthew declares that death will not ultimately separate the abused or the sinful from the life-giving presence of God. This truly is an earthshaking event.
* Matthew's account of the Roman soldiers guarding the tomb also does not fit what we expect to happen. It is an historical fact that people charged Jesus' disciples with having stolen the body. No doubt conspiracy theories developed on both sides. Whatever the historical 'facts', Matthew makes the theological point that even the might of the Roman Empire was powerless to thwart the will of God (27:62-66; 28:4). The irony should not be lost on us. Strong men deployed to hold a dead man in a tomb 'shook and became like dead men' when the stone is rolled away (28:4).
* Happenings at the tomb also defy expectations. There is no description of Jesus' resurrection. The two women need an explanation for why he is not there! They see the tomb and the place where he lay (28:1,6) but they do not see how the resurrection occurs.
* The way in which the story of the empty tomb is told makes it clear that resurrection is not about 'resuscitation'. But neither is it about the appearance of a 'disembodied spirit'. Matthew dispels this idea by telling us that the women 'took hold of Jesus' feet and worshipped him' (v9), the point being that the risen Christ is identical with the crucified Jesus.
He is no phantom (as many people say) but the One who embodied the presence of God in his earthly life and death. In a manner that defies normal experience, the Jesus who was crucified, dead and buried is still present! He is 'alive' in a special way.
This is a momentous event -- unparalleled in history! Jesus, condemned, executed and forsaken as if he were the enemy of God and humanity, is revealed as the Son of God through whom God's gracious power over evil and death is exercised. Not only is his cause vindicated, but he shares in God's reign over evil and death. God's righteousness has not been thwarted even by the horror of the cross.
The resurrection of Jesus is the most earth-shattering event in history.
The images used by Matthew from nature and Israel's history are disruptive, unsettling, terrifying: the earthquake, the angel, the risen Christ and the walking dead cause fear, awe, disbelief, unconsciousness.
This is a seismic event in history -- a volcanic eruption which shatters complacency and cynicism!
This is splendidly expressed in a famous 15th Century painting by Piero della Francesca (c1416-92) of the resurrection according to Matthew. The unconscious guards are in the foreground resting against a coffin-like tomb. One is holding up a spear, powerless to cause harm! Jesus stands very upright behind the coffin with one bent leg placed on its top. Sin and death is under control. 'All things are under his feet.' On his head is the crown of thorns. Blood is coming from his rib and wrists. In his right hand is a flagpole on which is a white victory flag, marked -- not with national symbols -- but with the sign of the cross. His face is resolute, confident and quietly triumphant. He is a picture of strength.
The effect is dramatic, ironic and ludicrous! The Risen Jesus, convicted by the Religious, crucified by the State and seemingly forsaken by his Father, has defeated the terrifying powers of evil and death. Both the artist and the evangelist portray the event as an eruption in history, like a violent earthquake that suddenly disrupts normal ways of thinking to create a previously unimagined hope. As the earthquake struck, it struck them that the resurrection of the crucified Jesus was an earth- shattering event that 'closed the frowning gates of hell' (Australian Hymn Book 287).
It is a pity that this particular earth-shaking event is often treated flippantly by the media and Christians as if it were just another way of saying that we experience many moments of resurrection when despair turns to joy. There is much waffle about Jesus' death being an example of sadness and loss that turns to joy and new life. The Age today regards it as 'a story' worth remembering even if we do not believe it in our secular society. In the past week you would be excused for thinking that Anzac Day, not Easter, was the event that redeemed humanity! The ABC news bulletin this morning did not include one reference to Easter.
The resurrection of Jesus is an event unlike any other! It certainly is of far greater importance than Anzac Day. It is a cataclysmic event in which the redemptive love of God triumphs over sin, evil and death, bringing hope and joy to the persecuted and the suffering. It signifies God's
successful assault on evil, affliction and death.
It can not be understood as just another example of comfort that reassures us that 'new life' always follows sadness and loss. No! Christ's earth- shaking resurrection can be understood and believed only when we see that we do not need to be afraid. In this unique event God has triumphed over evil, enabling us to live in hope that there is 'nothing in nature or history that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord' -- that we can await with hope the redemption of our bodies and the renewal of the 'groaning creation'. In a world where earthquakes cause terrible destruction it is reassuring to see that the earthquake(s) accompanying the crucifixion and resurrection brings hope for an end to evil and death!
When we allow the resurrection of Jesus to arouse our curiosity and engage us personally, then our lives, too, will be wonderfully disrupted by God -- the God who, in Christ, has given hope to the world and every person -- by triumphing over evil and death. So may we, with all peoples, rejoice that 'the strife is o'er, the battle done: now is the victor's triumph
won: Alleluia!' (Australian Hymn Book 287.)
Rev Dr Max Champion is minister in the St John's Uniting Church, Mt Waverley, Victoria, Australia. Dr Champion is Chair of the Assembly of Confessing Congregations within the UCA.