April 9, 2023
The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Trinity Episcopal Church, Brooklyn, CT
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And 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. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 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.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” Matthew 28:1-10
Alleluia, Christ has risen!
Today is the feast of the resurrection! And that is all the news we have to tell!
But let’s face it, the resurrection is a beastly concept to articulate. It’s tough even for priests. It’s tough even for bishops. The Lambeth Conference is the once-a-decade gathering of all of the bishops in the Anglican Communion at Canterbury, England to talk about….the faith. And at their 1990 gathering, the bishops were asked: Imagine someone comes up to you on the street and says: “My bus leaves in two minutes. Tell me about the resurrection before I go.” And the most authoritative collection of leaders in the Anglican Communion apparently had a very tough time responding.
What would YOU say?
I think we all know about resurrection existentially. In our own experience. In our own lives. We watch the flowers burst forth from the barren land every spring. And we experience brand new life in all sorts of ways. When chronic pain is relieved. We feel resurrected. When an addict gets sober. When love dies in one relationship and then is reborn in another. Resurrection is all around us. We experience new life in all sorts of ways. I’ll bet each of us can think of a few examples in our own lives when brand new life has sprouted from the grave of something that we have utterly lost. We see new life rising from death all the time.
Theologically, however, we know about the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the Gospels. This morning we heard Matthew’s version.
Matthew’s account of the resurrection, is perhaps the most theologically and realistically persuasive of all four Gospels. Partly because Matthew’s account is the ONLY one in which the stone has not yet been rolled away from the tomb when the witnesses arrive. In every other Gospel account, we assume that Jesus’ body has been resurrected, but I’m pretty sure there is an episode of Law & Order out there where the body behind the stone was not raised as promised, but stolen for some nefarious reason.
I have always been suspicious of the Gospel accounts where the stone has been rolled away when the women arrive. But not in Matthew. In Matthew the tomb is sealed when the witnesses get there. And the first witnesses were women. In all four Gospels. Other than the empty tomb, the only thing that all four Gospels have in common in this story is that the first witnesses were women. The only corroborated parts of the story are that the tomb was empty and the witnesses were women.
That’s all we know for sure.
In every Gospel the tomb is empty and Mary Magdalene is the first one of Jesus’ apostles on the scene. And in Matthew, when she and the other women arrive, the tomb it is still sealed. Tight. It’s hard to imagine what they intended to do given the weight of the stone sealing the opening. Maybe they just wanted to be there, as they had been at the foot of the cross when Jesus breathed his last.
But as soon as they get there a great earthquake erupts, just as Jesus had predicted. And an Angel of the Lord descends from heaven. And the Angel rolls away the stone. Effortlessly. And then he sits on it. An odd detail. The Angel of the Lord just….makes himself comfortable. And then the angel says to the stunned women (and how could they be anything other than stunned) what an Angel of the Lord always says: Do not be afraid. And that is exactly what Jesus would have said: do not be afraid.
Because the situation is not only out of this world strange, but out of this world distressing. There is no way that these women were not scare stiff. And, they have lost everything. Their preacher and pastor. Their teacher and prophet. They lost his life on the cross. But now they have even lost his bones. There is nothing even to bury. Their Jesus is now, to them, utterly lost.
And so they have also lost their community. The community built around their Jesus. Who are they now? Where will they go? Who will they become?
Everything has changed. Nothing is left. They are disoriented. Disappointed. And certainly experiencing one of Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s stages of grief. And yet, when they hear the Angel of the Lord instruct them to go and tell the rest, they pick themselves up and head out. They get back to the business of life. They go to find their community. The text says they go forth with fear and great joy.
And on their way to find the rest of their community, Jesus finds them.
As the women leave the tomb in awe and great joy and run to tell the disciples what they have witnessed, Jesus appears to them on the road. And he greets them, heartily, says the text. And they recognize him, immediately. And he confirms his identity with that trademark phrase, now the second time they have heard it on this amazing morning: Do not be afraid.
And there they were, these faithful frightened women, feeling utterly lost when they were standing in that agonizingly empty tomb, and now utterly filled with joy at the feet of their beloved Rabbi. Their expectations transformed in less than the time it takes to walk from here to the parish hall. Utterly changed from what must have felt like utterly lost to thank-you-God found.
This is the lesson we learn from these faithful women who have followed Jesus from Galilee, who stayed with him at the foot of his cross, and who have now come to start the next generation of ministry. This pattern of Christian faith: lost and then found. Lost and then found. Keep repeating the pattern until everlasting life kicks in.
Because in that cadence of losing ourselves in faith and finding ourselves in faith, over and over and over again, we are slowly but surely transformed…..as were these women when they recognized their beloved Jesus on the lost road to finding their new life.
This early Christian paschal experience of responsive transformation, of constantly renewing relationships in the face of uncertainty and change reminds me of Darwin. For you will remember that survival of the fittest does not favor the strongest of the species, or the most plentiful, or the most
intelligent, or the most simple or the most complex. Surviving, and indeed thriving, favors those who are most willing and able to change. Not impulsively. But intentionally. Those who are so grounded in their core value that nothing can stand in their way, not even death. And so they are willing to embrace change without fear. In this context, transformation is just another word for….an empty tomb.
For Darwin that core value that outweighed all else was survival…of the fittest. Actually, that is not what Darwin said. Darwin actually said, survival of the fit. Because this life is not a competition. It’s a dance.
And this is a chance for us to remember who we are, as well. Re-member. Put ourselves back together again, as a Christian community. This beloved community that is now a holy amalgam of at least three communities. St. Phillips. St. Albans. And Trinity Church. As the disciples and beloved followers of Jesus did 2000 years ago today. Renewing our relationships with each other and with the Christ who calls us to this holy party!
And there is no better time for that re-membrance than Eastertide. Today, we are in the right place at the right time to reconstitute our community in Christ. So we might want to keep our eyes open for that Angel of the Lord because the stone is slowly but surely rolling away. And so we would do well to remember that change is just part of the design of God’s good creation.
Everything in creation was born to change. And as we cope with that inevitable change, this is what Matthew wants us to know about resurrection. About the new life that is also part of God’s glorious design.
First, where ever we are, whatever trauma we are experiencing, whatever loss, whatever rewiring of our whole world; however lost or disoriented we may feel, God will find us. As soon as we can move forward into life, even a bit, Jesus will meet us on the road to reconciliation. Where ever we are. God will find us. Jesus will track us down on whatever road we are traveling and assure us that our new life is just beginning.
And second, the first thing God will say to us in the maelstrom of our grief and disbelief over what has happened is not believe in me, it is be not afraid. God says it twice in 10 short verses. Be not afraid. Period.
That’s it. Jesus will find us where ever we are. And there is nothing to fear. According to Matthew, that’s all we need to know.
Oh yeah, and the part about how Jesus has risen and life has now overcome death. But we’ll save the detailed parsing of that Good news for the next 50 says of Eastertide.
Today, I want to leave you with a blessing for Easter Day by Jan Richardson. It’s called:
The Magdalene’s Blessing
You hardly imagined standing here,
Everything you ever loved suddenly returned to you,
Looking you in the eye and calling your name.
And now you do not know how to abide this hole in the center of your chest,
Where a door slams shut and swings open at the same time,
Turning on the hinge of your aching and hopeful heart.
I tell you, this is not a banishment from the garden.
This is an invitation, a choice, a threshold, a gate.
This is your life calling to you from a place you could never have dreamed,
but now that you have glimpsed its edge, you cannot imagine choosing any other way.
So let the tears come as anointing, as consecration, and then let them go.
Let this blessing gather itself around you.
Let it give you what you will need for this journey.
You will not remember the words – they do not matter.
All you will need to remember is how it sounded
When you stood in the place of death
And heard the living call your name.
Alleluia, Christ has Risen!
The Magdalene’s Blessing is from Circle of Grace, Jan Richardson, (Wanton Gospeller Press, Orlando) 2015
© April, 2023 The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw