Easter – Matthew 28:1-10
The Easter stories in the gospels differ in significant details that can be traced to apologetic and theological interests of the individual Evangelists. At the earliest stage of the tradition there were at least two separate kinds of stories. There were stories of the empty tomb; and there were stories of the appearances of the risen Lord. Over time the tradition brought these stories together so that there now exist stories that include both of these themes such as Matthew 28.
Matthew’s narrative begins with Mary Magdalen and “the other” Mary, probably “Mary the mother of James and Joseph,” of 27:56. He does not say why they are on their way to the tomb, only that they waited until the Sabbath was over. Matthew probably wants to show that these women were witnesses to the scenes he is creating. The following verses, 28:2-7, describe what is likely a Christophany. There is the great earthquake, the angel coming down from heaven, the description of the appearance of the angel as lightening and his clothing white as snow, and the consequent fear of the guards at the tomb. Matthew is preparing his audience, who are already apparently acquainted with theophanies, for the appearance of the risen Lord. Such an appearance would be a Christophany, something that was already present in the consciousness of the early church shortly after the death of Jesus, as is clear from I Cor. 15: 3-5. Matthew creates this theophany to show that the events associated with the death of Jesus are guided by the hand of God.
The event that Matthew describes is terrifying. The Roman soldiers who were guarding the tomb shook with fear, “and became like dead men.” On the other hand, the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid.” The Roman guards have become like dead men because this message is not for the unbelieving. In this sense, the unbelieving are like dead people. This message is for the women, that is, when Matthew says “women” here he intends to say that he is speaking to the church, the community of faith that can hear this message and accept it as a part of their discipleship. From Matthew 28:11-15 it is clear that the unbelieving world will not accept the presence or the message of the angel. It is not simple the women who are listening to the angel, it is the church itself through the ages that continues to hear the message and to respond to it with renewed proclamation in its preaching, teaching and healing. The church remains, and must remain in the proximity of the tomb as it must in the proximity of the cross. For the cross and the tomb constitute one single event, an event best described as Grace. The church must face the tragedy of the cross and the hopelessness of an empty tomb for that is where its reflection on God’s story of redemption properly begins.
The angel says, “Do not be afraid.” Often in his life among the disciples Jesus comforted them in this way. When the women hear this they are hearing his voice again. They recognize in the voice of the angel the same comfort that they must have felt in the presence of Jesus. Fear is the disposition of the whole person to something which is unknown. It is something that overtakes us when our soul and spirit feel that they stand before an abyss, a void that can consume them completely. When the angel says, “Do not be afraid,” he is speaking for Jesus, and the words are meant to show that Jesus himself stands before the abyss, the void, to shield the church from being consumed by the world. When pastors face their congregations and read the gospel message, “Do not be afraid,” they are doing exactly the same thing as the angel. This is something that we must never forget. Pastors are sent to the people exactly as the angel was sent. The pastor’s message is exactly the same. Just as the angel descended from the realm of the divine, so the congregation must understand that the pastor’s words have their origin in the realm of the divine. And when this word becomes a concrete Word to the hopeless who is in complete despair, this is then the authentic Word of God. Only to the extent that the pastor’s word addresses me in my concrete existential alienation does that word deserve to be called the Word of God. Like the angel, the pastor today stands before a people struggling to retain its hopes. It is Jesus who as the empty tomb becomes the abyss, the void into which the church must always venture for only by passing through the empty tomb does the church emerge into the light of the new world that is described in the word “resurrection.” It is only by living in the always fresh wound of Jesus’ hand and feet and side can the church discover the meaning of new life.
“I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.” The angelic messenger possesses knowledge that existed before his descent from heaven. 28:2. He knows before he has arrived at the tomb that the women had come to seek Jesus who was crucified. Matthew uses this method repeatedly to demonstrate that all the events regarding Jesus are in the hands of God. The church today continues to look for Jesus who was crucified. This is its ministry and its mission: to go out into the world and to seek the crucified Jesus in the face of children without food, parents without jobs, the homeless without means, the helpless without power, the sick without care and the healthy without conscience. Matthew is sending the church a message through the angel and through the hearing of the women that the church cannot cease from looking for Jesus who was crucified. The church continues to look for the crucified Jesus wherever there is injustice, where hope is threatened and optimism stifled, where hate is a way of life that leads to death always. The unbelieving world cannot hear the voice of the angel. It cannot know that it is on a course that leads to death. It cannot know this until the church emerges from the other side of the empty tomb and preaches the message that life has come out of the grave, and that the grace of God waits to embrace those who have ears to hear. To look for Christ crucified is nothing other than to proclaim the good news of salvation.
“He is not here; for he has been raised as he said.” There are complicated thoughts tied up in this verse. Jesus is not here. Jesus has warned about speculation as to his presence. Mark 13:30; 24:32. The women went to a place of death, the tomb. They and the church through the ages discover that Jesus does not remain in the tomb. The tomb is empty, and that means first of all that “as he said” he has been raised from the dead. “As he said,” and Mark records: 8:31; 9:30; 10:33-34; 14:28. “As he said” is identical to “in accordance with the scriptures.” However, the empty tomb is not some kind of proof for the resurrection of Jesus. Matthew’s story is not about resurrection. There is no eye-witness to the resurrection of Jesus. What is important for us is the “as he said,” the Word that Jesus proclaimed in his life, and the life he now shares in his death. The tomb is a witness to death; it is not a witness to life. The “as he said” continues to be the foundation for the witness of the church. The women at the tomb, and the church through them, must abide always in the “as he said.’ Only faith can appropriate what is contained in “as he said.” The faith of the individual, the faith of the church is always faith in the proclamation of Jesus and faith in the proclamation about Jesus. Faith must always accept “he is not here.” On the cross Jesus transcended the world. The manner of his presence in the church can be described only in the words “he is not here.” The “where” of his presence cannot be perceived, only believed. I cannot conceive of a more complete definition of faith than “he is not here.”
“Come, see the place where he lay.” The women have heard the word of the angel. Now they must see. Hearing and seeing are modes of existence that keep us in relationship with everything around us. The invitation to come and see is an invitation to participate fully in what is before them. The angel who took their fear away now gives them hearing and sight. Matthew’s message to the church is come and hear and see. It is an invitation to the church and to the world, and in time it will be the content of the missionary enterprise. The angel himself will make this clear to the women. The message is not only “come and see.” The message is also “go and tell.” This means that the story of the empty tomb is not a story about the resurrection. It is a story whose apologetic content is the mission of the church. This would mean that the story that Matthew tells comes very late in the life of the church, long after it has settled in different communities, and for this reason the story could not have been located “on the third day” after the resurrection. The Passion of Christ is the starting point of the ministry of the church as church.
The angel then tells the women, “go quickly and tell his disciples ‘he has been raised from the dead and he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’” The angel was sent to tell the women. The women are sent to tell the disciples. Sending is an essential part of ministry; it is the means by which the gospel is taken where human needs exist. The women are to tell the disciples that “he has been raised from the dead.” The language makes clear that it is God who raises Jesus from the dead. The resurrection as divine miracle is for of a matter of telling hearing. No one is an eye-witness to the resurrection. The church continues the activity of telling and hearing of the resurrection. This is the way in which each one individually and the church as the community of faith access the resurrection. It is something which first of all is “told” and then it is “heard,” and then it is believed. It is only faith that grasps Jesus as the Crucified and Risen Lord as is clear from Romans 10:14-17. The church now as then knows that the divine encounters us only in the proclamation of the Word, and that Word is made concrete in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. That Word is today proclaimed in the Church, and by this fact the Church is itself the Word of God for the world. There is no distinction. The Word of God and Church form an indivisible unity, so we can say “We believe one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, the communion of saints.”
The women left the tomb with fear and great joy. So far in this proclamation by the angel, the women’s lives have been touched by hearing and seeing. Now they are touched by feeling: by fear which binds and by joy which frees. That is to say, the proclamation of the angel has touched their lives completely. This is the way the proclamation of the church works: it touches and changes lives. While on their way, they are met by Jesus. Throughout his ministry Jesus was presented as interrupting the journey of people and transforming their lives. The women must have seen this for themselves many times. Now it happens to them. Jesus greets them, they recognize him, and fall at his feet and worship him. Perhaps Matthew has been influenced by the liturgical practice of his own church in creating this scene. The church at worship today still reflects this scene. When the pastor says, “The Lord be with you,” he or she is making the Crucified and Risen Christ present here and now. Let us not rush past this, for this is the most important Word that the pastor proclaims. By invoking the Presence of the Living One, we stand before the Altar, the Throne of Judgment, which is none other than the Throne of Grace. Everything that happens after this, happens in the Presence of Christ and by the grace of Christ. We cannot fail to see the power of this Word, for Christ himself empowers us in this way to bring him out of hiding into the full light of worship and witness. And when the congregation responds, “And also with you,” the congregation is empowering the pastor by proclaiming that Christ is present in what the pastor says and does at worship.
Jesus comforts the women again. “Do not be afraid.” Is there any doubt now that the word of the angel is none other than the Word of the Crucified and Risen Lord? It is the same word that we can sense and feel at worship, a sublime upsurge of the spirit that brings quietness to the troubled soul. Again, when the pastor reads this lesson and says, “Do not be afraid,” we have to hear the voice of the Crucified and Risen Lord in the voice of the pastor. We still abide in the context of the Word, “He is not here.” The voice of the pastor is the voice of Christ, making Christ present in word and witness, in bread in wine, in song and celebration. Jesus repeats the message of the angel to “go and tell.” But he does not say “my disciples.” He says, “my brothers.” Jesus of Nazareth had disciples. The Crucified and Risen Lord has brothers. Matthew is proclaiming that those in the church are not followers but family. In the presence of Christ something new happens. The world is being created anew. The old relationships are transformed. That is why we never leave the church after worship as the same person who entered there earlier. We leave as those who have been transformed by the Word that we have heard, by the bread that we have eaten, by the wine that we have drunk. We have been transformed by the lives that we have touched and those whose lives have touched ours. We leave cleansed, forgiven, reborn, and raised from the dead and still living at the center of a wound still fresh.
The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluya!