“What Difference Does It Make?”
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And 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. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then 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.” 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
Of course there were angels to greet the women that morning. Angels always show up in scripture at each decisive moment of God’s entrance into the world. In the gospel of Matthew, angels appear at the incarnation and at the resurrection. At the beginning of Matthew, Joseph had a dream in which an angel told him to not be afraid to take Mary as his wife despite the messy situation of her pregnancy. Joseph follows the angel’s instructions, and the story of Jesus is set into motion.
And in today’s text, the two women approach the tomb of Jesus and suddenly, all heaven breaks loose when an angel rolls back the stone blocking the tomb, setting off a holy earthquake. The guards at the tomb faint dead straight away at the scene, but the women hold it together long enough to hear the angel’s reassurance which is the same words at those used to reassure Joseph in his dream – “Do not be afraid.” The women then receive the good news about Jesus’ resurrection from a heavenly voice, which tells them, “I know you are looking for Jesus who has been crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.”
It is Easter morning and God has interrupted the natural, familiar and mostly brutal ordering of the world in the same way the incarnation interrupted the world. In the incarnation, God entered the world clothed in human flesh born to an ordinary human woman. In resurrection, God overcomes the natural order again by raising Jesus from the dead. At the angel’s invitation, the women peer into the tomb and see for themselves that what the angel says is true. Jesus is long gone.
Every year we hear this story, in different versions from the different gospels. But it is essentially the same story despite the difference in details. The Resurrection is THE Christian story, a story compelling enough to bring people out to church that never go to church. I think Easter is a family favorite because it is a story about victory with a capital V and that rhymes with T and that stands for triumph!
In the version we heard from Matthew, the story is filled with powerful light and earth-shattering special effects. The angel rolls back the gigantic stone that had seemed to be the final official judgment on the life and death Jesus of Nazareth. And then, the angel wipes the sweat off his angel brow and plops himself down upon the stone with an air of deep satisfaction and grins at the guards as if to say – “Take that all you earthly powers. You have been defeated. Big time. In the grand battle between the forces of death and the forces of life, you LOSE, death. Game over. Hooah!”
It’s quite a scene. It’s no wonder that people show up to church in droves on Christmas and Easter. These are two emotionally satisfying holidays. Who among us can resist that chubby newborn baby in the manger at Christmas? And everybody is a sucker for the happy ending we get at Easter. Christmas and Easter have the loveliest flowers, the perfect scripts, the most majestic music, and the performances always end with a standing ovation. And the angels get all the best lines. Do not be afraid. He is risen. Go tell everybody then meet us back here for the ham dinner. Bravo!
I do not mean to sound dismissive of our high holy observances. I love flowers and music and ham as much as the next Presbyterian. But the question still tugs at my heart. What difference does it make? What difference does Easter Sunday make? For me? For you? For the 2.2 billion Christians around the world who today are emerging from the darkness of Lent and blinking in the bright light of resurrection?
This time tomorrow, it will all be over. The lilies will have already begun to droop a bit. The leftover blue Easter peeps will be 50% off at the Target. And despite the pronouncements of that smug, triumphant angel sitting on that big rock, resurrection really didn’t fix anything. Did it? Evil still exists and fear still floats thickly in the air like the spring pollen that makes us sneeze. There are still plenty of Pilate’s and Herod’s wandering around, imposing their will and exploiting the poor. Innocent victims are still executed. Injustice still saturates our culture and our courts. Bad guys seem to win more often than not. Relationships fall apart. People fall apart physically and emotionally. As Ernest Hemingway put it, “life breaks everyone,” at some point or another or, at the very least, wears us down considerably. And it does seem these days that angels are in short supply, especially the kind of reassuring angels that give you a reason not to be scared out of your wits. If there are angels out there, they are certainly drowned out by other, louder, more persuasive voices.
So what difference does it make? What difference does resurrection make? I am honestly asking this question because there are days in which I wonder if going down to the AMC movie theater and watching a really good action movie has about the same effect on us as hearing Matthew’s Easter story again.
It seems to me that if resurrection doesn’t make a real and visible difference in our lives in the right here and the right now, then the people who look at Christianity with a rather cynical eye are absolutely right in wondering exactly what it is we’re up to here. If the resurrection we sing about today doesn’t make a difference in the way we live tomorrow, then maybe the cynics are right. If resurrection is just about what happens at the end, then maybe resurrection really is what many people say — a fairy tale to make ourselves feel better about the fact that we’re going to die. After all, what we are dealing with in the Easter isn’t verifiable fact, but gospel-truth, and the only way to prove gospel truth is to attach it to some sort of reality — like the way we live. If people cannot see the truth of resurrection not just in our words, but in our lives, why should they believe it?
We hear the resurrection story so often that it has become an abstraction cloaked in daffodils and Easter eggs and spring time. We forget the power that shook the world and shook the political and religious establishment to its core. We forget this collusion of military and religious authorities who tried their best to make Friday’s crucifixion the end of the story. But despite everyone’s best efforts to control history, God’s purpose was not snuffed out. Not by the longest shot. The angel rolls away the stone. Not so Jesus can break out…he is already long gone. But so that we can look inside and see for ourselves.
When we peer into the empty tomb, we can see that part of the story IS over. The part about the body. That unique gift of God made flesh in a man named Jesus is complete. And a new story is beginning. About other bodies.
What does Jesus say to the women when he appears to them? He tells them to go back to the disciples. No wait. What he tells them is to go back to his brothers– all those guys who betrayed and denied and ditched him at the end – he tells the women to go tell those goofballs to get their tails in gear and head to Galilee. That’s where he promises to meet them.
And that’s how resurrection begins. The mission of Christ will be renewed in Galilee — that place Jesus had promised to gather his scattered sheep again. The disciples are not chastised for their fear and betrayal. They are forgiven. There is no time for bitterness and blame. After all, there’s work to be done. It’s time for this band of brothers – and sisters — to get back to work in those places where Jesus healed the sick, showed compassion for the suffering, offered rest to the weary, spoke in parables, fed the multitudes, blessed the children, challenged a rich man, and welcomed children. When the angel tells the women to meet Jesus in Galilee, he is saying that the resurrected Christ will be always found in places of grace-filled work, where healing, feeding, teaching, and even suffering are experienced with him.
The difference resurrection makes for me is that it teaches me the art of losing everything. Resurrection is not an escape from the losing, but a better way of losing. Because, as it turns out, the resurrection isn’t really about victory or triumph or bravado, but about believing that we do not have to be afraid anymore. We can wade in to the deep waters of love, even at the risk of heartbreak. We can trust that loss will not destroy us, but open up space for something that will surprise and delight us. We can live into the new possibilities that Jesus told us about all along. Remember? Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life (John 12:24-26). That it is only in losing our lives that we find God’s newness. Jesus shows us not how to fear loss, but to master it.
I love this poem by Elizabeth Bishop:
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost car keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places and names and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
even though it looks like disaster.
So many of you have told me about what it’s like to lose your life yet somehow find your life. For some of you, resurrection has blown up your world with loss that felt like death, and yet new life flourished in ways you did not expect. Some of you have sensed resurrection come over you more gradually, like light dawning in the darkness. No earthquakes, just the slow and steady work of God bringing you back to life. All of our resurrection stories are unique to how we experience the risen Christ with us, and I suspect that is why there are so many different versions of the story in scripture. Yet, resurrection continues to break in. The saving, creative work of God occurs minute by minute in spite of all efforts to seal it, control it, contain it, snuff it out. Sometimes it takes much longer than three days. But the promise is still true.
Resurrection is not an occasion to gloat. It’s not a day to raise our fist in triumph, but to open our hands and reach out to others, even to those for whom resurrection still seems like a cruel and idle tale. We follow a Savior who did not condemn his executioners, but forgave them. And on the last night of his life, Jesus revealed who he truly was: The servant of servants. We cannot forget this. As a friend of mine wrote in a Maundy Thursday devotional this week, that before he began the foot washing, I wish that Jesus had said “I know y’all are going to forget all about this part, but pay attention.”  After the Alleluias of this morning fade, what is left is the way he lived his life and submitted to death, and the promise of resurrection.
Go love one another. Fiercely. Fearlessly. Like a grain of wheat falling to earth all the way from heaven. Willing to fall hard and deep into the loamy soil of Spring so that God’s love might be born again and again.
Thanks be to God. Amen.