We’ve just heard Matthew’s version of the Resurrection story. It’s a dramatic tale, with an earthquake and an angel appearing like lightning, terrifying the guards who’ve been set to guard the tomb. You can see them in our stained glass window here.
Each of the Gospel writers tells the story of the Resurrection slightly differently. Different numbers of women come to anoint the body, meeting different numbers of angels, or perhaps Jesus himself. Different things happen afterwards. Matthew’s Gospel, though, is the only one that gives us this story of the guards and their dramatic encounter with the angel who rolls the stone away. He goes on to tell us how they report back to the Temple authorities, rather shamefacedly, and are told to hush the story up and insist the disciples stole the body, though how or why they are supposed to have done this isn’t explained.
It’s not surprising that there are differences between the four Gospel accounts. The Gospels were written between 60 AD and the end of the first century – a generation after the events they describe. None of the writers, as far as we can tell, had ever met Jesus, though they would have known people who had. So can we trust their accounts? In one way, the answer is no, we can’t – not if we want to know what actually happened, minute by minute, in the way we would expect from a news report. We have no idea what we would have seen if TV cameras had been recording the event. But in another sense these accounts are very trustworthy indeed, despite their differences, because each of them was speaking truthfully of the impact the Resurrection had had on those who had been there, and who had passed these stories on to them.
The point is that the Gospel writers were working backwards. They started where they were, as members of small churches, just handfuls of people gathering together in houses around the Middle East and the Mediterranean. It wasn’t easy for them. There was no power. There was no money, no splendid churches filled with glittering mosaics, no glorious music or marvellous liturgy. There was no sense of respectability or tradition, no status to be gained from throwing in your lot with this new faith. This was no Dan Brown style Da Vinci Code conspiracy. Why on earth would anyone make it up – they had nothing to gain and everything to lose by preaching this message? The early Christians were intermittently persecuted, even killed. Many of them found themselves at odds with the families and communities they had grown up in when they decided to follow Christ. And yet they kept going with their mission and ministry – if they hadn’t have done, we wouldn’t be here today.
So why did they bother? They bothered because this faith, its reality in their lives, had changed them so thoroughly, so deeply and completely that they couldn’t turn their backs on it. It led them to create new communities , loving one another – or at least trying to – across the boundaries of gender, social class and cultural background, caring for those in need, trying to be salt and light to their world. Whatever happened on that first Easter Sunday it had brought them a joy and a confidence that they had never had before. They knew about resurrection because they saw it at work in their own lives.
When the Gospel writers wrote their accounts of that first Easter they weren’t trying to set down what had happened, News24 style – that’s why no one in the early church worried that the stories were different. They weren’t trying to prove that Jesus had risen. They knew Jesus had risen, whatever they understood that to mean. In their Gospels they were trying to explain why it mattered, what difference it made to them, and what difference it might make to us too.
After Jesus died his disciples were frightened, defeated, ready to slink back to their old lives, but on that first Easter Sunday whatever they experienced convinced them that the crucifixion had not been the end of hope, but its beginning. Jesus wasn’t just another failed, disgraced revolutionary; he’d been blessed by God, honoured by God, raised by God, acclaimed as his own Son. The might of Rome didn't have the last word; armed guards hadn't been able to keep Jesus in that tomb. God had the last word. And that word was hope. Life was stronger than death, love was stronger than hatred.
The Gospel writers didn’t know exactly how it had happened. They couldn’t say with any certainty who had been where or seen what. They certainly couldn’t explain it. But they had absolutely no doubt that somehow on that first Easter Sunday, everything had changed.
The way they write their stories, the aspects they choose to focus on, probably reflects the way in which that Good News had changed them and the churches they were a part of. For Matthew, this dramatic tale of the guards, the earthquake, the terrifying appearance of the angel sums up what he wants to say.
His message is that following Jesus brings liberation. God breaks open the tombs we have been confined in, by the events of our life, the attitudes of others, or by our own fear, and he invites us to step out of them. For Matthew the Resurrection is a moment of explosive disruption. It turns worlds upside down. That can be a wonderful, joyful thing, as it is for the disciples, or a terrifying one as it is for the guards. It all depends on our reaction to it.
At Messy Church on Good Friday one of our activities was to make the shields which you’ll see in the Lady Chapel propped up against the tomb. The display it’s part of asks us to think about the Resurrection from the guards’ point of view. Their sole aim was to keep that body in the tomb, to make sure the story ended right there and then so that everything could just go back to the way it had been, and I think Matthew means us to have a bit of sympathy for them. New life, new hope - new anything - can feel very threatening and dangerous. We are all “guarded” sometimes in our approach to life, suspicious of anything new, however good it actually is and however much we might need it. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.
At Messy Church we put scary things and spiky shapes on the shields to remind us of the front we sometimes put up to ward off new life and new opportunities. “It’ll never work. I can never change. People will think I've gone crazy…” we say to ourselves, and that hopeful green shoot is stamped down and killed off. We are afraid it will all go wrong and we will be left out in the cold, unprotected and alone.
Of course caution is sometimes appropriate, and it can be hard to trust in new beginnings, especially if we’ve been hurt or let down, but sometimes our “guardedness” means that we never actually get around to living at all. The gifts that God longs us to enjoy go untouched, the voice that calls us to live differently goes unanswered, the steps into the future that he wants for us remain untaken. We stay in the tomb, behind the shields, safe, but dead.
In a moment we’ll be baptising Susie. We can't know what her future will be like, what challenges she will have to face and deal with. We can't know what opportunities she'll have. But we can pray for her on this Day of Resurrection, that she will learn to have the courage and the trust in God to take them, and not be held back by the "guardedness" that springs from fear. We want her to grow up knowing that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. We want her to grow up knowing that there is a fountain of love and forgiveness available for her when it all goes wrong. I’ll just pour a tiny bit of water on her head in a moment, but that’s a symbol of the unstoppable flood of God’s grace, there to cleanse us whenever we come to that moment when we look in the mirror and wonder “how did it come to this? How did I get into such a mess, again?" Most of all we want her to grow up knowing that she is a child of God, and that nothing can separate her from his love - not even death.
Knowing those things will equip her with the courage she will need to get out from behind the shields, that defensive caution that diminishes us, and live the life she has been given as a celebration, full of thanksgiving and joy.
I’d like to finish with a poem by Stewart Henderson*, which celebrates that Resurrection energy which we are invited to share in today.
There was no
There was no grave grave enough
to ground me
to mound me
I broke the balm then slit the shroud
wound round me
that bound me
There was no death dead enough
to dull me
to cull me
I snapped the snake and waned his war
to lull me
to null me
there was no cross cross enough
to nil me
to still me
I hung as gold that bled, and bloomed
A rose that rose and prised the tomb
away from Satan’s wilful doom
There was no cross, death, grave
to hold me.
20th Century: From The Lion Christian Poetry Collection
compiled by Mary Batchelor 1995
20th Century: From The Lion Christian Poetry Collection
compiled by Mary Batchelor 1995