“Be not afraid . . . He has risen, as he said.” Matthew 28:5,6
You may have sung this morning’s hymns and heard the gospel reading and wondered “Is this make-believe?” Perhaps you’ve never entered this church before, let alone attended on an Easter morning. You’re home for the weekend with your family or boyfriend or girlfriend or you’re here alone. Are you’re sitting here struggling over some of the details of the resurrection story that leave you perplexed, cynical or simply scratching your head. These are claims made by the apostle Paul and others who struggle to convey an experience of possibilities that cannot be fully expressed in words.
They were written for those who held a world view dramatically different from our own. Their earth was flat and situated somewhere within a multi-tiered universe with a supreme deity who could intervene at will or by supernatural messengers called angels. It shaped the way in which they interpreted the human condition and their life experiences.
The letters by the apostle Paul and the stories shared within our Gospels illustrate how that first generation of Christians attempted to make sense of the life and death of a man named Jesus. For the most part, those early Christians were Jews steeped in their Hebrew heritage of faith. It coloured the manner in which they proclaimed the message of the resurrection as being in accordance with their scriptures.
An example is “the third day”. It hardly makes sense for those of us living in this 21st century. They followed a lunar calendar, and each new day began when sun set on the previous day. They observed their Passover at the new moon of the month of Nisan. By the third day, the new moon becomes visible to the naked eye as a wafer thin crescent. So then, what do we mean when we confess “and on the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures”? We are not following contemporary time keeping. We are not making reference to the Gospels and the New Testament. We are talking about the Hebrew Scriptures of the Law of Moses, and of the Prophets. The third day verified Jewish experience.
On the third day, Abraham was spared the sacrifice of his son Isaac. On the third day, the Lord commanded the fish to vomit Jonah onto dry land. On the third day, Joseph released his brothers from prison. On the morning of the third day, Moses entered into a covenant with the Lord God on Mt. Sinai. On the morning of the third day, Jonathan delivered David from the treachery of King Saul. It was on the third day that the kingdoms of Israel and Judah are divided. The prophet Hezekiah gives thanks to God for deliverance from mortal illness on the third day. On the third day, Queen Esther resolved to seek the deliverance of Israel. Hosea prophesies that “after two days he will revive us, and on the morning of the third day he will raise us up that we might live with him.” Jesus declares, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” “The resurrection of Jesus on the third day, according to the Scriptures”, verifies Jewish faith experience. “The morning of the third day”, is therefore a way to convey the experience of the gift of new insight that Jesus offers to all who seek to deepen their life in God.
Paul’s letters and the resurrection stories within our gospels are attempts to describe the outcome of that experience over and over again. Matthew’s gospel conveys the power of the resurrection by using every dramatic image at his disposal – a great earthquake, an angel whose bright white appearance is like lightning, guards trembling like dead men. Earlier he had used similar language to describe the crucifixion – a mighty earthquake, the temple curtain that had confined the divine presence within the Holy of Holys is torn from top to bottom, tombs of the saints are opened, the dead raised and appearing to many. Matthew uses these graphic images to convey the impact the death of Jesus made and continues to make on those whose lives are identified with his.
Most scholars date the gospel of Matthew from around fifty years after the crucifixion of Jesus – that would be at the closing decade of the first century. We need to consider the circumstance of those to whom these resurrection stories were first written. They would have experienced the Great Jewish Revolt which began in 66 CE. The Jews rioted over excessive taxation and the Roman plunder of the temple in Jerusalem. The Romans responded by ruthlessly crucifying over 6,000 Jews in Jerusalem. Instead of subduing the Jews, this prompted a full scale rebellion. The Jews over-ran the Roman military garrison and briefly took control of Jerusalem and the Galilean countryside. Roman troops soon returned and began a brutal siege of Jerusalem, breaching the city walls and utterly destroying Jerusalem and the temple in 70 CE.
Matthew’s gospel would have begun circulating among the scattered survivors a little over a decade following those climactic events. It would have been shared among those whose lives were as devastated and as insecure as today’s refugees of war torn Syria. They struggled to survive. They lacked economic and social resources and were in danger of losing their identities. They lived from one day to the next. It is to such people that Matthew wrote his gospel. And what is his message? He repeats his good news over and over again from its beginning to its end.. “Be not afraid. The Lord is with you.” This is the experience and assurance of those who knew Jesus.
That same experience and assurance is offered to you this day. “Be not afraid; for I know you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he is risen . . . and goes before you to Galilee; there you will see him.”
Be not afraid of life. Be not afraid of death. Remember Jesus who lived and died by what he believed, and who lead others to recognize and name their intimate connectedness with God in compassionate love and human kindness. He continues to inspire us to walk trustingly in life with God, our eternal source of life and love. We face life and death not with fear of the unknown, but with faith and trust that love has an eternal dimension beyond our present understanding. Be not afraid. Love is stronger than death. In this man Jesus, people experienced the eternal way, the eternal truth and the eternal life which nothing can destroy, not even death. The message of Easter extends that opportunity. If you wish to experience the way of divine love, follow in the way of Jesus. If you wish to experience the truth of divine grace, follow in the way of Jesus. If you wish to experience the reality of divine life, follow in the way of Jesus.
Follow him into your particular Galilee, that is, into your normal day to day human experience of this mortal life. Discover him in your encounters with familiar friends and among strangers. Discover him in life’s celebrations such as the joy of a wedding, in life’s tempests and anxious moments, and in little surprises that may come your way. Discover him among nameless multitudes and within the intimacy of your family and home. Discover him here in this gathering of those who share his life in common and who break bread with one another in his name.
Which brings us to the most powerful evidence of the risen Christ today. When you are invited to recite in the Creeds “the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures”, remember that today’s most compelling evidence of the resurrection is when, by God’s grace, Jesus is found to be authentically dwelling here, among us.
Carver 02.16.2017 The Church of the Holy Saviour, Waterloo