Matthew 28: 1-10
How Can They Preach Unless They Are Sent?
This year we observe Easter in unprecedented times. The COVID- 19 pandemic, which has affected the whole world, is also affecting how we celebrate Easter. To protect our own lives and those of others, we cannot frequent our favorite restaurants for Sunday brunch, we cannot express and share our Easter joy with one another in our fellowship halls, we cannot make our churches resound with the hymns and the liturgies that we love. Instead, we must meditate on the mystery of Easter and celebrate the Risen Lord in our homes, behind closed doors. In our current context, many of our people are experiencing fear and uncertainty, as well as trauma and dislocation, and even death in their families or in their communities. And yet the church does not cease for that reason to celebrate Easter, the greatest and most glorious day of the Christian year.
Let us turn to the events portrayed in our gospel lesson designated for this Easter Sunday. They occurred in the context of trauma, fear and uncertainty. How could it be otherwise? The enemies of Jesus and his followers broke out against them with fury. Jesus was seized and crucified and his followers were forced into hiding. It happened just as it was foretold by the prophet: “I will strike the shepherd and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.” Our greatest challenge in such moments is to hold steady, to maintain a firm grip on reality, and to keep our heads.
On Good Friday we learned that Peter failed here. He panicked. When we panic, we run, which is precisely what Peter did. And he has not since recovered. And how do we know? Because he is not there at the empty tomb. But if he had held steady, if he had kept his head, he would have been there watching and waiting. For his Lord and Teacher told him exactly how it was all gonna go down. “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day” (Matt. 20:18-19). Peter did not hear it then, and he could not recall it now.
But how then did the Easter message about the risen Christ go out into all the world? How can they know unless someone preaches to them, and how they can preach unless they are sent?
The resurrection accounts in the gospels are markedly different from one another. But they’re unanimous on this one point at least: it was the women who were the first to go to the empty tomb. Bible students extol the virtues of these women, noting especially their courage. I am not here to diminish the virtues of these women, to whom God entrusted the proclamation of the Easter message. On the contrary, I venerate them. But let’s realize that it was not their intent to greet the risen Christ in expectation of the fulfillment of his promise. Rather, they expected to find a dead man.
This points up something about the human condition. We don’t come to God on our own. Or if we try, we’re never really sure if we have found the god we were looking for. Rather, it is God who comes to us. He comes to us in the word proclaimed, the gospel, which is the means he uses to communicate who he is and what he has done.
It is no different here. The angels are the first messengers of the gospel. This is a consistent theme in the Gosples. In Matthew we hear Gabriel say: “Mary, you are going to have a son, and you shall give to him the name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” And in our lesson, another angel announces the gospel: “He is not here; for he has been raised.” It reflects the Jewish belief that the testimony of angels is greater than that of man.
At any rate, we need to hear a word from God, whether spoken by an angel or a man, because, like the minds of the women, our minds are filled with thoughts of death. But the God who said: “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in darkness of our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of his glory in the face of Christ.” It is appropriate that the knowledge of God’s glory in Christ begins to dawn in the darkness of that empty tomb.
We are told that the women fear. Fear is a complex emotion. We know it can be free-floating and chronic, crippling a life. We know it can be occasioned by an experience for which we have no category. And we know that it can co-exist with excitement, such as when we are getting ready for a first date with someone we have just met. For the two women, it’s likely that it’s the last of these two. For an angel descending from heaven seated on a large disc-shaped stone next to the mouth of a tomb we human beings simply have no category. Nor for that matter do we really have one for an empty tomb. Whatever does not find a place in the map of the world that we carry in our heads will confuse us at best, and terrify us at worst.
Yet despite these unsettling experiences, the women cling to the word spoken to them. “He has been raised from the dead.” There is a lesson here for us. We have already mentioned that our current context is marked by fear and uncertainty, trauma and death. But a word has been addressed to us today, this Easter Sunday. It is the word of the gospel: “Christ has been raised from the dead.” We too have to cling to this word, like the two women. Despite our fear and uncertainty in a world suffering from pandemic, the message of Easter continues to be a joyful one of courage and hope. Let us not relax our grip on this message.
With the reception of this message comes conviction, which has taken root in the hearts of the women. It mobilizes them to go out and tell the disciples what they heard from the angel. But here the account takes a dramatic turn. Before they reach the disciples, the women encounter the risen Christ, who greets them. Parenthetically, we have to say that our English Bibles do us a disservice here. They translate the word as “greetings.” But the word elsewhere in the Bible is translated as “rejoice” or “be glad.” That brings out better the significance of the encounter. Is this not the most appropriate form of greeting to come from the Risen Christ? Should not that be the mood that infuses our worship of him today and all days?
Dear friends, throughout the centuries, the Easter message, “Christ is risen!” has always inspired Christians with the joy and the courage to confront fear and uncertainty, oppression and enslavement, disaster and death. As we are confronted with the COVID-19 crisis, let us be assured that it is no different today. We Christians throughout the world continue to give our testimony to the risen Christ, beginning from the time we first received it from those women at the empty tomb. We are to go out into the world to serve. It is our mandate. It’s in our DNA as the church.
That mandate is implied in the charge to the women to tell the disciples to go to Galilee. Why Galilee? It is the place of beginnings. Galilee is the first place of Jesus’ proclamation. It is the place where the disciples are called. It is place where he first went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. In telling them to meet him there, Jesus is signaling that there will be new beginnings, for his disciples then, and for his disciples now. As long as this world lasts, we disciples will always have our new beginnings in our Galilees.
Let us then go back to our Galilees to serve, united together through prayer, and affirming together our faith and hope in the Risen Lord. And always thanking God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.