(Matthew 28:1-10; Colossians 3:1-4)
I wanted to talk about that earthquake. It seemed exciting and supernatural and very particular to Matthew’s version of Easter. It has creation responding to the news of this day, making an earthquake somehow unlikely good news. It paired with an even more obscure tremor from Good Friday, when the splitting of rocks broke open tombs for dead saints to come out and wander around Jerusalem. Look it up! In this case, though, the earthquake tumbling away the stone wasn’t to let the dead out but breaking for witnesses to enter; Jesus is already gone from his grave, loose, alive and in life. Even for the metaphorical edge of this earthshaking news, of the risen Jesus altering the very ground we stand on, I wanted to talk about the earthquake.
But then I noticed another shaking, in verse 4: “for fear…the guards shook and became like dead men.” I must’ve always skimmed past that verse, but now it called out for attention. On this day when we’re gathered with Alleluias around a dead man who’s not dead anymore, I’m struck by those guards who, though quite plainly alive, are described as dead in the face of this event. It’s a stunning Easter reversal: those who seemed to have the power and armed might became impotent, and the one whom those guards killed—the executed corpse—is alive and free and able even to overcome death. Apparently without any violent struggle, death has lost its sting amid this shocking good news.
But those guards sure don’t consider it good news. And they had compelling reason not to. In the last words of Good Friday, the Gospel says the authorities conspired to have those guards make the tomb as secure as they could. At the very least, the stone tumbling aside takes them off guard duty; if they were hired as tough security bouncers, to be night watchmen, then this seems cancel their contract. I picture the JBM patrol that monitors our property at night with their flashlights and camouflage pants and mildly militarized SUVs. What if we shut off the motion detectors and alarm system, gave up on locks, and said the building was wide open for anybody who might need to use it, indeed, was a place of sanctuary? While from one perspective, it is liberation from fear, from another, having the tomb broken open places the livelihood and paychecks of those guards at risk.
More, they risk not only being fired from their jobs, but might have feared worse, since their bosses were such a ruthless and nasty sort. In punishing retribution, it wouldn’t have been unprecedented for them to get tossed in jail, a reversal from being guards to captives. Or maybe such fears already held them captive and the unstoppable Jesus somehow liberates them from that.
At any rate, whether they were trying to keep others out or keep Jesus in, neither the authorities nor those guards could do anything to stop God’s spread of life, couldn’t keep this good news shut up. As Jesus breaks loose, their remaining options are confined and they are as bad as dead in comparison.
There’s probing parallel here for us, that Jesus and his resurrection put at risk some of our old ways of life, some of the roles in which we’re used to functioning, and some of the structures of our relationships. That should likely be a bit nerve-wracking for you this morning, too. Easter isn’t simply a holiday to give you some leisure and luxury. There are good and vital reasons to feast on eggs and chocolates and spread big tables and enjoy the delights of life, from music to company to wine to the spring sunshine. Such joys have basis in also having to confront that things are not the same as they used to be, and if you’re pretending that life should or even can go on as it would have otherwise, then those guards who shook like dead men must have a better understanding of Easter than you do.
But that’s another striking edge of the story. It’s astonishing to picture those guards as eyewitnesses to the resurrection. They have a firsthand view and should have been able to recognize God’s reversal of death for life, but there’s something of it they still don’t get. Even though they see it, they don’t believe. It doesn’t create faith in them. Unlike the women disciples, they aren’t rushing on to proclaim the good news and spread the word.
We might want to write that off as them being bad guys and that’s why they weren’t on Jesus’ side, but that’s too hasty. It requires a finer distinction. After all, from start to finish the story of Jesus is about forgiving sinners and befriending the bad dudes and loving enemies. There are insiders who fall away and outsiders who are brought in. Dualistic thinking in categories of good vs. bad can’t actually fit into the story.
So it wouldn’t be a foregone conclusion for those guards to be dead in the face of resurrected life. A reverse example was portrayed in the previous chapter, where one of their leaders, a centurion, reacted to the death of Jesus on the cross by saying “Truly this man was God’s Son!” If he could come to that conclusion by witnessing only death, then certainly these guys should have theoretically been able to arrive there in witnessing new life.
So why didn’t it turn out that way for them? Maybe they were stuck in the rut of all-too-human reasons. The mundane stuff. Supporting families. Forced to, by pressure—either from peers and what seemed acceptable or the fear of the powers-that-be (or maybe better from the view of Easter’s reversal, “the powers-that-were”). The verses after this reading say the authorities offered bribes for those guards not to tell what they had seen. Maybe they were compelled by sad reasons of trading their dignity and integrity for a payoff. Whether with good intentions or not, regular existence can interfere.
Maybe it’s simpler and more human even than that. Beyond awesome jaw-dropping amazement, this is just dang unbelievable. That has implications for us, too. We expect that the forces of death are the strong, fierce ones, that we win by launching missiles and fighting back. But here it is a no-megaton bomb with the power of love and peace. That death is not the end can stop us in our tracks as confounding. A victory for life can be incomprehensibly miraculous to us.
Though we might even yearn to trust that possibility, we also recognize that in spite of being part of church and hearing the same message as others, there are times it doesn’t seem to stick, just as somehow it didn’t work for those guards witnessing firsthand. You may be trying to believe, wishing to hear it as good news, but for some reason you can’t. It’s a confounding and frustrating feeling, that “the Holy Spirit creates faith when and where she chooses” in the explanation of Lutheran theology (which manages not really to explain anything) (Augsburg Confession V).
But. If you happen to be here this morning feeling like you’re left out, like the wind of the Holy Spirit blew right past you, like you so desperately want some good news and new life to live into, are longing for a change, crave other possibilities than what currently exists, to be rejuvenated and energized, to have the rotten stuff taken away, not to be trapped by so much bad news and death, if you need the Easter reversal—if you can relate to these guards who were afraid and incapacitated and didn’t seem to have any way out of it and were as good as dead, then you should know that the Holy Spirit’s work is always to bring new life out from death, to call us from our stinking tombs, to break barriers, to breathe new life into dried-up bones and worn-out bodies.
And if with these guards that feels like you, you should know that this Easter morning is especially for you, just as your own stunning reversal is proclaimed in Colossians: You have died, and you have been raised with Christ. Even as that is often much too hidden, too mysterious, so unknown, you may trust that your life is secure and free with Christ. Since you are dead, you are given new life. Alleluia! Christ is risen!
a new hymn, “The First,” for today