A reflection on Matthew 28:1-20 for Sunday, April 9, 2023 at Mosaic Baptist Church, Gungahlin.
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And 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. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then 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.’ So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’
While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, ‘You must say, “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.” If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
Matthew 28:1-20 (NRSVA)
We have just heard Matthew’s account of the discovery of the empty tomb and the appearance of the resurrected Jesus to the two Marys. It is a fast moving account that sees both the women and the guards heading in different directions to account for the one event.
Indeed the empty tomb needed to be accounted for. An earthquake, an angel descending from heaven like lightening, the stone rolled away from the sealed and guarded tomb. It is all too much for these soldiers. They are terrified into becoming ‘like dead men’.
But why such a fuss on the part of heaven?
It would appear that it had nothing to do with Jesus’ escape. He was gone from the tomb long before this angel was sent. The heavenly messenger was not sent to let the resurrected Jesus out.
He was sent to let these visitors in.
Our messenger begins with the following: ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.’
This angel was sent simply to let the mourning women see that Jesus was not there.
The whole scene is terrifying for everyone concerned. Even as the women leave the garden to convey the angel’s message we are told that they are filled with both fear and joy. As yet they have not even seen Jesus.
But when he does appear their immediate response is to fall at his feet in worship. From here they simply obey – taking the message to the disciples. It is an exemplary response to the events of Easter.
But of course the women are not the only witnesses responding to heaven’s appearing.
The soldiers too saw these events. But as they recover, perhaps explore the tomb, and after establishing the facts, head to the shelter of those who killed Jesus. There the chief priests themselves we are told – like the disciples – were given a private, eyewitness account of ‘…everything that had happened.’
It is quite a thought. Even though the guard and the women are both eyewitnesses to the empty tomb they respond so differently. The two Marys leave the grave in the fear and joy of God, the soldiers simply in fear of those they habitually obey.
From here the guard and chief priests agree to testify to what they clearly believe to be a lie. They may not know exactly what did happen but they do know that this did not. They are so sure of this that they expectantly make plans for when their story unravels.
They have turned to money and bribery in the face of God’s conquering of death. Indeed they seem incapable of imagining that there is any other possible response. Their actions amount to a laughable absurdity. They are taking on the God of all armed only with the emperor’s coin and and a story they know to be untrue.
It will never be enough.
But there are two women who have responded infinitely more wisely and honestly. And this even though they probably do not understand God’s actions any more than these religious leaders. They too are described as scared.
But this fear was tapered with joy – enabling them to responded in humble worship and obedience.
And the ounce of faith found in that joy amounted to a world of difference.
Whose testimony do you find most convincing today – that of the guards or that of the two Marys? Why do you think you respond this way?
What emotion is winning in your life today – fear or joy?