Passing from Death into Life
Passing from Death to Life
Robert P. Hoch
First & Franklin Presbyterian Church
Baltimore, MD 21201
April 12, 2020
1After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And 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. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.7Then 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.” 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
If you want a sensory experience of resurrection, Matthew gives you what you hoped for — literally, a mega-earthquake; and an angel of the Lord descending from heaven, who rolls back the stone and sits on it, as if it were a bench; Roman guards, who were supposed to be terrifying, were paralyzed with fear, so that they looked as if they were dead! It’s an ancient form of graffiti. It’s the way the oppressed and the harassed depict resurrection, victory over death, victory over empire. And maybe resurrection has to be big, at least equal to the drama of crucifixion. The impact of hammer on nails; the groan of a body; the chants of crowds, the Roman emperor gloating about the size of his crowds, among other things. Resurrection has got to be big, audacious, and outrageous to convey its message that death has been swallowed up in the victory of life.
Maybe we get why resurrection gets such a production in Matthew. But maybe that’s part of my problem this morning. Maybe yours too. Maybe if your day doesn’t come with a compliment of angels, and a soul-shaking earthquake of eternal magnitude, if you don’t find yourself in a position to laugh at death or oppression or our human frailty — if this describes you or even part of your reaction to our finitude as human beings, then earthquake resurrection may seem remote from your experience.
Someone posted on Facebook a message, a message about the pandemic devastation that has not yet arrived in its full force: “It feels like the stillness before the storm . . . I just can’t bear it anymore.”
I’ll just say it. We’re not feeling like champions of resurrection these days. I saw a post from a former student of mine, a pastor. Above the post was a message: “Okay, I give up, I can’t compete.” What was the source of his despair? It was a flyer from a mega-church advertising their online services, in all caps, HOPE IS ALIVE! — you think hope is alive with Jesus but no, hope is alive, with the mega-church pastor and his wife, who will go unnamed. And if Jesus’ resurrection wasn’t enough for you, they had an all-star line-up with Kanye West, Mariah Carey, and Tyler Perry. Hope is ALIVE! Earthquake resurrection.
But I’m sorry, I’m not feeling it. And maybe, neither was the early church. The disciples were scattered. As Jesus wept, they slept; they left him twisting in the wind — “He’s no friend of ours,” they said, when he was hauled off to be tortured and abused; they watched at a safe distance, with the crowd, as Jesus died. It was as if a wave of despair had swept the story of Jesus away. They were dead, too. More dead, if that’s possible. Things that make you feel dead were potent as always, fear, shame, guilt, loneliness. Sealed in a tomb.
By the time we meet the women in Matthew, there wasn’t anything else left. Nothing but a journey to the grave. Or so they imagined.
But the funeral procession is indeed interrupted with Easter proclamation, Christ is Risen, He is risen indeed! There’s the message, the large, dramatic heaven-sent message. But here’s the thing that interests me this morning: it is a proclamation that announces resurrection before we know it, before we experience it. So maybe we could say that the message today is less about the lightning and the thunderclap and the in your face resurrection, and more about the what the psalmist refers to as the secret place of thunder, where power is conceived. As big as lightning is, it’s the sort that points away from itself to Jesus, who meets us in little things. Jesus teaches us to think about the lilies of the field or consider the birds of the air; Jesus welcomes orphans and widows; Jesus heals hurting people; Jesus opens eyes that cannot see. Jesus tells us that when we gave water to the thirsty, when we fed the hungry, when we visited the prisoner, we did this unto him.
You almost imagine you got all the information you needed at the empty tomb, from the angels. But the whole of Matthew suggests that resurrection meets us outside of the tomb, as we pass, often unwittingly, from death into life, before we know it.
In Matthew, it happens so quickly you might miss it. As the women leave, startled and overjoyed by what they have heard from the angelic figure, Matthew tells us that “suddenly” Jesus met them. Not the Crucified and Risen One. Jesus met them. Not teacher, but Jesus. Not Lord, but Jesus. Not even Christ. But Jesus. Is this different from the other gospels? Somewhat. Mark has no resurrection appearance — instead, Mark’s narrator reports that the angels asked the women who they were looking for, referring to Jesus as the Son of the Human Being and Jesus of Nazareth, both titles for the messiah. Luke’s empty tomb also includes an angelic figure, asking the women the same thing, “Who are you looking for?” And the title for Jesus in Luke is also the Son of the Human Being, rather than simply Jesus. It is not that Jesus does not appear in a personal way in the other resurrection stories. He will. And it’s not that Matthew’s Jesus will not self-represent as the Christ. He does. But, at this precise moment, Matthew’s narrator seems to deliberately set the titles to one side: “I know you are looking for Jesus.”
You think it’s possible Matthew is telling us something? There’s thunder. But it’s also true that we came here, in our own lives, with our words for this thing, and in some simple, straightforward way, we came looking for Jesus. We heard thunder. Angelic messages. But we look for what the psalmist calls the secret place of thunder, or for Jesus.
And in Matthew we find him or rather we nearly bump into him. Suddenly, says Matthew, Jesus appears. And he says, “Hi there!” Or maybe he said that. Matthew uses the Greek word for “rejoice,” which was a common greeting in this day. This leads some scholars to think that maybe it’s equivalent would be something like, “Hi there!” It’s difficult to say what Matthew intends here, in part because of the context, it’s resurrection, its Easter, its victory over death — it’s all that resurrection thunder, so we think maybe, “rejoice” is the right translation, certainly it’s the most literal one.
Or, maybe we go back to the way Matthew portrays Jesus, without the Christ title or any other majesty. Just Jesus checking in on you. Just Jesus, happened to be in the neighborhood of the valley of shadow death, and thought I’d give you a call.
Just Jesus here. Hi . . .
It’s kind of like Johnny Cash, the rebel singer, who would introduce himself to thousands of adoring fans, sometimes to the captives of Folsom Prison in California. In that place, there was no thunder. It was, “Hi, I’m Johnny Cash.” The applause must have sounded like resurrection.
Well, the NRSV translators try for a middle ground, somewhere between, Hi, I’m Jesus and Rejoice! I am the resurrection and life — the NRSV tries, “Greetings!” — which is chirpier than “hi” and but not quite as stained-glass as “Rejoice!” You choose. Either way, we meet Jesus.
And the most important thing here: they knew resurrection when resurrection greeted them. And they knelt down and worshipped Jesus. Connection. That’s what worship means, connection to the holy, communion with the good, knowing that our world is holy, touched by God, even in its darkest hour. This connection comes with a calling. For the second time, they are told, “Don’t be afraid” — but this time, it includes Jesus’ calling, which is in personal terms: “Go and tell my siblings, my brothers, tell them to go to Galilee, there they will see me.
Another resurrection? Go and tell my siblings? Is it possible that in that simple command, Jesus restores the early community? That at that precise moment, they were no longer estranged but reconciled? They didn’t know it yet, they were still in their tombs, but maybe they, too, were passing from death into life.
The women experience resurrection, too. They are raised from the gender construction that had made them its prisoners. They were the first ones to bring the message of good news.
Resurrection kind of swept over them, too, so that they may not even have thought of themselves as resurrection. Maybe it’s because men have controlled the interpretation of these texts, and therefore the tradition doesn’t see this liberation of women as resurrection. That has played a part. But the women don’t rise up for a million-woman march — they will eventually. Every resurrection includes its own thunder! But just now, they move with the message, a message that has claimed them in the totality of their being.
It’s the Word on her lips and in her heart. It needs no thunder. It is its own thunder. How can we understand this? Does a newborn baby know it lives or is life so utterly true, so profoundly concentrated that it treats death as if it were already gone, not even gone, but irrelevant to the life-force?
Resurrection – so sweeping and powerful that it’s more like crossing a continental divide than lightning or earthquake. Massive while at the same time located at a specific moment of personal significance. On one of our long-distance walks, on the Cumbria Way walk in England, which goes for about 75 miles from the south to the north, we crossed England’s continental divide. The maps told us that after we passed that divide, the streams would begin running north, whereas before they had all been flowing south. As we climbed the ridge of mountains that marked the divide, I found myself studying the creeks and streams, maybe imagining that I would see the water suddenly turn and leap north. Of course, I didn’t see that. And when we got to the top, I guess I knew we were passing over the divide, but I couldn’t see or feel it. I knew and yet didn’t know. And yet, in a sense, maybe my body was pulling slightly north. At first, we didn’t hear the water, but eventually could hear water moving just beneath our feet, in underground streams; then we saw the creeks and the spillways bounding down alongside us, clear as day. But before that, it was quiet, almost imperceptible.
Could it be that resurrection is this too? Not just the drama, but the quiet way freedom steals like song into the prison? Tom Long, a biblical scholar, thinks so: “Without even knowing that they had crossed the border, they left the old world, where hope is in constant danger, and might makes right, and peace has little chance . . . and dead people stay dead, and they entered the startling and breath-taking world of resurrection and life.”
Sometimes we hear thunder: Where O death is your victory, where O death is your sting? There is that. And then there’s also that moment when we pass from death into life without us even fully realizing that we have passed from death into life.
I received a note from a person in our community. He gave me permission to share his story, though he wants to remain anonymous. Maybe it’s one person’s experience of passing from death into life:
Each of us, he writes, is trying do our part to be meaningful in these difficult times. I’ve decided to be a contact person for friends and family. In the last two weeks I’ve spoken to friends and family in 22 different states and beyond. Most have been personal conversations during which I’ve encouraged folk to dig deep and think of someone they haven’t spoken to in a long time and to stop and give them a call. I’m already receiving feedback in the form of “Thank you’s” for having made the prompt. It is an intentional and sometimes emotional connection for me because I know that I’m being called to do it. I try to average three calls a day and when I must leave a message, I always receive a return call. Each call “makes my day” just as I hear others saying the same thing to me. I’m thankful, I know I’m blessed in so many ways, and I just wanted to share that with you.
Passing from death into life. Suddenly, Jesus appeared to the women. And by God’s grace and to God’s glory, Jesus appears to us as well, as we pass from death into life.