“Fear & Excitement” Colchester Federated Church, April 9, 2023, (Matthew 28:1-10) Easter Sunday

Mary Magdalene and the other Mary come to look at the tomb holding Jesus’ body at dawn on the first day of the week.  The Easter story as told in Matthew’s Gospel is action-packed.  There is a great earthquake and an angel from God coming down from heaven.  The angel rolls the stone away and sits on top of the stone.  His face is like lightning and his clothes are as white as snow.  The guards stationed there are terrified by the earthquake and the angel, shaking with fear.  Matthew says they became like dead men.

Though in that moment of fear, the angel turns to the women.  The angel says, “Don’t be afraid.  I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.  He isn’t here, because he’s been raised from the dead, just as he said.  Come, see the place where they laid him.  Now hurry, go and tell his disciples, ‘He’s been raised from the dead.  He’s going on ahead of you to Galilee.  You will see him there.’  I’ve given the message to you.”[1] 

The women hurry away from the tomb “with great fear and excitement.”[2]  On the way to reunite with their fellow believers and to tell them the good news, Jesus meets them.  Jesus personally greets them—these two women witness the empty tomb and become the first people to encounter the Risen Christ.  Matthew tells us that the women grab Jesus’ feet and begin to worship him.  Though once again the Marys hear the message to not be afraid.  This time the message comes from Jesus himself.  Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid. Go and tell my brothers that I am going into Galilee. They will see me there.”[3]

Sometimes when we hear the Easter story, we focus on the details.  Or we may understandably wonder about the miracle of resurrection.  How do we modern intelligent people understand a story that is as miraculous as Jesus dying on Friday and rising from death itself on Sunday?  Mary Magdalene and the other Mary are depicted as grabbing Jesus’ feet and speaking with him.  The tomb is empty and he is alive.  The women see and interact with the Risen Christ.  What do we do with this Gospel account of resurrection? 

In his book What is the Bible? Rob Bell reflects on the differences we can find in the four Gospel accounts of Easter Sunday.  Bell writes, “Mark reports that on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James, and Salome went to Jesus’s tomb while Matthew says it was Mary Magdalene and the other Mary who went to the tomb.  (What’s it like to go down in history as the other Mary?  Oh you know—it was the other Mary).  According to John’s Gospel, it was just Mary Mags.”  Bell goes on from there to talk about more differences in explaining the resurrection, “One Gospel mentions there was an earthquake—which the others leave out—John tells of two angels in white sitting where Jesus’s body had been, Luke says it was two men in gleaming white, Mark says it was a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side of the tomb, and Matthew says it was an angel of the Lord that rolled back the stone and then sat on it.  Like you do.  When you roll back a stone.  And open up a tomb.”[4]

The overall point that Rob Bell makes (and he’s absolutely correct) is that there are real differences in how the Easter story gets told in the Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  There’s a lot of running around.  Lots of excitement.  Lots of “general mayhem.”  But there are different people in the stories, let alone the stories themselves are told in varied ways. 

What do we do with this?  We can ignore the differences.  We can say that this story is simply proof that miracles can’t be logically explained.  We could contemplate literal versus metaphorical Biblical interpretations.  Is this a spiritual or a bodily resurrection?  The truth is that our Gospel texts can point to both.  Or what about understanding Easter Sunday as a mystical experience that defies language to describe it as much as any mystical experience we may have in our own lives?

Maybe this is all an invitation to make that difficult journey from our heads to our hearts.  Not completely checking our modern intelligence at the sanctuary door.  As we like to say in the United Church of Christ—our faith may be 2,000 years old, but our thinking is not.  The truth is that the miracle of Easter (however we conceive of that miracle) cannot be easily explained.  That’s the point!  That is precisely what makes today so beautiful.  The miracle of that first Easter was met with fear and excitement.  It is not easily explained, and it has never been easily explained in our Christian tradition.  That’s the point.

Have you ever seen a work of art that captivates your imagination and almost stops you in your tracks?  It’s hard to look away because it is just so amazing.  Have you ever heard a song that transports you back to a moment in time when you were with someone you love?  Just hearing the song (and maybe you’ve heard it a million times before) can make your chest tighten or tears well up in your eyes.  Why is it so moving to see the sun rise?  We know that the sun rises and sets every single day.  But sometimes, witnessing a sunrise can give you hope for the next day and the day after that.  How do you explain falling in love?  That feeling of your beloved truly seeing you, flaws and all—the connection and vulnerability of love. 

This is the heart space that Easter Sunday invites us to enter.  A space of almost unspeakable beauty and poetry.  A space of expansiveness and living the questions.  The Gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus Christ are not the same.  We usually hear John’s account because it’s the most famous with the wonderful dialogue in the garden between Mary Magdalene and Jesus.  Matthew tells the story differently with the earthquake and the angel—with the fear and excitement felt by the Marys.

Though doesn’t it make sense that the Easter story didn’t get passed on in the exact same way in our Christian tradition?  Because we would hear a multitude of answers here in this gathering of what makes someone fall in love and why does a sunrise give us hope and what makes a song moving and able to transport us across time and space and what makes art capture our imaginations?  There are some categories of life that cannot be explained easily or even logically.  There are some things in life that are not explained in the exact same way from person to person.  Because God created a beautifully diverse human family.  Sometimes we encounter miracles that defy expectations and explanations. 

This is a day of fear and excitement.  Easter Sunday invites us to make that journey from our heads to our hearts.  For Christ is risen.  Death never gets the last word in God’s story.  Hope is alive and love is alive.  Happy Easter!  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Matthew 28:5-7, CEB.
[2] Matthew 28:8.
[3] Matthew 28:10.
[4] Rob Bell, What Is the Bible? How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything, pgs. 184-185.

Photo by Cdoncel on Unsplash