Yes, I am a slacker, thanks for noticing! I could’ve posted this four weeks ago, but just now found it…by accident. Easter and Christmas are ALWAYS the hardest times to say something fresh or even moderately useful….so I offer this to those of you who, like me, are lagging behind a bit…
A few years ago, a powerful earthquake hit Italy, killing more than 300 people, most of whom were buried in the largest state funeral in the history of the country. The funeral took place, coincidentally, on Good Friday that year. Several days after this tragedy, the news reported a tidbit of good news to art historians and the residents of the little village of Rocca di Cambio. Like many of the buildings in the small mountain town, the local Catholic church was also heavily damaged. The altar pulled away from the back wall of the apse during the earthquake, and when grieving parishioners arrived on the scene to assess damage, they found a long-lost 11th century fresco depicting the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus. Until the earthquake, it had been hidden behind the altar.
The earthquake that we’ve been considering throughout Lent this year is mentioned only in the Gospel of Matthew, and it occurred when an angel rolled the stone away from Jesus’ tomb, revealing what had been hidden. Upon arriving, however, the women did not find the body of Jesus, instead they found only the emptiness of an unoccupied tomb.
I always pictured the stone that sealed Jesus’ grave as a big round boulder pushed into the opening, sort of like a giant cork sealing the tomb. It probably wasn’t like that at all. Tombs in first-century Palestine were typically sealed with a carefully shaped round slab of rock, sort of like a giant wheel, that rolled along a groove cut into the ground.
As we reflect on this central story of the Christian faith, it’s important, I think, to understand that the stone wasn’t rolled away so Jesus could get out. The stories shared by early Christians in the gospels insist that Jesus’ post-resurrection body was capable of going wherever it wished. Jesus appeared to his disciples in an upper room, even though all the doors were locked. So why bother with an earthquake? Why bother rolling the stone away at all?
The answer is so simple and so obvious: the stone was rolled away so those nearby could go in. And look around. And see that it was empty. And then go and find Jesus.
Mary Magdalene and a woman known to us only as the “other Mary” went to Jesus’ tomb at dawn and “suddenly there was a great earthquake.” All of the gospels tell a different part of the Easter story, but I have to say that Matthew’s version is the best. Luke tells us about some disciples who meet Jesus on the road and don’t even recognize him. Mark and John at least tell about happy reunions in the cemetery, but only Matthew bothers to say that the earth shook that morning.
Easter changed things, in fact, it changed everything, as we’ve learned reading our Lenten book this year. The word “Resurrection” is now part of our vocabulary. I think it’s important to note that Resurrection is not simply Resuscitation. If you’ve taken a CPR course you’ve likely worked to restore breath – and life – to a plastic effigy named Resuscitation Annie. And a few people have experienced the wonder of saving an actual life with those skills. But the resurrection is much more than restoring breath and extending a life.
Three Easters ago I was still experiencing a personal earthquake due to the death of my friend, Steve Yanner, on Good Friday. I had had a dream of him the night before, after having spent the bulk of that day with Mary and the family, watching Steve being kept alive on more machines than it takes to build a GMC truck. He was in a medically induced coma so it was impossible to know if he was aware of anything around him. In my dream, he and I were walking in a snowstorm to my grandparents’ house in Appleton, and I was walking ahead of him by a couple paces. I turned to go up to the house, but Steve kept walking down the street. I said, “Hey Steve! We’re here, where are you going?” And he turned and looked me in the eye and said with a humorous but sarcastic tone in his voice, “You’re the priest and you don’t know where I’m going! That’s a good one!” And as I watched he was swallowed up in the snowstorm. I awoke immediately, crying, because I knew then that Steve was already gone and we had to take him off the machines.
I had spent a lot of time with Steve in the months leading up to his surgery, the final time was only a couple days prior to his surgery. And a miracle had occurred because in listening to him, it was so clear that all his fear was gone, that he was ready to place himself completely in the hands of fate, trusting with childlike faith that, no matter what, God would have his back. He believed in resurrection, just like Jesus did, not focusing on resuscitation of his worn out heart.
None of Jesus’ disciples expected the resurrection, although Jesus had certainly tried to give them the heads up. Although death on a cross and the defeat of their community was regrettable, it was very explainable. They might have comforted themselves by saying, “It was a good campaign while it lasted. We didn’t get him elected Messiah, but death is final, so we need to be realistic and accept the facts.”
Here’s the thing: our whole world is in the death-grip of facts. We have come to know that everything that lives, will eventually die. It happens to the best of us; it happens to all of us. There are few real surprises, we think, so we live our lives with a limited view of what is possible.
The crucifixion of Jesus was the inevitable, predictable result of Jesus saying the things he said and doing the things he did. Crucifixion is what the world always does to those who threaten it. But on Easter God’s earthquake shook up our “fake news” and inserted a new fact. God took the worst we could do, all of our death-dealing deeds, and offered love. And life. No wonder the earth shook!
A writer and preacher named Will Willimon tells the story of visiting a church in Alaska. He writes: “During my sermon, the earth heaved for a moment that seemed to last forever. The little church shook. The Alaskans sat there like it was another day at the office. Their only response was the woman who said, “How about that, the light fixtures didn’t fall this time.” Willimon concludes, “I ended my sermon immediately. I was shaken by the earthquake, but also shaken by those nonchalant Alaskans. Afterward, I asked the pastor, “What would it take to get this congregation’s attention? I’d hate to have to preach to them every Sunday.”
When the earth shook and stone was rolled away, God got our attention. We got our first glimpse of a new world; a world where death does not have the last word, a world where injustice is made right, and a world where the followers of Jesus live not by artificial resuscitation, but by the amazing power of resurrection.
The resurrection likely means many different things to those of us gathered here this morning. For some it is a literal and essential doctrine that defines the Christian faith. For some it is symbolic of what they have come to understand as truth, that death is not an ultimate, final force that can keep life from springing forth again. For others, resurrection speaks of hope; regardless of how large the rock or the heart attack, or illness or disease or addictions, in other words, no matter how tightly the stone has sealed our fate, God’s power is greater still. Christ is risen! Alleluia!