On Palm Sunday last, we heard the end of Matthew’s account of the Passion, it closes with the recounting of the burial of Jesus. For the first time (and the last time) we hear of Joseph of Arimathea, a rich man, and he has the courage or maybe the social position to go to Pilate to speak to him and ask him for the body of Jesus. It was in fact not the normal practice to take the bodies down straight away, instead it was the custom to leave bodies that had been crucified on the cross for days and weeks, a grisly sight to frighten onlookers. For religious reasons because of the Passover or maybe because of decency Joseph asks that the body of Jesus be taken down. Mathew tells us that he tenderly wraps the body of Jesus in linen cloths, these same cloths will feature in the resurrection story in another Gospel, they will be rolled up and the face cloth too beside it. It tells us that a stone, and a big one at that, is rolled across the entrance. And then it tells us that 2 Marys are there, watching perhaps, still mourning, planning another visit that they will make with those massive amount of spices.
Then it adds another element, Joseph wasn’t the only one to go to Pilate. The authorities also go to Pilate. They ask that he post a guard at the tomb, to ward off any of the friends of Jesus coming to the tomb and stealing the body of Jesus and making up a story.
Pilate is playing a balancing act, he agrees to the request of Joseph of Armathea and to the request of the authorities, he is walking a tight rope and aiming to please everyone.
It seems strange that Matthew might include this in his account. If he is seeking to convince others and anyone he enters instead an element of doubt, another account of events rather than the one which the Apostles will put about. It seems a risky strategy for Matthew to tell us, you could deduce either he is trying to get his story in first or that he has nothing to hide.
There everything is left. The utter misery in which everything end. Cheering crowds turn into jeering crowds. He is rejected, his words are rejected, he dies a cruel death. He has no burial clothes other than those lent to him, no tomb but takes the tomb of a friend. His other friends have run away and only 2 women now remain. Even in death a guard is placed over the tomb, less any fictious story leak out, this would be the greatest fraud of all, says the authorities.
Today we hear the second part of this story, the first his burial and now his resurrection: the women who were there at his burial come to the tomb again on the first day of the week. Matthew doesn’t say that they come to anoint the body, he only says they come to see the tomb. In his account, as in other parts of the Gospel Matthew like heavenly voices & dramatic signs, cracks of thunder, fork-lightening. Here there is an earthquake and then an angel coming from heaven who commands the stone to move and then he sits down on it. The soldiers who were posted as a guard are shaken with fear and are frozen to the spot, they are like dead men.
Angles are messengers in both OT & NT and the message that the angel gives is that the body of Jesus is not in the tomb but he has been raised. He invites the women to see around the tomb and to go and tell the news to the others. Matthew tells us that they are joyful and afraid at the same time. They are running to do what they are told and they meet the risen Jesus and fall down before him.
In Matthew’s account of the passion it tells us that the authorities are fearful that the friends of Jesus will come and steal the body of Jesus and they convince Pilate to post a guard over the tomb. They say that the story that his disciples will put about is that Jesus has risen from the dead and they say that this will be a greater fraud than anything that went before.
Here we have the dilemma, the question of the hour, the problem of the ages even in the time of Jesus is the resurrection of Jesus fraud or truth? Is the tomb empty because Jesus body is stolen or is it because God has raised him from the dead? Has the body of Jesus been removed while the guards slept or have they been bribed by the apostles or the authorities to keep their mouths shut?
These questions that are posed then are the questions that would remain. Some would believe and others could not. Even at the time, the apostles didn’t believe it seemed to them utter madness. The stories around the resurrection emphasise their disbelief even Thomas won’t believe unless he sees it with his own eyes.
In modern times we would look for independent witnesses, more information, a report drawn up, forensic evidence, police investigation.
In first century AD Israel we have nothing of this, we only have the report of the gospels which is a bit unreliable in the sense that the accounts bring in different elements to suit their audience and the way that the evangelist chooses to tell the story. However, the core of the story is the same.
Today we are firmly in the camp of the believers. Not because we are easily persuaded or protected from doubt, but we are convinced. The stone is not rolled away because of some conspiracy because money has passed hands. The stone is rolled away and the tomb is empty because of the one who went into the tomb, Jesus, could not be left among the dead. He could not be cast into outer darkness. He couldn’t be restrained by the stone which seals everyone’s place of rest. He is the Lord of life.
It should have ended here, if it started with deception, the story would have withered in the vine. Jesus should not be remembered. Jewish rabbis whose lives end in such a way are soon forgotten. He is dead, his wounds prove it, the tomb is sealed and everything had ended. A slight disturbance in a far away place that wouldn’t even have come to the attention of rulers is over, there is nothing to fear from him, nothing to make anyone lose sleep.
But just as the Gospel tells us there is something seismic here, the world changes. There is something here that changes everything. The news of his death and resurrection will run like fire to the end of the earth and in different ages that will follow. Many will come to believe even although they never saw.
Nothing can restrain Jesus. Not the cloths that bind him, nor the darkness of the tomb, nor the stone that seals it, nor the gaurds that stand watch over the tomb. He comes from the tomb bringing a new life, a new purpose, a new hope, a new way of living, a new outlook and a new creation.
In the body of Jesus God is creating mankind anew. They are not to be bound for death but for life. In the resurrection, like in Genesis, God is creating human beings anew starting with his own son Jesus.
We are not re-born for death. We are reborn for joy and life, for truth and purpose. At Easter we are given a new life, a new purpose, a new way of living and a new direction.
We are not immune from the confusion of conflicting stories of the resurrection in the Gospel itself nor are we immune to the doubt that was put about regarding the body that may have been stolen. The Gospel themselves pose the question to us can we believe or can we not in what they see and what they testify to.
On an Easter day we say that we firmly believe that Jesus came from the tomb. We firmly believe hat the tomb and the stone which covered it could not restrain the Lord of life. We firmly believe that he appeared to his friends. We believe in a new life that comes with Easter, a new hope and a new purpose. Like the women in the Gospel we are both joyful and afraid for all this means.