Fr. David's sermon
27th March 2005
'And suddenly there was a great earthquake.'
Your kind Christmas gift of a DVD player has revived my interest in film. I found myself imagining that the four evangelists were film directors and asking, what kind of films they would have made? Mark with his short, snappy gospel might have made an animated version. Luke with his gospel of compassion would have come up with a 'weepy' with plenty of 'love interest' provided by Mary Magdalene. St. John, ever thoughtful would have made an art-house film, packed with hidden meaning and beautifully shot. But what of our saint, St. Matthew, he would have made an action picture with plenty of spectacular effects.
Why do I think that? The answer lies in today's Gospel account of the Resurrection. It includes two of those spectacular effects. First there is an earthquake. It is the second in two days, for Matthew also has an earthquake at the moment of Jesus' death with the graves opening and the dead rising. Then an angel appears like lightening rolling back the stone. There are echoes here of Daniel's 'ancient of days'. Only Matthew has this, Mark and Luke have angelic messengers but the stone was already rolled away when the women arrive at the grave.
Why then does Matthew put in an earthquake? He wants to draw our attention to the cosmic impact of the resurrection of Jesus. It wasn't a localised 'freak' event all those years ago; the Resurrection of Jesus transforms the universe forever. The risen Christ is Lord of the Universe. Matthew uses dramatic effects to show what the Resurrection means. The ancients would have been well used to such literary devices and would know what Matthew was getting at. Just as we can 'read' film, so we have to learn to 'read' the gospels if we are to discover their full meaning.
As we allow the dust to settle on those earthquakes there is more to discover. Mary Magdalene and Mary went to the tomb on the Sabbath. They arrived as the Sabbath ended, (about 6.00pm), and the first day of the week was beginning. Jesus had annoyed the chief priests and Pharisees by breaking the strict observance of the Sabbath. They had tried to block the resurrection on the Sabbath. Now as the Sabbath was ending, Jesus was raised from the dead. The soldiers whose job it was to guard the corpse of Jesus were stunned, 'like dead men'. The resurrection of Jesus cuts across the deadening effect of religious rituals and traditions. The old religion of Israel is replaced by that of the new Israel.
We now come to a common thread running through all the gospel versions of the Easter story. Behind all the embellishments and additions are an inner core of truth and a common making sense of what happened. Down the centuries has come the early Christian witness that the tomb was empty on the first Easter Day. When the women and the other disciples came to the tomb they found it unoccupied. There reaction was one of fear. What was the explanation, how could they make sense of it? Matthew gives us the answer; 'He is not here, for he has been raised.' Matthew was well aware of the other explanation that no doubt circulated as he wrote. He is quick to dismiss suggestions that that the disciples had stolen the body.
The angelic command to go and tell the others is another ancient tradition as is the reference to his going ahead to Galilee, 'where you will see him.' Mark, with is rather bare Easter story, leaves off at that point, with an empty tomb and frightened disciples heading off for Galilee in the hope of meeting the Risen Lord.
Older than the Gospel stories of the empty tomb is the powerful Christian testimony and witness to the appearances of the Risen Christ. St. Paul in I Corinthians 15gives us the earliest written account of this: - 'For I hand on to you what I in turn had received ... that he was raised on the third day... that he appeared...' Matthew writing later than Paul includes such an appearance. 'Suddenly Jesus met them and said, 'Greetings'. He refers to the disciples' response as one of fearful worship. Jesus tells them not to stay with the experience but rather to 'go and tell.'
Behind Matthew's special effects, those earthquakes and angels, lies the timeless truth of the Christian gospel, that on the first Easter Day the tomb was empty and that Jesus appeared to his disciples in such away as to convince them that he was and is alive, Risen from the dead. This has universal cosmic significance, then and now. According to a recent survey less than half of British adults know what Easter celebrates. That rather damningly points to our failure to be a missionary Church. As with the disciples our apostolic task is to worship our Risen Lord and then to go and tell.
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