Scripture: Matthew 28:1–10
Matthew would have to hire Michael Bay to get his Resurrection story right. You may not recognize the director’s name, but you may recognize his work. Michael Bay is famous for the Transformer movies, and the Bad Boys movies, and Armaggedon and movies starring The Rock, and a movie titled The Rock. As you could guess, his style is big. And loud. And fast. It is full of big explosions, and fast car chases, and loud shootouts, and high energy and excitement. He’s been accused of making movies that are light on plot or character development…which makes sense: he doesn’t have time for such things before the next big explosion takes place!
The Gospel writer would have hired Michael Bay on the spot. In his version of the Gospel story, the women are quietly walking toward the tomb, with no express purpose or plan, when all of a sudden there is an earthquake. And then an angel, who literally has a face made of lightning! And this angel single-handedly moves the huge rock in front of the tomb so that the women can look inside. And then the guards stationed there—who would be played by the stereotypical dumb bodybuilder henchmen, totally freeze and become like dead men. Next, Lightning Face talks to the women—and I can imagine an urgent, Optimus Prime voice—“Look, see for yourself. He is not here. You must go right away to Galilee, where Jesus will be waiting on you. Go…get the disciples and get there…before it’s too late!” And the women take off in a full sprint, off to see what the angel is talking about. If they had a Lamborghini, this would be the time to jump in! I mean, I’m exaggerating a bit, but not much. The Resurrection in Matthew’s Gospel is kind of like an action movie! It would be Michael Bay’s crowning achievement.
Which kind of makes sense. Because one could make the argument that the premise of the whole Gospel is action. Over these last several months, we have explored this Gospel that paints a picture for us how we are to act. How we are to behave. Jesus sets out this ethical expectation for how we are to treat one another, inside and outside of the church. The whole thing doesn’t have the energy of a Michael Bay movie—more of an ethics lecture, actually—but in that lecture the goal is to show us how to act. How to live out this life of faith in very active and practical terms. Remember all the way back to the first week, in which we compared Matthew’s Gospel to the wisdom literature like Proverbs or Ecclesiastes. There is a pragmatic and practical wisdom to the life of faith that Jesus came to offer.
So if the premise of the Gospel is Jesus-inspired action, the problem in the Gospel is the opposite: inaction. Specifically, inaction caused by fear. I looked it up yesterday and there are 21 examples of the word “fear” or “afraid” or “frightened” in Matthew. And they all have this connotation of warning people not to be afraid to do something. The whole Gospel, angels and Jesus and the disembodied voice of God, everyone is saying “do not be afraid.” More specifically, “do not become paralyzed by fear.” Think back over the last few months:
- Joseph is told by the angel, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” Don’t be paralyzed by fear.
- Herod hears that there is a baby who is going to shake things up, and “he is frightened, he and all of Jerusalem with him.” The way of Empire is to be paralyzed by fear.
- Peter, up on the Mount of Transfiguration, wants to build a place to stay and worship, and Jesus tells him “do not be afraid…we have to go down the mountain because there is more work to do.” Don’t be paralyzed by fear.
- On the boat with the disciples in the storm, they are all terrified, and what does Jesus tell them? “Do not be afraid.”
- I could go on like this the rest of the morning, but skip back now to the story of the Resurrection. What does it say about these soldiers standing by the tomb? It says literally that they were paralyzed with fear. “They became as dead men.”
I would suggest that this message is not just for Matthew’s audience, but ours as well. Our world around us tells us there is a ton to be afraid of.
- Be afraid of books with different ideas…so let’s ban them.
- Be afraid of teachers who might share new thoughts with our children…so let’s control them.
- Be afraid of certain politicians or celebrities who say things with which we disagree…so let’s cancel them.
- Be afraid of transgender children…so let’s make laws to keep them from going to the bathroom!
Fear makes us do dumb stuff. It makes us freeze in old ways, status quo ideas, and “we’ve always done it that way” memories. This media-driven, culture-war-driven, orgy of fear is taking control of our society! We have to remember that there is a commercial benefit for the media to get us hyped up by the talking heads of fear, 24-7 on our big and little screens, cultivating this culture of fear!
Now, of course there are some things that we do need to be afraid of. Listening to the voices of real people who are afraid is valid and important. Matthew’s church had plenty of reason to be afraid. They were terrorized and oppressed and minorities in a culture that wanted them to stop talking about and worshipping Jesus. Fear is human. Fear is normal. In fact, here in this passage it says that the women responded with fear AND great joy. Fear is just going to be in the mix. But the problem seems to be when that fear paralyzes us to inaction. Fear is always going to be a part of the human experience. But don’t let it paralyze you. It’s OK to be afraid, but keep running to Galilee.
Which takes us back to the Michael Bay Resurrection story. Lightning Face the Angel has just told them “Go get the disciples and take them to Galilee. You aren’t going to see Jesus here, but you will see him there. I promise, you are not going to see Jesus until you get there.” And then they go, like, three feet, and Jesus shows up. And he doesn’t just show up. The NRSV is boring…he says “Greetings” like he is a docent at a museum or something. But the Greek word includes this connotation of explosive joy. It’s more like Jesus pokes his head out from behind a tree and yells, “Guess who!!!” And the women are all like “AAAAAA!” and Jesus is all like “AAAAAA!” And when I read it this week, my first thought was to feel bad for Lightning Face: “Dude, Jesus, I gave them the message like I was supposed to that they weren’t going to see you. What’s the deal? Now I look like a moron!”
But I think there is a theological point here that the Gospel is trying to get across. It is important to note that the women were running to get the disciples when Jesus shows up. I think that the Peterson translation captures this point well. It says that while the women were running, Jesus “stopped them in their tracks.” They had to skid to a halt to talk to Jesus! And I think that the theological point to that is this: We see Jesus in the going. In the doing. While we are living this Jesus ethic, living this Beatitude life, while we are doing these things…while we are practicing this way of life, suddenly, surprisingly, unexpectedly, Jesus shows up. While you are risking using your talents, the Master shows up. While you are caring for the least of these, it turns out to be Jesus. While you are living in the peace and humility and righteousness and meekness that stands against the violence and competitiveness of the Empire, that’s when Jesus stops you in your tracks.
So that is our alternative to a life paralyzed by fear. Like Joseph, we risk relationship with people who the world says are dangerous or unworthy. Like Peter, we risk leaving the safety of the mountaintop to help those in the valley. Unlike Herod, we allow people into our lives who are different and might even take away some of our power and privilege. Instead of allowing ourselves to be paralyzed by fear and inaction and status quo, we live the Jesus life…and then suddenly we see Jesus while we are running to Galilee. The life of faith is one of acting and doing and going and living out the life that Jesus has set before us.
Beth Moore shared a pretty cool post this past week that seems to capture some of this idea. She names the fact that a lot of folks have struggled a lot recently. She names the senseless deaths in Uvalde, and now Nashville. She talks about family members of hers who have lost loved ones, even children. She connects it to the agony that Jesus felt in Gethsemane. She calls it a “near-murderous grief.” And perhaps that is some of what you bring to this Easter morning. Perhaps the grief of this year and this week feels like it brings you to the edge of death itself.
Moore asked her mother-in-law, who once lost a 3-year-old in a tragic house fire, how she continued to operate. Continued to live life. Of course, she said, she didn’t want to. She just kept waking up. Just kept living life, even though the effect of that crushing grief was almost too much for her to bear. And Moore suggests that’s what Easter hope we have. That one day, maybe not now, but maybe beyond this moment of grief and pain, “because Jesus arose, you will arise.”
Friends, that is our Easter hope today. Just like the women, terrified and joyful all at once, kept going. Kept walking. Kept running. Kept acting in the ways that they had been instructed. Friends, Jesus is throwing us the keys to the Lamborghini. Let’s go!