April 24, 2011

Suddenly Jesus met them

Passage: Matthew 28:8-9

So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him.


In September of 2010 a news story reported that police in India were asking residents not to be afraid of talking Volkswagen ads appearing in two of the country’s largest newspapers.  The Volkswagen Vento ad—an advertisement that used a small device with a chip, a speaker and batteries—prompted numerous calls to police in New Delhi when a voice began reading the print ad aloud in a style similar to a radio commercial.  Police said some people reported hearing ghosts and some set off bomb scares due to the ads playing in trash cans.

Last week I read some articles that, in a manner of speaking, invited me not to be afraid; afraid of that nasty, untameable declaration by the New Testament authors of the bodily resurrection of Jesus.  One author had come to the conclusion that “the resurrection story is more metaphorical than literal”.  Why?  ‘”The most obvious reason is”, continued this author, “it’s more believable”.  (Of course, I started to wonder if I really wanted to reduce existence to only the things I find “believable”).

Another writer pointed out that “even top-notch biblical scholars cannot fully unravel the mystery of what happened after Jesus’ death based on the resurrection narratives .... After all, no one caught it on camera”.  This author assured me that “Easter is symbolic”; “symbolic of victory after suffering for what is right. Evil doesn’t prevail. You can kill the body, but not the soul.” (By now my cynicism is in full gear; I am wondering, if Easter is merely symbolic how do you know what it symbolizes?)

It seemed to me that these authors are a bit like the New Delhi police trying to assure people that the voices they heard was just a talking Volkswagen ad.  Don’t be afraid of the frightening aspects of this resurrection story—that is the “unbelievable” bits—the whole thing is a metaphor, a symbol.  The reason we are not to be afraid of Easter, according to these authors, is because it is not really frightening—there is nothing here to be afraid of—just a metaphor.  The New Testament says the opposite; as Matthew tells the story the reason the angel and Jesus tells the women not to be afraid is precisely because it is frightening.

1.  It is important to note that author Carol Meyer was correct when she wrote: “After all, no one caught it (resurrection) on camera.”  This is to note that the New Testament authors agree that no one witnessed the resurrection; no one saw what happened in the tomb between the time the lifeless body of Jesus was placed there and the opening of the grave on Sunday morning.  According to Matthew, the angels open the tomb not to let Jesus out but so the followers of Jesus could see in and take note that Jesus was no longer there.  It is worth noting that Jesus’ enemies and followers agree on this point—the body of Jesus was no longer in the grave when they looked in that Easter morning.  Everybody agreed that the tomb was empty.

Nevertheless, no early-day Christian believed upon Jesus risen because of an empty tomb.  Early-day Christians believed upon Jesus risen because the living Lord Jesus himself had seized them and convinced them that he was alive and was in fact the very one they had seen crucified.  This is the only reason anyone believed in the resurrection of Jesus then; it's the only reason anyone believes in the resurrection now.

True mystery cannot be discovered—only revealed.  And even after revelation such mystery cannot be explained.  What happened that Easter morning?  I understand fully why many find the events of that Easter morning recorded by the Apostles difficult to believe—they are staggering.  Especially if we commit in advance only to believe the things we can explain.  People who find the details of the story hard to embrace have rightly understood what the gospels say.  There is nothing in our experience of life and death that could prepare us for such an event; in fact everything about our experience of death writes the word impossible across the page of this story.
Historically speaking, I have become convinced that if Jesus is not raised the name of Jesus would never be on our lips.  If the grave was the end for Jesus then the story of yet another first century hapless messianic claimant crucified by Rome would never have seen the light of day.  The dispirited disciples, terrified for their own lives, would have spent the rest of their lives trying to erase the outcome of their folly for having followed Jesus in the first place.  But even this is not the reason I believe that Jesus is raised bodily from the dead.

The hinge of the story in these words: suddenly Jesus met them.  It is while the disciples huddle in fear, afraid of the abuse and torment and untimely death that they have seen Jesus himself suffer; it is while they are immobilized by their fear that the one who has conquered what they still fear steals upon them.  They can’t explain how the risen Lord has penetrated their hideout.

Our Lord always reveals himself when and where he wills, in a manner beyond our comprehending.  To this day we can’t explain how the risen one looms before any of us; not being able to explain it, however, doesn’t prevent us from knowing it and glorying in it.  We can’t comprehend it (in the sense of mastering the logic of it), but we can certainly apprehend it as the risen one apprehends us, seizes us, and we seize him in turn.

2.  In Matthew’s resurrection story there were two groups of people at the tomb early that Sunday morning.  There were some followers of Jesus—all female—who had come to the tomb of their friend Jesus with spices to anoint the body.  There was another group of soldiers dispatched to make sure that Jesus stayed in the grave.

The soldiers shook with fear and became like dead men—they could see what was happening but too terrified to move.  It was to the women the angel said there was no need to fear and then said this: “I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified”.  An open heart God never despises.

The soldiers and women witnessed the same terrifying events; the difference was that the women came looking for Jesus, albeit who they thought dead.  The soldiers wanted to keep Jesus in the grave; the women came looking for Jesus.  Now this can also serve as a parable of our times.  Many would keep Jesus in the grave; others come looking for Jesus.

The same troubling details confront both as we stand in front of the tomb.  I invite you to note that it was to the women that Jesus eagerly makes himself know.   Suddenly Jesus met them.  Any who seek him however hesitantly he will never turn away. So our risen Saviour continues to make himself known today.  I cannot explain how it is that our Lord had made himself known to me; nonetheless I can no more deny his reality than can these women when Jesus met them as the hurried from the tomb.  It wouldn’t matter how many times you told them that what they saw was a figment of their imagination they know differently because Jesus has convinced them that he is alive; believers throughout history confess the same.

3. Let me ask you—if the world’s cable news networks were camped out at the tomb that resurrection morning and captured the whole thing on video (if instead of sermon we were rolling the news clip); if Jesus had left the disciples a DNA sample for verification that it really was the crucified Jesus; would such evidence seal the deal and make it all true?  The question still remains—what does it mean.
I do have sympathy for those who find the details of the resurrection accounts hard to embrace; in grappling with what happened that resurrection morn there is a perception that there is some deeper meaning here; be it metaphor or symbol.  Indeed, I think it wrongheaded to reduce this story to merely metaphor or symbol; still even in such reductions there is the tacit admission that there is more to this story than meets the eye.

On the other hand even if we have video and DNA and sufficient other evidence to establish the details as incontrovertible fact would that establish the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection?  There is more to this story than religious bragging rights for Christians that our guy performed the more amazing feats.  You may recall that in the exodus from Egypt the sorcerers in Pharaoh’s court could match some of the wonders performed by Moses by God’s power—that is until the third plague.  So is the resurrection so we can stand back and observe that Jesus upped the ante so no one could match him?
It is sad to observe that many preachers proclaiming the resurrection today will reduce it to mere symbol or metaphor; it is equally sad that many will preach it as bragging rights as if they can prove Jesus risen by some external measure and speak with condescension on others.
Suddenly Jesus met them.  The point Matthew is making is that it is the crucified Jesus who meets them.  The Jesus whose agony these women observed that awful Friday is the same Jesus who now meets them thisresurrection morn.  The cross and resurrection are inextricably linked in Jesus Christ.  The Apostles everywhere announce that the resurrection of Jesus is the vindication that what Jesus did on the cross for our sin is effective.

Is this meaning of the resurrection obvious from the fact of the resurrection? This is to ask, when you read the story of Jesus death and resurrection and get to this point in the story where Jesus first appears and meets these women it is somehow obvious that God must be doing something for our sin?  This too is revealed to us by Christ just as he comes to make its meaning known to the disciples.
When Jesus died on Black Friday, his followers had concluded that his cross meant one thing: his suffering was utterly disastrous and completely useless.  But when God raised him from the dead, they come to know something else: God had vindicated Christ's suffering and now advertised it as victorious.  The resurrection of Jesus – and only his resurrection – turned Black Friday into Good Friday, “God’s Friday.” Resurrection means that our Lord's cross-bearing has triumphed: atonement has been made for the sins of the world.

4.  One final note; the response of the women upon seeing Jesus.  And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. The risen Lord is among us today making himself known; how it is that he does so in scripture, sermon, and sacrament is mystery; that he does can nonetheless be apprehended.  May we, with the joy of these women, take hold of him too.