I always remember a comic book I bought when I was a young fellow. It was from the tales of the crypt or some such macabre series. I think I bought it as part of a pile at a school fair somewhere, it wasn’t my normal taste in graphic novels (to use the new grown up term).
It was the story of a prison break from a harsh and brutal prison on some desperate island. The only way that people got out of this place was in a wooden box and then the trip wasn’t far it was to the graveyard on the mainland. A prisoner in the comic hatched a cunning plan. He worked in the woodshed making coffins and he built up a friendship with the man whose job it was to come and bury the prisoners on the mainland and together they hatched a plan. When the next poor soul died the prisoner would hide in the coffin with the body be transported over to the cemetery, he’d have to be buried as the coffins were always accompanied by guards, and then his friend would dig him back up and he would escape.
The day came and a someone died and was wrapped up in a shroud and the prisoner snuck into the wood shop at night and hid in the coffin with the body. The next day he was transported over to the mainland and buried in the ground. He waited and waited for his friend to come and dig him up. He had some matches with him and a pocket watch and from time to time would strike a match check the time. Hours went past, his friend didn’t come, the prisoner was aware that his air was running out. He found himself struggling to breath, he began to panic. Scratch at the coffin lid till he was exhausted. He was down to his last match and when he lit it he used the light to check whose body it was in the coffin with him. You guessed it was his friend. The comic books last panel was a scream echoing round an empty graveyard. There was no escape. I had night mares for months after that.
If the gospel ended at Matthew 27 with two women weeping at a tomb, their hopes of new life and salvation dashed, as they had watched the one who offered them that hope die in pain and agony on a Roman torture machine, it would be as stark and horrific as that comic book. There is no escape, there is no new life. Death and the powers of this world would have won.AS Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 “if that were the case then we are to be pitied amongst all people’ We have a false hope. But the story does not end there, does it. As Mark Woodley says in his commentary on Matthew’s gospel, one word, one little word changes the world. The greek word ergerthe, which we translate “he is risen” changes everything. Jesus the only one to come into our broken world and leave it and come back again is able to say…
“There is life beyond these prison walls of sin, evil and death. All things can be restored. All broken lives can be healed. All sad tales can become untrue. I know the way out. I’ve blazed a trail to freedom. But you have to trust me; you have to follow me.” –Mark Woodley
Matthew’s account of Jesus resurrection unfolds in three scenes, at the empty tomb, back in Jerusalem with the religious authorities and finally on a mountain in Galilee. Each invite us to reflect on the fact that Jesus is risen and how we respond to the amazing truth that he is not here he is risen.
It’s a profound truth and so Jesus that Mary Magdalene, and this other Mary were the first to be told of Jesus resurrection and to meet Jesus risen to life. Mary Magdalene is introduced to us in Luke’s gospel as ‘one from whom seven demons were driven out of’ she was as we’ve been looking at over the past few Sundays one who would easily fit into the beatitudes, aware of her own spiritual poverty, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, aware of the sickness of sin in the world and aware of Jesus offer of healing and wholeness. She would have had her hope shattered by the crucifixion and is left mourning at a tomb side wondering if she is still imprisoned in her spiritual poverty. The other Mary so anonymous to us she is simply known as the other Mary. It is to these women, that Jesus appears first, who are given the honour of being the first to go tell the wonderful news that Jesus is alive. Jesus meets them with the hope of new life, that the grave cannot conquer and a new start, and his renewed presence with them. The prison of sin and the death does not win but rather they have been broken open. He meets them with the truth that those who mourn will be comforted, that the kingdom of God is for the spiritually poor and broken, because Jesus continuing presence is with us. Not just a few spiritual superstars, but for all of us. It’s the hope of the resurrection as NT Wright says “While we cannot meet Jesus in the way the women did that morning. Of course it is a vital part of Christian belief and experience that we can and should meet Jesus in spirit, and get to know him as we worship him and learn from him.” Jesus is alive and knowable…to all. If we are open to believe.
Some might say of course Matthew would say that, of course he’d say that the authorities had to make up a story. They had to explain the empty tomb; all they needed to do to stop all the rumours was go and talk with Joseph of Aramethia and check his tomb out. But they had the most to lose they had the most invested in the old order, the old way of doing things. Sadly people like Copernicus were confronted by the same thing from the religious people of his day. Who had so much invested in a different understanding of the universe that they would not accept his ideas that the earth and the other planets revolved round the sun. To do so was to change to give up the power to form people’s thoughts.
It’s not a new thing to doubt or disbelieve in the resurrection. It’s not a new thing a scientific worldview to say that resurrection of the dead is impossible. The people of Jesus day knew that, people don’t come back from the dead. It’s impossible; it is not a natural phenomenon, its God at work. We can look for other reasons to explain it; down through history people have done this. This by the way is not a message on the proof of the resurrection, I believe it is rational to believe in Jesus risen from the dead and as the angel told Mary as recorded in Luke’s gospel “with man it’s impossible but with God all things are possible”. But to accept that Jesus rose from the dead is to be confronted with Jesus as God’s son, to see that Jesus life and his teachings and his death are God’s work, it is a call to trust in Jesus, listen to what he said and put it into practise, and give our lives over to him.
Unlike the other gospel’s Matthew does not take us through Jesus appearances to the disciples and other witnesses in Jerusalem, it’s important for him that he cuts to the third resurrection scene on the mountain in Galilee. Mountains are significant in Matthew’s gospel, as a jewish man he equates encounters with God with mountain tops. Jesus Sermon on the Mount is on a mountain, his other long sermon in the gospel is given on the Mount of Olives, and they book end his public ministry. In the Old Testament the people of Israel encountered God on Mountains as well, Mt Horeb in the Sinai and of course Mt Zion where the temple was. The disciples encounter Jesus transfigured on a mountain and now they encounter Jesus risen and alive on a mountain. It says that some worshipped him but some doubted. What that means is open to interpretation, maybe as good Jewish men they were uncomfortable about worshipping Jesus, for them only God is to be worshipped so they may not have been fully convinced that Jesus was indeed God’ son or they may have wrestled with Jesus risen from the dead. We are familiar with Thomas’ story. And Jesus starts his commission for all his followers for the church and a group wrestling with doubt, can I just say that liberating, it shows the grace of God, and there is hope for us.
The gospel of Matthew is bookended by the amazing assertion that in Jesus, God is with us. Right at the beginning in Matthew’s narrative of Jesus birth an angel appears to Joseph and tells him that the his fiancee is pregnant by the Holy Spirit and the child is the one mentioned in the book of Isaiah, a virgin will have a son and his name will be Immanuel’ which means God with us. At the very end of the Gospel Jesus risen from the dead meets his disciples on a hill top in Galilee and commissions them, his last words to them and a promise that echoes down through two thousand years to us today “and lo I am with you to the end of the age.” In Christ God is with us. Not just some dead guy way back when, a good teacher with some radical ideas who was killed by people who rejected his teaching. But Jesus risen from the dead, alive the victorious son of God. You and I can know the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ in our lives today. You and I can know the presence of Jesus as we go about doing what Jesus calls us to do to make disciples.
He is not here… he is risen… he is with us… go and tell.