“They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn the saving deeds that he has done.”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: Amen
The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate 63and said, ‘Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, “After three days I will rise again.” 64Therefore command that the tomb be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, “He has been raised from the dead”, and the last deception would be worse than the first.’ 65Pilate said to them, ‘You have a guard* of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.’*66So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone. Matthew 27:62-66
So begins Matthew’s version of the account of Jesus’s resurrection. Our lectionary does us a bit of a disservice because it has the reading appointed for this Easter Day begin where the other author’s begin their telling of the Easter story with the dawn of the first day of the week. But as Raymond Brown, a renowned biblical scholar eloquently and clearly demonstrates in his book of essays on the Easter Gospels, “A Risen Christ in Eastertime,” Matthew’s telling of the story begins not with the first day of the week but with the seventh. Saturday not Sunday. He does so by showing how the structure of the story of the resurrection of Jesus displays the same five- fold structure found in the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew in the telling of the story of Jesus birth.
I must confess that every time I read this Gospel, I am drawn to this story about the guards. This could be because as a boy I was always fond of stories about people in uniform, policeman, firefighters, and most especially soldiers of every era. But I suspect the deeper reason is that Matthew wants us to pay attention to them as he is the only gospel writer to include this part of the story.
As I wrote to you and the rest of the diocese in my Easter letter. Whenever I read this story one place I always go is to the he opening cut on Pat Matheny’s album First Circle, a dissonant and farcical march entitled simply, “Forward March.” I don’t know what inspired him to write the piece but every time I hear it I picture the guards placed by Pilate and the authorities at the tomb of Jesus. I picture them parading around the tomb filled with self-importance and certainty of purpose looking as silly as the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion do when the don the uniforms of the guards at the castle of the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz while fulfilling their mission to make the tomb of Jesus as secure as they could.
Our faith helps us to see the humor in that command from Pilate, “Go, make it as secure as you can.” We know that nothing can hold God’s love in. God’s love and power burst forth from the tomb and the stone is rolled away to reveal that it is so. God’s love is so great that nothing can hold it in. That is what make’s Pilate’s command comical.
Why does Matthew include this part of the story? It could be that it is simply a rebuttal of the assertion of those who did not believe the good news of the resurrection, an assertion that Matthew believes was planted by those who opposed Jesus from the start. “His disciples stole the body.” A falsehood that persists among some to this day. It could be that Matthew is writing to a community that is experiencing the first throes of separation between church and synagogue ( a separation it is our duty in this age to mend) and he is asserting the primacy of the first day over the seventh. But perhaps there is more.
Could it be that Matthew mentions the guards because he wants his first hearers and us to consider the guards that we place around the tomb of Jesus, guards that keep us from truly knowing and living the power and truth of his resurrection?
What are some of the guards that you have placed there?
An unwillingness to truly accept God’s love and forgiveness. The desire to persist in thinking that God’s love is dependent and conditioned by your actions rather than on God’s grace and Being. Do they have names like Anger, Resentment, Fear, Selfishness, Fatalism, Defeat, Prejudice, Obsession, and Disbelief? I know both as a pastor and fellow traveler on the way that at times our human frailty and failings—pride, fear, prejudice, lack of charity toward ourselves and others, unwillingness and inability to accept that we are loved—can keep that power from working fully in us.
Today, the angel of the Lord descends. He makes those guards fall dead. The stone is rolled away and the power of God’s love is shown to be stronger than any guard, stronger than any principality or power. He proclaims to the women at the tomb and to us that Jesus has been raised from the dead. And all that would keep us from knowing and living that truth loses its power once and for all.
The resurrection of Jesus is God the Father’s action to show us God’s faithfulness. On the cross Jesus commends himself to the Father. In the resurrection we see the result of that commendation. God is faithful to those we are faithful to him. Nothing can holds God’s love in.
Nothing can hold God’s love in.
But there is more. We know that when a child is ready to be born it is ready. Could it be that Matthew by structuring his telling of the Resurrection story with the same five-fold structure of the birth of Jesus wants us to see that the Resurrection is more than just a victory over death? It is a new birth.
This struck me as I prayed the 22nd psalm these last few days. Psalm 22 is the psalm of Holy Week. We all know how it begins. Jesus utters its first verse from the cross. My God, My God why have you forsaken me?
But do you know how it ends. I’ll give you a hint. I began this sermon with it. They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn the saving deeds that God has done. My brothers and sisters today this verse is fulfilled in your hearing. In the resurrection of Christ, a new people is born. People who know that death is not the last word, people who know that nothing can separate us. People who are more than conquerors through the deathless love of Christ.
And because we know this to be true we can go forth from this place clear that our call is to participate in God’s mission making known the saving deeds that God has done in Christ with our lips and in our lives confident in the words of that great Easter hymn.
Easter triumph, Easter joy these alone do sin destroy,
From sins power do thou set free souls newborn O Lord in thee.
In Christ we are born anew.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (I Peter 1:3).