“What remains empty? The tomb or us?”

Preacher: The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO, Assistant Priest

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

There is a lot of thunder and lightning, not to mention earthquaking going on in our readings tonight. From Matthew we have:

And suddenly there was a great earthquake … an angel of the Lord … came … his appearance was like lightning.

And in Revelation:

There were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and earthquake

In each case, all this tumult occurred at an opening. Of the tomb in Matthew and of God’s temple in Heaven in Revelation … both the same really, for the opening of the tomb on Easter Day is fundamentally connected to the opening to us, through God’s grace, of His temple in Eternity.

However, there was much more than just a physical cataclysm going on in the case of the opening of the tomb. Just like we must imagine will be the case when God’s temple is finally opened to us, the opening of the tomb represented something of a spiritual enormity that words seem difficult to express.

On the other hand, if we go back to the scene in our reading from Matthew, there is also something both anti-climactic and prosaic in the opening verses that follow the earthquake. I found it almost whimsical the way the second sentence finishes:

An angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone … and sat on it.

I have this image of the angel sitting with legs crossed, leaning back on his arms. There then follows some conversation. The two Marys are obviously afraid, astounded even. The angel calms them by telling them not to be afraid and then breaks the news about Jesus not being there. Then, as if to reinforce the point, the angel says:

Come, see the place where he lay.

That sounds quite prosaic to me, as if the angel were saying:

Look, if you don’t believe me, come in and have a look.

The angel then sends them away to tell the disciples what they have seen, or rather not seen. But, en route, Jesus comes to them; whereupon they fall to the ground and worship him.

In the light of preceding events, their spontaneous act of humble worship is hardly surprising. The very person whose corpse they had come to tend with burial rites now stood before them alive, speaking to them; in response they touch his feet in awe.

Here in this moment, the defeat of death is proven; the divinity of that person they had come to admire so much is proven at another much deeper level. Can there be any more point to the story?

Reflect for a moment on the complexity of events that had occurred in the lives of these two Marys – even just in the week before.

They had watched the man they had so admired be welcomed as a conquering hero into the city that was the heart of their identity as members of God’s chosen people. What a day that must have been. They had watched over the previous three years as he gathered admirers through miraculous deeds. But now, his reputation having gone before him, a throng of people many of whom could not have had any personal experience of his miracles or his articulate preaching came out to sing hosannas from their hearsay of him.

This must have seemed to the two Marys a moment of great victory for Jesus. There had been so many doubters along the way but now, proven by the crowd, the doubt was dispelled by the acclamations. They might well have thought, as in fairy tale language that everyone would ‘live happily ever after.’

But then, the two Marys must have begun to be troubled as the following five days played themselves out so differently. How did the events of those days fit the plan?

The fateful five days of Holy Week would become a battleground between Death and Life, Hate and Love. Some signed up as partisans of one side, some on the other, some wavered. The two Marys were among those who, according to Scripture, stayed the distance with Jesus. But that does not mean they understood what was actually happening during the progress of those fateful days. But come the morning of Easter Day, they would understand; at first only as far as human comprehension would let them, for we are told that after the conversation with the angel:

They left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy.

Then, as I mentioned moments ago, Jesus appeared to them and said “Greetings”. How ordinary a word to be said at the encounter of the immortal with the mortal – and yet how beautiful. In its simplicity, Jesus said so much; stripping away all the fears of a broken creation that must have been felt by these women at the Crucifixion. That simple, beautiful, warm and loving word causes them to crumble and they fell to the ground and worshipped him. Now, unlike on that tumultuous previous Sunday, Palm Sunday, they could feel that the fairy tale ending had become true; it was truly possible to think about living happily ever after; for they had seen the evidence of death defeated and of love triumphant.

But the two Marys were not the only people present that morning. There were also the guards. Like the women, they too were afraid and, we are told, shook. That fear overcame them so much that  they opted to play dead – a profoundly prophetic reaction as it turned out. There they were, pretending to be dead and were ignored by the angel, who never addressed a word to them. The angel might have said:  “Oh come on, it’s not an earthquake, it’s just me – a transcendent messenger from the God of all the universe – calm down”. But he didn’t. No, to their relief, the angel ignored them. Yet, even though their eyes were shut, they must have been listening and heard everything that was said. From the text, it is a little uncertain whether the women’s meeting with Jesus shortly afterwards was also within earshot of the guards. So we don’t know whether they also heard Jesus say “Greetings”; but they certainly heard the angel say “He has been raised from the dead.”

So, uncomprehending about the significance of all that had been happening around them, what did they do? Just as the two Marys rushed off to report the events; so too did the guards who rushed to tell the priests and the elders about what had happened. What reaction did the guards receive? In a word – disbelief. We shouldn’t be too hard on the priests and the elders at this point; because disbelief was actually the same reaction the two Marys encountered. It isn’t mentioned in Matthew’s gospel but in Luke 24:11 we read:

But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.

However, the difference between the priestly group and the Disciples at this moment is that the latter set out to investigate the claims of the women, with Peter rushing off to the tomb. The priests and the elders on the other hand followed a different course of action. They bribed the guards not only not to say anything but, more significantly, actually to say something; to tell lies about the events they had witnessed. They told the guards to say that they had fallen asleep and that the supporters of Jesus had stolen his body away.

From the point of view of the priests and the elders, there can be some understanding of their decision in the wake of the guards’ report. It would not have been beyond the realm of possibility that they genuinely believed that that is what must have happened. In all their experience, I think we could safely say, they would never have encountered a dead body coming back to life – these things just didn’t happen … dead was dead, there was no returning. So on the basis of their certain experience of that, here they heard these guards telling a fantastic story. It is not therefore a wildly illogical leap of thought to conclude that the guards had probably been drinking, had then fallen into a stupor which could have enabled Jesus’ followers to have come along and robbed the grave. Even if the guards had mentioned the subsequent encounter of the women with Jesus as well as the one with the angel, the priests and elders might have concluded that the guards had got carried away with their fantastic imaginings. So in the face of all the difficulties that an alternative explanation would mean with the people and, just as importantly, with the Romans, the priests and the elders opted for safety and created a story that might, just might they would have thought, worked.

But from the point of view of the guards – what explanation can there be to them buying the alternative story put to them by the priests and elder? They might well have been asleep, but they were certainly awake when the angel appeared; tonight’s reading leaves us in no doubt about this. So they would certainly have heard what the angel had said. But, as we read in Mark 4:12, there are some who will hear but not understand; and so it was with the guards. It was simply not conceivable to them that Jesus could actually have risen from the dead – that was an inconceivable notion, that a dead body could be alive again, more inconceivable than the proposition of an apparition appearing before them. So they opted to accept the explanation of the priests and elders against their own observations and experience – and they took the money, which must have made it all easier. In doing so, they traded death for life. They had taken the money and bought illusions and, thus, turned their back on reality.

But the guards had done more than that – they traded off life in exchange for death. They had been witnesses to the Resurrection. Their reaction: they played dead and they bought death – they chose to be dead to Christ.

This morning after the 10.30am I was asked what Easter has meant for me this year. The liturgies and rituals were, of course, the same as previous years; and this year I chose not to follow Lenten restrictions. I find every Easter and the lead-up to be very a deeply spiritual experience. But this year I felt so much more. The Easter Vigil service last week particularly spoke to me with a spiritual force more than ever before. At that service there is the recreation of the tomb being found empty and of the light of the now risen Christ illuminating a yearning world.

The tomb had become empty so that our lives could be fulfilled in Christ. In these seven days of Easter Week, the question has forced itself upon me – have I heard the loving greeting of the risen Christ or have I played dead to the true meaning of the Resurrection? Tonight’s Gospel reading therefore has spoken powerfully to me. What about you? Have you heard the risen Christ saying “Greetings”

In a moment the Choir will sing the Anthem; tonight it’s a piece by Bach. As they sing, I encourage you to focus on the English translation:

It was a strange and dreadful strife
When life and death contended;
The victory remained with life;
The reign of death was ended.
Stripped of power, no more it reigns,
An empty form alone remains
Death’s sting is lost forever!

As we reflect upon the Gospel reading tonight, may we ask ourselves, in the continuous resurrection that Christ presents to us, whether we choose life in Christ or not. Whether it will be the tomb that is ‘an empty form alone remain(ing)’  or us.