What is the true Easter story?
As we have been following the telling of the Easter story in Matthew 28, we’ve learned that some women who were followers of Jesus, early on the Sunday morning after Jesus died, discovered an angel waiting in front of his empty tomb. Check out the previous two posts here and here to learn more. The angel gives them instructions to go tell Jesus’ disciples this news.
The women run to tell the disciples, and in his account, Matthew describes them as afraid, yet filled with joy. I love how real that description sounds. How many times have you yourself experienced that kind of mixed emotion? Maybe you’re starting a new job, and you’re excited, and yet feeling some nerves. I feel that way with my doctoral program. I’m excited when I get to read new books, excited when I think about learning, but I also feel dread because I know it will be hard work.
Let’s take a moment to imagine the mixed emotions in the hearts and minds of these women. In a whirlwind matter of hours, the Jews and Romans conspired together and killed their dear friend Jesus. Their ecstatic joy on Palm Sunday turned to doubt and frustration and confusion and fear just a few days later on Good Friday. Saturday was empty and dark and gray. Sunday the women wake up and head the grave thinking about placing extra spices on his body. Were they also wonder if his talk about rising again might be true? Were they afraid the Romans were out looking for them now too? And then they see the angel…the angel! Talk about a roller-coaster of emotions in a week’s time!
Filled with that mix of emotion, they rush back into the city to tell the story to the disciples. Just at that moment, right there on the road back to Jerusalem, Jesus himself appears to them. I find this astounding. Jesus’ first post-resurrection appearance is not to any of the 12 men who were his disciples. He does not appear first to Peter, James or John, the three men in his inner circle, arguably his best friends. He appears to the women. We have seen this time and time again in his ministry and in the teachings of the New Testament writers, in the Kingdom of God all are equal. There is no difference. Jesus is not afraid to be counter-cultural in the way he loves and in who he includes in the Kingdom of God – it’s the heart of the person that matters.
He greets them and they fall to the ground, grabbing his feet in worship. I know you and I aren’t used to that kind of worship. We’re more accustomed to a big hug when we see a close friends, or to raising our hands in worship. Maybe clapping and cheering when we’re excited. But not falling to the ground and touching someone’s feet. To them, that was an act of joyful worship. They had finally seen the risen Lord, and the angel’s story was confirmed.
As the women kneel before him, what are Jesus’ first words after greeting them? “Do not be afraid.” That’s twice now we’ve heard that, right? First from the angel. Now from Jesus! That’s helpful to us. In the midst of earth-shaking realities, whether it is Jesus’ death and resurrection, or whether it is a world-wide pandemic, Jesus says to us too, “do not be afraid.”
He then repeats what the angel had said, the mission: “Tell the story. Head to Galilee.” But now the story includes, “And guess what??? We saw him! He is alive!”
Look at verses 11-15. At the same time as the women are running to tell the story of good news to the disciples, Matthew shifts the scene back to the guards who had fainted outside Jesus’ tomb when the angel appeared. The soldiers having revived, are running back into the city at the same time as the women. The soldiers hurry to the temple and report everything they saw to the chief priests.
It makes me curious…when they heard about an earthquake and the angel, did any of the priests give even a couple seconds to consider that the true story might be true? Or did they think the soldiers were lying? Did they send a CSI team down to the tomb to investigate the soldiers’ story, rope off the premises and look for evidence? Or were the soldiers so convincing that the priests believed them right away? It is a bizarre situation. All we know from Matthew is that the priests and leaders are dead set against Jesus and his followers, so they create a false story to de-legitimize them.
The chief priests and leaders concoct a story that Jesus’ disciples stole Jesus’ body, and the chief priests pay the soldiers a large bribe to tell that story.
Notice that what the chief priests and leaders command the soldiers is basically the same command that angel and Jesus told the women: Tell a story. Story is quite powerful. Story shapes our world. It matters what story we tell. Now we have two stories in this passage. One true story, filled with hope for the oppressed, with joy for those who mourn and a vision for a whole new world. We also have a false, devious, selfish, destructive story, preserving power for powerful, wealth for the wealthy. Two competing stories.
Matthew tells us that this false story was widely circulated even to the very day he was writing. How long after this was he writing? Scholars guess it was in the vicinity of 20-30 years after the events of the resurrection. That means the false story persisted for a long time, and we know 2000 years later, that the false story is still around today.
Thankfully, the true story is still around too! More on that in our next post.