April 12, 2020
Matthew – a gospel for doubters – J. Barry Vaughn – Easter Day – April 12, 2020
On this Easter Day Matthew’s gospel has pride of place. You may not realize that the Episcopal Church and most other so-called “mainline churches” (including the Roman Catholic Church) follow a three-year cycle of readings called the “lectionary.”
Every Sunday no matter what church you attend, you will hear more or less the same readings. The key to the lectionary is the gospel reading. At least one of the other readings will illuminate or illustrate something about the gospel reading. Matthew’s gospel is used in Year A; Mark’s gospel in Year B; and Luke’s gospel in Year C.
The reason that John’s gospel does not get its own year is that John tells the story of Jesus in a significantly different way than the other three gospel writers. Also, we use John extensively during the seven Sundays of the Easter season.
The reason I start with this relatively dull lesson about the lectionary is that Easter this year gives Matthew a chance to shine. Today we hear the Easter story from Matthew’s point of view, and I am going to christen Matthew the gospel for doubters.
Matthew helps us understand how we can hear the story of Easter and still doubt.
First, Matthew gives us another way to understand the significance of the empty tomb.
All four of the gospel accounts of Easter tell us that the tomb was empty. By itself, the empty tomb seems not to have convinced anyone, including Jesus’ followers, that he had risen from the dead. In John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene comes to the empty tomb and begins to weep. Jesus, whom she thought was guy who had come to mow the grass in the cemetery, asks why she is weeping, and she says, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid his body.”
Immediately before Matthew’s account of the resurrection, he tells us that Jesus’ opponents went to Pilate, the Roman governor of Palestine, and reminded him that Jesus had claimed that he would rise again “after three days.” So, they asked Pilate to place a guard around the tomb so that the friends of Jesus could not steal his body and claim that he had risen, and Pilate complied with their request. (Matthew 27.62-66)
Then after Jesus rose, the same opponents who had convinced Pilate to place guards at Jesus’ tomb, went to the guards and bribed them to say, “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.” (Matthew 28.11-15)
Several years ago, a Presbyterian friend of mine preached an Easter sermon in which he said that we believe in the empty tomb, but I think he was wrong. We believe that the tomb was empty, but the empty tomb is not the Easter proclamation. We do not sing and shout, “Alleluia! The tomb is empty!” Our message is, “Christ is risen! Alleluia!”
By itself the empty tomb is an ambiguous sign. It might indicate that grave robbers took away the body of Jesus or that Joseph of Arimathea, the rich man who gave the tomb to Jesus, changed his mind and had Jesus’ body moved to a simpler and less expensive resting place. Or as the story in Matthew indicates, it might mean that the followers of Jesus moved his body.
The second reason I think of Matthew as the gospel for doubters is that during the last appearance of the Risen Lord in Matthew’s gospel, the author writes that “when they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” (Matthew 28.17)
Even when they saw the Risen Lord with their own eyes some doubted. Did it seem just too good to be true? Did they believe that their eyes were playing tricks on them? We’ll never know. But I imagine that all of us know that doubt and faith are close friends.
Indeed, I would say that it is impossible for faith to exist without doubt. The opposite of faith is not doubt; it is certainty. God does not ask us to be certain; God only asks us to have faith, to trust, and perhaps doubt is always mingled with trust, even in the presence of the Risen Lord. I know that’s how it is in my own life.
I want to draw your attention to one more detail in Matthew’s account of the resurrection of Jesus. After the women hear the angel’s proclamation that Jesus “has been raised,” they run back to the other apostles “with fear and great joy.” (Matthew 28.7-8)
The only other gospel that tells about the women’s state of mind is Mark who ends his gospel with the odd statement “for they were afraid.” (Mark 16.8)
Matthew’s account strikes me as truer to human nature. “Jesus has been raised!” is a message of incomprehensible joy; it is also a message that must have been terrifying.
The women were in a place where the ordinary certainties of life no longer applied. The dead did not stay in their graves. Angels had come down from heaven. Even hardened Roman soldiers were struck with terror. What were simple Palestinian peasant women supposed to do? How could they bring such a message back to the other apostles?
Isn’t that true in our own lives? Not only are doubt and faith next door neighbors, so are fear and joy.
The resurrection is not the kind of event that you can stroll away from as though you were picking flowers in the meadow on a spring day. It is not the kind of event that you can leave with calmness. You may leave with fear because you’ve been scared out of your mind. Or you leave with great joy as though you have just seen your first-born child emerge from the womb. More likely you leave feeling both fear and great joy. That is the mark of authenticity. That is how we feel when we encounter the Risen Lord.
But if you feel neither fear nor great joy, do not despair. Jesus still wants you. He comes to us when we are afraid and when we rejoice, when we have faith and when we have nothing but doubt.
This is the strangest Easter of my life and probably of yours, as well.
John’s gospel tells us that only a week after Easter, the disciples were huddled in their house with the doors locked because they were afraid of the religious authorities, we, too, are huddling in our homes in fear or at least anxiety. We are “sheltering in place” for fear of COVID-19, a mysterious virus and its accompanying disease that has come out of nowhere. And when we finally emerge from our homes, we will face another fear: namely, the economic aftermath of this pandemic that has brought the world’s economy practically to a standstill.
The first account of the resurrection is not in any of the four gospels. It is in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15. Paul not only gives an account of Christ’s resurrection; he also tries to explain its meaning.
He says that Christ is the “first fruits of those who have died.” (1 Cor. 15.20) In other words, the tomb is not only a place of death and decay, it is also a place of ripening. God is harvesting the dead, and Christ is the first. But as Christ was raised from the dead, so will all of us who put our faith in him.
If you are like me, then your home may be starting to feel somewhat tomb-like. It feels as though life has stopped. But God’s promise to us is that there is life beyond the COVID-19 pandemic; there is life beyond the tomb.
While we are sheltering in our homes, let this be a time of ripening. Use this time to become acquainted and re-acquainted with the Risen Lord. His time in the tomb lasted three days; ours may last much longer. But just as God summoned Christ from death to new life, so will God summon us out of our homes, out of our fear of disease and death, out of our fear of economic distress.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!