First Thoughts on Year A Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Easter Sunday

William Loader

Easter Day: 12 April  Matthew 28:1-10

This Easter Sunday we can choose to run with Matthew or with John 20:1-18. Matthew's account of the discovery of the tomb is clearly a reworking of Mark's brief account in 16:1-8, but with significant modifications. In both, the centre point is that Christ has been raised. Mark's account ends with the enigmatic comment that the women said nothing for fear and at a surface level one is left wondering how on earth the movement progressed from there, unless the hint of the appearance to Peter is the wink which sets it all in perspective. Mark seems concerned to show human failure, now even by the women, who had not fled like the male disciples and whose actions, first the anointing of Jesus' head, then the anointing of his body for burial, embraced the passion account with faithfulness. Now that the women have failed, too, only a divine miracle will save the movement! And it did.

It may be that Matthew realises the somewhat maverick nature of Mark's account which is constructed to serve his educational purpose. It is unlikely that Matthew knew of the resurrection only through Mark's account. Matthew appears also to have known of women's direct involvement in the Easter appearances (as did John's gospel - see John 20) and is not prepared to sacrifice it by following Mark's agenda or by shifting the focus to the first male witness.

Matthew comes closer than does Mark to describing the raising itself, but stops a little short. He reports an earthquake. This Dickensian trait also appears in Matthew's account of Jesus' death. There tombs are reported to have split open and apparitions occurred (27:51-53). Such images normally describe the events with which history will come to a climax: the great resurrection and the day of judgement. By portraying Jesus' death and resurrection in such colours Matthew is saying that something of ultimate importance is taking place.

In Matthew's religious imagination the tomb could be open only because of an earthquake and it must have been the work of an angel who in the process rolled away the stone. The fact that he then sat atop it with an appearance like lightning and garments as white as snow, whereas Mark has a young man in glistening attire sitting in the tomb, would have bothered neither Matthew nor his hearers. For the truth being told demanded such licence and each did his best to colour its significance using the narrative decor of the period. Matthew's is all the more dramatic because he had reported the posting of guards who would have prevented any theft (an answer to one theory) and who are rendered lifeless by the occasion (a nice touch of reversal of roles).

The words of the angel largely match those spoken by the young man in Mark and form the centre piece of the story; 'You are looking for Jesus who was crucified; he is not here; he is risen, as he said.' Matthew adds 'as he said' to remind the hearers of Jesus' own predictions. The instructions to tell the disciples he was risen and that they should go to Galilee where he was going ahead of them also largely match what we find in Mark, except that Peter is not singled out for special mention as in Mark.

This feature, Peter's prominence as a witness, reflects the primary importance of such an appearance in the genesis of resurrection faith. For Paul's tradition also lists Peter as the first witness (1 Cor 15:3-5) and Luke also knows of Simon's unique experience (Luke 24:34).

Matthew is not intent on making that the primary vision; instead he has Jesus appear first to these women and has Jesus, himself, repeat the instructions. This definitely puts the disciples in second place and reinforces the truth of what the women heard, for they had now heard it twice. Twofold testimony was recognised as irrefutable for those who followed biblical law (Deut 19:15). In addition the women have not failed as in Mark. They have not fled in fear saying nothing, but have departed quickly in fear and great joy to do what they were told. Their reward is a personal appearance of the risen Jesus before whom they worship as later the disciples would do in Galilee (28:16-17).

Preaching on the resurrection raises a huge number of issues, whatever story we follow. The assumption is clearly a raising which left no corpse behind, but not a resuscitation such as with Lazarus in John 11. This is clearer in Paul and Luke than in Matthew but should also be assumed here. People would have understood it to be the type of body which others, too, would have at the general resurrection. Paul calls it a 'spiritual body' (1 Cor 15). Daniel spoke of shining like stars in the firmament (Dan 12). The transfiguration and the appearance of the angel also indicate the nature of the transformed state. This equivalence (between Jesus' resurrection embodiment and general resurrection embodiment) can also be useful today when we attempt to say what we mean by resurrection - his and ours.

The event means vindication of Jesus by God and so puts the focus in that sense back onto what Jesus said and taught (especially in Matthew; see 28:19). We should not see the event as proving resurrection as a belief, since that would have been widespread. It was more that this Jesus had been raised, had been raised first of all, and, as follows later in the chapter, has a role to exercise and a commission to give. That commission, in turn, directs attention to the ministry and teaching of Jesus as the good news.

Resurrection is not a departure from God's way with us as demonstrated during the ministry of Jesus, as if that had been an exceptional episode and not characteristic of God, but an affirmation that this is the way God was and is. Resurrection does, of course, entail reversal, but we need to guard against too much being reversed as if God (and Christ) have now reversed out of lowliness and compassion and as if now what matters now is to glorify the might and power of the divine. The one who meets us is, as we read in John and Luke, the one who carries in his being the marks of his passion and the being and becoming to go with it.

Gospel Alternative: Easter Day: 12 April  John 20:1-18
Easter Day: 12 April Colossians 3:1-4
Easter Day 12 April  Acts 10:34-43