Saturday, April 19, 2014

When the Saints Go Marching Out (Matthew 27:50-66 and Matthew 28:1-10)

Have you caught yourself lately wandering through the backyard or some part of town, just staring at the ground or the trees?  After a long, long winter, it’s inescapable, searching for any signs that the cold and snow has departed.  You scan the trees, hoping to spot a bud.  You stand over the tulips, willing them to blossom.  The drab brown lawn cannot green up quick enough.  You yearn for some sign that it’s finally Spring.

Little by little, nature surprises you.  The daffodil that was barely “there” yesterday has grown by leaps and bounds overnight.  The neighbor next-door muses that it’s nearly time to start mowing.  Even out for a drive, you cannot help but notice the calves and lambs starting to bounce across the pastures, giddy with life.

After a winter so interminable, the euphoria of Spring we feel about now is quite understandable.  Spring is beginning, even if it means pollen allergies and weeding awaits, we’ll take it gladly.

The Easter story is likewise a story of joy unfolding.  The Christian listens to the resurrection story gladly, even though we know life to be far more like winter at its bleakest. Here, we are told that the finality of finitude is given its comeuppance, a remarkable word when we feel so hemmed in by the ancient plot of life and death.  The glorious mystery of the Resurrection tears away at the veil of tears we call life.

Such a story shall prompt Paul to mock, “Death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”  Among the four gospels, we hear a chorus singing out:  “Why do you weep?  Why do you linger?  He is not here.  Go and tell the world Jesus is risen from the dead.”

In Matthew’s gospel, we encounter a vision of Easter that refuses to be left to wait until “the third day” comes to pass.  In Matthew’s recounting of the “Passion” (the last week and death of Jesus), we hear what is expected:  Jesus’ “show trial” before his accusers and an impassive Pilate, his sentencing to death, and then his crucifixion. One would expect such a reading to end with Good Friday’s somberness: “and he breathed his last”.  No foretaste of Easter Sunday would be expected.  In short, you’d think that Matthew 27 is about “death’s last word” and Matthew 28 is all “Easter alleluias”.

Yet even in the midst of the mournful tale of Christ on trial and then put to death, Matthew 27 interweaves the expected and the unexpected alike.  The familiar story of Empire striking down dissent is shown as the Roman authorities calculate how best to finish driving the last nail in the coffin to ensure Jesus is out of the picture and not lifted up as posthumous martyr.  They go to the extreme of extra security of sending guards to keep watch and sealing the massive stone over the tomb entrance.  As far as Rome considers things, the minor threat of Jesus and his sedition is over.

The gospel of Matthew does not shrink away from the reality of Jesus’ death, yet Matthew counterpoints Pilate’s attempt to silence the story with tales of strange and disruptive events around the death of Jesus.  Even in Matthew 27 (Easter’s still a chapter away), telltale signs, even if fragmentary, start to appear. Pilate’s story is about to come unraveled.  No earthly authority (Empire or Temple) will have the last word, right down to death itself.

As the story of Jesus breathing his last comes about, inexplicable darkness covers the land.  The earth quakes mightily.  The Temple veil tears apart.  And even as Pilate thinks the matter is now resolved, one of his own men confesses a word of belief:  “Truly this man was the Son of God.”

Even in its accounting of the sad end of Jesus’ life, Matthew 27 begins to foreshadow the exuberant witness of Matthew 28. Matthew 27 lays the groundwork for the unexpected and the New about to unfold.  The finality of death begins to lose its grip, even as Jesus lies dead in a well-guarded tomb.

Once, just before Easter, I went to a coffee shop with "what do I say on Easter Sunday?" on my mind.  (Caffeine and preaching have a sometimes collaborative partnership.)  The café offers local artists the chance to display and sell their work.  Lately, a photographer set up an exhibit of flowers in extreme close-up.  As I looked around, I noticed one photograph of green leaves just beginning to break through the ground.  Pushing up from the dead grass and fallen leaves, the buds are a riot of sudden color in an otherwise drab, somewhat bleak scene.

As I stood there with coffee in hand, I thought to myself, “This is Matthew’s Easter!”

As the earth quakes and the centurion trembles, as Pilate seals the tomb’s stone into place while the Temple veil is in tatters, a curious greening takes place in the fabric of Creation.  Even as death seems to sweep away any hope, signs of crumbling Creation’s rescue begin to take root.  A new day is on the not so distant horizon, even as the guards settle down for the night.

In the midst of darkness, earthquakes, and political tumult, another extraordinary event takes place.  The tombs of the faithful are stirred, and the occupants are brought back to life.  Saints, Matthew calls them, are at the ready to come forth and testify to God’s at work in the world.

Matthew claims they still wait until Sunday, as Jesus himself is resurrected from the dead. These saints will be summoned to give witness, yet they do so only after the stone is rolled away and the first proclamation of “He is risen” cries out.  Jesus, the first fruit of New Creation, shall be the first to stride forth from the bonds of death.

Among New Testament scholars, this one little scene of the saints at the ready to go marching out baffles interpreters.  Only Matthew tells this story.  Questions abound as to its historical authenticity or its lack of parallel accounts with the other gospels. Did this happen or is Matthew adding something “extra” to the story?

What’s Matthew up to as he shows saints brought to life while the earth and human powers alike tremble?  Why not send down the heavenly host?  Why summon the saints, those who have gone before?

Certainly one imagines the saints are a “who’s who” of the women and men of Israel’s past.  It’s as if all the patriarchs, matriarchs, prophets, priests, and poets of our Sunday school lessons past have gathered in one place, ready to testify to God’s mighty works once more.  These persons of great faith still lived in the midst of the world, knew the pain and suffering that it brings, the hardship of being a witness to God in times of challenge.  They will enter Jerusalem, the city that rejected Jesus, testifying and witnessing to the events of Easter morn.

Another vein of interpretation looks at Matthew’s narrative and wonders if Matthew is foreshadowing events well beyond his gospel’s closing words.  Is this event past tense (happened only around the time of the “first” Easter) or hinting of what is still to come?

What we see at the first Easter in Matthew’s gospel prefigures what Christians are called to anticipate when the End comes.  The New Testament and subsequent Christian belief envision that day when “the old order passes away” and the New Creation is brought about.

On that final yet first day, the multitude of saints shall raise voices together in praise and song to Christ now and forevermore.  The first green leaves, the first buds yearning to flower, shall come into their fullness as Christ honors our faith’s promise and leaves his beloved, his saints not in the dust.  He raises those who wait in the tombs, the seeds of New Creation blossoming into vibrant, verdant new life.

So the gospel writer claims. On the first Easter, the saints go marching out.  They witness to what the authorities desperately try to keep under wraps:  a tomb is empty.

So it shall be as centuries of Christian belief hold to be true.  On the first day of New Creation, the saints shall rise again.  The saints shall enter the holy city, this time  New Jerusalem, wending their way to the throne of God.

Alleluia!  Amen.

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