It's the backstory that says something
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ reproduces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for Holy Saturday, April 3rd : Job 14:1-14; Psalm 31:1-4, 15-16; Matthew 27:57-66 and 1 Peter 4:1-8. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
I belong to the Hatfield Equity Alliance. About once every 4-6 weeks I join the group as we conduct stand-out’s holding Black Lives Matter signs. Black Lives Matter needs to be said not because all lives don’t matter, but because Black Lives Matter needs to be asserted because it has proven to not always be the case.
Right now a court is hearing the case against the police officer charged with murdering George Floyd. The video of 9 minutes and 29 seconds sparked a national, even international outburst of anger that Black lives really don’t seem to matter. I would not need to hold a sign pointing to me that says “White, heterosexual, middle-class, college educated guys matter” because in our society this is not questioned. It doesn't need to be said, in other words. Sometimes what needs to be said reflects an unspoken backstory.
Let’s take a look at today’s Gospel. Matthew is what scholars refer to as a Jewish-Christian Gospel. The community for which it was written has emerged from the Jewish tradition. This community would have been the ones of the earliest Jewish followers of Jesus. They were Jewish Christians most likely living among other Jewish people.
We read today only in Matthew the plea of the Jewish authorities: “‘Therefore command that the tomb be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, “He has been raised from the dead”, and the last deception would be worse than the first.’” Since this appears in none of the other three Gospel accounts, we may assume that this is a theological colouring added by Matthew for a purpose.
What would be the backstory for such an addition? Obviously, it must be that people were challenging the proclamation of the empty tomb by insisting that Jesus’ dead body had been stolen not raised. The detail of the Roman guards needs to be shared to counter the Easter assertion.
The other three Gospels have no mention of guards, nor of an Easter morn “violent earthquake,” nor of an angel whose face “shone like lightning” descending from heaven to roll away the stone and then sitting upon it, nor that the guards “shook with fear and fell to the ground as though dead.” These are not minor details that could be forgotten or ignored by the other Evangelists. These are theological colourings that Matthew uses to counter the argument that Jesus’ body was stolen. Why? Because that was the charge being asserted by others.
Surprisingly, it may seem, I find this account to be an authentic witness to the reality of the resurrection. Not because I believe in all of Matthew’s unique additions, but because of the backstory. The story of the guards at the tomb was added because of the historical reality that the tomb was empty. The empty tomb is not questioned. The accusation by non-believers, therefore people with no interest in testifying to the resurrection, is that yes, the tomb was empty, but because the body was stolen.
Both believer and non-believer agree that the tomb was empty. The non-believer purports that Jesus’ followers, the ones who had deserted Him and dispersed at Jesus’ arrest because they could not grasp what He had told them all the way into Jerusalem that He would suffer and die, had someone regained their spiritual composure and stolen the dead body in order to continue the work they no longer seemed to believe in. Let us jump ahead to the story of Pentecost. We are told the unflattering story of the fearful and confused disciples who are still in hiding, and yet these are the ones who came back to steal Jesus’ body?
The women disciples are much more attuned and faithful than are the men, and for as much as I stand-up for their spiritual strength, are we going to credit them with the physical strength of a nighttime raid to steal and move Jesus’ body? Remember, this is the festival of Passover. Pilgrims are sleeping anywhere and everywhere. Jesus and the disciples were camping out on the Mount of Olives with other travelers before all of this happened. Are we to assume that no faithful Jewish man or woman who had traveled to Jerusalem for this high holy day would not have seen and reported the strange activity around this very public burial spot? Wouldn’t this have made it into the non-believers’ accusation of the stolen body?
I don’t believe Matthew’s details, but I believe Matthew’s opponents’ assertion that the tomb was empty, and because the tomb was empty, I also believe with a deep-seated conviction and joy and hope that Jesus was raised from the dead. So today I wait, we wait, for His death to pass and for the sun to rise on a glorious new day, the day that the Lord has made.
If you would like to share in our outdoor Sunrise Service tomorrow, you are more than welcome to join us at 2 Prospect Street at 6:20am as we look East and hopefully watch the sky lighten over our church’s steeple. We will continue our Easter celebration with our church worship Service at 10:00am. You may join us in person following the necessary protocol precautions or you may join us for the live-streamed format. If you would like to join us online, drop me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I will send you the login link.
Jesus dies as an outcast and He resurrects as our Saviour. May the reality of Easter help us believers to stand with the outcasts, to listen to and appreciate the backstories of our society and realize that there is much to be done in Jesus’ name so that all people, whoever they are, whatever they look like, however they believe, may be respected as loved by our outcast, and soon to be risen, Saviour.
If you’d like, here is the link to the Southern New England Conference’s daily reading schedule: www.sneucc.org/lectionary.
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