Alleluia! The Lord is risen indeed. To him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Alleluia! (Luke 24:34; Revelation 1:6)
Jesus Christ our Saviour,
you have delivered us
from death and sin.
You have brought with the dawn
a new beginning and an empty tomb;
grant us strength and humility
to enter into the new life granted us by the Father
through the same power of the Spirit to raise you from the dead.
Note that the NZL gives a few ORs. I have not found a way to bend the space-time continuum to my advantage so I offer 'my choice' below rather than commentary on all possible readings!
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
This is a masterly summary of the gospel which repays careful study beyond the specific attention it gives to the resurrection. Here we might be especially interested in verse 40, which makes a distinction between God raising Jesus from the dead and allowing him to appear.
But verse 41 is also important as it nails an often observed fact about the appearances, that they were appearances to those who already knew Jesus (a famous exception being Saul/Paul) and not to the unbelieving public at large.
The distinction in verse 40 means that the act of raising Jesus from the dead is a specific action by God, a consequence of which are appearances of the risen Jesus. Contrary to some ways of explaining the resurrection, the resurrection of Christ did not consist of a set of appearances to people, a not unknown occurrence after death in which grieving people experience the presence of a loved one.
Rather, the resurrection was first an action by God. Jesus died and was buried but "on the third day" something happened to his body which can described only in terms of being "raised." The four gospels unitedly attest to the logical consequence of being raised from the dead: the tomb was emptied of Jesus' body. The theme of a bodily raising of Jesus continues in the second part of verse 40 as Peter describes eating and drinking with Jesus "after he rose from the dead."
It is important to note the word used in verse 41 to describe the people to whom Jesus appeared: "witnesses." Jesus did not appear, so to speak, to comfort distraught followers, or as a kind of divine party trick. He appeared so that those who experienced him as their risen Lord and Saviour might testify to him. So Peter continues in verse 42, "He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead."
We have already used this psalm on Palm Sunday (principally verses 26-29). Here we repeat its reading in our service because it speaks to the triumph of God over death in raising his Son: verses 17, 18, 22 in particular.
In the reality of Jesus' life and death there is variation from the psalm: Jesus was given over to death. But his death was not permanent, he has not been given over to the state of death in perpetuity. With the psalmist Jesus could say, verses 17-18,
"I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord.
The Lord has punished me severely, but he did not give me over to death."
Our response on this Easter Day would then be verse 24:
"This is the day which the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it."
What does the resurrection mean for Christian believers? What difference does it make to our lives, or for our lives?
Sometimes we can talk as though the resurrection of Christ is a kind of 'life assurance' certificate: when we die we will live again; when life on earth ends, life in heaven continues. Whew! Thanks Jesus for rising from the dead.
Now there is an important truth about the resurrection of the dead in the paragraph above: Jesus rose first so we can rise too. We do not need to fear death and we can now see death as the gate of glory.
But that is not all. There is much much more than an eternal life assurance scheme involved in our understanding of the meaning of Christ's resurrection. One reason we say that is our passage from Colossians. Here Paul refers back to (at least) Colossians 2:12,
"when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead."
Paul is saying that even as we live our ordinary life in our physical bodies, when our lives are connected with Christ through faith and baptism, a burial occurs which reflects our state before God as sinners, "you were dead in trespasses" (2:13) and a resurrection occurs in which "God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses" (2:13).
What we need to understand is that Paul is not speaking metaphorically (i.e. nothing has actually changed about you): he sees a reality in which the life of Christ becomes the life of the believer (e.g. 2:9-10), Christ lives in us, we live 'in Christ'.
Now to Colossians 3:1-4, in particular verses 1-2: a few verses previously Paul has said his readers have 'died to the elemental spirits of the universe' (2:20), now he offers a similar reflection in a different direction, 'you have been raised with Christ' (3:1). This reality, of being raised now with Christ, even though it will be completed later (3:4) at least in one sense occurs in a realm our lives live in which is not everyday, ordinary life as we know it (waking up, having breakfast, going to work or to the shops or the gym ...), so Paul says that that reality needs to be connected to the reality of everyday life. Thus,
"So if you have been raised with Christ (i.e meaning, Since you have been raised with Christ) seek the things that are above ... set your minds on things that are above ... (going on to verse 5) put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly ... (then to verse 8) now you must get rid of all such things ..."
That is, as raised-with-Christ-people live your lives in a raised-with-Christ-like-way: minds attuned to heaven, sin put away, dark deeds which make you dead in your trespasses gotten rid of.
Note that this is a long way from any kind of 'Here is the book of rules, read them, obey them' way of life. Paul's instruction here is to 'become what you are'. That is, 'You have a new reality to your earthly lives, because you now live simultaneously ordinary human life (in a body destined to physical death) and extraordinary divine life (in which you are raised to new life in Christ), so live what you are becoming rather than what everyone else around you is doing.'
Back to Colossians 3:3-4: in these verses Paul characterises the new reality of life in Christ in terms of 'hiddenness'. You have died (to sin, to your old self, to your old way of life), he says, and the fullness of what you are now becoming is not yet seem, 'your life is hidden with Christ in God'. The day is yet coming, verse 4, when this fullness of life, that is, the very life of Christ itself, is going to be revealed. On that day, 'you also will be revealed with him in glory.'
A reality of engaging with the stories of the resurrection in the gospels and Acts is that we encounter stories which raise many questions, perhaps even more questions than the questions which the narratives do answer.
With Mark's Gospel's (shorter) account, 16:1-8, for instance, we are left with the question, 'When did the disciples actually encounter the risen Jesus?' and 'Why are we not told about the encounters?'
Matthew, perhaps the next written gospel after Mark, and almost certainly using Mark's Gospel as a source, offers us a narrative in which the disciples do encounter the risen Jesus. But the narrative still raises some unanswered questions!
As we read through verses 1 to 10, doing so with Mark's account alongside, we see familiar elements to the story, which are also found (with variations) in Luke and John: e.g. women visiting the tomb on the day after the sabbath, the tomb being empty, a messenger informing the initial visitors as to what has happened.
But we find new elements, some of which are only found in Matthew's Gospel, including, an earthquake, an angel sitting on the stone guarding the entrance to the tomb, glorious appearance of the angel, description of what happens to the guards.
At least one detail is a little odd within the structure of the narrative itself: the angel tells the women to go tell his disciples that he will see them in Galilee (7) implying no appearances in Jerusalem itself but Jesus then appears to the women as they rush from the scene (9-10). However, note that this is not a contradiction per se: the message re Galilee is to the disciples, the appearance is to the women.
Nevertheless, as we read across all four gospels, Matthew and Mark turn out to be distinctive re confining Jesus' appearance(s) to the disciples to Galilee whereas Luke and John offer accounts in which Jesus appears to the disciples in Jerusalem (or nearby), with John offering an additional appearance in Galilee (John 21). How do we explain that?
Simply, the gospel writers are doing two things simultaneously as they tell us about the resurrection. One, they tell us about the resurrection; two, they are concluding their gospels.
For Matthew and Mark, a story which begins with Jesus in Galilee at the beginning of his ministry must end with Jesus in Galilee.
For Luke and John, with their respective concerns to place Jerusalem at the centre of their narratives (think of Luke's interest in Jesus' journey to Jerusalem, from 9:51 onwards; think of John's stories of Jesus returning again and again to Jerusalem), their accounts present Jesus appearing alive and well in the place where he had been killed, in the city most central to God's plan for Israel. (With John 21's Galilee account, we could think of John acknowledging Matthew and Mark's interest in Galilee appearances also).
Back to Matthew: if we read on to 28:11-15 we find Matthew answering a question which must have troubled some of his readers, Was the empty tomb due to the disciples stealing the body? 'No,' says Matthew. Presumably this question did not trouble the readers of Mark, Luke and John. But if Matthew in this last chapter answers some questions such as that, as noted above, he also raises questions which are difficult to answer. For instance, why does Jesus, when he appears to the women, essentially repeat the message of the angel to them? They were on the way to repeat the angel's message to the disciples: it does not seem that they needed the message being reinforced!
Yet if we can hold those questions but not get stuck on them, the narrative yields important themes for reflection as we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord:
- the women left the tomb 'with fear and great joy' (8): if we have no fear as we meet the risen Jesus, are we underestimating the shattering impact of death being overcome? if we have no joy at hearing the news of Jesus being raised from the dead, have we lost sight of how wonderful and amazing this news is?
- the women 'came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him' (9): what is the proper response to the risen Jesus in our midst? It is certainly not to debate and discuss all the details of the varied narratives across the gospels and Acts! No. The proper response is to worship Jesus. The women here represent the early church of Matthew's experience: certain of the resurrection of Jesus, conscious of the risen Jesus being alive within the gathering of believers, they celebrated the power of God at work among them as God's new people by offering worship to Jesus.
- 'Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers' (10): the resurrection is not a secret. This fact is to be shared with others. The good news is public news. The gospel is to be preached so that disciples are made 'of all nations' (19).