Lets think about the scene Matthew sets in the reading we just heard. It is early dawn on Sunday morning. As few as two guards (if they are from the temple detachment) or as many as sixteen (if the outfit is composed of Roman soldiers), are keeping watch in a Jerusalem cemetery. They arrived sometime on Saturday, inspected the tomb containing Jesus’ body, found it to be as it should, rolled a large stone across the entrance, and sealed it. There is concern Jesus’ followers will unleash an attempt to steal the body in order to perpetuate a hoax about a resurrection.
Two women – followers of Jesus – approach. Matthew tells us they want “to see” the tomb. Unlike other gospel accounts, they are not carrying burial ointments. They want to see the tomb. Matthew’s lean description hints the women are not coming to the tomb to grieve nor are they here to tend to additional burial treatments. They are here “to see”… presumably to see if anything has happened. While the other disciples (and by other I mean the men) fail to grasp Jesus’ teaching he would die and rise on the third day, these women have heard it and are here to see… to see if only maybe, the horror they witnessed on Friday has been undone.
The approach of the women puts the guards on high alert. This could be the first stage of an elaborate plot to steal the body. Still, even if it is only two guards, the women in and of themselves do not pose a threat. These men are trained security personnel who are more than capable of defending themselves against the women, or even a small band of Jesus’ followers.
What happens next would have been difficult for the women and the guards to process.
Forensic psychologists who attempt to understand why eyewitness accounts of a single event often differ provide critical insight. When confronted with a sudden, dramatic event (such as a crime or accident or tragedy), the human brain does not record the experience in a way resembling a motion picture, but rather as a series of snapshots or snippets. Years ago, I had the misfortune of navigating my mountain bike off a footbridge over a shallow ravine. I still have a vivid memory of what happened, but not like that of a film. It was snapshot – I have turned too sharply as I ride onto the bridge so I brake. Snapshot – my bike has stopped, but my body has not. I am flying over the handlebar. Snapshot – twist and turn in midair. I don’t have any conscious remembrance of making this decision. Snapshot – it is dark, but my hands have caught side of the footbridge breaking my fall. Snapshot – I feel safe, but wonder where my bike is. Final snapshot – I am laying in the ravine after my bike come over the bridge and hits me in the head. I am none the worse for the experience. My bike, however, is beaten up pretty bad.
Have you ever had an experience like this - a snapshot, snapshot, snapshot moment? If so, you have an insight into what happens at Jesus’ tomb.
As Matthew tells it there is a great earthquake as the women approach. An angel descends from heaven. Now, we may think of angels as being sweet little cherub-like creatures, but in the bible they are much more fearsome and intimidating. Matthew describes it as being like a bolt of lightning. Have you ever been close to a lightning strike? It gets your attention, doesn’t it. Your body reacts to it. Your hair stands on end. Your heart rate goes off the chart. You duck involuntarily and turn away. This angel event, whatever it is, stuns the guards. They become like dead men. The women are terrified and the first thing the angel says to them is “Do not be afraid.” The angel then proclaims Jesus has risen and commissions the women to take a message to his disciples.
Here is what is interesting: up until this point in the narrative, the guards and the women have participated in the exact same experience. The only difference is the guards are here to guard and the women are here to see.
The forensic psychologists who study the human brain’s processing under difficult circumstances note our tendency to fill in missing information lost in the gaps between the snapshots we remember. It turns out the brain does not like an empty vacuum so it will manufacture information, or even appropriate the memories of others as its own. Police investigators deal with this all the time when they interview multiple witnesses of a single event. Discerning reality can be a tremendous challenge. The two groups do not hang around to process their varying experiences and no investigator will be able to interview the women and the guards together.
The women leave the scene quickly and then experience another “sudden” event. Jesus meets them and speaks to them: “Greetings.” They touch him and worship him. They hear him speak to them.
“Some” of the guards leave the cemetery as well. They report to their superiors the tomb is open and empty. The superiors concoct a story about the body being stolen and pay off the guards. I suspect the guards have no idea what happened. They have mental snapshots of something like two women approaching, a lightening bolt, an open tomb, and an empty tomb.
On the other hand, the women have more mental pictures and are trying to piece together some kind of description of what has happened. Matthew’s narrative reads like snapshots – angel, “not here”, “risen”, “go and tell”, “Galilee”, “greetings”. Ultimately it is not the story they tell, but the experience they relate that becomes important. Matthew’s gospel does not record the exchange between the women and the disciples, nor does it detail any encounter the disciples have with the Risen Jesus until they go to Galilee and see him there. We can only surmise the women are very convincing.
Here is the irony of Matthew’s story. In the courts of the day, a woman’s testimony is considered unreliable and therefore is not permitted. On the other hand, the testimony of a guard is considered to be beyond reproach. As we gather this morning, I invite you to consider one certainty and two possibilities. Based on Matthew’s account, this much is certain: the tomb containing Jesus’ body is empty by dawn on Sunday morning. No one in this account, or in any of the other gospel accounts, disputes this.
How the tomb came to be empty is disputed. Either the defeated, fearful disciples who fled at Jesus’ arrest on Thursday night reorganize, overwhelm the well-trained guards (who, by the way, have no wounds to account for how they lost such a skirmish), steal the body, move it to a secret location, never reveal to anyone where it is hidden, and travel the known world proclaiming a lie for which each is willing to die, or the dead body of Jesus is resurrected and released from the sealed tomb though a means which we cannot explain apart from the power of God.
I am intrigued this morning by how different people can be at the tomb on Easter morning, experience much of the same thing, and come away with such differing accounts – and therefore differing meanings – of what happened. Here we are, participating in that moment through our hearing. We are being challenged to take these snippets and formulate some kind of sensible story. Why is the tomb empty? Why do Jesus’ dispirited disciples rally to change the world?
Did somebody or some group overpower the guards and move the body to a secret location never to be discovered? Or…
Alleluia, Christ is Risen!The Lord is Risen indeed!