Monday, April 25, 2011

The Rush to Galilee

Two features make Matthew’s telling of the resurrection distinctive from the other three gospels. One has to do with pace – everything seems to happen very quickly – and the other revolves around talking, silence, and lies.

First the pace. The other gospel writers describe how the women go to the tomb with burial spices and tell us they wonder how they will get passed the huge stone. In Matthew, the women go only to “see” the tomb. Other gospels describe the empty tomb and the women going into it. In other accounts there is a messenger who tells them Jesus is alive, but they don’t completely understand. In other accounts the women tell the disciples the tomb is empty and the body is missing. Some of the disciples investigate for themselves. In Matthew’s telling there is none of this. The women get it right away: Jesus is risen!

In John’s gospel, Mary remains near the tomb, crying. She encounters a man she assumes to be the gardener/caretaker of the gravesite. She asks him if he has moved Jesus’ body to a different location. Only when He speaks her name does she realize that it is Jesus. But here in Matthew’s gospel both Marys meet Jesus and recognize Him instantly.

These details are not contradictions because the gospelers never intended out to write a historically accurate account by our standards today. Each writer set in narrative events they had witnessed or heard about and did so in a way that conveys meaning.

Matthew’s description is lean compared to the other gospels. The pace rushes along without developing side stories. Think about the words he employs: suddenly, go quickly and tell, they ran, suddenly Jesus appeared, go and tell. The 17th century Italian writer Filippo Pananti picked up on this and developed it into an epigram, which is a short, memorable, witty saying:

Christ risen from his sepulcher at last,
appeared to the women first
so that the news would travel very fast.

Well, beyond Mr. Pananti’s rather sexist notion that women talk more than men, we might want to ask what is the hurry all about? It means something very important to Matthew, but what is it? What is the rush to get to Galilee?

Interjected into the frenetic pace of Matthew’s Easter story is the very detailed report about the guards getting paid off. Only Matthew tells this part of the story, the other gospels don’t describe it at all. Temple guards were men of high integrity, deeply devoted to their work. Their word was their bond. Their testimony was held to be impeccable. In that society women held the exact opposite status. They were not allowed to testify in court because their word was considered suspect. So God entrusts the message of resurrection to the powerless and disrespected. The powerful and elite are bribed to remain silent to the truth they have witnessed. But the truthful testimony of the women trumps the toothless tale of the guards.

Matthew does not tell us what the women said to the disciples, but whatever it was it must have been persuasive. The next thing we are told about Jesus’ band of followers is that they are in Galilee and the Risen Lord appears to them. Again, think about how Matthew constructs his narrative. He omits much that the other gospel writers include: Jesus appearing in the closed room in Jerusalem, confronting the doubts of Thomas, appearing to the two disciples walking to Emmaus, appearing at the lakeshore. Matthew moves quickly from earthquake to angel to Jesus to the guards’ conspiracy to Galilee.

Again, why the rush to get to Galilee? The other gospels don’t describe this; Luke, in fact, actually has the disciples staying in Jerusalem for fifty days until the feast of Pentecost. Why is Matthew in such a hurry to get them home? Well, home is the answer. There is a direct link between where you live and where you witness; between where you make your home and where you do the work of the kingdom. It is in their home country that the Risen Jesus gives them the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” The message to the disciples is clear: the good news of Easter is for all people and it starts right here… at home… where you live… where you work… where you play… where you worship.

Matthew constructs his narrative to prod his readers who lived some forty years after the resurrection. In his day, the church in Jerusalem had grown complacent and inwardly focused. Its members were content to sit around and wait for Jesus to return in glory. The church had no missionary zeal, no ministry to the poor and needy, and no voice calling for a just world in this world. Matthew crafts his story to say “Get up, get out of Jerusalem, go to Galilee, and lets get going with the work God has given us to do.”

And that Easter message will always be timeless because every faith community needs to assess and reassess if the good news of New Life is for it simply a warm and fuzzy message or a call to go forth and make disciples of all nations, starting in your house, on your block, with your friends, among your coworkers, and in our community. I describe the mission of St. Paul’s Church this way: “We are building faith, making friends, and serving needs in downtown Suffolk.” To the degree we live into this Matthew would say we have gotten to Galilee. To the degree we have not, we are just hanging out in Jerusalem waiting for another nice, festive celebration to lift our spirits.

When it comes to the sharing the Good News, we Episcopalians tend to be not like Mary – who told the disciples what had happened – and not like the guards – who were paid to spread a lie. We tend to be silent. Always remember there are many different ways to preach. Let me leave you with these words from St. Francis that many of us found very moving at a Wednesday evening service ten days ago:

The deeds you do may be the only sermon some person will hear today.

It is no use walking anywhere to preach the gospel unless our walking is preaching.

Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary use words.

Now, in the words of a famous Japanese blessing, “Go into the world with a daring and tender love. Go in peace. The world is waiting. And all that you do, do it for love, and in the name of Jesus Christ who is Lord.”