The Hidden RevealedMarch 27, 2005, 9:00 am & 11:15 am
This story is as scandalous today as it was when Matthew first wrote this gospel. Jesus' appearance to his followers could be explained away, as skeptics of every age have attempted to explain it away. Was it the product of intense grief, a trick of the mind in which his closest friends felt Jesus was with them "in spirit," just as those who grieve today often speak of having a sense of their beloved departed's presence? Or, was it simply an apparition born of heartache and longing? The trouble with such explanations is that those who have such experiences of another's spirit or an apparition of them, do not hold onto the apparition's feet, eat, drink and converse with them, much less do so corporately, with others having the same experience.1
There have been other attempts to discredit the story. Jesus did not really die on the cross; he simply fainted. Shortly after his cry of abandonment, he went into shock from the severe pain and passed out. Appearing to be dead, he was taken down from the cross early because of the impending Jewish festival. In the process of burial, his friends discovered him still alive and nurtured him back to health. His religious mission a failure and his ordeal over, Jesus wed Mary Magdalene, had a family, and lived to old age, a life his most devoted followers ever after have rigorously attempted to cover up.2 That ancient story has been revived and circulated as recently as Dan Brown's best selling book The DaVinci Code. But why in the world would those who knew such a story to be true, give up their own lives to perpetuate a myth of sacrificial death and resurrection? All eleven of Jesus' disciples, save one, gave their lives in martyrdom because they knew that Jesus had died, been raised from the dead, and had met them in Galilee where he commissioned them to tell his story of redemption and salvation, and make disciples of all nations.3 The very word martyr comes from the Greek word which means "witness."4 They became martyrs because of their witness to his saving death and resurrection. No, there have to be far more credible explanations than the one Brown is pushing.
There were first century believers so convinced of Jesus' divine nature that they could not conceive him dying and rising--how, after all, can God suffer, let alone die? For them, the detail of soldiers assigned to the crucifixion had simply made a mistake. They had confused the man carrying Jesus' cross, with Jesus, and had crucified Simon of Cyrene instead. Jesus had simply returned to the Godhead. No sacrificial death was needed nor had taken place. All that was needed was the special knowledge Jesus had imparted for our bodiless souls to go to heaven once we had left the corruption of the physical body behind.5 The problem with that explanation is that it strips the gospel of its good news: God taking on human flesh to combat the power of sin and death for us, the power that distorts and destroys human life. As one early church theologian put it, "What is not assumed is not saved."6 Jesus willingly faced what you and I, what every human being must inevitably face--death. God's incarnate Son suffered as all humanity suffers, died as all must die, and was buried as we each will be, or the gospel is hardly good news.
For the leaders of the Jewish community, there was a fourth and more simple explanation: his disciples had come and stolen the body in the middle of the night in order to further perpetuate the deception that Jesus had been the Messiah.7 But how a group of terrified friends, who had fled and scattered into the night at his arrest, could have regrouped and conjured the courage to rob an imperially guarded grave is a suggestion that has credibility problems all of its own. But the story persisted in Matthew's day and is the reason he places so much emphasis on the presence of the guards at the tomb.
Each of these stories was circulating at the time Matthew wrote his gospel, each an attempt to discredit the scandalous fact that not only was the tomb empty, but that Jesus was once again alive, in the flesh, appearing to, interacting with, eating and drinking with those who had followed him before his crucifixion and death. And what each explanation misses in its argument is this: the empty tomb is less about Jesus than it is about the one he called Father. The resurrection is not a carefully constructed myth about what happened to a first century religious genius from Nazareth, who got himself executed for blasphemy and sedition. The resurrection is an otherwise inexplicable, incomprehensible event, save one thing--the power of God. This is about the power of God. Those religious leaders who taunted Jesus on Good Friday, as he hung before them on the cross, saying that if he were God's Son, God would certainly come and rescue him,8 failed to realize that this is precisely what was taking place before their very eyes--the Father was saving the Son.
God's rescue of his Son was not from death, but through death! For in this event, God was not simply saving His Beloved Son, God was saving all of God's beloved. The resurrection of Jesus is more than God demonstrating that Jesus was falsely accused and unjustly executed. It is more than an event that vindicates Jesus' life and reveals his true identity. It is more than God's comment on Good Friday, more than the Father's faithful answer to the dying Son's last anguished question from the cross, more than God turning tragedy into victory, and more than transforming the cross from a symbol of curse and judgment into a symbol of hope and redemption. It is all of these, to be sure, but it is more. Jesus' resurrection is that decisive moment in all of human history--the hinge of history9--the point at which God acted to destroy the power of the destroyer, to obliterate death's eternal power over life, and reveal a new reality--life eternal--life so connected to the life you and I live on this side of death that it is entirely recognizable on the other side: life that is corporeal, identifiable, relational, life lived in and with God and one another in a reality without the stain of sin and the corruption of death. It is that moment in which God invaded our closed universe to break it open so that the hidden could be revealed.
But there is an even greater scandal associated with Jesus' resurrection, a greater hidden truth that is revealed here. It is one thing to believe that God destroyed the power of death in Jesus' saving death, and raised him to eternal life as a sign that we too will join Jesus Christ in resurrected and eternal life. It is quite another to be told that you and I have already been raised with Christ, and live with him in the power of his resurrection now. Christ's resurrection is not an event having to do only with what happens to you and me beyond death. It is an event which inaugurated an entirely new order of things in which those who believe in Jesus find themselves participating in his risen life and power now.10 "Since you have been raised with Christ," writes the author of Colossians, "seek the things that are above, where Christ is. ...for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory."11
Here is the second extraordinary assertion of the gospel: not only have you and I been saved from the power of death at the end of life by Christ's atoning and saving death, but, having been joined to Christ in the waters of baptism, we have died with him and have been raised to new life in him. We have been given the power of the Spirit who raised him from death sustain us in the world still captive to death and its ways. As you and I seek the things that are above--setting our minds on heavenly things--we are empowered to live the Christ-like life. As we eat and drink with him in his risen glory, as we will gather at this table in just a few moments to do, we are joined to Christ, fed on him, and find ourselves empowered by him to be his risen people, and the hidden--the risen Christ--is revealed.
Here then is the final scandalous truth about Christ's resurrection: it is two stories--Christ's story and our story--Christ's resurrection to eternal life and our own resurrection to true life in Christ now. If the two stories remain separate and fail to intersect and intertwine, Easter remains a beautiful, if fanciful story, but you and I are none the better for its telling.12 But when the two do intersect, when we seek the power of Christ's resurrection in our lives here and now, the hidden is revealed: God's new creation begins to unfold in this world in you and me, here and now.
For Christ is risen; he is risen indeed!
- Acts 10:41f; 1 Corinthians 15:6.
- There is even a tradition from the Muslim Ahmadiyya in Punjab, India, that Jesus’ body was spirited away from the cross before he died and taken to Shinagar, the capital of Kashmir, where he continued to preach his message to the Hindus until his death in his 80s. To this day, one can see the tomb of Jesus, identified by the Ahmadiyyas, a minor, and often disputed sect of Islam. I am grateful to parishioner Phillips Talbot for making me aware of this tradition.
- Matthew 28:16-20.
- Marturion—testimony, witness; evidence, proof; opportunity to testify.
- Such knowledge was gnosis, and the root of the Christian heresy called Gnosticism, which was a dominant challenge for the better part of the second century, and against which the Fathers of the church hammered out their theology concerning Christ's human and divine natures.
- Ireneaus, Against Heresy
- Matthew 27:62-66.
- Matthew 27:41-43.
- See John Meacham, "How Jesus Became Christ; From Resurrection to the Rise of Christianity," Newsweek, March 28, 2005, Volume CXLV, No. 13, p. 47.
- Andrew T. Lincoln, "Colossians," The New Interpreter's Bible, Volume XII, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000), p. 640.
- Though the English of the NRSV translates the text "So if you have been raised with Christ," the Greek structure of the sentence is clear that it means "Since you have been raised with Christ...." as the New International Version (NIV), translates the text, Cf. Carl R. Holladay, et al., Preaching Through the Christian Year--Year A, (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992), p. 244f.
- Ibid, (Holladay), p. 245.
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