It would be a vast understatement to say that the moment we’re currently living through has a certain strangeness to it. At least once a day, I am struck by the thought that I’ve never experienced anything quite like this, and I suspect I’m not alone. In a matter of weeks, we’ve been collectively immersed into a new vocabulary, a new set of practices, and maybe more than anything, a tsunami of information that threatens to overwhelm us. Individuals in power, journalists pursuing an angle, researchers armed with data, and conspiracy theorists with an agenda—everyone has a chart to display, a forecast to project, a meme to share, a cure to hawk, and an axe to grind.
Across a vast array of platforms, a dizzying collection of narrators are telling us their disparate versions of a common story, and it’s not an easy story to digest. When we cut through all the details and all the data and all the differences, it’s ultimately a story of sickness and grief and loss that spans from China to Italy to points closer to home. It’s a story about our limitations, a story about mortality, a story—as much as we hate to say it—about death. And in this respect at least, despite the profound strangeness of the moment, we can find some common cause with generations of people who have lived before us. Because from the beginning, in one form or another, we have been telling and living stories about death.
This Sunday, Easter, is a day that we in the church look forward to all year. We look forward to it for a number of different reasons. We love the the sunrise services and the church breakfasts and the egg hunts and the familiar hymns. Some of these things are conspicuously absent from our celebrations this year, but–as Tim Ross reminded us last week–one thing that remains is the story at the center of this celebration, the story at the center of our life in Christ, the story that Matthew tells in chapter 28 of his gospel. It is a story that begins in a place of death, at a tomb near a place called Golgotha.
Some women, identified here as Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, come to this tomb to pay their respects to the dead, to enact faithfully the rituals that surround death. We read elsewhere that they have come to anoint the body of their dead teacher, their dead Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. During the past few years of their lives, they have been a part of an amazing story, one in which they have seen things and heard things they had never thought possible, one in which they had been introduced to love and hope and mercy and power in ways they had never imagined. Nevertheless, the story seems to have come to an end. This journey to the tomb is likely expected to be the final chapter, the epilogue that brings closure to what they’ve experienced.
As they make their way to the tomb, we can imagine them telling stories about Jesus. This is what we do at funerals, and in their own way, that’s what these women were doing. Having a funeral. We can imagine them telling stories of all they had seen and heard in their time with him, including the story of his death, the sudden, cruel, and unthinkable way that he had been taken from them. In their words and in their actions, these women are lovingly and courageously remembering the death of Jesus in the most faithful way they can.
But as they arrive at the tomb, the story changes in a dramatic way. This setting, this garden tomb about which the air of death hangs, is unmistakably transformed. An earthquake, a stone rolled away, a garrison of soldiers frozen in fear, an angel with a face like lightning and clothes like snow—these are not signs of death but of something else. As Matthew interprets them, and as the women experienced them, these are signs of a divine presence, the work of a living God. And so the women, who thought their story had come to an end, are initiated into a new story. The angel, literally a messenger, tells them, in just a few sentences, what has happened. Jesus has been raised, as he said. This story about death has become a story about life. New life. Resurrection life.
Almost immediately, before the women even have much of a chance to hear, let alone to interpret this new story, they are initiated into the story. They are called to go and tell the story. The angel instructs them to go and share what they have heard with the disciples, who at this point are holed up with their fear and despair, overwhelmed by all that they had seen and heard and paralyzed by what they anticipate is still to come, the grim ending to their own story. On the way, the women meet Jesus himself, who further encourages them to go and tell the story of what they have seen, to proclaim the good news to the disciples. And so these faithful women become the first to speak a word of resurrection life into this story of death, the first to speak a word of resurrection hope into a world of death. But they won’t be the last.
And that brings us to today. Just as those women were initiated into this story of life and empowered to share it, just as Jesus’ earliest followers were commissioned to tell the story in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, we, the church, stand in this moment, a moment shot through with death and despair, a moment when people are looking for hope, when people are yearning for signs of life. We might not have any easy answers for this crisis that surrounds us, but we do have a story to tell.
The story of the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus, almost two thousand years old, is one that we can never stop telling. It’s a story that some, like the authorities of Jesus’ day, will resist. It’s a story that some will twist to fit their own version of events. It’s a story that some will forget and others will dismiss as foolish. But we persist in telling this story, in our words of truth and in our works of mercy. We follow the example of those women at the tomb, who had the courage to go forth and speak the good news in a world consumed with death. We preach and we practice resurrection because the resurrection is the story that gives shape to our lives, the story that gives shape to the universe, the story that reminds us that, even when our world seems to be falling apart, death does not get the last word or the final chapter. He has been raised, as he said. Go and tell.