Sometimes you just know that life will never be the same. When you fall deeply in love. When your parent dies. When you land your dream job. When you hold your newborn for the first time.
Other events, however, are more ambiguous. Will the neighbors who just moved in next door be a blessing or a bane? Will a new Congress actually accomplish anything? Will the college degree you just received be worth the tuition you paid for it? The answer may vary depending on whom you ask.
The same is true in the resurrection narrative. In Matthew’s version, various witnesses have to decide what to do with the empty tomb. On the one hand, the women who arrive looking for a corpse discover that everything has been turned upside-down. The big, burly Roman soldiers who are guarding the tomb look like corpses themselves. Despite their normal valor and brutality, these men are completely unprepared for the shaking ground, blinding supernatural power, and vacated tomb. Like the ground they walk across, the soldiers shake uncontrollably until their fear overcomes them and they faint dead away.
The women, however, demonstrate the greater courage as they speak with the angel who already comprehends their motives: “I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised, as he said.” Those simple words cut through their grief and fear, and the women recall that Jesus had predicted this. And now they realize that Jesus had not been speaking in a parable! The blazing angel further astonishes the women by commanding them to proclaim to the disciples that Jesus has risen and will meet them in Galilee.
The women now have a decision to make. They are unlikely to be believed—after all, most rabbis did not consider the words of women to be reliable enough to use as testimony in court. And everyone had seen the brutality and completeness of Jesus’s death. Who would believe their tale? Is it worth the ridicule?
They have a decision to make.
So, too, do the soldiers. Although they did not register the words that the angel spoke while they were passed out from fear, the guards remember the earthquake, the lightning-like appearance of the angel, and the angel’s incredible power to single-handedly roll back the enormous stone that had sealed the tomb.
And the guards know the tomb is empty. That’s a huge problem. The soldiers don’t know how to explain it, but they are desperate to keep Pilate from finding out they failed in their guard duties. Otherwise, the next cross they see might be their own. They run into the city and tell the chief priests everything they experienced.
And now the chief priests have a decision to make. They had heard the amazing stories of Jesus’s miracles during his lifetime—and some of them had been in the crowd to witness these signs. The priests also know the Scriptures that promise a messiah will come to set the world right. But everything that Jesus did upset their power and teaching and the status quo in general. The priests had been sure that the devil was using Jesus to manipulate the Jewish people. But now the chief priests hear the soldiers’ report of earthquakes and angels and an empty tomb. Could it be true? They discover that change is too hard for them. Overturning all of their theological assumptions and relinquishing their power is simply too costly. Instead, the priests and the elders decide to pay a great deal of money to the guards to spread the story that the disciples stole Jesus’ body while the soldiers were asleep. The religious leaders—the moral example for the people—devise a lie to make sure that nothing changes.
And the soldiers—the protectors of civil order— decide to bury the truth. They take their bribe and the promise of protection from Pilate’s wrath, and they toe the party line. They protect the power of a broken world.
But the women—the ones with little influence, the ones who are least likely to be believed—they run from the empty tomb with great joy. It is only as they are obedient to the angel’s command that Jesus himself appears to them. They worship him, grabbing hold of his feet, the scars reassuring the women that they are not hallucinating. Jesus repeats the angel’s command; the risen Lord himself tells the women to proclaim his truth to the other disciples. Clearly, their testimony is effective, for the disciples go to Galilee and see Jesus there, where they are commissioned to carry on his work.
And so the story continues. As we experience the power of the risen Christ in our own lives, we too must decide what to do with his story. Do we fear that others will not believe us? Do we worry that our whole lives will be turned upside-down? Are we afraid that the authorities of this world will condemn our testimony? Will we have to change our theological assumptions or the power we wield?
The story of the risen Christ confronts our basic expectations about life and death, power and weakness, tragedy and triumph. Yet experiencing the power of the empty tomb is not enough: the soldiers saw, but they were not transformed. We must choose daily whether we will cling to the lies of a broken world or obediently run down the path where the power of Christ meets us, transforms us, and sends us out to spread the good news.
Which story will we tell today?