Easter, Year A
April 16, 2017
One of my favorite hymns is “Were you there.” If you do not know the hymn, it is about the crucifixion. It repeats the phrase “were you there” adding various parts, like were you there when they nailed him to the cross….were you there when they pierced him in the side? Singing it this week, I started to think about what makes it such a powerful hymn…why it gives me goosebumps every time I hear it.
I still remember the first time I heard it. It was my senior year of high school. My friend’s church was doing a passion play. One of my friends was playing Jesus and he was one of the last people you would expect to play Jesus, but he did an amazing job and then there was the song. It was sung from the balcony by one voice. It sounded almost haunting. I can remember it that vividly. This year, one part struck me more poignantly than the others. After we ask, were you there, we sing, “Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble…” That was when I got goosebumps this year. I thought of those words again when I considered the Gospel reading for today.
Each Gospel has a slightly different interpretation of the resurrection story. Mark’s is very simple. It ends too quickly, as if Mark’s pen just ran out of ink. Both Luke and John contain more detail about the tomb itself and Jesus’s interaction with the women or apostles. There is a little more drama. There is a lot more information of Jesus’ actual appearance and interactions with the women and the disciples. It’s almost like there is an epilogue to the resurrection in Luke and John.
Matthew’s story appears almost start by comparison, except for a few unique details. Since it is relatively stark and brief, these unique details seem extremely important, especially when contemplating a sermon on Matthew. One of the biggest differences between Matthew’s story and the others is the earthquakes. The first earthquake happens right after Jesus dies. It’s not a huge earthquake. Matthew says, “The earth shook and rocks split.” Apparently it got the attention of a few people, but not most.
The second earthquake happened as Mary Magdalene and the other Mary approached the tomb. They did not go in. They did not knock on the tomb door. They just approached it and the earth began to shake. Here the Gospel writer says, “There was a great earthquake.” This one was more significant than the last. As the earth quaked, an angel descended from heaven and his appearance was like lightning. The angel immediately rolled back the stone.
What seems odd to me about this whole thing is the timing of the second earthquake. The first earthquake happened right after Jesus died. That makes sense. That was a big moment—a life changing moment. The earth should have shook. The second earthquake happened as the women approached the tomb. The angel tells them that Jesus is not there. He has been raised. He is already risen. My question is, why didn’t the earth quake then? It should have quaked as Jesus left the tomb…or perhaps the moment when he took that first breath. There should have been quaking, a bright light, angels singing. Yet it seems as though the actual resurrection went unnoticed. The event that rocked the earth was not the resurrection itself, but the women approaching the tomb.
There is one thing that has always struck me as odd about each resurrection story in all of the Gospels. There is never a description of the actual resurrection, or Jesus’ departure from the tomb. The logical explanation would be that the authors of the Gospels could not write about that since no one had witnessed it. Yet it is surprising that no one used creative license to fill in the gaps. Jesus could have told the story later. It seems like a story people would have wanted to hear. Another explanation is that the Gospel writers felt like some things could not be explained. The moment was so sacred that it could not possibly be described by words. That seems plausible to me.
The hymn, Were you there is asking not if we were actually there at the crucifixion…but if we can imagine ourselves there. Can we put ourselves in that moment, at the foot of the cross? If we can, would be tremble? Presumably we would all have different reactions, but I think trembling would be a fairly reasonable reaction. I is important to consider the moment of Jesus death…that moment when the earth shook. It’s almost like the earth, the ground felt the weight of the moment and so it trembled.
Therefore it makes sense that it would happen again at the resurrection. This time it was not grief that caused the earth to tremble, it was the moment when heaven and earth touched. They touched ever so briefly, but there was a moment that transcended time and space, the moment when two women opened their hearts and minds to the possibility that Jesus was alive. In that brief moment, everything changed for these women and ultimately for humanity as a whole. Their world was shaken. It was rearranged in a way that seemed almost unrecognizable. The crazy thing is that they had not even seen Jesus yet. All they had done was approached the tomb…because in approaching the tomb, they took a chance so that when the tomb opened up, their hearts and minds did as well. They saw a world transformed.
The reason it is important to imagine ourselves at the foot of the cross is because we need to feel the depth of that grief. When we do, we will know the hope of the resurrection that much more powerfully. If we tremble when we consider the death of Jesus, then we should be shaken in body, mind and spirit by the hope of the resurrection. I know that is a not an easy thing…not an easy leap to make. You might think, well if I was there in Jesus’ time, that would be different. I could have believed if I was there. Yet the only reason that we know about the resurrection is because a few women were willing to approach the tomb. They had to approach it.
Sometimes we think that if we cannot wrap our heads and hearts around everything that the Bible and the church say about God and faith, then we have fallen short—it’s really not worth bothering at all. That is not true. Remember, the earth did not quake when Jesus appeared. It quaked when the women approached the tomb. Before we can have a real relationship with Jesus…maybe even before we have any relationship at all, we have to be willing to approach God, to come face to face with our hopes and fears. It is only then when we will find the strength to open our hearts and minds to the reality of the resurrection. It is only then when we can be shaken.
The logical question is how can one approach God. It’s not like he’s standing on the corner. He’s not on social media. It’s not easy. But in the Episcopal Church, we have a way to start. Come to the altar. Come to the heart of the church. You don’t even have to take communion. You might not be ready for that. Just come, kneel, leave your doubts and fears in the pew. You can get back to them later. It might not be an earth shaking moment. I can pretty much guarantee there will not be an earthquake (although that would be awesome if we could have just a little one at a pivotal point in the service). You have already taken a huge step. You are in church. Take the next. Approach the tomb. Approach the altar. If you can take that first step, you will always find the living God.