Easter Sunday (April 16, 2017)

It is Easter, and God has triumphed over death. Death makes everything the same. We’ve heard the phrase, “death is the great equalizer,” which we usually say to remind us that people we envy will eventually have less than we do. And I just want to say: this is very poorly thought out, as we, too, will be dead, and also have nothing. I think at some level we know that, and we try to speed up the process. Some of that is figurative death—we lump people into groups we can label and define: all of them are rotten, worthless, shiftless, evil. We make people the same. We crush their uniqueness. Sometimes the death gets carried out literally, in the murder of undesirables. So, whether we are at a place in our lives where death is on our minds, or not, it is happening—literally and figuratively—around us and through us. This morning, it is Easter, and God has triumphed over death.

New Testament scholar Douglas Hare says that Easter is God’s commentary on Good Friday. Our gospel this morning from Matthew is thus God’s comment on the events we heard unfolding last week in Matthew’s rendition of the passion. Matthew is unique in describing the timing of this resurrection scene: “Later on the Sabbath the women went to the grave…” See, the Hebrew day starts at sunset. The Sabbath ends at sundown on Saturday. Three out of four gospels have this scene on Sunday morning, but that’s no reason for me to join centuries of translators and interpreters in killing Matthew’s uniqueness. There’s a point to what he is doing. The image Matthew gives us is of Mary and the other Mary waiting all Sabbath to walk to Jesus’ grave the moment the sun sets and they are permitted to travel. I mentioned that we picked up where we left off; we left off with the chief priests and Pharisees asking Pilate to post a guard at the tomb. Matthew had an odd way of stating the timing of this. He says that the priests went to Pilate on “the day after the Day of Preparation.” That’s like saying that we open presents on the “day after Christmas Eve.” The day after the Day of Preparation is Passover, which that year was a Sabbath. In other words, the Pharisees and chief priests are busy working on the Sabbath! Matthew contrasts Mary and the other Mary waiting eagerly for the Sabbath to end so they can visit the tomb, and the leaders brazenly violating the Third Commandment.

These chief priests and Pharisees live up to Matthew’s favorite insult, “hypocrites.” In Matthew, more than in any other gospel, Jesus uses the word “hypocrite” to describe the Pharisees and the experts in the law. On Ash Wednesday we heard Jesus complain about hypocrites who blow horns to draw attention to their almsgiving, who pray for show, who make a big deal about fasting so everyone notices. In Chapter 23 of Matthew, Jesus launches into an epic rant against “hypocrites” who make rules just to exclude people, who tithe spices but won’t practice justice, mercy, and faithfulness, who are outwardly lovely and quietly wicked, and so on. Jesus doesn’t say much during his Passion in Matthew, and doesn’t call anyone a hypocrite at that time. But we see some hypocrisy.

At Jesus’ trial the Sanhedrin seeks false witnesses, a blatant violation of the Eighth Commandment, “You shall not bear false witness.” Then, when Jesus tells the high priest, “Call me what you want; God is coming to judge you,” the high priest tears his clothes. The high priest most days has one job: don’t tear your clothes. They’re like your new Easter shirt. Ripping it on purpose violates Leviticus 10 and 21. When Jesus is crucified, Matthew tells us, the priests are out at Golgotha, ritually contaminating themselves with all the dead guys, mocking Jesus. On the Day of Preparation. They are supposed to be ritually pure, in the Temple, slaughtering Passover lambs. What are they doing at a crucifixion? In short, these guys do not care one bit about the Law as it applies to them. They are hypocrites. The English word hypocrite is a loanword from Greek. Literally it means “ones under judgment.” Well, here’s the judgment. Here’s Easter, God’s commentary on Good Friday.

The judge is, I don’t know, almost facetious. An angel, who descends from heaven, causes an earthquake by rolling away the stone that sealed the grave, then sits on this wheel of rock. It’s imagery borrowed from the book of Daniel, but presented in a kind of slapdash manner. In Daniel 7, after Daniel has a horrifying vision of terrible beasts, an angel shows up on a throne with wheels of fire and judges the beasts. Here the wheel is just the circular rock. In Daniel 10, Daniel goes down to the Tigris and suddenly sees an angel who glows from every body part in vivid detail, and picks him up, tells him not to be afraid, and announces that God has heard Daniel and is here to judge the world. The angel at Jesus’ grave glows. Some. And the guy doesn’t even get a name. Some angels get names. Not this guy. You can tell a lot about what a leader thinks by who they send as their spokesperson. God sends a nameless angel who doesn’t glow properly to sit on a gravestone and deliver the judgment. God’s message through the angel is, basically, “While the chief priests and Pharisees were busy working on the Sabbath, using God’s law to oppress people, God defeated death. You’re welcome.”

God has worked, raising the dead, on the Sabbath. The question of work on the Sabbath came up back in Matthew 12. Jesus and his disciples are walking on the Sabbath and they are hungry so they pluck some grain to eat, and the Pharisees say, “Ah ha, we caught you working on the Sabbath!” Jesus says, “We’re hungry. Would you help a sheep if it fell in a hole on the Sabbath?” “Of course!” “Well, my disciples are at least as good as sheep. So’s that guy over there with the withered hand I just un-withered. It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” So, now, God does good on the Sabbath. The authorities, the hypocrites, use the Sabbath (and other laws) to dehumanize others. The Sabbath is such a good thing! God invents the day off. God commands the day off. The hypocrites turn it into a chance to keep people from visiting Jesus’ grave, but have no trouble colluding with Pilate all day. So, God says, “Fine. I’ll work on the Sabbath. I’ll destroy death.” Now, that thing that crushes us has no weight. Now that thing that lumps us together and stereotypes us has lost its lumping-together ability.

Now, you cannot look at a person or a group of people and decide that they are less than human. Whatever it is that makes you assign someone a position of less than you, it’s overruled: race, age, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, income bracket, kind of job, religion. Overruled. We want to take the world and rank it: 1 us and people like us, 2 cute animals, 3 other necessary animals, 4 people we don’t like; just like the hypocrites tried to rank things: 1 us, 2 sheep that fall in holes on Saturdays, 3 Jesus and his friends. They’re both variations on the simple list: 1 Living, 2 Dead. Dead, whether literal or figurative. But now, this angel (with a malfunctioning glow mechanism and silly judgment seat) is saying, “Jesus is no longer dead. Your distinction between living and dead no longer has any meaning.” What’s more, Jesus is now the rightful judge of the living and the dead. Everybody who is on your Dead List is on God’s One List of All People.

God sees and treasures uniqueness. We can believe in this because God raises Jesus from the dead, and appoints him to judge the living and the dead. God overcomes that which crushes and makes all things the same so that God can have each life in all its unique beauty. Defeating Death is so low on God’s difficulty scale that God taps a nameless angel to make the official announcement, to a whopping two women. And yet God makes Jesus, God in the flesh, the judge of all people. The one for whom creating the universe took a single word, the one for whom defeating death was so easy he did it on his day off, this one treasures you. And treasures your neighbor. And this one calls us to marvel at the uniqueness of every life.

God’s comment on the cross, on Good Friday, is, God loves who you are. And God loves who your neighbor is. And God sees the crosses we prepare. God sees the way some rank below the animals. God sees the way we turn God’s gifts into ways to hurt people. God is going to keep pointing those things out because God doesn’t do them. And God doesn’t want us to do them. You are who you are, and it’s you God loves. Nothing can take that away. Nothing can put you on the Dead List. Because it’s Easter, and God has triumphed over Death.