Resurrection of Our Lord Sunday
Two groups of people are standing keeping watch at the tomb of Jesus on that first Easter morning. Two very different groups of people. One group consists of the soldiers- the guards. They’ve been sent to keep watch over Jesus’ tomb to make sure that none of his disciples come to take away the body and give legitimacy to rumors that Jesus said he would rise from the dead after three days. The other group consists of two lone women, Mary and Mary. They keep watch to see what happens next. They heard what Jesus had said about rising after three days and perhaps they believed him. But they wait to see what this “rising” will look like and how the world will change when he rises again.
The two groups are very, very different. The soldiers are a big group of burly, battle-hardened men. They know the heroics of battle and have lived to tell the tale. They have been trained to kill. They stand fully armed from head to toe. They wear a helmet, carry a sword and a shield, and wear armor. They have the full backing of the nation they serve, the Roman empire- the strongest, most technologically advanced, and expansive empire in the world.
The other group, the women, however, stand alone and unarmed. Not one person from their group of fellow Jesus-followers accompanies them and the 11 supposedly closest disciples are cowering and hiding someplace out of sight.
In the early hours of that Sunday morning, suddenly the ground begins to rumble and shake. Stones begin to topple down the nearby hill. Looking up, the women and the soldiers see a terrifying sight. A human-like being descending from the sky. It hurts their eyes to stare at it too long as its body is shining bright. It appears like flashing lightning. As it draws closer the women and the soldiers hear the crackle of electricity in the atmosphere. The stone in front of Jesus’ tomb rolls away and the divine creature sits on top of it. The angel looks at the small crowd gathered and says “Do not be afraid! Jesus has been raised!”
At this terrifying and strange sight those big, burly soldier-men who are trained to kill, armed from head to toe, who serve the strongest, largest, and most technologically advanced empire in the world crumple and faint from fear. They drop like a sack of potatoes. Yet the unarmed, lone, women, Mary and Mary, stand tall and stand strong. I have been wondering, “Why?” What is it about Mary and Mary that gives them the strength and courage to stand strong in the midst of such a terrifying and strange sight that drops these battle-hardened soldiers as if they were dead men?
I think it comes down to experience and expectation. The soldiers and the women have vastly different experiences of life and God and vastly different expectations for what God has in store for them.
The soldiers are in the business of death and they expected this whole Jesus matter to go a certain way. They get paid to go to battle and kill their enemies and their enemies are supposed to stay dead. That’s how it works. Their government declared Jesus of Nazareth as their enemy and executed him for treason. Jesus was killed and he was supposed to stay dead, but when the angel opened the tomb there was no body. The body is supposed to stay dead and buried, but something so different and shocking happened that the soldiers were struck with fear and dropped.
The women are in the business of life overcoming death. Mary and Mary have experienced childbirth or at least witnessed childbirth. They have experienced the pain and the blood that accompanies this process of new life. They know about the high rates of infant mortality and maternal mortality and yet they know that sometimes, in spite of being surrounded by death, the miracle of life perseveres. In this sense the women were better prepared to receive the news that the miracle of life stepped out of the tomb of death than those soldiers.
When the soldiers saw the frightening angel appear they expected that this messenger from God was their enemy, but the women saw this messenger as a harbinger of God’s favor and love. The soldiers were a part of the machine that killed Jesus of Nazareth and now, this apparent divine ally of Jesus descends making the ground quake and lightning flash. It looks to them like they just made a terrible enemy and they faint from fear.
The women, however, have been with Jesus from the beginning and they know where they stand with God. No doubt the angel was terrifying and I am sure their hearts were racing with fear, but they also knew Jesus whom the angel spoke about. They were with Jesus from the beginning starting at Galilee. They witnessed him miraculously feed 5,000 people in a single afternoon from scraps of bread and fish and they told that story to others. They watched as Jesus healed the sick so that they might have a richer life and be welcomed into the communities that had once shunned them. They partook in the meals alongside the sinners, prostitutes, and tax collectors that Jesus invited to his table. They shared the news of this savior who welcomes all. The women sat at Jesus’ feet as he taught them about the way of the cross and how the way one truly begins to live their life to the fullest is to give their life away for the sake of others. The women in turn were entrusted with that teaching to teach others. Jesus showed the women great love and he empowered them to share his loving deeds and words with the world.
Women in Jesus’ day, however, were commonly regarded as being much less than men. They were seen as less intelligent, less courageous, and less capable of leadership. They were not able to live safely without the support of a man- a husband, a brother, or a father to provide for them. Without that male figure, women were left with only begging and prostitution as a way of supporting themselves. A woman’s testimony was viewed as dismissible in a court of law. Women were not believed to have sound judgment and were believed to be too emotional or “hysterical” to accurately report important or traumatic information. In fact, Jesus’ own disciples are guilty of embracing these dehumanizing stereotypes. In Luke’s gospel, the women who witness Jesus’ resurrection find the other disciples and tell them what they have seen. We are then told that these disciples “dismissed it as idle talk.”
In the 2,000 years that have passed, we still have not reached a point where women are seen as equally capable as men in terms of intelligence, courage, leadership, and the like. That has affected the disadvantages women face in work (earning less money than their male counterparts, being denied positions of authority), in relationships (where abuse remains epidemic), and in church life (where many denominations still do not recognize the proclamation of female preachers (like Mary and Mary!) and those that do still have biases to overcome).
Jesus’ empowerment of women like Mary and Mary to carry out the words and deeds of life for the sake of the world runs opposed to the way the world diminished women in Jesus’ day and the way it continues to do so today. Mary and Mary experienced love and empowerment in a way that the rest of the world had failed to offer. In walking with Jesus for so long, they knew that they were loved and valued as bearers of God’s Good News. God sees all of us as worthy of love and salvation and all of us as worthy of sharing God’s love and salvation with the world.
The big, rough and tough soldiers drop as though dead because they were filled with just one thing: fear. The lone, unarmed women stood strong and courageously because they were also filled with great joy. We read that after hearing the message from the angel that Jesus has been raised, the women left the tomb to tell others even as they were filled “with fear and great joy.” They still had fear mingled with their joy. Maybe their hearts were still racing from the rumble of the earthquake or lightning appearance of the angel. Maybe their fear was rooted in what they feared might happen next. Maybe they were afraid of what would or would not change. Maybe they were afraid that after all this, they would lay everything out to the other disciples everything that they had experienced to only be dismissed as giving “idle talk.” Maybe they were afraid that they would still have to grapple with challenges of being single women in a male-dominated world (if these women were Mary Magdalene and Mary Mother of Jesus as the text seems to suggest). Maybe they feared they would be left alone as they had been at the cross and at the tomb. Maybe they were afraid of getting hurt standing up for their proclamation of Jesus raised.
With all of these fears running throughout their very being, the fears did not drop the women. Something else kept them standing on their feet. Resurrection joy kept them standing. For all the fears that they held, they also held onto the joy of knowing Jesus who has conquered sin and death, and this joy is greater than any fear. If death dies in the tomb when Christ is risen, what fear can remain standing? If we ultimately do not need to fear even death, what is left to fear?
By God’s grace, we are called to stand tall and to stand strong like Mary and Mary. We are called to hold onto the Easter joy that upholds us even in the midst of our fears. And we may still be afraid of many things. We may like Mary and Mary be afraid of the power of sexism. Or racism. Or ableism. We may fear sickness. We may fear broken relationships. We may fear war. We may fear hunger or homelessness. We may fear despair. We may fear fear. We may fear sin and we may fear death. But like Mary and Mary we need not be filled with only fear. We are also filled with the great joy of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. This is the joy that conquers all the forces that seek to drop us like those fainting soldiers. This is the joy that washes away sin, closes the gates of hell, and kills death. This is the joy of God’s endless love that brings life and hope into the world. May you, like Mary and Mary, stand tall and stand strong in the joy of new Easter life. May it fill you with joy. May it strengthen you to carry that great joy to all those who hunger for it. Christ is risen. Alleluia!