Tonight we look at the resurrection story from the Gospel of Matthew, a mystery at the center of our faith. As St.Paul said, “If Christ is not risen, your faith is in vain.”
The gospels not only proclaim the resurrection of Jesus from the dead but see this central mystery of our faith shaping the way we live and think. Each gospel also presents this mystery to the church of its time. If we look carefully, we can see its relevance for the church of our time too. That’s true particularly of the Gospel of Matthew.
What was the Jewish-Christian church in Palestine or Syria like about 80 AD when Matthew wrote? The followers of Jesus, mostly Jewish-Christians, were facing hard times. They were being confronted by a resurgent Judaism led by the Pharisees. At the same time, gentiles were accepting the message of Jesus and seeking baptism. As it faced a large influx of strangers and attacks from its own people, this predominantly Jewish- Christian church was to be radically changed.
Recall that the temple and the city of Jerusalem had been completely destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, which caused many Jews led by the Pharisees to flee into Galilee and Syria and there begin to build up Judaism again. They saw the followers of Jesus, numerous in those regions, as a fringe group standing in the way of Jewish restoration, so a confrontation began. Jewish-Christians were being driven out of the synagogues in Galilee and a campaign was begun to discredit the Christian movement. Signs of that confrontation are evident in the chapters of Matthew’s Gospel.
This gospel responds to the situation by reminding Christians then that God’s plan is present even when things are uncertain. The Passion of Jesus is their guidebook. Did not Jesus live faithfully through the awful confusion of his arrest, his brutal treatment and his unfair death? So, like him, should they face uncertainty and hardship. God brought him to new life; God would bring them to new life too.
The story of the Jewish guards at the tomb, unique to Matthew’s gospel, is an example of the Christian response to a story circulating at that time denying that Jesus rose from the dead, but claiming instead that his body was stolen by his followers.
You can see Matthew’s gospel, and all the gospels for that matter, insisting that Jesus really died; he experienced death in all its harsh reality. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he cries out after a long silence on Calvary. He was buried, then he rose again. Pilate and his soldiers become important, credible witnesses to his death and burial.
Jesus also really rose from the dead, Matthew’s gospel insists. Even as he died, the earth quakes, rocks are split and tombs we are opened. An angel clothed like light sits triumphantly on the stone rolled away from an empty tomb. Death has been conquered.
What’s particularly interesting about Matthew’s resurrection account, however, is that Jesus appears to his disciples, not in Jerusalem or at the tomb outside the city, but on a mountain in Galilee. From there, he sends his disciples into the whole world to preach the gospel, baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
It’s true that, as the women run from the tomb to tell the disciples, Jesus briefly appears and they “took hold of his feet and worshipped him.” (Matthew 28,9) But they’re off quickly to tell his disciples to go to Galilee “and there they will see me.”
A neutral observer on the scene in Galilee and Syria in those days might reasonably judge the followers of Jesus of Nazareth to be in bad straits. They were losing in their confrontation with their Jewish opponents and were being pushed out of their synagogues and their homeland. In the following centuries, Christianity hardly survives in Galilee, where Jesus began his ministry. After the fall of Jerusalem it becomes a Jewish stronghold.
But that’s not the story Matthew tells. The Risen Jesus appears on a mountain in Galilee urging his followers to a new global mission. A new step is to be taken to bring about the kingdom of God.
The eleven* disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them.
When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted.
Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Go, therefore,* and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28,16-20)
Matthew doesn’t forget that the Risen Christ emerged from the tomb in Jerusalem, but he sees him bringing new life and direction to his struggling church and his struggling followers in Galilee. The Risen Lord is where his followers are, leading them on. He leads them into the future, uncertain as it is. He commands them to leave Galilee which now, instead of a place where his church seems to be dying, is a place of hope and new beginnings. From a mountain he points to a beautiful unknown.
Jesus is not a simply a figure of the past; the Risen Jesus constantly calls his followers onward and accompanies them to a wider mission. His call is by no means obvious, though. Matthew alludes to the chronic uncertainty of Jesus’ disciples: “When they saw him they worshipped, but they doubted.”
Matthew’s Gospel could have been written for our church today. The Risen Jesus makes our church– to most observers a church in crisis and severe decline– a place of hope and new beginnings. He gives us “resurrection thinking” – the ability to look into the ruins and see beyond them.
Just as his disciples learned to see not death but resurrection in what happened during Jesus’ last hours , so we need to immerse ourselves in these mysteries to gain eyes that really see.