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The Easter Earthquake

A few years ago, a powerful earthquake hit Italy. More than three hundred people died as a result. Most of were buried from a state funeral held on Good Friday. Several days after this tragedy, news reports told of a small bit of good news that was important to art conservationists and residents of the village of Rocca di Cambio. Like many of the buildings in the small mountain town, the Catholic Church was heavily damaged. The altar pulled away from the front wall of the church during the earthquake. When church members went inside to inspect the damage, they found a long-lost eleventh century fresco depicting Mary and the infant Jesus. Until the earthquake, it had been hidden behind the altar. Town historians pointed out that something similar happened in 1822 when another earthquake revealed another hidden painting of Mary in the same church.

The earthquake that we heard about today in the Gospel of Matthew occurred when an angel rolled the stone away from Jesus’ tomb, revealing what had been hidden. What the women saw, however, was not the body of Jesus, but instead the emptiness of an unoccupied grave.

I always pictured the stone that sealed Jesus’ grave as a big round boulder pushed into the opening, sort of like a giant cork sealing the tomb. It probably wasn’t like that at all. Tombs in first-century Palestine were typically sealed with a carefully shaped round slab of rock, sort of like a giant wheel, that rolled along a groove cut into the ground.

As we reflect on this central story of the Christian faith, it’s important, I think, to understand that the stone wasn’t rolled away so Jesus could get out. The stories shared by early Christians in the gospels purport that Jesus’ post-resurrection body was capable of going wherever it wished. Jesus appeared to his disciples in an upper room, even though all the doors were locked. So why bother rolling the stone away at all?

The stone was rolled away so those nearby could go in. And look around. And see that it was empty. And then go and find Jesus.

Mary Magdalene and a woman known to us only as the “other Mary” went to Jesus’ tomb at dawn and “suddenly there was a great earthquake.” All of the gospels tell a different part of the Easter story, but I have to say that Matthew’s version is the best. Luke tells us about some disciples who meet Jesus on the road and don’t even recognize him. Mark and John at least tell about happy reunions in the cemetery, but only Matthew bothers to say that the earth shook that morning.

Easter changed things. “Resurrection” is now part of our vocabulary. I think it’s important to note that Resurrection is not simply Resuscitation. If you’ve taken a CPR course you’ve likely worked to restore breath – and life – to a plastic effigy named Resuscitation Annie. And a few people have experienced the wonder of saving an actual life with those skills. But the resurrection is much more than restoring breath and extending a life.

Last year on the day before Easter, I experienced a first in thirty years of pastoral ministry. The calling hours, or wake, for a life-long church member named June were held right in the church. June was laid out in a casket below a brilliant stained glass window in the lobby. When I approached the casket to pay my respects, I noticed that she was wearing her name tag. It was pinned to a beautiful, bright blouse. June’s daughter explained to me that June went shopping at Macy’s a few weeks earlier and bought a new outfit for Easter. When the casket was closed and wheeled down the aisle at the start of the funeral, I couldn’t stop seeing June with her nametag and her new Easter outfit. She was clothed for the resurrection, dressed to meet Jesus, and ready in case a nametag was needed as a form of identification.

Resurrection is a new way of being, and June, like Jesus, knew that resuscitation is not what is needed most.

None of Jesus’ disciples expected the resurrection. Although death on a cross and the defeat of their message was regrettable, it was certainly explainable. They might have comforted themselves by saying, “It was a good campaign while it lasted. We didn’t get him elected Messiah, but death is final. It’s important to be realistic and accept the facts.

Our world is in the death-grip of facts. We have come to know that everything that lives, dies. It happens to the best of us; it happens to all of us. There are few real surprises. We live in ways that limit what is possible when we are open to what we cannot see or understand.

The crucifixion of Jesus was the inevitable, predictable result of saying the things Jesus said and doing the things Jesus did. Crucifixion is what the world always does to those who threaten it. But on Easter God inserted a new fact. God took the worst we could do, all of our death-dealing doings, and offered love. And life. And the earth shook.

A writer and preacher named Will Willimon told the story of visiting a church in Alaska. He wrote: “During my sermon, the earth heaved for a moment that seemed to last forever. The little church shook. The Alaskans sat there like it was another day at the office. Their only response was the woman who said, “How about that, the light fixtures didn’t fall this time.” Willimon continued, “I ended my sermon immediately. I was shaken by the earthquake, but also shaken by those nonchalant Alaskans. Afterward, I asked the pastor, “What would it take to get this congregation’s attention? I’d hate to have to preach to them every Sunday.”

When the earth shook and stone was rolled away, God got our attention. We got our first glimpse of a new world; a world where death does not have the last word, a world where injustice is made right, and a world where the followers of Jesus live not by artificial resuscitation, but by the amazing power of resurrection.

The resurrection likely means many different things to those gathered here this morning. For some it is a literal and essential doctrine that defines the Christian faith. For some it is symbolic of what they have come to understand as truth, that death is not an ultimate, final force that can keep life from springing forth again. For others, resurrection speaks of hope; regardless of how large the rock or how tight the seal, God’s power is greater still.

May we live this day and every day in the earth-shaking, life-restoring, hope-giving light of the resurrection. Amen.

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