A Conventional Change

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.
—Matthew 28:1-9

Yesterday, many read this passage from Matthew’s gospel or a similar account of the resurrection story from one of the other gospel texts. Personally, I am fond of this passage because of its jarring juxtaposition of the conventional with the unconventional. As this story begins, it is saturated in tradition. In Matthew’s gospel, the two Marys are traveling together to finish the work done on Friday. Here, the most traditional characters perform the most traditional of tasks with the greatest regard for tradition. Two days before, Jesus was killed and needed a temporary burial before sundown so that all those involved in the burial would be ritually able to participate in the important Passover festivities about to being. They did not have time to complete all of the customary rituals before sunset. However, they need to get Jesus in a tomb. (Hence the reason the tradition includes the use of Joseph of Arimathea’s personal tomb.) All those involved in the Jesus story are very mindful of tradition, custom, convention. So, now, two days later with all of the observances of Passover behind them, two women return to the tomb to finish the work begun that previous Friday.

As convention dictated, it was the job of the Marys as women connected with the deceased to prepare the body for its final burial. The Marys were playing their assigned part in the story, fulfilling their conventional roles. Yet, here is where the story takes several dramatic turns. Ultimately, these turns should not surprise us. If anything, the story of the resurrection is a story of the conventional slamming headfirst into the re-creative force of Jesus’ unconventional life, ministry, and purpose—a collision that redirects lives and reality. Case in point: the roles of the two women in Matthew’s resurrection account.

The Marys arrive as the quintessential embodiments of conventionality: they are women mindful both of the traditions of body preparation and of Passover ritual observance and purity. At that moment, in the very instance of their walking in conventionality, everything changes. An angel appears. The stone is rolled away. The guards faint. The angel speaks to them and gives them a tour of the empty tomb. And, here, for me at least, it gets really interesting, the angel gives them a command. The angel says: “Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead . . . .’”

Often, we do not pay close attention to this commission by the angel, sending the two Marys to tell the story of Jesus’ resurrection. This detail in the story gets lost amongst the broader scope of the resurrection narrative, mixed and muddled with the other countless minutia of a miraculous tale of death and resurrection. Nevertheless, this detail deserves particular attention because of how it relates to the final passage from the chapter, a passage that also happens to be the final passage from Matthew’s gospel.

At the end of Matthew’s gospel, we find the familiar account of the great commission. Having gone to Galilee as directed, the disciples meet Jesus and receive their marching orders: “‘All authority 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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’” In that latter passage from Matthew, the Greek word poreuthentes—meaning “go”—is used with strong imperative inflection. In other words, the persons to whom this word is directed are being sent with “authority.” In an almost parallel tone, the word hupagó—meaning “go”—is used to send the two Marys a few verses earlier. This word, while, also, meaning “to send” or “go”, carries with it an added dimension. Hupagó, in addition to commanding one to go, indicates a change of relation between the one sending and the ones sent. It literally means to being sent under the sender’s authority, as a kind of proxy for the sending and with the sender’s power. The not-so-subtle implication is that the two women have changed roles relative to their relationship with Jesus and this change in role is a marker of the change-making character of resurrection and Christ’s resurrection kingdom.

Rather than walkers to a grave, these women are now runners for the resurrection! Because of the resurrection, everything has changed: the dead do not stay dead; sin is not absolute; power is found in weakness; justice is found in peace; servant hood trumps being served; and, as it turns out, women are the first commissioned preachers of the gospel. Moreover, in this new resurrection kingdom, the women are not just the first to the tomb. They are the first missionaries of the church. This passage from the resurrection story marks a singular moment encapsulating the essence of God’s in-breaking kingdom: God’s miraculous capacity to cause the most unconventional to emerge from the quintessentially conventional.

That essence of liberation and reordering of the world is not limited to the change in role and status of two women. The story of the two women simply serve as the first in a long line of persons who act and think conventionally only to have their conventionality used to accomplish the most unconventional outcomes on behalf of God’s kingdom.

In a moment of counterintuitive lucidity, both historically and practically, consider how when we engage the church’s tradition faithfully an intriguing paradox often issues: personal piety and a pursuit of scriptural holiness may lead to the most radical social progress. Look at the ways that our adherence to traditional biblical and theological commitments resulted in an advocacy for the poor and social justice; universal education; emancipation of the enslaved; and ordination of women despite prevailing sentiment—both within and without the Church—to the contrary.

This does not mean that the story of Jesus’ resurrection is always used to liberate and never used to oppress. It has been and certainly will be used for just such efforts in the future. What I am saying is that the story’s details and over-arching tenor suggest that the puzzling regularity of the unconventional to emerge from the quintessentially conventional is properly characteristic of God’s kingdom. After two millennia, we should be getting use to it. Moreover, when the gospel is used otherwise, those uses cut against the grain of the resurrection story.

As we draw another academic year to a close with all of the conventionality that surrounds our lives in the next few weeks—e.g., exams, papers, final grades, hikes up Brasstown Bald, commencement, etc.—may we recognize that our most conventional of practices just might lead to the most unconventional and kingdom-filled outcomes if we keep our eyes open and are ready to respond when sent.

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