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.  Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

—Matthew 28:1-10 (NRSV)

On Easterrunner Sunday around the world, on college campuses and in local congregations, folks read different passages from the gospels recalling those bewildering experiences of that resurrection morning.  Of all those passages read, personally, I am fond of this passage from Matthew’s gospel because of its jarring juxtaposition of the conventional with the unconventional.

As this story begins, it is saturated in tradition.  Morning dawns with the two Marys traveling together to finish the work begun 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.  He needed a hasty burial so that those helping to lay him in the tomb would be ritually able to participate in the important Passover festivities about to start.  Because of both their rush and regard for tradition, they did not have time to complete the customary rituals before sunset.  They just needed to get Jesus in a tomb.  Those involved in this part of the Jesus story are very mindful of tradition, custom, convention.  Proving this point, now, two days later with the observances of Passover behind them, our two women return to the tomb to finish their work.

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.

Look at how the concern for maintaining convention and fulfilling expected roles provides the initiating energy for this passage from Matthew.

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. While walking in conventionality, the unconventional happens.  An angel appears.  The stone is rolled away.  The guards faint.  The angel speaks.  They tour 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, this sending the two Marys to tell the story of Jesus’ resurrection.  Frequently, 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 new life.  Nevertheless, this detail deserves particular attention because of how it relates to the final passage from this 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.  Jesus says: “‘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 and in the angel’s command, a 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” and “urgency.”  In an almost parallel tone, a second Greek word (hupagó), also, meaning “go” is used to send the two Marys when the Mary’s encounter the risen Jesus while running from the tomb.  In that encounter with Jesus, he tells the Marys, ““Do not be afraid; go and tell . . . .”

This second word, while, also, meaning “to send” or “to go”, carries with it an added dimension.  This second word meaning “to go,” indicates a change of relationship between the one sending and the ones sent.  It literally means to be sent under the sender’s authority, as a kind of proxy for the sender 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.

Their very movements embody this change.

Rather than walkers to a grave, these women are now runners for the resurrection, as they run to tell the disciples!

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; servanthood trumps being served; and, as it turns out—in this new resurrection kingdom—the women are not just the first to the tomb, but these women are the first commissioned preachers of the gospel. This passage from the resurrection story marks a singular moment encapsulating the essence of God’s in-breaking kingdom.  And, that essence is this:  God exercises a miraculous capacity to cause the most unconventional to emerge from the quintessentially conventional.

That essence of creative reordering of the world is not limited to the change in role and status of these two women.  The story of these two women simply serves 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.  For example, consider the Apostle Paul—the perfect definition of a good Jew who becomes the missionary to the Gentiles; or John Wesley—the very embodiment of 18th century church tradition and propriety who licensed women to preach and who indecorously preached atop his father’s gravestone; or Harriet Tubman—a Methodist lay leader, who used her knowledge as a slave to free slaves.

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:  being committed to the tradition regularly leads to the most radical, non-traditional progress.

This does not mean that the Jesus story is always used to liberate and never used to oppress.  It has been used to oppress and certainly will be used for just such efforts in the future.  Unfortunately, those of us closest to this story are often the ones most responsible for ignoring its lessons.  So, what I am saying is that the story’s details and over-arching tenor suggest that the puzzling regularity of the unconventional emerging from the quintessentially conventional is properly characteristic of God’s kingdom.  After two millennia, we should be getting used to it.

Those reading this iChapel are the very embodiments of conventionality.  You are college students, leaders, and educators who are prime examples of doing what you are supposed to do.

This means that reading this scriptural text should come with a warning.

If this gospel story teaches us anything, it teaches us that in doing what is right, you need to be careful because you need to be ready to be used to accomplish the most unexpected, the most unconventional.  Two thousand years of history tells us that you are the very kind of people God might send to do the most remarkable, non-traditional, yet-to-be imaged things.  That possibility is both exhilarating and terrifying.

When presented with this reality, two options present themselves:  like the strong, powerful guards we read about earlier, you may wilt and faint.  On the other hand, like the Marys, you may leap into action.

If you are to become God’s agents for radical change, like the Marys, you must be willing to go. Instinctively, they began to run.  They began to run into the new resurrection, world-changing, life-altering, kingdom-coming, conventionality-shattering reality announced by the angel and commissioned by the Christ.

As we press deeper into this resurrection kingdom, are you ready to run?  Are you ready to run toward the unconventional, yet-to-be imagined possibilities God has in store for you and our world?  Will you faint or will you flourish?  Will you cover your ears or open your hearts?  Will you become the conventionally unconventional change God has in mind and the world needs?

Keep your eyes open and your lives ready, the starting line is under your feet.

Amen.

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