(Sermon based on Matthew 28:1-10 preached at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church of Millersville on Easter Sunday 2019. You can hear a podcast of the sermon here.)
How many times have we heard it?
How many times have I preached it?
“All the disciples abandoned Jesus after his arrest and crucifixion.”
But we just heard in Matthew’s account of the resurrection that it’s not true.
Sure, none of the folks that we usually think of as Jesus’ disciples – Peter and John and James and Andrew and so on – were around on Easter morning. Only John had stuck around for the crucifixion. By Sunday, they were long gone, probably hiding out somewhere in grief and confusion . . . and fear.
But there WERE disciples besides John who witnessed the crucifixion, who then followed the body of Jesus to the tomb and saw it placed there.
There WERE disciples at the tomb as the sun rose on that glorious Sunday morning.
The women stayed.
This morning’s sermon has its roots in a thread of tweets posted a few weeks ago by author Elizabeth Esther. After reminding readers that the women stayed, she wrote, “What I would give if someone preached an Easter morning message about the women who stayed. I would be a mess of tears. If just once the dudes could de-center themselves.”
This morning, this dude is going to attempt to de-center himself and preach about the women who stayed.
It’s no wonder we don’t hear as much about the women who stayed as about the men who ran away. The Gospels were all written, as far as we know, by men. Centuries of patriarchal church authority resulted in the diminishment – and even slander – of the women who followed Jesus.
Have you heard that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute or at least a promiscuous woman?
That’s not in the Bible. She was tagged with that reputation by the church in the sixth century. Unfortunately the image of Mary Magdalene as a wanton woman has persisted even into our time.
What the Bible does say about her is found in Luke, who tells us Jesus healed Mary Magdalene of “seven demons.” She followed Jesus for years, probably out of gratitude, from near the beginning of his ministry.
Mary Magdalene is one of the women who stayed.
Another was also named Mary, the mother of the apostles James and John who is best known for pestering Jesus to make her sons his seconds in command. There is yet another Mary in Matthew’s account who Matthew seems to believe is Jesus’ mother.
So consider these Marys who stayed. A demon-possessed woman, a mother known for being sort of pushy, and another mother who was unwed when she gave birth to her firstborn.
Three women who would have been rejected by the “good, decent people.” Of course, just the fact they were women would have marginalized them in that time and place.
According to Franciscan scholar Dr. Barbara Leonhard, in first century Palestine a woman’s place was definitely in the home. Women passed from control of their fathers to control of their husbands. Their role was well-defined and narrow – to take care of the house, to bear and raise children. Some rabbis taught women should never leave home except to go to the synagogue. When they got there, women sat in a separate area and were not allowed to study the sacred Scriptures.
Men could not even greet a woman outside the home.
But Jesus sure did! He spoke openly to women like he did to the woman at the well (another woman, by the way, who has been labeled as a “bad girl” with insufficient evidence) and made women a part of his ministry. In Luke 8 Mary Magdalene is listed along with other women who left their homes to follow Jesus, independent women who Luke tells us helped fund Jesus’ ministry in a time when a wife’s finances normally belonged to her husband.
That churches have kept women from ministry and authority is due to patriarchy, NOT Jesus.
It was a woman who first declared how Jesus would turn everything upside down, raising up not just women but all of the least, the last, the lost, and the left out. In what we’ve come to call the Magnifcat, Mary the mother of Jesus proclaimed the great reversal that would be instituted by her son. Listen to the topsy-turvy language in these verses she spoke before he was born:
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:51-53)
Mary knew her son would overturn the supposed normal hierarchies. She knew he would shake things up.
On Good Friday and Easter, earthquakes proclaim this shake-up.
When Jesus dies on the cross, the ground shakes so hard that tombs are opened.
And on Easter morning, there’s another seismological event.
The women who stayed approached the tomb early Sunday morning, just as the sun was rising. Matthew says they were “going to look at the tomb.” Do they perhaps expect . . . something? Jesus had told his followers repeatedly that he would go to Jerusalem to be handed over and tortured and killed . . . and then rise again on the third day. The male disciples seem to have disregarded that last part, but these women showed up. Did they retain some hope based on what Jesus had promised? It was the third day after all . . .
When they get to the tomb all heaven broke loose.
First, there’s the earthquake.
But the women stayed.
The earthquake was somehow caused by an angels’ arrival. He sounds scary-awesome – Matthew says, “His appearance was like lightning.”
But the women stayed.
The angel rolled the stone back from the entrance to the tomb. I wonder what that looked like. Did he physically move it or send some kind of energy beams or just snap his fingers? It was certainly an astonishing display of power.
But the women stayed.
It was all too much for the two men who were there. The two Roman guards fainted.
But the women stayed . . . on their feet.
The angel addressed the women. He said what angels always say after their disconcerting sudden appearances. “Do not be afraid.”
But there’s more meaning this time in the angel’s words as Mennonite Pastor Melissa Florer-Bixler has pointed out. The angel turns to the Marys and says, “YOU don’t have to be afraid. Those other guys? They should be super afraid!”
They should be afraid because they are collaborating representatives of the forces that put Jesus to death, the forces Jesus came to overturn, the forces of Empire that promulgate and perpetuate injustice and violence and fear.
The women don’t need to be afraid because they are and represent those trampled by those forces who Jesus lifted up in his great reversal.
Then, to those women who stayed, the angel pronounced the greatest reversal of all, the great reversal of life and death that we gather to celebrate today:
“He is not here. He is risen just as he said.”
If I were filming this scene, I would cut to a closeup of Mary Magdalene who would say, just barely audibly, “I knew it!”
The angel then told the women to go and tell the other disciples – the ones who did not stay. For even though they betrayed, denied, and deserted Jesus, he died and rose for them, too.
The women who stayed were the first to hear the Good News of Easter, and they were the first to be sent as witnesses to the resurrection; another reversal in a culture where women could not testify in court because they were believed incapable of telling the truth. Yet the women who stayed were the first evangelists!
And the women who stayed were the first to see the risen Jesus, and in meeting him the first to do what we gather for today – they were the first to worship the risen Christ. They fell at his feet . . . what else could they do?
Jesus echoed the angel’s direction to go and tell. The women became apostles. Apostle comes from the Greek word for someone authorized to speak on behalf of the king. Mary Magdalene in particular has been called “The Apostle to the Apostles.”
The women who stayed demonstrated Jesus’ love and concern for those on the margins, for those who are disappointed, dejected, and struggling to hold onto hope.
They remind us of Jesus’ concern for US, even and especially when, because of who we are or because of circumstances, we feel at the end of our hope.
Nothing, not even death, is beyond God’s resurrection power.
No one, not even you or I, is beyond God’s resurrection power.
To paraphrase Romans 8, NOTHING can separate us from God’s resurrection power.
Not gender nor any other category we use to divide people into “us and them” or “worthy and unworthy.”
Not Roman guards.
In the words of the Lauren Daigle song title, God is “Still Rolling Stones.”
God is still rolling stones away from tombs that trap us in patterns and systems of death, and bringing us into the resurrection of Christ.
God is still rolling stones away from our tombs of prejudice and judgment and hatred.
God is still rolling stones away from our tombs of despair and loneliness and rejection.
Even if the world – or especially the church – has convinced you that you are too far gone for God’s resurrection power, I invite you to stand with the women who stayed this morning.
If you want to know the resurrected Christ, stand with the women who stayed.
They had every reason to run away with the men, to completely lose hope, to figure that based on their position and place in society it really didn’t matter anyway.
But the women stayed.