I've heard this Easter gospel many times, but this year I was caught off guard by the angel sitting on the stone. Oh, I remembered the angel -- all four gospel writers talk about an angel or sometimes two. But only Matthew draws this particular picture -- "...an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it." Can you see it? The angel rolled back the stone and sat on it! Sat right down as though the stone were a bench in the park, or the cemetery. I can almost hear the angel laughing -- "Do you see this stone? This great stone was rolled in place to close the tomb. This great stone not only closed the tomb, but was later sealed by soldiers sent on Pilate's authority. This great stone was a sign of finality, earthly authority, power, and death. Look! I'm sitting on the stone and the tomb is empty!"
Only Matthew gives us this particular picture of the angel sitting on the stone. Some people are troubled by this, by the differences among the resurrection stories in the four gospels. We can be so troubled by the differences that we attempt to make all the stories the same. But what if we stopped being troubled long enough to pay attention to what is different in each story? New Testament scholar N. T. Wright says it this way. "This is what eyewitness testimony looks and sounds like -- the surface discrepancies do not mean that nothing happened, rather, they mean that the witnesses have not been in collusion." Did you ever think of the Easter stories that way? If the early Christian community wanted to prove the resurrection as historical fact, they surely would have chosen one Easter story as "true" and tossed the others out. Or they would have merged all four stories into one story. Instead, they left all four in as though to say to us: "Pay attention! Listen for what is different, even odd. Each story has something very important to say."
Don't miss the angel sitting on the stone! What does this angel sitting on the great stone of death have to teach us? "Do not be afraid," for starters. It's the same word the angel had for Mary Magdalene and the other Mary that early Easter morning. The ground is shaking. The guards are shaking. You may be shaking, too, but do not be afraid. The angel sitting on the stone isn't finished. "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." Now, here's an odd thing. Jesus didn't come walking out of the tomb when the earth shook or when the angel rolled back the stone. Jesus was already gone. "He is not here," the angel said. Resurrection had already happened. "Go quickly and tell his disciples, "he has been raised from the dead...." The angel didn't roll away the stone to set Jesus free -- Jesus was already gone, headed for Galilee. The angel rolled away the stone so the women could see what had already happened. The women ran off shaking with laughter and fear. As far as we know the angel was still sitting there on the stone when Jesus met the women on the road. Maybe the angel sat there until the guards awoke -- the guards who had been sent to guard the dead, who had become like the dead themselves. If the angel spoke, would they dare to listen? Or would they believe only in what they had known -- the power of Rome, the rule of fear, the keeping of good order, the protection of the status quo. "Do not be afraid." Could they have heard such a word or would they try to get the stone back in place? We'll never know for the story doesn't stay at the tomb. Before the guards woke up, before the women got to Galilee, Jesus appeared to them on the road. "Do not be afraid," he said, as though he knew they needed to hear it again. It is not easy to believe in the power of life over death. Indeed, Easter Sunday can be the hardest day of the church year for us. The birth of the baby Jesus at Christmas is easier to take in than the grown-up Jesus rising from the dead. But the baby would have been forgotten if Jesus hadn't risen from the dead. Jesus might have been remembered as a wise teacher or a peasant revolutionary, but Easter transforms memory to presence. I can't explain how it happened anymore than I can explain the creation of the world. I know from my years as a parish pastor that Easter can be the hardest day of all. No doubt that's why the gospel stories all say, "Do not be afraid." That is the angel's word. It is also Jesus' word to us on this Easter day for he knows we need to hear it again.
What else does the angel sitting on the stone want us to know? One thing for sure we will not see Jesus staring where the stone had been. Maybe that's why the angel sat on it -- to direct our attention elsewhere! No amount of research at the empty tomb will reveal Jesus. The women who came to the tomb didn't see Jesus there. Jesus didn't come walking out of the tomb leaving his grave clothes behind. New Testament scholar, Luke Johnson, reminds us that the resurrection of Jesus is not resuscitation from clinical death. In John's gospel Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from death. Lazarus did come walking out of the tomb and Jesus asked his friends to unbind him. Lazarus was resuscitated, he came back to life as he had known it before. He wasn't more alive than he had been before, and he would some day die. (2) But the earliest witnesses bear testimony to Jesus who was transformed --who was alive in a new way beyond the limits of time and space. The gospel accounts move back and forth between pictures of Jesus who was physically present eating, touching, talking and Jesus who appeared suddenly on the road or in a locked room, not bound by physical limitations. Jesus does not live in their memories; Jesus is somehow present.
The angel wants us to see that the very stone of death has been rolled away, turned over, transformed into a pulpit for proclaiming the resurrection gospel. Jesus is not memory but presence, presence which continues to transform the forces of death all around us. Sometimes when we dare to start walking toward Galilee we begin to see.
Theologian Delores Williams bears testimony to resurrection's transforming power. Her African American ancestors were carried to this country in slave ships named John the Baptist, Mary, Justice and Jesus. When they heard stories from the Bible, they began to find their own story there --- even when it was read by their white masters. They saw Jesus led off with his hands tied behind his back; they saw him whipped as they had been whipped; they saw him nailed to the cross though he had done nothing wrong; and they heard the amazing news that God raised him up forever; that the principalities and powers of this world could not keep him down. Well, says Delores Williams, her ancestors had to transform the names written on the slave ships; John the Baptist, Mary, Justice. Jesus had to be turned upside down and inside out; they had to be transformed as surely as the stone that sealed the tomb. They had to roll away the master's stone and sit on it. "Jesus is not here!" they sang. "Jesus is not a slave ship -- Jesus is alive!" They were on their way to Galilee.
Not long ago I took my preaching class to the South Bronx, to Transfiguration Lutheran Church. Pastor Heidi Neumark introduced us to the neighborhood by showing us slides of the area around the church. We watched as pictures of abandoned apartment buildings gutted by fires flashed on the sanctuary wall. We saw rubble and broken glass, crack vials and trash -- pictures like the ones you may have seen on television whenever politicians venture into the South Bronx for photo opportunities. The newest building was a shiny prison topped with razor wire, a prison for youth age 10 to 16 -- right across from the junior high. But mingled with these scenes were pictures of children, their faces alive with hope, laughing, lighting candles, gathered at the baptismal font, learning to read in the church's after-school program. We saw pictures of mothers meeting together, learning how to fight for their community schools. Imagine if the city and state spent $86,000 per hear to keep a child in school. That's the amount spent to keep a young person in the brand new razor-topped prison! The slides didn't stay with the laughter of children or the hopeful activist mothers for long. Soon we were back on the streets looking at pictures of the shrines painted on the sides of buildings -- larger than life faces of young people who died too soon, gunned down on the streets not far from the church. Picture after picture after picture until we could not bear another. The faces were drawn with love and care; the words in bold colors on the cinder block. "We will never forget you, Richie." Flowers and candles marked each shrine, brightly painted grave stones rising from the sidewalks. But these shrines were not the final word. As we left the church that chilly night, Pastor Neumark led us through the front doors than asked us to stop and turn around. The doors were alive with color, painted by teenage boys from the congregation. It had become a tradition at the church -- instead of graffiti which once covered the doors, youth of the parish now painted pictures of the weekly gospel. Not a shrine to death but a testimony to life. On the left side of the doors, a young boy had opened the fire hydrant and water was pouring out in a cooling stream. It's a New York summer celebration, a cooling ritual in the midst of summer heat. Now the water flowed in a wide arc, from one door to the other, then into the baptismal font. The water flowed over a table set with bread and wine in the midst of the city.
We were in the Bronx. The sign on the corner said Prospect Avenue and 164th Street, but I knew we had come to Galilee. Jesus was standing there in the doorway very much alive. As usual, he had gotten there ahead of us. And off to the side I thought I saw an angel sitting on the stone.