Hosea 6.1-3

Matthew 27.62-28.20


Easter 2019

How many folks here this morning have seen the movie, Invasion of the Body Snatchers?   The original was filmed in 1956, but it was the 1978 remake that most people remember, the version that featured Donald Sutherland, Jeff Goldblum, Leonard Nimoy and Veronica Cartwright.  There are also two additional versions of the film, one made in 1993 and one in 2007, and Hollywood Reporter says there is currently a fifth one in the pipeline.  Apparently the story is one that becomes fresh again in each new generation.  If you have never seen it, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is about an alien invasion of earth that uses giant seed-pods as the means of replicating human beings so that they are no longer who they once were, but become willing accomplices with the invaders.  They look the same – their bodies are identical with their former selves – but their wills have been bent to a superior power.  And of course, the backstories have changed with each generation:  in the 1950s the movie was understood to be an allegory warning against the perils of communism; in the ‘70s it was the shadow of Watergate and Vietnam; in 1993 the CIA was the unseen enemy and in the early 2000s Homeland Security.  Every generation, it seems, wants to be wary of the body-snatchers.  I wonder who will be the bogeyman in the next…

I remember seeing the original when I was very young, and I also saw the 70s remake when I was in my twenties.  So as I was studying the gospel of Matthew’s rather unusual way of telling the Easter story earlier this week, I was reminded of that movie.  Not because of the part of Matthew Diane read, the familiar tale of the empty tomb and the angel and the encounter with the risen Jesus and the great commission at the end, but rather that bizarre story that interrupts Matthew’s narrative, the story about a plot to snatch the body of Jesus.  It may be that you’ve never heard the story before, or maybe you’ve heard but paid little attention to it.  The church has certainly tried its best to ignore it – this part of Matthew is another one of those passages that never appear in the lectionary, the “officially” prescribed collection of Bible readings for every Sunday in the year.  But it’s Matthew’s story, it’s the way he’s chosen to write it, and it actually has something to tell us about the resurrection of Jesus.

My colleague and former associate, The Rev. Tara Olsen Allen, whom many of you met at our installation last year, likes to begin her church services by reminding us to pay attention to our bodies in worship.  The temptation when we come to church is to think that worship is primarily about our spirits, the state of our souls, so we sometimes forget we are an embodied people.  In Hebrew faith and tradition, the flesh and the spirit are one; they cannot be separated.  We’re about halfway through this morning’s worship right now, but let’s give Tara’s exercise a try, because when we bring ourselves to church, we don’t just bring our spirit and our attitude, we bring our whole selves, spiritually and emotionally and physically.  So:  let’s put our feet on the floor and our hands on our thighs.  Relax your shoulders – throw them back a little because that’s often where much of our tension goes.  Loosen your neck a little.  Close your eyes.  Take a deep breath.  Take another.  One more.  Pay attention to how your body feels.  Pay attention to what you’re hearing, pay attention to the aroma of the lilies, pay attention to what you’re feeling.  Be silent.  Now slowly open your eyes.  There.  It’s kind of a mindfulness exercise for the body. Now we’re all in:  our minds, our hearts, our spirits and our bodies are all in to the experience of worship.

It is important to pay attention to the body, and this is one of the things Matthew is doing when he punctuates his resurrection story with the imaginary plot to steal Jesus’ body.  It begins the day after the crucifixion, the day after Good Friday, which would have been yesterday, Holy Saturday.  The chief priests and the Pharisees were worried.  They have not forgotten that Jesus spoke of rising after death.  They said to Pilate, “We remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’”  They were worried that the disciples would come in the dark of night and steal Jesus’ body and then claim he was risen.  So they took extra precautions:  they secured the tomb, they sealed the stone and they posted a guard.  It’s almost like an old Houdini trick, when he would be wrapped in chains, locked in a safe and dumped in the harbor.  He’ll never get out of this one!  But guess what:  Jesus was raised anyway.  The stone was rolled away and he was not there.  And so the guards and the chief priests and the elders panicked and came up with Plan B.  The elders bribed the guards to spread the story that the disciples stole the body:   “You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’”  Matthew’s sense of irony is delicious:  Plan A was to make the tomb so secure that the disciples could never get in and steal the body; Plan B is to tell everyone Plan A failed and the disciples got in and stole the body.    For the Pharisees and the elders and the chief priests and the guards, it was all about the body, but in a classic case of misdirection worthy of Houdini himself, they were focused on the wrong body.  They were focused on the wrong body.  I’ll tell you what I mean in a minute.

For all the worry the Pharisees and the rest of them had about what might happen to Jesus’ body, Matthew is blithely unconcerned about it.  In fact each of the gospel writers has a different attitude toward the whole idea of a bodily resurrection.  Last Easter we looked closely at Mark’s story, and we discovered that nobody ever sees the risen Jesus in Mark.  Mark tells us the good news that he is risen, but we have to take his word for it, because the risen Jesus never materializes in Mark.  In Matthew, we do see the risen Lord: “Suddenly Jesus met [the women and the disciples] and said, ‘Greetings!  Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’”  But for Matthew it’s not that big a deal; Jesus looks and acts pretty much just like he always did, and there is no real surprise or astonishment.  He is who he is.  Now Luke and John, on the other hand, begin to build a whole theology around the nature of Jesus’ resurrection body and what it might have looked like; so every story is slightly different.  As I was working on this morning’s sermon, one of the commentaries I looked at is the Anchor Bible Commentary, written by William Albright and C.S. Mann, published in 1979, and they had something very interesting to say about the four Easter stories we read in the Bible and specifically about what it means that they are noticeably different from each other.  Albright and Mann say that the fact that the writers tell four different stories is actually more persuasive that the resurrection really took place than if they told four identical stories.  “We are not concerned by the differences,” they write, “but we must use this opportunity to say once more that complete agreement by [Matthew, Mark, Luke and John] on details and chronology of the story would put the whole New Testament record under grave suspicion of collusion on the part of eyewitnesses and the [writers] of the gospels.”  In other words, the fact that we have four different Easter stories in the Bible is proof that there was no collusion.

So yes, Matthew’s story is different; nobody else tells us about the plot to prevent the disciples from stealing Jesus’ body, and then telling everyone that the disciples stole Jesus’ body.  But the chief priests and the elders and the Pharisees were too clever by half:  as I said earlier, it was a classic case of misdirection, because they were focused on the wrong body.  The reality of the resurrection is not found in a risen physical body that may or may not have looked like the original Jesus; the reality of the resurrection is found in the collective body gathered in the spirit of the risen Jesus – it is, in fact, found in the church.  This. You. We.  We are the body that testifies to the reality of the resurrection.  The church – this church, every church - manifests the risen body of Christ.

The personal encounter with the risen Christ – which is to say, our presence here on Easter Day – changes us.  We cannot help but be changed when we bring ourselves into the presence of the Holy and the company of one another.  It’s not anything physical about us that marks us; we look the same – our bodies are identical with their former selves – but our wills have been bent to a superior power.  As Paul wrote, “anyone who is in Christ is a new creation.”  We become willing accomplices with Jesus’ mission and ministry; we become disciples ourselves, and our wills have been bent to a higher power.  Jesus is embodied every time you and I do the work of being the church, whatever that looks like.  It could be the work of feeding the hungry, of providing a meal for the community every Sunday night.  It could be the work of preventing substance abuse among our teens and adults.  It could be the work of rebuilding homes damaged or destroyed by hurricanes along the Florida coast.  It could be the work of bringing a meal to a hungry neighbor, or sitting quietly with a grieving one.  Whatever it is we do, and we do a lot here at our United Church, we embody Jesus Christ when we reach out to others in love.  So you might say that on the third day, it was that body – this body – that was raised and given new life.  Remember what we heard from the prophet Hosea this morning:  “Come, let us return to the Lord… after two days God will revive us; and the third day God will raise us up, that we may live before the Lord.”  Jesus was raised two thousand years ago; you and I, the embodied spirit of the risen Christ, rise up to good works in his name every single day.

Alleluia and Amen.




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