The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus turned the world upside-down.
In the resurrection there is, of course, the cosmic triumph of life over death. But there’s more than that. In Matthew’s story, there are three ways in which the world of social and cultural expectations is turned on its head, three inversions that carry forward themes already raised in the gospel.
The first is this: against the background of a strongly patriarchal culture, it’s notable that the first news of the resurrection and the first appearance of Jesus is given to women. The four gospel accounts give us different lists of women who visited the tomb; Mary Magdalene’s is the only name shared in common. Perhaps she was the instigator, drawing the others along with her after the Sabbath, returning to the tomb at first light to honor and anoint their beloved Master.
When they arrived, the stone had already been rolled to the side, and a dazzling angelic figure sat atop it. This may sound like a silly question, but why roll the stone away? For Jesus to get out? Stories like those in John 19:19-23 suggest that this probably wasn’t necessary. One can hardly imagine the risen Jesus standing inside the dark tomb, knocking: “Helloooo? Anybody there? I could use a little help here.”
Rather, the angel may have moved the stone to let the women in, to see for themselves that Jesus was gone, so they could be sent forth as witnesses to the Eleven. And according to Matthew, Jesus then appeared to the women as they were on the way to deliver the news (28:9-10). The men, it should be noted, didn’t believe a word of it (Luke 24:11), but had to see for themselves.
Second: what became of the vaunted power of Rome? Jesus’ opponents seemed to take for granted that a small detachment of soldiers would be sufficient to prevent any hanky-panky at the tomb. But here they were frozen with fear, never having thought for a second that they might have to deal with a real live angel. Matthew says they “became like dead men” (28:4, NIV)–did they actually faint?
Third: although one might expect all things important to happen in Jerusalem, the disciples are instructed to meet Jesus in Galilee, back where he first assembled his little band of nobodies from nowhere. To be sure, there will be more action to come in Jerusalem, such as the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). But even then the point will be that the cultural and religious center has shifted, away from the temple, and toward a Spirit-empowered church with a worldwide mission.
I wonder: in what ways do we continue to perpetuate cultural assumptions of power and significance that the resurrection has already overturned? If we celebrate Easter as something that is only about our own personal future in heaven, we may miss the point in the present.