Earthquakes

Easter Sunday
Acts 10:34–43
Matthew 28:1–10

Today’s readings depict a series of earthquakes. Only one is mentioned explicitly, but all of them, whether literally or metaphorically, rock the world of the people who experience them, and may even have the capacity to do the same to us today.

Two of the earthquakes occur in Matthew’s gospel: the literal one that happens the morning of the resurrection as Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” arrive at Jesus’s tomb, and the figurative one they experience a few moments later when they encounter the risen Jesus. Matthew signals both of them with the word “suddenly.” He says in verse 2, “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.” Later, in verse 9, as the women are rushing off to tell the other disciples the message the angel has given them, Matthew says, “Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’”

Suddenly. In the second earthquake, just as in the first, physical one, the world begins to rock and heave without warning and everything changes in an instant. In the twinkling of an eye, one might be tempted to say.

Then again, it's not as though these earthquakes come without any warning. There have been signals. The angel acknowledges as much in his message, when he says, “[Jesus] is not here; for he has been raised, as he said” (v. 5, emphasis added). Matthew reports that Jesus predicts his suffering, death, and resurrection three times in private conversations with his disciples. A couple of times he seems to be talking only to the twelve male apostles, but at least once his audience may include a wider group. At any rate, the angel assumes that these women are acquainted with Jesus’s prediction that he would be raised.

But as we all undoubtedly know from personal experience, being taught something and learning something are two very different species of fish. A teacher or parent (or spouse) can try to teach me a lesson that she thinks it’s important for me to learn, but until it becomes important to me, even if I’m able to regurgitate the lesson on demand, I won’t have truly learned and internalized it.

The same is true of the disciples. Jesus may consider it important for them to know about his impending death, and even more important that they understand that his death is not the end of the story, but until its relevance to them becomes inescapable, they are not likely to get it. Researchers tell us that when we encounter new information, our brains have a number of options to deal with it. We may try to assimilate the new information into existing categories in our minds; we may reshape the existing categories to make the new information fit, kind of like whittling away at a round hole to fit a square peg; or we may create a brand-new category to hold the new information. Of course all these approaches require effort, the last one being the hardest of all to do, so we often opt for a fourth option: we reject the new information altogether.

So Jesus, as patient as he may be, as pedagogically sound a teacher as he is, could talk his throat hoarse and his face blue about what is coming, and the disciples still wouldn’t connect the dots. They would hear what he has to say, feel distressed about it for a time, and then manage to forget or ignore it and go on as if he never said a word. Not Jesus’s fault; just human nature.

That’s why the message of the angel and their encounter with Jesus comes as much of a shock to the Marys as the earthquake that accompanies the angel’s appearance when he comes to roll back the stone. That’s why both the angel and Jesus have to tell the women not to be afraid; they are not prepared for what is happening to them, despite all Jesus’s efforts to clue them in beforehand.

But perhaps that’s not true. I think it is certainly true of the male disciples; they appear completely caught off guard by recent events. They fail to watch and pray with Jesus at Gethsemane. They show an utter disregard for all he stands for by taking up the sword when the temple police come to arrest him. They desert him at crunch time, running for their lives and leaving him to his fate. One of them hands him over to the authorities for a paltry sum of money, and another swears three times that he’s never heard of anybody by that name. Jesus, you say? No, can’t say as I do…. And now on Sunday morning, when the women have come to see the tomb, the men are nowhere to be found, presumably hiding out and jumping out of their skins at every sound outside their door. They are not expecting resurrection; they would be happy just to get back to Galilee without getting strung up themselves.

As for the women, however, they may have an inkling of what is about to happen. At least here in Matthew’s gospel, anyway. Unlike Mark and Luke, Matthew does not say they have come to the tomb bearing spices to anoint Jesus’s body. Instead, he says they have come to “see the tomb” (v. 1, emphasis added). The verb he uses indicates not just to see as in perceiving something visually, but to see as in seeking understanding. The Greek word is theoresai, from which we get our word theory. These women have not necessarily come to look at a corpse; they are here to theorize.

After all, they have a fair amount of evidence to base their theories on. Unlike the men, they do not desert Jesus when he is arrested, but stay with him through his whole ordeal. They follow him to Golgotha and watch him die. When Joseph of Arimathea gets Pilate’s permission to bury Jesus, the women go with him to the tomb. And the two Marys of chapter 28 are part of a larger group of faithful women disciples. After reporting Jesus’s death, Matthew says in 27:55, “Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee, and had provided for him.”

Again, the vocabulary is important. The word translated “provided for” is diakonousai, a verbal form of the word from which we get our word deacon. Other examples in the gospel of Matthew of those who “provide for” someone include the angels who provide for Jesus after his temptation in the wilderness; Peter’s mother-in-law, who provides for Jesus after he heals her fever; Jesus himself, who says he has come to serve, or provide for, rather than to be provided for; and the faithful “sheep” in the famous parable in Matthew 25, who provide for Jesus by providing for those who are hungry, thirsty, sick, estranged, or in prison. The implication is clear: those who “provide for” others are the true disciples, the ones who have really learned from Jesus’s example.

It’s ironic, isn’t it, that the ones who have no speaking parts in the gospel, including here in their finest hour; the ones whom we men have arrogantly belittled, marginalized, and excluded from leadership for centuries; the ones who have suffered at the hands of misguided and aggressive men who have been more likely to speak (or shout) than to listen—isn’t it ironic that they may be the only ones in the story who actually get it? The only ones who exhibit the marks of discipleship? Bitterly ironic, but ironic nonetheless.

Still, the earthquake comes for them “suddenly.” They have come to see the tomb and draw their theories, but they don’t know exactly what to expect. The shaking of the earth and the coming of the angel must take them by surprise, but not nearly as much as it does the soldiers guarding the tomb. In another irony, this one more amusing than bitter, when the angel comes to proclaim that the dead man has been raised, these big, strong, macho men “[shake] and [become] like dead men” (v. 4).

We know that the women are unnerved by the sight they have just witnessed, because the angel makes a point of telling them, “Do not be afraid” (v. 5). It’s a bit much to ask under the circumstances, I think. A heavenly figure who looks like lightning comes down, introduced by a serious seismic event, rolls back the stone from the mouth of the tomb, and then sits down on the stone as pretty as you please and lights a cigarette. Picking a bit of tobacco off his tongue, he looks up and sees these two women shaking in their boots, and says, “Settle down; there’s nothing to be worried about.” Angels. Pffft.

Anyway, he gives them the message: “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’” (vv. 5–7). The women hurry off, “with fear,” Matthew tells us, despite the angel’s oh-so-reassuring instructions, but also with “great joy” (v. 8). And they run straight into the second earthquake of the morning. They run into Jesus himself.

Again Matthew uses that word, “suddenly,” and this encounter is the metaphorical equivalent of the actual earthquake of a few minutes ago. Again the ground under their feet is shaken; again all the categories they have used all their lives to make sense of the world get busted wide open. The man they saw die the humiliating death of a criminal, an enemy of the empire, supposedly under God’s curse, is now alive! Inexplicably, terrifyingly, joyously alive! In their bewildering mixture of fear and joy, they fall down, grasp his feet, and worship him. They came to the tomb to see, to gain understanding, to theorize, and now they have seen, and they realize that no theory can ever approach the world-shattering reality of resurrection. He was dead and now he’s alive, and nothing will ever be the same again. The earthquake has come and shaken the house to its foundations. It’s time for new categories.

Peter learns the same lesson in our reading from Acts. In his own way he experiences an earthquake as powerful as the ones the women do, and he too has to develop new categories for the new truths he is learning.

Peter’s opening words in the passage we read earlier are, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears [God] and does what is right is acceptable to [God]” (vv. 34–35). But we’ve come into the scene in the middle, so we need to backtrack a bit to see how this statement constitutes Peter’s response to the earthquake that has rocked him to his foundations.

Peter speaks these lines in the home of the Gentile Cornelius in the city of Caesarea, but the earthquake begins for him a couple of days earlier, on a rooftop in Joppa. It is there that Peter sees a vision of a sheet that comes down from heaven, filled with every kind of unclean animal imaginable: pigs, snakes, vultures, crayfish, geckos—the whole list. A voice says to Peter, “Get up, kill and eat,” but he refuses, because as an observant Jew he has never eaten non-kosher food and is not about to start now. His categories are too rigid to accept this new information. He finds it unsettling, however, when the voice, presumably God’s voice, tells him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane" (Acts 9:15), just before the sheet gets snatched back up to heaven. The vision repeats two more times, with the same conclusion, and Luke tells us that “Peter [is] greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision” (Acts 9:17).

At that moment messengers arrive from Cornelius, asking Peter to come to Caesarea and bring the good news to that Gentile household. Peter gets one final prompting from God, telling him God has orchestrated the men’s mission, and he is to go with them. So, despite clear prohibitions that forbid Jews from entering Gentiles’ homes or sharing table fellowship with them, Peter goes. All his life he has been taught that Gentiles are just as unclean as a triple-decker ham and Swiss sandwich, but that line keeps ringing in his ears: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” It occurs to Peter, who can be slow on the uptake but always gets there eventually, that the vision wasn't about food at all, but about people. The earthquake has come. The foundations are being shaken. The categories are getting blown apart to make way for something new.

For some people, Easter is a ho-hum event, a requirement they feel they owe to God or their parents or their spouse to check off each year. They believe in the resurrection, but only in an abstract, anemic sort of way that shakes nothing, damages nothing, rearranges nothing. But if Easter comes and leaves no rubble; if the resurrection does not disturb and disrupt you; if it passes and leaves you essentially unchanged, your categories intact, you’re not doing it right. A character in a song by Charlie Peacock expresses dismay at the bland detachment she sees in her husband: “It always amazed me how someone could come / to the edge of the world, drop a stone down the side, / and turn and return to the very same life” (Peacock, “William and Maggie”). Anyone who can come away from the empty tomb and an encounter with the risen Christ on Easter morning and turn and return to the very same life has not experienced the full seismic potential of the resurrection, and that is sad.

The resurrection is and should be an earthquake. It has the capacity to shake our foundations, bring down our rafters, turn our whole orientation to life on its head. It will send us out to practice love for and acceptance of people we have always considered beyond the pale. It will fill us with a passion for God’s justice that very well might set us on the road to our own version of Golgotha. It will complicate our lives by making us see things in new ways—ways that may make us uncomfortable at first, until we realize that’s how God has seen things all along. The earthquake of the resurrection will roll the stone away from the tombs where we have buried our heart or soul or conscience, and bring us to life again. It will shake us out of our complacency, our timidity, our stubborn determination always to play it safe, and send us out into a world of risk and danger, but also of freedom and joy and grace and abundant, unconquerable, exhilarating life.

The resurrection is an earthquake, and it will change everything … if we let it.

Let it.


Reference:
Peacock, Charlie. 1994. “William & Maggie.” Everything That's on My Mind. Sparrow Records.

Robert Turner