The resurrection accounts in the four gospels have similarities and differences. They are similar in that in each case the event is on a Sunday morning (two days after the crucifixion), Mary Magdalene is present at the tomb, and the tomb was found to be empty.
But there are differences. (1) In the Synoptic Gospels the women arrive at the tomb early in the morning, either at dawn or after the sun had risen. In the Gospel of John it is still dark. (2) There is a difference in the number and names of women present (except that Mary Magdalene is present in all four accounts). In Matthew’s account there are only two women (Mary Magdalene and the other Mary); Mark names three; Luke names three and adds that others had accompanied them to the tomb as well; John has Mary Magdalene alone. (3) Finally, there is a difference concerning the placement of the stone at the doorway of the tomb. In three of the gospels the stone had been rolled away prior to the approach of the women. Matthew’s account is the exception. There an earthquake takes place, and an angel descends from heaven and rolls the stone away after the women arrive. Clearly, it is impossible to harmonize the details to everyone’s satisfaction.
Various proposals have been made to account for the differences. Perhaps the most satisfying one is that each of the four evangelists had a tradition from early times that had developed in different geographical and church contexts. In other words, while Matthew and Luke depended on the Gospel of Mark for the writing of their gospels in general, when they arrived at the Easter narrative they used the stories that they had known from their respective communities. They laid the Gospel of Mark to the side and used their own versions. To be sure, one can notice some identical wording between Matthew 28:5-8 and Mark 16:6-8, and there it is likely that Matthew took some material from Mark (including the speech of the angel and the flight of the women from the tomb), but otherwise Matthew used his own material.
Matthew’s account is the most dramatic of the four resurrection narratives. Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb; no reason is given. The earthquake takes place, and the angel rolls back the stone. As a story, the stage is now set for a marvelous event. We might expect Jesus to rise and come out of the tomb (as Lazarus does in John 11:41-44). Yet that does not happen. The resurrection has taken place already, while the tomb was sealed. The tomb is empty (28:6). In this gospel, as in the others, we do not actually have a “resurrection account” in the strict sense, but a “post-resurrection account.” The transformation of the physical to spiritual body has taken place (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:42-57), an act of God that took place apart from human view.
The angel commissions the women to tell the disciples of Jesus’ resurrection and to let them know that they shall see him in Galilee (28:7). This is anticipated by the promise of Jesus himself in 26:32, and it is fulfilled at 28:16-20.
Galilee has special meaning for Matthew. At Matthew 4:15-16 (quoting from Isaiah 9:1-2) it is called “Galilee of the Gentiles.” Galilee is, we might say, the “doorway to the world.” In both Isaiah and Matthew the light of divine revelation is to extend to the Gentiles. The gospel is for the nations, not just Israel.
At 28:8-10 the risen Jesus appears to the two women as they are on their way to tell the disciples. This is actually a strange turn of events. The angel has just commissioned them (28:7), and now Jesus blocks their path. They recognize and worship him. The reason that they take hold of his feet might simply be a gesture to assure them that he is not a detached spirit, but the actual Jesus. These women are the first witnesses to his resurrection. The words “Do not be afraid” (28:10) recall the words of the angel (28:5). Then Jesus himself commissions the women to inform the disciples that they will see him in Galilee. That is fulfilled at 28:16-20 where he commissions them to make disciples of all nations.
There are themes that run through this text that can be the basis for a sermon. First, that Christ is risen from the dead is central. It is at the core of our belief as Christians. We may have disagreements about many things, but this is at the heart of our common faith. It is the faith of Christians of every denomination around the globe, whether we are Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestants.
Although we cannot prove the resurrection of Jesus, it follows from the nature of who God is. The God we know in the story of Israel and in the story of Jesus’ earthly ministry is a God who has created us, loves us, and wants to have us for eternity. This life is not sufficient.
Second, the commissioning and promise of the angel in 28:7 and of Jesus in 28:10 that his disciples are to go to Galilee, and that there they will find the risen Christ, is important. It is important in the story; it has been important in the history of the church; and it is important yet today. Since Galilee is the “doorway to the world” in the thinking of Isaiah, Jesus, and the Gospel of Matthew, the light of the gospel is then for the whole world, not just the Jewish people, not just the original disciples, and not just for us. It is to be taken to the world. God seeks to have fellowship with all people, not just us.
Finally, Jesus makes use of flawed people in his mission. He wants the disciples to know that they will meet him in Galilee. What is so amazing about that is that Jesus thereby forgives them for their failures. He even calls them his “brothers” (28:10). They betrayed him and deserted him at the time of his trial and death. But now he restores them as his emissaries and trusts them once again to represent him. And so it is with us. We are like the disciples. We are flawed persons and have failed him often as individuals and as a church. But Jesus continues to call his disciples to follow him into the world and to represent him.
Nothing about Easter is routine or predictable.
The same can be said about preaching the Easter story. When we view Christ’s resurrection with an understanding that God continues to be concerned with our world, then our situations lead us to perceive that event with new significance. Because our lives and our encounters with God continually provide possibilities for grasping the implications of the resurrection in new–and renewed–ways, we must not assume that the Easter story always communicates the same message. Rather, it accumulates new meaning whenever it is preached, because it continues to say something about God’s intentions for humanity with fresh and vital connections to our lived existence.
The short sermon Peter delivers to Cornelius’s household illustrates how the proclamation of the resurrection can work. Peter’s words are important insofar as they summarize the story of Jesus, but their deeper significance resides in the way that they reflect and inform Peter and Cornelius’ enlarged understanding of the gospel and its capacity to transform how they both comprehend God. For these men, the significance of Jesus’ resurrection does not consist in merely knowing or reciting details about an empty tomb, as vital as such details may be. More important, the resurrection provides them evidence of God’s commitment to all humanity–a commitment that Peter, thanks to his recent experiences, has just come to perceive in a new light. The resurrection, he tells Cornelius and others, provides the foundation for the pivotal new realities that God has revealed to them.
A cursory glance at Acts 10:34-43, when unglued from the wider context of Acts 10:1-11:18, gives the impression that Peter’s sermon offers a generic summary of Jesus’ history: he lived, did good, died, and rose. But grasping the sermon’s purpose and the significance of its emphases requires, first, taking a broader view of Peter and Cornelius’s encounter and, next, considering the sermon’s details in light of that encounter.
First, why does Peter speak to Cornelius? Peter begins his message in v. 34 having just navigated a surprising set of circumstances, which finally convinced him that his previous assumptions about God were no longer valid. The whole sermon proceeds from what is a new confession: “God shows no partiality.” This does not describe God as indifferent or detached; Peter means that God does not play favorites among people. Put positively, God has concern for all humanity and welcomes all peoples. This would not have been an entirely new theological insight for Peter and his Jewish contemporaries, but Acts indicates that God declared this truth in shocking ways, for its implications invalidate longstanding standards (see 10:28; 11:2-3). Peter has derived his new understanding of God’s impartiality from recent visions and their interpretation (10:9-16), the story relayed to him by Cornelius’s men (10:17-23a), Cornelius’s own report (10:30-33), and the hospitality that both men extended in response to what God was orchestrating in their midst. Peter therefore describes Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for the explicit purpose of grounding and substantiating his conviction about God’s impartiality. He talks about Jesus from the perspective of one who has only just recently come to realize God’s embrace of all peoples–including a Roman soldier–in a tangible way.
Second, what details emerge as emphases when we focus on the fact that Peter is testifying about God’s bringing salvation to gentiles? Peter describes the gospel story and his own ministry by accenting the universal scope of that story and ministry. Jesus is Lord of all (v. 36). Because God was with him, he healed all who were oppressed (v. 38). Release from sins now comes to everyone who believes in him (v. 43).
At the same time, the source of this salvation for all remains very particular, being rooted in God’s actions through Jesus Christ, who was sent specifically “to the people of Israel” (v. 36) and proclaimed his message only in Galilee and Judea (vv. 37, 39). Subsequent encounters with the risen Christ were also somewhat circumscribed, limited to Jesus’ followers in the days after the resurrection (v. 40-41). But the particularity of the Christ event within the history of God’s relationship with Israel does not limit the event’s effects. Instead, Jesus’ particularity remains the basis for salvation’s universal reach. (For if God were not faithful to Israel, why should any other peoples trust God?)
Throughout the sermon Peter emphasizes God as the agent behind all aspects of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Because God was active through Jesus, Jesus’ story attests God as welcoming of all, as refusing to make distinctions among people. Peter sees in Jesus’ story evidence that confirms what he has come to learn about God. To borrow Simeon’s words from Luke 2:29-32, God, through Jesus Christ, has prepared salvation “in the presence of all peoples.”
Perspective matters. Few people in churches this Easter will be surprised to hear that Christ is risen. But most people will want to know what that claim means, from the perspectives of their own lives. They will be looking, not for dry doctrinal statements or rote storytelling, but for a message that tells how the resurrection matters for their particular experiences–their understandings of their selves, their lives, their neighbors, and their world, and the God who raised Jesus on the third day.
Because Peter’s message to Cornelius is not a canned summary of the gospel, preachers should resist the temptation to deliver a canned Easter sermon that treats the biblical text superficially or uses it as a launching pad to discuss the resurrection in abstract terms. About Easter some say, “Just preach the resurrection, don’t worry about the text.” But that utterly fails to respect how this biblical text prompts us to consider Jesus’ resurrection in light of all that we have come to know about God–whether that be what the Bible tells us about God’s leading the early church to understand that the gospel extends to gentiles, or what Christians cooperatively discern to be God’s activity or presence in our experiences today.
In Acts 10:34-43 Peter preaches to a gentile soldier whom he might have previously dismissed as “profane or unclean” (10:14, 28). He preaches, then, as one attentive to God’s leading and God’s presence. This attentiveness allows him to do more than recite the details of an already familiar story (v. 36); it creates an opportunity to consider the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the light cast by the fresh and surprising work of God in their midst. We ask: where (else) is God extending salvation today, within our world? How might our answers to that question lead congregations to discover new, corresponding meaning in the Easter story?
Colossians is in many ways “the epistle in the middle.”
It seems to be midway in the development from the historical Paul to documents such as Ephesians and 1-2 Timothy and Titus that are clearly written in a later generation to update Paul for a new day. It therefore has characteristics of a letter by Paul, but it also has features that point away from him as the author. Several recent scholars have suggested that Timothy, one of Paul’s most trusted protégés, is the author. That position acknowledges that the letter is different enough from those letters for sure by Paul that it is unlikely he wrote it, but that it is also close to Paul. If not by Paul, the letter was written sometime between 60 and 80 by a disciple of his seeking to respond to problems among Christians in the Asia Minor city of Colossae.
Chapter 3 begins the paraenesis or advice-giving section of the letter. The theme of the whole paraenetical section (3:1-4:6) is stated in 3:1, “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” The implications of what it means to “seek the things that are above” are drawn out in the succeeding verses.
Why is Col 3:1-4 read on Easter Sunday? The answer is as brief as the reading:
*the text refers to the resurrection of Jesus, *it connects believers to it, and *it outlines a basic ethical response that the author hopes will guide believers.
The text does refer to the resurrection of Jesus. He has been raised, and he is currently to be found “above,” “seated at the right hand of God.” One of the characteristics of Colossians, Ephesians, and the post-Paul era in general is that the time categories used by Paul, such as “this age” and “the age of ages,” are now transformed into spatial categories of above and below–or, as in v. 2, “above” and “on earth.” In that “above” realm, Christ is seated at God’s right hand. The right hand is the hand of power and judgment; the reference to being seated at the right hand has its origin in Ps 110:1, one of the most quoted passages in the New Testament (see Eph 1:20, Acts 2:34, Heb 1:3).
Our passage also connects believers to the resurrection. The resurrection affects not only Jesus but all those who trust in him. In the undisputed letters of Paul the believer is not already resurrected with Jesus. In fact, Paul is quite careful to avoid that language (see Rom 6:4, for example). The author of Colossians had no such qualms. The reference to being “raised with” refers to baptism, in which the believer is identified with the death of Jesus and dies to the world’s demands (Col 2:20). But the believer is also raised with Jesus to a life of new behavior.
And so, the author directs the listeners to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is.” “To seek” does not mean to go on a scavenger hunt for an illusive set of behavior standards, but rather it means to orient our lives on the things that are above. The author calls on believers to lift their vision, to look beyond the complications and messiness of daily life and to find direction for living from “above.” And so, v. 2, believers are to “set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” “Set your minds on” translates the Greek word fronei/te phroneite, which refers to a person’s orientation or basic stance to life. Where do believers get their orientation–from the “things that are on earth” or from “above?” The author knows that it is difficult for believers to orient their lives properly. And so the author uses the present tense imperative, which signals an ongoing action and a continual need to re-orient, to re-set one’s life. In our neighborhood the electricity goes off with some regularity–any major storm or wind almost certainly will mean a blackout. When the power comes back on, I have to spend quite awhile resetting clocks, radios, televisions, and VCR/DVD players. So, too, believers get off track. Our “power” goes off–or better expressed, our ability to access that power goes off. When we reconnect we need to reset our lives. And so for the author of our passage, setting our minds on the things that are above is not a one-time-only decision but a decision that needs to be made over and over again.
And how can believers do that? They can do so by remembering that we have died, v. 3: “for you have died” (see also 2:12, 20). And since the death of believers has occurred in baptism, our passage is close to Luther’s counsel that believers need to return every day to our baptisms and kill the old Adam and the old Eve.
Even though the author of Colossians is more relaxed in his use of resurrection language than are the undisputed letters of Paul, he too reserves some things for the end of time. And so the resurrected life of believers, real though it may be (v. 1) is for the moment hidden with Christ. And so, also, the future glory of believers is, well, future! That glory will be revealed only when Christ himself is revealed. And that Christ is our very life, v. 4, by which the author reminds us that Christ is the source of life.
The Colossians text helps us to connect the wonderful good news of Easter to our lives today. When Jesus is killed and when he is raised, in some way we are killed and we are raised with him. And his past-tense resurrection and our past-tense-but-still-future resurrection help us to lift our eyes to the heavens above, both to see the resurrected Christ and to orient our lives to him.