Sunday, April 9, 2023 | Trey Comstock
2,000 years turns out to be quite a long time. In that duration, even the mightiest city can weather away into dirt mounds, rubble, and pot shards. It can make connecting with the time of Jesus difficult for even the most dedicated Holy Land pilgrim. See that set of stone barely holding together? That’s a palace! See this circle of stones with a door at one end? Peter lived there! We think! See that thing resembling a hill with some abstract stone structures? Behold the mighty Jericho. Not much that humans make stands for millennia. Time, disaster, and changing needs come for it all. Even the Temple Mount in Jerusalem may still have the platform build for Solomon, but on its top stands a Mosque, the Dome of Rock, not the Temple where Christ taught.
Christians have mapped Christ’s journey through Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives to Golgotha to the tomb. At this point in history, it follows a standard path called the Via Dolorosa, or the Way of Pain. Each stop has a marker like the Stations of the Cross but spanning an entire ancient city. Most of the stops on this journey suffer from the time and rubble problem – like most 2,000-year-old sites. You spend a lot of time looking at places, where we think that there was once a building that Jesus might have interacted with. Even the pinnacles of the journey, the site of the cross and the site of the tomb, now contained within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, come with uncertainty. We have only vague ideas because not much survived. You know that you walk the right city, and somewhere underneath layers of human settlement, deep below the current ground level, stands the city where Jesus entered, taught, suffered, and died.
I connected way more with the Mount of Olives because a group of Monks tend a grove of 2,000-year-old olive tree there. Buildings may crumble, but living trees, especially with a little monastic care and attention, can essentially survive forever. This may not have been the specific grove, where Jesus kneels to pray, while his friends take a nap, but these were at least on the Mount of Olives at that moment. By now, the trees have grown huge and gnarled, a testimony to their long life, and live they do, some of the last living witnesses to the earthly life of Christ. I couldn’t tear my eyes away.
Even in the 21st Century, you work hard to get an olive tree started in the hills around Jerusalem. We took a day, while staying in Bethlehem, to work on Dauod’s farm. He’s a Palestinian farmer, who’s family has been working that particular patch of land for generations. He had us working on establishing a new grove of olive trees on the side of a hill and set of the goal of getting the ground ready for planting. Before starting, my mind flew to images of shoveling dirt, digging small holes in soft soil. Upon arriving, I received a pickaxe, not the shovel of my imaginings, and began smashing rock to carve out space in a stone strewn hillside. Now, farmers with a lifetime of doing this work much faster than untrained American college students, but hours of our rock smashing yielded no useable planting sites. Getting an olive grove started constitutes a significant amount of work.
A still living, 2,000-year-old, olive grove established via great difficulty starts to feel like a metaphor for something.
Over and over again in Matthew’s telling of the Resurrection, the women (and thus the reader) get reminded that Jesus rose from the dead, that he lives. The messengers tell them. Jesus tells them himself. The women then go and tell the other disciples.
Unlike Luke and John, Matthew doesn’t give us much of post-resurrection Jesus. Verse 10 has Jesus giving instructions to the women to tell the others. Verses 11-15 show the tomb guards getting paid off for their silence. And, verse 16 begins the narrative of Christ’s ascension and the Great Commission. Matthew carries us quickly from “He is risen” to “Go and make disciples” with little seeming interest in anything in between. The only things that Jesus says, in Matthew, after the Resurrection, relate to telling someone the Good News.
Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’ (Matthew 28:9-10 NRSV)
And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ (Matthew 28:18-20 NRSV)
That’s all Matthew reports of Jesus talking after he rose: “Tell my brothers” and “Tell all the nations.” For Matthew, our response to the Resurrection should be more than personal moral transformation. It should be evangelism, so that all can know the same transforming power.
This brings us to the other unbroken witness to the life of Christ, that has stood for 2,000 straight years, the Church. Like the olive grove on the Mount of Olives, tremendous effort brought it about. Christ suffered, died, and rose, and countless subsequent generations carried the light of the Spirit onward. Like our friends the olive trees, the Church cannot crumble away because it’s a living, breathing thing filled with God’s enlivening force. The beating heart of the church comes from God’s people working in concert with God’s Spirit. This means answering Christ’s call, to respond to the Resurrection by making sure the whole world knows. We contribute to its life when we do likewise.