But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stopping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
Ah, the beautiful and confounding day we call Easter. All of the Bible, all of the church, all of Christianity hinges on this day: Easter, Resurrection, out of death into life. If this story were not in scripture, we would’ve thrown out our Bibles away a long time ago. If the Bible does not tell us this story, it tells us nothing.
Easter is the one day when the hopes and fears of all the years are made manifest in the here and now. Today we are the church, and we have people who are firmly rooted in their faith, we have people who are filled with doubts, and we have people scratching their heads with questions.
So, what should I say to all of you today? How might I meet each of you where you are and provide words of wonder, and challenge, and grace?
All that we’ve said, and all that we will say, today is found in these three words: He Is Risen!
The tomb was empty and the body was gone.
All four gospels report the beginning of a strange and new reality.
It is a wondrous and beautiful declaration, and yet, in a sense, this is the most difficult day of the year for Christians because it is impossible to talk about the resurrection.
The resurrection is impossible to talk about because it utterly baffles us. It was, and still is, something completely un-looked for, without precedent, something that stuns and shatters our conceptions of everything even all these years later.
It was on the first day of the week, a Sunday, when the women arrived at the empty tomb.
Have you ever had to bury someone?
If you haven’t, you will. You will come to know the deafening clasp of death. You will come to understand the grief and pain of entering into a new world without someone in it. You will come to know death in a thousand different ways: the deaf of a friendship, or a job, or health, or happiness.
It will feel like every bit of your hope has been buried in that tomb.
Which maybe gets us a bit closer to how the women were feeling when they walked to the grave at early dawn. We are compelled to get near to them on their journey because even though we know how the story ends, sometimes we cannot quite see how unprepared they were, and all us are, for the Good News.
On Monday I got to the office here at church and decided that I had waited far too long to change the letters on our church marquee. For the last month or it contained the simple message: All are welcome at this church. But with Easter approaching, the time had come to display the times for our Easter worship services.
So, I wrote out the message on a little notepad, just to make sure it would fit on the sign, and then I pulled out all the necessary letters and, rather than carrying all the equipment down the hill, I decided to throw it all into the back of my car and then I drove across the lawn down to the corner.
It took about 10 minutes to pull the old letters out and replace them with the new message. I stood back from the sign to make sure it was all even and level, and then I got back in my car to drive across the lawn toward the parking lot.
And, right as I passed by that window, a police cruiser flew down our long driveway and turned on his red and blues.
It took me longer than I’d like to admit to realize that I was getting pulled over inside of our own parking lot.
I promptly put the car in park and stepped out of the vehicle and the officer approached quickly and demanded to know what I had been doing on the lawn.
“Were you vandalizing the church property?”
“No,” I calmly replied, “I’m the pastor.”
“Really?” He said incredulously.
That’s when I looked down and realized that I was wearing jeans and a tee-shirt.
I told him that I was changing out the letters for the church sign, and I even pulled a few of the letters out of the car to prove my case.
“Well, what does the sign say now?”
I couldn’t tell if he was genuinely interested, or if he was going to go down and look at it to make sure I wasn’t lying.
So I told him that I put up the times for our Easter services.
For a moment he didn’t say anything. He kept looking back between me and his cruiser, and then, out of nowhere, he said, “Do you really believe all that?”
“All of what?”
“Easter, resurrection, the dead brought back to life. Do you really believe all that?”
The women go to the graveyard in grief. They felt the same way many of us feel when we are surrounded by tombstones. Some of us go to graveyards to lay down flowers as a sign of love upon the grave of those now dead. Some of us go to find connections with those who came before us. Some of us go because cemeteries feel spooky and we like the idea of the hair standing up on the back of our necks. Some of us go without even knowing why.
But absolutely no one goes to visit a grave because they expect someone to rise out of it.
Luke, in his gospel story, wants us to know that this new reality was totally inconceivable. The women are perplexed by the empty tomb and brought down to the ground in the presence of the angelic messengers.
And there is this powerfully pregnant pause while the women bow in silence.
That silence contains all of their questions, and our own. How is this possible? What does it mean?
And then the messengers cut through the silence with the question to end all questions: Why do you look for the living among the dead?
Easter is a terrifyingly wonderful reminder that God’s ways are not our ways. God constantly subverts what we expect and even what we believe precisely because God’s ways are not of our own making. They are totally other.
Why do you look for the living among the dead?
That question continues to burn in our minds and souls all these centuries later because we know the question is also meant for us!
We too want to tend the corpses of long dead ideas.
We cling to former visions of ourselves and our churches and our institutions as if the most important thing would be for them to return to what they once we.
We grasp our loved ones too tightly refusing to let them change.
We choose to stay with what is dead because is is safe.
But the question remains! Why are we looking for the living among the dead? God is doing a new thing!
And notice: the women do not remain at the tomb to ask their own lingering questions. They are content with the news that God has done something strange, and they break the silence by returning to the disciples to share what had happened.
And how do these dedicated disciples respond to the Good News?
They don’t believe it.
To them this whole transformation of the cosmos is crazy – and they are the ones who had been following Jesus for years, they had heard all the stories and seen all the miracles, and yet even they were unprepared for the first Easter.
Throughout the history of the church we have often equated faith and belief with what it means to be Christian. We lay out these doctrines and principles and so long as you abide by them, so long as you believe that they are true, then you are in.
One of the problems with that kind of Christianity, which is to say with Christianity period, is that it places all of the power in our hands. We become the arbiters of our own salvation. Moreover, we have used the doctrine of belief to exclude those who do not believe.
All of us here today came of age in world in which we were, and are, told again and again that everything is up to us. We are a people of potential and so long as we work hard, and make all the right choices, and believe in all of the right things, then life will be perfect.
The resurrection of Jesus is completely contrary to that way of being. It is completely contrary because we have nothing to do with it. Jesus wasn’t waiting in the grave until there was the right amount of belief in the world before he broke free from the chains of Sin and Death. Jesus wasn’t biding his time waiting for his would-be followers to engage in systems of perfect morality before offering them the gift of salvation.
The women returned to the disciples to tell them the good news and the disciples did not believe them. The story seemed an idle tale, and they went about their business.
But Peter, ever eager Peter, had to see for himself. He had to go to the tomb to see with his own eyes what had been told to him. And when we looked into the empty tomb he saw the linen clothes by themselves and he went home amazed at all that he had seen and heard.
That might be the message of Easter for us today: Not look at the empty tomb and believe. But look at the tomb and be amazed!
The police officer stood there in the parking lot with his question about belief hanging in the air.
I said, “Yeah, I do believe it. All of it. Otherwise all of this would be in vain.”
And he left.
I do believe, but the story is pretty unbelievable. I can’t prove the resurrection. I can’t make you or anyone else believe anything.
But I see resurrection everyday.
I see it when we gather at the table in anticipation of what God can do through ordinary things like bread and the cup.
I see resurrection when we open up this old book every week knowing that Jesus still speaks to us anew.
I see resurrection in the church, this church, through a whole bunch of people who can’t agree on anything but know that through Christ’s victory over death the world has been turned upside down.
I see resurrection in the people who come looking for forgiveness and actually receive it.
I see resurrection in the crazy gift of grace offered freely to people like you and me who deserve it not at all.
The Good News is that Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead.
But the even better news is the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead whether we believe it or not. Amen.