The story is told of a father and his four-year-old daughter on their way to the grocery store; and as four-year-olds are wont to do, the little girl was asking question after question about her favorite subject of the moment: her grandmother. But this was understandable; for you see, her grandmother had passed away not too long before, and she was trying to understand what had happened and why “Grammie” wasn’t with them anymore
“Is Grammie in heaven, Daddy?” she asked.
“Yes, honey, that’s right,” the father answered. “It’s just like I told you; Grammie’s in heaven with Jesus.”
“And are we going to see Grammie in heaven?”
“Yes, dear, when we die we will see Grammie in heaven.”
“And then,” the little girl went on, “will we come back to our own house?”
“Well, no, honey,” the father replied, “we’ll be staying with Grammie and Jesus forever.” And to this the little girl sat up straight and, in a voice both shocked and a bit angry, said, “You mean we’re gonna stay dead?”
I guess she really didn’t understand! But then again, at the age of four, this whole concept of life and living and what happens to people when they die is just a hard thing to grasp; the idea that death is something permanent simply didn’t even occur to her! After all, if the princess in the fairy tale can be awakened by true love’s kiss, than what’s the problem with going to heaven and bringing Grammie home to visit?
Sadly, as adults we know better, don’t we? In fact, I dare say that one of the most difficult things we ever have to learn growing up is that death is… irreversible. The realization might come about at the passing of a grandparent or other family member, or for that matter, it might involve the loss of a beloved pet; but sooner or later we all come face to face with the reality that people do die, and they’re not coming back; it’s actually that awareness that’s at the very heart of how we experience grief. Philip Yancey, in his book The Jesus I Never Knew, tells of a time when three of his close friends died in quick succession. “I spoke at all three funerals,” he wrote, “and each time as I struggled with what to say the old, ugly word irreversible came flooding back, with greater force than I have ever known. Nothing I could say, nothing I could do would accomplish what I wanted above all else: to get my friends back.”
To put it another way, if a bit bluntly, the stone-cold reality of death is that it’s real, and it’s inevitable, and it doesn’t change. Death has the power to irrevocably disturb the peace of our lives; it is an enemy and an intruder into all that we hold dear; it enshrouds our hearts with despair and crushing disappointment; it’s what the apostle Paul referred to in 1st Corinthians as “the last enemy!” (1 Corinthians 15:26) Let’s face the truth, beloved; death is a fact of life and it is irreversible.
Or is it?
What if we were given a promise… a promise that death wasn’t the final word? What would it mean for us if suddenly that which we have forever understood as irreversible was… well, reversed? What if the ones who we loved and lost were there before us, alive once again? What if death, this last enemy of humanity, was destroyed and we were there to see it; what if, against all odds, there was one who went through death, who journeyed beyond the grave, and then returned, resurrected now and forever? Wouldn’t that change everything – and I mean, everything (!) – forever?
Well, that is exactly what we have come here to celebrate on this Easter Sunday morning; it is what Yancey calls the “awesome promise of reversibility” that is the central reality of our Christian faith. And it’s all there in our reading this morning; the familiar and yet ever-surprising story of the “Two Mary’s” approaching the tomb “as the first day of the week was dawning.”
One of the things I find interesting about how Matthew tells this story is how there’s no reference to the women coming to the grave to anoint the body of Jesus, nor any discussion as to who might help them with moving the stone. All Matthew says, very simply, is that they “went to see the tomb,” which is not unlike any of us who, after a burial, would just have this need to go to the cemetery; if for no other reason than to check on things. That’s all part of grief, too, and something anyone who’s been there can understand: remember, this was only the second morning they’d awakened to the chilling reality of a world without this man who had completely changed their lives, this one who’d been their master and teacher and friend. From Friday night right through the Sabbath, and now in the wee hours of this new morning, they’d all been caught in the heavy grip of overwhelming despair over the fact that Jesus was gone – worse, he’d been taken from them, cruelly and horribly –and all their hopes and dreams were gone with him. It all seemed like a bad dream; but as much as it hurt to even think it, they knew the truth: that Jesus was dead, and that nothing could change that fact of life; death, after all, is final… it’s irreversible.
But then, “suddenly, there was a great earthquake,” and there’s an angel of the Lord with an appearance “like lightning,” who’s not only rolled back the stone that blocked the tomb, but now is sitting atop it! It’s enough to make the guards, who’d been dispatched to watch over the grave in order to “protect” it from grave robbers or fanatic conspirators, to start shaking in fear (not to mention hitting the ground “like dead men.”). And this is only the beginning, because now the angel speaks directly to the women, bringing unbelievable, unimaginable news: “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.”
Amazing! Impossible! Unthinkable! They couldn’t even begin to wrap their minds around what the angel was telling them; and yet, in their heart of hearts, they knew it was real: Jesus had been raised; there was no doubt! In truth of fact, the women didn’t need the angel to send them back to tell the disciples; their hearts were beating so fast at that point that their first instinct was to get back to the others as fast as possible, just so they could share this incredibly, indescribably good news! And it was about to get better: as they leave the tomb – “quickly,” we’re told, “with fear and great joy” – who meets them there but Jesus himself, greeting them just the way he always did: “Do not be afraid,” he says to them, “go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they were see me.” Oh, yes; Jesus had risen; he had risen indeed, and everything was changed forever!
I love what Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury has said about this; he says that with Easter and the resurrection, “we are really standing in the middle of a second ‘Big Bang,’ a tumultuous surge of divine energy as fiery and intense as the very beginning of the universe.” Because what happened there is that in the resurrection the last enemy – death – was destroyed; the irreversible was reversed. The one finality of human life; the one thing that we always regard as once and for all and inevitably separating us from the love and hope of God – is no longer! Jesus conquered death, and now, nothing, nothing on heaven and earth and all creation, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord!
But wait… there’s more. So much more!
To quote Philip Yancey one again, the women who ran from the tomb in fear and joy, along with the disciples who heard their news, had been grieving for three days. But “on Sunday they heard a new euphonious sound, clear as a bell struck in mountain air. Easter hit a new hope of hope and faith,” and “what God did once in a graveyard in Jerusalem, he can and will repeat on a grand scale… for us. For the world. [Once again], against all odds, the irreversible is reversed.”
You see, that’s the thing about Easter; it’s not merely about today, any more than it’s about colored eggs or rabbits or new spring clothes. And ultimately, it’s not just about a Galilean man who died and rose from the dead some 2,000 years ago; although that is a remarkable thing indeed. Easter is about a man who rose from the dead some 2,000 years ago, and who still lives today to reign in the lives of all who would embrace him as the one who conquers death; as the one who is Lord of life, Lord of all, and who wants to be with us now and forever.
Because you know what, friends, there are lots of different kinds of death; and there is so much loss that we suffer in this life. There’s the loss of our youth, the loss of our innocence, the loss of relationships. Many of us know what it is to have suffered dashed hopes and broken dreams; I suspect there are those among us today who have lost any and all joy and enthusiasm for living and have ended up just sort going through the motions where life is concerned. Truth be told, there are a great many of us for whom death has already held a grip on our souls long before the body has given out.
But today is Easter, and Easter tells us that there is resurrection; and that death, be it death of the body or death of the soul, is not inevitable. Because Jesus conquered death, there is a new reality; a new life for you and for me right here and right now. Easter tells us that the power of God is greater than the power of death; greater than all the losses we suffer in this life; greater than the sum total of our fears.
Where once despair ruled our lives, there is unending joy; where before hopelessness prevailed, there is sure and certain hope of abundance in this life and eternity in the next; indeed, where death was once considered to be irreversible, now we know that the ultimate victor is always and ever LIFE! This is the good news – the best ever! – for this day of celebration, and it the good news – the best ever! – in every day that’s to come: that no matter what, “we’re not gonna stay dead!” Not by a long shot!
In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are alive, beloved; and we’ll be alive now and eternally!
Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!
Alleluia, and AMEN!
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry