(a sermon for April 21, 2019, Easter Sunday, based on Luke 24:1-12)
Whatever else one can say about Easter, it’s to say the least – the very least (!) – it’s perplexing.
Or maybe not; you see, you and I have the advantage of, as Philip Yancey has put it, “reading the Gospels from the other side of Easter;” that is, we’ve come here this morning well aware of how the story turns out. The moment those women discover the empty tomb, we already know what’s happened; such is our familiarity with the story that we don’t think twice at the thought of angels “in dazzling clothes” suddenly standing there beside them, nor do we feel the women’s terror at their question, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” We’re not even particularly concerned as to what Peter might find when finally he runs to the tomb and stoops down to look inside, because – spoiler alert (!) – Jesus isn’t there, but has risen!
We’ve heard the good news and it’s that God has raised Jesus from the dead; and that not only sets the stage for the whole rest of the Gospel story – the two men on the Road to Emmaus who encounter the Risen Lord, the utter stubbornness of one “Doubting Thomas” because he hasn’t, the disciples’ grilled fish breakfast with Jesus on the beach, Peter pleading with Jesus three times over(!),“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you!” (John 21:16) – not only all that and more, but there’s also the aptly named “Great Commission,” Jesus’ command to his disciples, and us, to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” (Matthew 28:19). We know what happened there at early dawn on the first day of the week: Jesus is alive, and that says everything about who we are as believers and it’s the central truth of faith that makes us who we are as the church. Because of the resurrection this is us, beloved, and that’s what we’ve come here on this Easter Sunday to celebrate and for which we give our God thanks and praise!
But as I said before, we know and understand this because we know the story inside and out; but what about those who were there on the day itself? David Lose points out that despite all the variables on how the story gets told in scripture, “one of the common elements of the resurrection stories across the gospels is that no one expects the resurrection… and no one, quite frankly, believes it at first.” It’s true; no matter our familiarity with the story or how much of centuries’ worth of faith and tradition has been layered upon the gospel accounts, the fact remains that Easter begins not with loud praises and triumphant songs of “hallelujah,” but rather with some women bringing spices to the tomb in order to anoint Jesus’ dead body; these caring, grieving friends of the deceased seeking to do what needed to be done and have it be finished, only to encounter something unexpected, something unsettling, something terrifying, amazing and even hopeful all at once; but ultimately something that’s altogether impossible and utterly… perplexing.
And why wouldn’t it be? I mean, the very thought that someone who was dead – three days dead, mind you – could have possibly risen to life; well, that’s just not possible, that’s against the laws of nature, because death is irreversible! Dead is dead; and in a wonderful quote I read this week from Anna Carter Florence, “if the dead don’t stay dead, what can you count on?” Indeed, the logical response to anyone suggesting otherwise is disbelief! So it’s no wonder at all that the rest of the disciples quite literally dismissed this news brought forth by the women as “an idle tale,” which, by the way, in the original Greek is leros, which is where we get our word “delirious,” and was understood by the people of that time as something akin to crazy talk; in other words, what these women were saying was nothing more or less than utter nonsense!
And as Luke tells the story, at least, that’s pretty much the end of it! We do read about how Peter was moved to run and go check out the empty tomb for himself, stooping in to look inside at the grave clothes that were there, but even then we’re told he left wondering what might have happened; as The Message translates it, “He walked away puzzled, shaking his head.” That’s it; Peter just goes home and nothing else happens! You know, I have to confess that as someone who likes his stories to come to a clear, definitive, and triumphant conclusion, that’s kind of disappointing! I mean, I really want to have that scene from John’s gospel with Mary weeping outside of the tomb and mistaking the Risen Christ for the gardener (!); or at the very least, I want to hear Matthew’s account of a great earthquake and how “the angel rolled the stone away!” (As the song goes, “Alleluia, what a happy day!”) Even in Mark we get the image of the women having “fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them.” (16:8) But in Luke, all we’re left with is a not-so idle tale and unbelieving disciples; all in all an Easter story without much of any real, first hand evidence of the resurrection whatsoever!
Like I said, it’s perplexing, to say the least…but maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Perhaps our being perplexed is in fact the first step toward… amazement… and even believing!
It should be said here that the lack of, shall we say, empirical proof as to Jesus having risen from the dead is nothing new. In fact, for over 2,000 years now, thinkers and teachers and scientists and theologians have discussed, debated and literally fought over seeking to provide some sort of historical “proof” of the resurrection; from the very beginning there has been skepticism as to the truth of what is the core belief of our Christian faith! And yet, despite the lack of any kind of real physical evidence, we do believe in the Risen Christ! We know in our heart of hearts that’s it true, to the point that our very lives both now and eternally are brokered upon it; indeed, the proclamation that we make as Christians that God is even now bringing forth his kingdom into the world is all because of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead!
We believe, you see… even though we weren’t there to see it happen, we still know it’s true; and we know it is because we’ve experienced it.
Ultimately Easter is more than a mere moment in history that took place just outside of Jerusalem two millennia ago on a morning not unlike this one; there is more to the resurrection than historical fact and empirical data and our understanding of what happened amounts to more than simply finding agreement in the differing accounts of the four gospel writers. Easter, you see, is about what God has done in declaring once and for all that life is more powerful than death and love is more enduring than tragedy. Easter is all about the overwhelming effect of God’s love to the world; a loved offered without partiality and in more abundance than the world had ever known can ever begin to comprehend.
Easter is the inevitable result of God reaching out to the whole world through Jesus, who died and rose again to demonstrate God’s love to those who don’t know about it and can’t begin to understand it because they’ve never really felt it as their own. Easter is about love unwarranted and love undeserved but love that’s wholly offered; it’s about love extended, but not merely to the righteous uprights and those who already believe they’ve already proven themselves, but also and especially to those who believe themselves to be devoid of life and without any hope of redemption. Easter says to each and every one of us that there is life for all from the Lord of all, demonstrated by the resurrection of Jesus Christ our Savior who has given us his victory over sin and death forever!
Actually, you know, at the end of the day this movement from being perplexed to feeling utter amazement comes down to a distance of precisely 18 inches! That’s right, eighteen inches; that is, the distance from here, the head which insists on facts and evidence and provable data, to here, the heart, which knows the love of Christ and the truth of the resurrection. Those eighteen inches are the difference between Easter being merely an interesting story and an intriguing possibility, and it being the key to our faith and hope in Jesus and his kingdom as well as our very lives as his disciples.
It was, after all, those eighteen inches that moved Mary and the other women from confusion to fear to utter amazement. It was those 18 inches that compelled Peter to leave the other disciples behind, so to run to the tomb to look inside for himself, and led him to be “wondering to himself what had [actually] happened,” which turned out to be the first steps of a far greater journey of discipleship. It was 18 inches that opened the eyes of two travelers on the road to Emmaus so that they could actually see the Risen Christ who’d been walking with them all along; and it was 18 inches that a week later led Thomas to no longer doubt but believe, confessing from his heart that right before his eyes stood his Lord and his God!
And it’s the same 18 inches that will move you and me today from perplexed to amazed. The good news of this day and every day is that resurrection was not just some one-time-only event breaking of the laws of nature as we know them. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is an on-going gift of grace that is fresh and brand new with every heart that is transformed and every life that is made into something glorious by virtue of his victory over death. That’s how, as Craig Barnes has written, that despite the world’s constant attempts to make it into something else, Easter can never really be about bunnies, springtime or girls in cute new dresses. Easter, he says, is “about more hope than we can handle,” because first, last and always it’s about our encounter with the risen Christ here and now and how Jesus is ever and always in our midst and in our hearts; ever present in the words we speak, in the love we show, even in our questions and our doubts. Christ is risen, and he is here now to share his power – his truth, his love, his strength, his faithfulness, his glory, his victory over death and the grave – with you and me and all those who would receive it.
This is the gospel that we proclaim and that we believe. We may not fully grasp the depth of his Passion, or fathom the meaning of the empty tomb; but we stand amazed at it, shouting in wonder and amazement at his glory and embracing his love; rejoicing in the truth that whether we live or we die, we belong to Christ!
So let us rejoice, beloved, in the power of the risen Christ and in the power of transforming hope; let us proclaim the truth of how death has indeed been swallowed up in victory, to the praise of our brother, our teacher, our friend, and our Savior, Jesus Christ, crucified and risen!
Christ is risen, beloved…. He is Risen Indeed!
Alleluia! And AMEN!
c. 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry