March 27, 2016 Luke 23: 50-56; 24: 1-12
Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph, who, though a member of the council, had not agreed to their plan and action. He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea, and he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid. It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments.
On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment.
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; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
There’s an old familiar African American spiritual asks us: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. Were you there?”
No, of course we weren’t. But have you ever been so frightened, or in such a state of grief, that your whole body trembled? - your jaw quivered and your teeth rattled; your shoulders shook; your mind clouded over. If so, you have an inkling into how if must have felt to be one of Jesus’ disciples standing at the foot of the cross, or watching off in the distance, or cowering in fear in a hidden room somewhere in Jerusalem.
According to Luke the women accompanied Joseph of Arimathea to the tomb, but it was too late to anoint the body as was customary. They had to wait another 24 hours until the sabbath had ended - 24 hours that must have seemed like an eternity.
We’re not told where they were hiding out, maybe in the room where they had celebrated passover together just hours before. Remember, they were all from Galilee, not Jerusalem, where Luke has them staying. It would have been a long walk home.
They were undoubtably trembling: frightened, grief stricken, confused, angry, feeling abandoned, hopeless. Some may even have felt pangs of guilt. What was in store for them now? Would their fate be that of Jesus’? Where to turn? They had lost their teacher, their mentor, the person in whom they had placed all their hope. What were they to do now? Our natural reaction to fear is fight or flight. They chose the latter, but you can’t stay in hiding, trembling, indefinitely.
How often have you felt one of those emotions? Our country seems to be in a perpetual state of fear - and fear mongering: fear of a terrorist attack; fear of people who look or pray in different ways that we do; fear of people taking our jobs; fear that our government will be run by people we disagree with.
Our world is filled with fearful, grieving, hopeless people who feel abandoned. Imagine being one of those who have fled their homes in Syria or Iraq in fear for their lives, just wanting a safe place to raise their families in peace. No, these emotions are universal. What does the Easter event have to say to us living in fear?
Each of the gospels remembers the events of Jesus’ life in their own unique way, with their own insight. In Luke the women play a pivotal role. They too were part of the inner circle. So it’s the women, led by Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary, mother of James who find the tomb empty and are met by two men in dazzling clothes who inquire why they are looking for the living among the dead. “He is not here, but has risen.”
They are not told to go and tell the men, but being women, they did what we tend to do when we are witness to some amazing news - we spread it.
Just imagine them reporting back to the disciples: “Listen to us. I tell you, we went to the tomb, the same one we saw Jesus’ body placed in, and the stone was rolled away, and his body was gone. Quit rolling your eyes. Only the wrappings were left. We didn’t know what to make of it. Then out of nowhere came two men - practically scarred us to death. It was like this light was cascading over them - angels, probably. And they acted like we were the crazy ones, looking for the living in a cemetery. How were we to know? And they reminded us of what Jesus had said about all of these events back in Galilee, and then we started to put it all together. Quit looking at us like we’re crazy!”
And the men, being less emotional, did what men tend to do - dismissed it all as idle talk. The stress of the week must have gone to the women’s heads. They’ve lost touch with reality.
But Peter ran back to have a look - just in case. No signs of the two dazzling men, just the grave wrappings lying there. So he returned home, or wherever they were hiding out, puzzled, shaking his head. “What’s going on here?”
If the story had ended there, none of us would be sitting in these pews today. Lucky for us there was more to come.
Over the years several people have related to me stories of their near death experiences; their spirits rising up out of their bodies as they watched from the ceiling doctors resuscitating them. As I read this Easter story I could just imagine Jesus, from his vantage point, taking it all in - saying to himself, “There’s a lot more work to be done here. They’re really not ready to be left on their own quite yet.” The Episcopal Bishop, Gene Robinson, talking about the disciples once said, “They weren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer, but they were beginning to get it.”
Most of us don’t get it at first - this business of resurrection. Like the doubting Thomas, we need some first hand experience, and we spend our lives learning what the reality of resurrection looks like, feels like - because it keeps happening in new ways every day of our lives.
And here, in this story, we see the first glimpses of Jesus’ disciples starting to get it. You can add joy, amazement, doubt, perplexity to their list of emotions. It was on this morning that Jesus followers became Easter People, and started practicing resurrection. They didn’t know exactly what that meant or how it would take shape, but that Easter morning their lives were forever changed.
They were undergoing a transformation, step by step, from fearful followers cowering in secret to joyful leaders spreading the Good News. It would take time, for many a life time. First they had to overcome all those negative emotions consuming them at the moment. Fear holds us back. Transformation requires change - and change, we know, can be oh so difficult.
A friend of mine shared with me her experience of watching a butterfly emerging from it’s cocoon. It would start to come out little by little, and then just as quickly retreat back in. It was a struggle coming into the unknown, into a new life. Just like a baby would be content to live in the comfort and security of the womb. It’s a rare infant that doesn’t have to be pushed out. It’s the same with death, we hold on to the life we know for as long as we can. There’s a lot of fear in the unknown, even if we profess to believe that there’s a better life awaiting us on the other side.
The disciples wanted to hold on to Jesus, as they knew him, but that was impossible. We can’t go back, only forward. Living in the past, replaying the grief, the fear, the struggles of our lives, prevents us from moving forward toward hope of what God is trying to co-create in our lives. Jesus was moving forward. Remember, in the gospel of John, Jesus tells Mary Magdalene not to cling to him. He was moving forward into a new life with God. Resurrection means that God is continuing to co -create. We’ve got abundant and life giving work ahead of us.
DeWane Zimmerman writes, “The message of the resurrection isn’t simply don’t be afraid to die. The message of the resurrection is don’t be afraid to live - to live for those things worth dying for.” And that is precisely how Jesus lived his life. That’s the example he set for his followers. He was so full of life and love that he continued to give it away even as he hung dying on the cross.
To those who were crucifying him, he prayed: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” To his mother and beloved disciple: “Woman, here is your son. My friend, here is your mother.” To the thief hanging by his side: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” His message to us? “Watch and listen, learn and follow. I will be with you.”
The angels at the tomb that morning asked the women to look back, remember what Jesus had said to them, had taught them. I would imagine many hours were spent in the coming days, and weeks, and years, as the disciples looked back and remembered. It’s sometimes easier to see and understand in hindsight, when emotions don’t overtake the message. And as they did their fear ebbed away and they were able to live in the present and prepare themselves to move on into the future.
For me, the real miracle of the resurrection isn’t the empty tomb. That proves nothing. The real miracle is that Jesus didn’t leave his disciples alone. He doesn’t leave us alone. The powers of that time tried to bottle up Jesus and his message in a tomb. It didn’t work. Here we sit two millenniums later, singing our alleluias. That alone is a miracle.
Jesus couldn’t be confined by that tomb. His message, his teachings, even his very presence, albeit in a different form, remains with us, loves us, supports us, guides us - if we open our hearts to it. This makes Jesus a figure of the present, not merely the past, grounded in the experience of Christ throughout the centuries.
The Catholic mystic Thomas Merton speaks of these encounters, “A true encounter with Christ liberates something in us, a power we did not know we had, a hope, a capacity for life, a resilience, an ability to bounce back when we thought we were completely defeated, a capacity to grow and change, a power of creative transformation.”
His disciples continued to be transformed by their encounters of the risen Christ. In the next weeks we’ll hear some those stories. At the end of Luke’s gospel he describes the disciples returning to Jerusalem with great joy, blessing God in the temple, much as we sit here today filled with the joy of this Easter morning.
But they didn’t remain in that temple. They carried the Good News out into the world. They remembered what he had told them on their last night together, “Pass it on.” And they did, no matter how imperfect they were. They preached, and they practiced what they preached. They carried, not only Jesus’ message, but Christ himself in their hearts, through a cloud of witnesses, over centuries, to this sanctuary, and into our hearts.
Each Easter we re-enlist as Easter People. Our job for the coming year is to practice resurrection: making something new, something life giving, something filled with love and wholeness out of our frightened, fractured lives, and the lives of others.
I leave you today with one last thought for your journey as an Easter person. It wasn’t until many years after Christ died that his life was recorded in written form in the gospels, a delayed obituary, you might call it. Martin Copenhaver, in A Still Speaking Devotional, tells of an obituary that challenged me to practice resurrection:
During much of his life Alfred Nobel, the Swedish scientist and inventor, was best known for the invention of dynamite. In 1888 Alfred’s brother Ludwig died while visiting France, and one French newspaper mistakenly heard that if was Alfred who had died. So they ran an obituary for Alfred Nobel under the headline, “The Merchant of Death is Dead.” The lead line of his obituary was this: “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.”
So Alfred Nobel had the unique opportunity to read his own obituary. And he was horrified that his life could be summarized in such a way, that devising a weapon as destructive as dynamite was the sum of his life, that this, of all things, is what he would be remembered for.
That incident left a lasting impression on Nobel. He became determined to leave a better legacy. So seven years after his obituary appeared in that French newspaper, Nobel signed papers that stipulated that the bulk of his estate would be used to establish the Nobel Prizes, including, of course, the Nobel Peace Prize. In a sense, he had a chance to rewrite his obituary, and he took full advantage of the opportunity.
But come to think of it, we are all writing our own obituaries by the way we live our lives each day, aren’t we?
Craft in me, O God, a life worth living, one day at a time, one act at a time. Amen