As far as I am concerned, every Sunday is a good day. Every Sunday, we celebrate the good news of great joy that Christ is risen, that Christ is alive, that Christ has defeated sin and death on our behalf, that Christ has reconciled us to God and opened the way to eternal life.
Still, this Sunday is special. Today more than any other single day in the entire Christian year, we celebrate. Last week we acknowledged the horror of crucifixion and all that it represents. But today is all about resurrection.
So, in our first reading we hear Peter preach it. In our second reading, we hear Paul preach it. That’s what we expect. That’s what we come to Church to hear, especially on Easter.
But what about our Gospel reading? The story of the empty tomb is comfortingly familiar. But if you stop to think about it, the story of the empty tomb is in some ways a surprising reading for Easter. Luke tells us what happened that first Easter morning. But Jesus himself does not appear.
Now, we get the good news that Christ is risen. And over the next several weeks, we’ll hear lots of fabulous stories about our risen Lord. But today, surprisingly if you pause to think about it, Jesus is off stage. Jesus still dominates the story, of course. But our focus today is the empty tomb.
Here is the context. As you know, Jesus was crucified on a Friday. Jesus died too late in the day for his disciples to properly care for his body. They did the best they could with the time they had. They sealed his body in a tomb and planned to return as soon as they could. Saturday was the Sabbath and an important Jewish holy day so, Luke tells us, “they rested according to the commandment” (23:56).
That brings us to today. First thing Sunday morning, “at early dawn,” women went to the tomb so they could, at last, care for Jesus’ dead body. That took courage. Jesus had been executed as a blasphemer and a rebel against Roman authority. Loyalty to Jesus’ memory could rightly be interpreted as an expression of solidarity with Jesus, and on that day solidarity with Jesus could get you crucified. That’s why most of the male disciples were nowhere to be seen. But these women loved Jesus too much to abandon his body. So, at great personal risk, they went looking for Jesus as soon as they could.
Luke doesn’t tell us how the women felt that morning, but we can make a pretty good guess. One thing they were not experiencing was joy. They were grief-stricken after watching helplessly as their Lord died in agony. Probably they were exhausted after a couple of sleepless nights. Surely they were frightened at what they might find, particularly as they approached the tomb and saw posted guards (Matt 27:66). When these emotionally distraught women arrive at the tomb, they find it empty, so we can now add “perplexity” to the range of emotions they were experiencing that morning.
At least the tomb seemed empty. On closer inspection, the tomb turned out to be full, but full of the wrong people. Jesus wasn’t there. Instead two men in dazzling clothes—presumably angels—greet the women with the incredible news that Jesus has risen.
Listen again to what the angels say to the women. “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you” this would happen.
I think the angels are fussing at the women! At the very least, they were issuing a challenge to the women. Because, heroic as the woman were—and they were doing a lot better than their male counterparts!—they seem to have missed the point of everything Jesus had said.
Jesus was all about life and love and joy. In his public ministry, Jesus confronted the power of darkness, of violence and oppression, of sin and death. This confrontation came to a climax on the cross. And horrible as the crucifixion must have been to watch, it was Jesus’ victory. Jesus prevailed on the cross by willingly accepting death, confident that death could not hold him, that life in God was more powerful than sin or death.
Jesus had tried to explain all of that to his followers before it happened. But clearly they didn’t take it in.
And so, on that first Easter morning, resurrection has happened, and Jesus’ most faithful followers are still hanging out at a tomb.
We know what comes next. Jesus brings them all around. They meet the risen Lord. They are filled with the Spirit. They live Christian lives so full of joy and power that they literally change the world. We get a glimpse of that joy and power in our readings about Peter and Paul boldly proclaiming the gospel.
But on that first Easter morning, all that is still in the future. On that first Easter morning, we see in the women at the tomb the basic choice that confronts us all. Can they accept the good news of resurrection? Or will they continue to hang out at tombs?
That choice is not nearly so easy as it might seem.
There are many reasons for cynicism and despair. Think again about all the women have seen just in the last few days. The religious elite of Jerusalem, the people who are supposed to be the good guys, have handed Jesus to the Romans for execution. Roman power has tortured and killed their Messiah. The tomb must seem like the end of the story.
But Jesus has said otherwise. Over and over again, Jesus invited his disciples to see resurrection as a real alternative to the tomb. During his ministry, Jesus taught them about God’s heavenly kingdom, and helped them to see it all around them even now, to see God at work when hungry people are fed, when sick people are healed, when sinners experience God’s forgiveness, whenever Jesus’ followers love each other as Christ loved them.
And then Jesus died. So what is it going to be: tomb, or resurrection; cynicism and despair or holy joy?
On that first Easter morning, the disciples are not ready for resurrection. The men stay in hiding, and the women go to the tomb.
On this Easter morning, we are confronted with the same choice: tomb, or resurrection?
Given all the terrible things that happen in our world, faith in the resurrection can seem naïve and irrelevant. Better, say some, to be realistic, not to engage in fantasies but to face the world as it is. They wouldn’t put it this way, but people who say that are choosing tomb over resurrection.
Now, all of us spend some time at the tomb. And so we, too, need to hear the angels’ challenge. Why do we look for life among the dead? Jesus is not in the tomb. Jesus is alive.
And our living Lord continues to offer us an alternative to the tomb. Jesus continues to proclaim resurrection. Jesus continues to invite us to holy joy, to ever-new life, to loving communion with God and each other.
We gather this morning to accept Jesus’ invitation. We gather to say, even in the face of the worst that the world has to offer, that God has the final word, that forgiveness and love and joy are the deepest truth of God’s creation, that the tomb is empty. We gather to choose resurrection.
Thanks be to God. Alleluia, alleluia!!