Easter Sunday ~ March 27, 2016 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson
There are places in the story of Jesus’ life where there are gaps. And the silence in these gaps can be at times intriguing and also frustrating. There are periods in his life about which it might be interesting if not helpful to know a bit more, like what was Jesus like as a young person (our teen years), Jesus with his brothers and sisters, and one I wondered about, why did he choose to go for a walk on the Sea of Galilee in the middle of a storm at night!
Perhaps the most intriguing silence in the Gospels in that time between the burial of Jesus’ body late Good Friday afternoon and the early morning visit of the women on the follow Sunday. A mere 36 hours, yet it changed the course of history for a significant portion of humanity.
This time of silence is marked in some congregations by the ancient celebration of the Easter Vigil. It is a time of waiting. We wait with the followers of Jesus, remembering how the women disciples planned to go to the tomb. In the silence they sit together to support one another in their grief, and to plan.
The Sabbath silence is broken as we begin to hear the early morning stirrings of the women. The muffled noise of the pottery pots filled with oils and spices as they gather them and make their way to the place where Jesus had been laid.
I can imagine their shadows flitting in and out of the shadows of the landscape of early morning. When they arrive to see the stone at the opening rolled back, we see them standing eyes wide with wonder and fear in front of the unexpected yawning emptiness of the tomb. It is no use pretending at this point we are surprised – we already know what they will find. We’ve been here many times before on this day.
The very familiarity of the scene hinders our attention to Luke’s unique details. For example, we might not notice that Luke talks of two men dressed in luminous clothing in the tomb, not the one figure that Mark and Matthew mention. Matthew even calls him an angel. Surely in Luke they are the same kind of otherworldly messengers. Even more significant, however, is the response of the women. In Mark’s gospel, the women are amazed; in Matthew’s account it is the guards who were fearful. In Luke the guards are long gone and we are told that the women are afraid and bow their faces low to the ground.
This is not an image of a mere curtsy, a polite bowing at the hip or even a genuflection. This was a complete full obeisance much like we see in the Muslim prayer posture. Literally, a position of bowing with their faces actually being “to the ground,” a face in the dirt!
Confronted with this totally unexpected mystery, this effacement seems wholly appropriate. The stone rolled away from the doorway, the body of their rabbi/teacher gone, the appearance of two strangely bright men – all these things cannot but fill them, not just with awe, but terror!
Yet we who are too accustomed to this story, who are used to thinking of Jesus as our “good buddy,” who have tried to make God as knowable and dependable as breakfast cereal, hardly linger at the dreadful silence of these women with their faces in the dirt. Our efforts to tame the holy dull us to their sense of fear and awe.
We miss Luke’s first preachable lesson here: God’s ways are not our ways. They are beyond our comprehension; they subvert what we expect; they demand the impossible. They are holy precisely because they are not of our own making. When we encounter God’s ways, our first response should always acknowledge this with more than just a nod.
A second lesson we might learn from Luke comes moments later. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” the angelic visitors say to the tops of the women’s heads. We are just as guilty of such a fruitless search. We too want to tend the corpses of long dead ideas and ideals.
We cling to former visions of ourselves and our churches, as if they might come back to life as long as we hold on to them.
We grasp our loved ones too tightly, refusing to allow them to change, to become bigger, or smarter, or stronger, or more independent.
We choose to stay with what we know in our hearts to be dead, because it is safe, malleable, and so we can with our selective memory process, improve things with age, (at least in our own minds!)
The words of these otherworldly messengers are a challenge to stop hanging on to the dead and move into new life. They are reminders that the Holy One dwells wherever new life burst forth. Jesus was not found in the emptiness of the tomb but in the garden and Galilee!
Still another point we can pick up on is also found in the mouths of the two angelic beings. “Remember how he told you,” they tell the women, “that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.“
This memory, this remembering connects the empty tomb with the very human Jesus who ate and talked, suffered and died. In remembering these words of Jesus they also were taken back to the all the other things he had taught and done.
They remember the meals they shared in Jesus’ fellowship, the times they watched as he healed, they recalled the parables, the bent woman, the ten lepers, the man with the shriveled, the blind Bartimaeus.
If they (we) are to understand the meaning of the empty tomb, we need to remember the Jesus of Galilee. The mystery of the resurrection is best understood in the everyday world of human living.
This means that the boundless gift of the empty tomb cannot be separated from the words and deeds of Jesus. Resurrection is, after all, not some lofty ideal, unconnected to the real world. It is an invitation to receive the power to live as Jesus lived.
It is a doorway to a life in which meals are shared with enemies,
Healing is offered to the hopeless,
Prophetic challenges issued to the powerful.
Only now it is not Jesus who does these things – it is each of us who see at last the subversive power of the resurrection and believe it can empower our lives and our living as well.
On that first shadowy Easter morning, when the women cowered in the dust and angels picked them back up, pointing them back out the door of the tomb and gate of the garden into the full light of the morning, the power of God was no longer silent. The silence had been broken, and the women rushed back to tell the others what they had seen.
It did not matter whether they were believed or not. I mean, after all, under the circumstances who would believe their tale?
Did not matter that Peter had to test the veracity of their story by running to the tomb himself, finding there the linen grave clothes, and wondering all the way back about what he had seen and not seen.
It did not matter because the women knew.
The women remembered.
The women believed.
And the women responded by breaking their own silence to speak their own truth, truth as they had seen and experienced it.
Which is, after all, exactly what God asks of each of us.