March 31, 2013 – Easter Sunday
Introduction: In the last verses of Luke 23, the women who had followed Jesus in Galilee, witness his death and burial. The last verse of chapter 23 says, “They went back and prepared aromatic oils and myrrh. And on the sabbath they rested according to the commandment.” That was Friday afternoon. The next verse in the story, Luke 24, verse 1 moves us immediately to early Sunday morning.
[Read Luke 24.1-12]
They were grieving, those women. The ones who had traveled with him through the cities and villages of Galilee, giving their resources to provide for Jesus and the twelve.1 The women, probably sleepless from grief, got up early to do the physical things they could do at the time of death. The sabbath had come quickly after the death of Jesus on Friday and there had not been time to prepare his body. I suspect their plan after they visited the tomb was to return and fix food–just like we often do–although no one was really that hungry.
They went to the cemetery expecting to find Jesus’ body just as it had been left on Friday afternoon. But there was no body and they were perplexed.
Because we know the end of the story, it is easy for us to make light of the women being perplexed as if they just needed a minute to remember than Jesus had been raised from the dead. But no such possibility was in their mind. “Mental confusion” is another way of saying perplexed.2 That disorienting experience of something that doesn’t line up anywhere near what you’re expecting and you don’t know how to make any sense of it. I can imagine it almost like a physical disorientation. You thought you were one place but you’re someplace else and you don’t know where you are or how it happened.
Not one of them was thinking “Jesus is alive!”
When the two angels appear, their confusion changes to terror. They thought they were coming to the tomb of Jesus to pay their respects. To leave some flowers, talk about what a great guy Jesus was and then go home to figure out how to get on with their lives without him. It turns out it’s nothing like that.
The angels say Jesus has been raised and then they say, “Remember” and they remind the women of what Jesus said when he was alive and then the women do remember and they return to tell the other disciples what they’ve just seen. Not surprisingly, the men think the women are making it up. That they are delirious3 with grief. Only one man goes to the tomb to see for himself. He too finds no body and he goes home wondering and amazed at what had happened.
Which is not exactly a ringing endorsement for the resurrection of Jesus. It’s not even clear if anyone in the story believes it yet. It may be that the three women and Peter are thinking about it but it still is too preposterous for them to be convinced.
Until. Until the risen Jesus starts showing up.
It’s not the physical evidence in the empty tomb that becomes Easter faith. The space itself doesn’t prove anything. It’s the testimony of people who have experienced the risen One in their lives. Walking with them on the road to Emmaus. Appearing to the eleven in Jerusalem. Encounters that changed their lives.
And it’s those testimonies that have been passed on and passed on until we are all here today, wondering at this peculiar story about an empty tomb and words that Jesus has been raised.
Each generation has added to the testimonies. Rarely are the testimonies about the physical remains of the tomb–the stones and the clothes. Instead we talk about the presence of the risen One in human experience. Our human experience. I was lost but now am found. I was sinking down but Jesus lifted me up. We pass on the stories of lives transformed, healed, forgiven, made whole. We tell about freedom found, liberation loosed, compassion charged.
You’ve probably heard some of those testimonies. Maybe you’ve given one of your own.
Or maybe you wish you had one to tell. You wonder what it would be like to have experienced this Jesus who people say is alive. Maybe you’re most skeptical that a 21st century thinking person could have such an experience but there’s little tiny piece of you that still wonders, “Could it be true?”
Nancy Mairs, reflecting on faith in her wonderful book Ordinary Time, writes, “It never occurred to me that one might go to church not because one believed in God but precisely because one didn’t, that in ‘going through the motions one might not be performing empty gestures but preparing a space into which belief could flood if it were going to.”4
That’s why we gather together week after week. One person shares their experience and others benefit. One person wanders in the wilderness and others hold them fast in God’s love. One person questions, others listen. Stories get told of the transforming presence of Christ and they become stories that belong to us, that we are part of, even if that exact experience didn’t happen to us. The story of Jesus being alive didn’t belong to one person in the early community of Jesus’ followers. It belonged to them all even as some doubted and some believed.
And they passed it on to us. And it belongs to us even as some doubt and some believe. And some will come to believe and some will come to doubt. And some at the same time like the man who cried out to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief!”
All through the season of Easter we will hear the biblical stories of the appearances of the risen Jesus and listen for the resonances in our own lives and in the lives of one another. And we will meet one another at the table, as we do this morning, opening ourselves to receive the bread of life and the cup of salvation that in our eating and drinking together we too, like those first disciples, meet the risen Christ in our midst.
Nancy Mairs grew up in the Congregational church and as an adult became part of the Catholic church. In her Catholic community she was included in communion even before she converted to Catholicism. Eucharist was freely offered to anyone who was famished; anyone who needed nourishment. She writes, “I don’t partake [of the Eucharist] because I’m a good Catholic, holy and pious and sleek. I partake because I’m a bad Catholic, riddled by doubt and anxiety and anger: fainting from severe hypoglycemia of the soul. I need food. ‘O Holy One,’ I pray as I savor the host, ‘as this bread nourishes my body, so may your spirit nourish my soul. Grow strong within me, I pray, and let me live my life in your praise.'”5
And so it is with us. We proclaim Jesus lives and tell the stories of how our lives have been transformed by his. Some of us testify and some of us listen. Some of us nod in understanding and some are amazed and some wonder. And then we eat together, not because we have earned it but because we need nourishment and strength.
Nourishment and strength to go into the places of our world that are consumed with death and suffering and to be alive with the life of Jesus. We need nourishment and strength to face the demons and pain in our own lives and communities with the confidence that the God who raised Jesus from the dead, can make a way where there is no way and can turn impossibilities into infinite possibilities.6 In your life. In my life. In the life of the whole world.
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2 Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991), p387.
3 Ibid., p388.
4Nancy Mairs, Ordinary Time – Cycles in Marriage, Faith and Renewal, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), p67-68.
5 Ibid., p89.
6 John Buchanan, “The Laughter of the Universe” preached at Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, IL, March 27, 2005.