The empty tomb
24 Very early in the morning on the first day of the week, the women went to the tomb, bringing the fragrant spices they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in, they didn’t find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4 They didn’t know what to make of this. Suddenly, two men were standing beside them in gleaming bright clothing. 5 The women were frightened and bowed their faces toward the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? 6 He isn’t here, but has been raised. Remember what he told you while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Human One must be handed over to sinners, be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”8 Then they remembered his words. 9 When they returned from the tomb, they reported all these things to the eleven and all the others. 10 It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles. 11 Their words struck the apostles as nonsense, and they didn’t believe the women.12 But Peter ran to the tomb. When he bent over to look inside, he saw only the linen cloth. Then he returned home, wondering what had happened.
Thoughts on the passage:
There are two certainties in life, death and taxes, at least that is the conventional wisdom. Easter is a challenge to that understanding. Sadly, today we are not celebrating the fact that we do not have to pay taxes. The good news is that instead we are celebrating the idea that God has the power to overcome death. Death, which we tend to think of as the end, instead becomes the beginning of something even greater. Today we celebrate the power of the resurrection.
First we have to ask ourselves: do we believe in resurrection? I know it can seem silly, after all, here we are, Christians, on Easter Sunday, asking ourselves if we really believe in resurrection. Yet, deep down I think it is a challenge to our faith. Believing in resurrection means placing our trust in something that goes against this fundamental force of existence, death. “In the midst of life we are in death” is an expression from the early middle ages that has been translated from Latin and is often used at graveyard services and funderals. In the wake of yet another terrorist attack in Europe and raised fears around the world it seems like a fitting phrase to capture our feelings right now. I think it also creates a barrier for us as we seek to believe in resurrection. Surrounded by death it can be hard to believe in resurrection and new life.
The disciples also struggled with the idea of resurrection. Despite being told by Jesus exactly what was going to happen they fought against it the whole way. First they resisted his capture, fighting against his captors. In our story today they are resisting the idea of his resurrection, struggling to believe that he could be raised from the dead. The women are the first to make that mistake, going to the tomb expecting a body. When some of the disciples hear that Christ is risen they discount it as nonsense. Even when Peter goes and sees the empty tomb he is not filled with certainty, instead he is left to wonder what is happening.
We are in death, and believing in resurrection is hard. As a lover of fantasy novels, I am reminded of a quote from “The Lord of the Rings” where the character Sam says
“It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end… because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing… this shadow. Even darkness must pass.”
We are at the dark point in the middle of the story, where it is hard to see how it could possible end well. At those times it is hard to believe in something positive like a resurrection. Like the disciples it is easy to dismiss that talk as nonsense.
As we look around the world today we know people who are sick with cancer, people who are too young to die are struggling to live. We look at the images from Brussels, from Syria, from the violence in our own communities and see nothing but darkness. We know people who are struggling to make it from one paycheck to the next, that no matter how hard they work they can never get ahead. Their darkness is one of despair. In the midst of such darkness it can be hard to believe that things will ever get any better.
Yet this is the message of Easter, even as we stand in the midst of death, the tomb is empty! We are given good news today, the sun (Son) has risen. We are being challenged to believe that which we know to be a certainty, death is in fact not the end, but the beginning of something more. Like the Romans and the temple authorities, we thought that Jesus was dead and gone, the story was at an end. Instead we learn there is something more, God is able to overcome death itself and offer instead new life. We are asked to believe in resurrection.
The challenge for us is simple. Are we willing to set aside our notions of what is and is not possible? Are we willing to step away from our own sense of grief, doubt, and gloom and consider things anew? Peter rushes to the tomb and finds it empty. He does not immediately move to certainty but instead to wonder.
We are never told exactly what Peter wonders in this moment, but I can think about what might go through my mind. I am sure the rational part of my brain would be trying to understand scientifically what happened, like was Jesus really dead and how did he come back to life. Another part of me would be wondering what is next. Will Jesus be returning to lead us on to greater glory? I might also be wondering what Jesus will think since I abandoned him in his hour of need. I would also probably start to wonder if Jesus can overcome death, then what can he NOT do.
This I think is the real message of hope at Easter. We are all a party to Christ’s death. We are the soldier who carried out the sentence. We are the priests who handed him over. We are Pilate, trying to wash our hands of our own guilt. We are the disciples who fled in fear. We are the women at the cross, powerless to do anything but weep. Despite what we have done or not done for Christ, God does not come back with a vengeance, but instead comes back with grace. Instead of hatred, Christ comes back with a message of love and peace. The tomb is empty. Our worst mistakes have been forgiven. Christ is risen. Are we ready to believe?
Questions to Ponder:
What is the death that surrounds you in your life right now?
What sort of resurrection do you need to believe in?
When is a time you have experienced Christ’s resurrecting power?
Prayer: God, we constantly seek you in the wrong places and in the wrong ways. We got to the tomb expecting to find you dead and struggle to believe that it is possible you are alive. Help us to embrace the joy that is the resurrection and the good news of Easter. Help us to believe that you are making all things new. Open us up to the wonder of your unending love and grace. AMEN