A sermon preached by The Rev. Dianne Andrews at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA, March 27, 2016.
It is a “early dawn” or better “deep dawn” when the women return to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body. We hear that the women are “puzzled” and “perplexed” when they find that the tomb’s entrance stone had been rolled away and that Jesus’ body is… gone. Nothing registered. The tomb is empty. What we encounter on this Easter morning, in Luke’s account of Sunday, is: an empty tomb. This story of Easter does not come rolling into town, like a pastel colored parade spewing confetti and streamers with trumpets ablaze… though it is great fun to shout “Alleluia!” once again.
Jesus doesn’t actually appear in the story in any form. What we get in Luke’s account of the Sunday after the crucifixion is the absence of death… and a message that Jesus is risen. There are no sightings of Jesus in the guise of a gardener or otherwise. No Jesus period. The women who had returned to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body with spices were stunned. We hear from Luke that “two men in dazzling clothes” were at the tomb. Some verses later the two men are identified as angels (Luke 24:23). They chide the women for coming in search of a body when death is no longer present. The first reason for the women coming to the tomb was no longer relevant. Anointing a dead body could be scratched off their “To Do” list, for good. Now there was a new reason for the women being at the tomb. They are the first witnesses of a great mystery. Once again, we are in the presence of the great and powerful mystery of Easter. All we know is what was said by two men wearing dazzling clothes: “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.” For the women the words touched a chord deep inside. The words rang true. The women believed.
When penny dropped for the group of women… when the words “He is not here, he is risen” sunk in… the whole group women of Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women, went to share the news with the apostles. But to the men, the women’s words “seemed them like an idle tale, and they did not believe it.” The word “idle” comes from a Greek word whose root means “delirious.” Apparently the men thought that these women were crazy, nuts, delirious… spewing utter nonsense. The story is beyond reason… and it is… and it is somewhat frightening if you think about it…
If the dead don’t stay dead what can we rely on? If we believe, that at the heart of our faith is resurrection, which means MORE than the mere resuscitation of a dead body, MORE than the animation of a corpse… we have just had the stuff of reason and logic knocked right out of us. The claim of our faith is that God entered our timeline at a specific moment in history… and in the event of the resurrection God created an entirely new reality. Indeed, that is a perplexing notion.
…And you have got to love Peter, the one who had denied Jesus three times and eventually became the head of church. He runs back to the tomb to see if… what the crazy sounding women had reported… was true. And what does he find? ….less even than the women had reported because there are no “men in dazzling clothes” there to share the news. For Peter, the “messengers” of the news are the women. I can see him walking away from the empty tomb scratching his head in his own perplexity. He does not yet understand. We don’t hear about Peter reporting to anyone that he gone to the tomb to see for himself. In Luke’s account of the resurrection we won’t hear from Jesus himself, for a bit, until he meets Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus, when Jesus will finally be recognized in the breaking of the bread. We will encounter Jesus in the Holy Feast today… but for now we are pondering the empty tomb.
Perplexed and puzzled are good words for this Resurrection Sunday. The scholar David Lose has said that the resurrection, “throws off the balance, upsets the apple cart, and generally turns our neat and orderly lives totally out of whack. Which is why I think that if you don’t find resurrection at least a little hard to believe, you probably aren’t taking it very seriously!” The resurrection is not reasonable. It is not easy. Yet… to enter into the meaning of Easter… is worth all of the effort we can muster… all of the grappling … and letting go… and grappling some more… until our inner lives and our outer world are shaped and formed by this new reality.
In all of our wrestling with questions of faith and the resurrection we must first ask: “Who is this Jesus?” “Who is Christ for us?” The theologian and spirituality writer Belden Lane has pondered this question and decided that Jesus is a “Disturbing teacher of the gospels” …. who challenges us and gets under our skin… Jesus is the one who is “comfortable with children and irritating to scholars”… a “’dancing member of the Holy Trinity’ looking out from a stunning Russian icon.” … An object of saccharine love for some… the inspirer of unbridled passion for metaphysical poets. He is the first century Jewish rabbi… “calling for justice and inclusivity, making no ethereal claims about his own divinity. He is the Jesus of [the Sufi poet] who wants to be born in the mystical experience of every soul. He the Cosmic Christ who weaves his spirit through the fabric of the natural world, causing all things to scintillate with the sacramental, Christic presence of the divine. This is the Jesus who refuses to be contained in rigid, orthodox formulas of doctrinal correctness. He is the Jesus who wasn’t content with remaining an exclusive Son of God, insisting that all are beloved sons and daughters of the Most High.”1 In the end, the writer Belden has come to the conclusion that he is less concerned with defining Jesus than with experiencing him.
We encounter the Jesus of our Easter faith first… here… in this gathered community. Jesus promised that when two or three are gathered together in his name he will be with them. Jesus promised that when we break bread and share the cup together… he will be with us. And here we are… gathered in Christ’s presence.
Through the centuries and around the world Christians have recited creeds that are affirmations of faith that roll of the tongues of some… and irk the consciences of others. “We believe in one God, the Father almighty… maker of heaven and earth… We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father… God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made”…of one being with God… And so forth. In the Episcopal church we say the creeds as a statement of unity that is not meant as a litmus test of faith. If you don’t believe every last dot and tittle of the creeds… I promise you, you will not be shown the door. In an interview with Krista Tippet on the podcast “On Being,”2 the tattooed Lutheran pastor of the Church of All Sinners and Saints in Colorado, Nadia Bolz Weber, said that creeds are, in a way, inaccessible because people think, “I don’t know if I believe this… I can’t say the Creed because I don’t know if I believe every line of it.” Nadia goes on, “I’m like, oh, my God. Nobody believes every line of the Creed. But in a room of people… for each line of the Creed, somebody believes it. So we’re covered, right?”
For us Jesus came down from heaven… for us, for the sake all humanity, for the sake of justice… Jesus walked among us and, because he would not back down, Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified died and was buried… on the third day he rose again… We say the words of our creeds that are full of mystery, a mystery that, at times, leaves us scratching our heads, yet… the words, like those of the Lord’s Prayer, unite us to the faithful through time… and around the world. And beyond the words… is Christ present with us in this gathered community of the beloved… beyond the words is Christ’s presence is known to us in the Eucharistic Feast.
Faith is risky, life is messy and we struggle to understand. …and we don’t need to shut off our brains entirely to be a people of faith… to encounter the resurrection… to experience that which is beyond reason, beyond logic. The stone has been rolled away from the entrance to our hearts… and not just as individuals but as a people of God who have survived the pain and darkness of these past days. We gave up when we thought that all was finished… for good… the end. We gave up when we thought that death roared and had consumed the last shred of hope. But now, here, together we are witnesses and participants in the deep dawn of Easter. We have come to the place of death and found it empty. Grace and glory have overcome.
The God of life did not overcome death to dwell only in beautiful buildings on Sundays. Easter is dawning wherever people dare to let go of sadness and despair and live into new possibilities…to say “yes” to God’s invitation to engage in this holy mystery of new life that is seeking to take root in us… and that invites us be participants in this new dawn… co-workers in Christ whose charge us to work to heal the planet, care for the least among us, and welcome God’s deep truth to take root deeply in us and in our world, and then go forth from this place and witness to the truth and power of Easter.
The tomb is empty. It makes no sense. And yet… The God of life has been unleashed with a force that has burst open the confines of death and is seeking to quench the rages of anger and dissatisfaction… a force that seeks to plant the seeds of peace and new possibility even in the most hardened of hearts. Eventually the disciples will come to believe that Jesus had risen form the dead. Eventually the penny will drop for us and we will understand that this is not simply some quaint story of antiquity. The story of new life has comes down to us, through the centuries, to this very place, to this very day… having been told time and time again by Christians who have come before us. The story is perplexing… and the reality is more than we can now comprehend. A new creation has come into being and we have been invited to the party. God is not waiting for us to get the words right or to wrangle our beliefs into some kind of neat and tidy order. God has not waited… all things have been made new… Sunday has arrived. It’s is Easter!
I would like to end with a poem:
In Saturday’s dead stillness
stars fell and mixed and melted with empty idols and hardened egos breaking apart
and then some more
creation’s second soup no longer primordial
…and then there was Sunday
beauty takes flight this day
from cramped chrysalid confines the splendid lift of wings
a trace unseen…
Glory is unbound…
…the tomb is empty…
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
1 Adapted. Beldon C. Lane, “Who is This Jesus?,” Sojourners, April 2016, pg. 36.
2 http://www.onbeing.org/program/nadia-bolz-weber-seeing-the-underside-and-seeing-god-tattoos- tradition-and-grace/5896