April 5, 2015 Easter Sunday
First Lutheran Church
A SIGN BUT NOT PROOF
Today is the day when all that we say and do as disciples of Christ comes together. Today we celebrate that God raised Jesus from the grave, overcoming sin and death and bringing life to the world. I say, the Lord is risen, and you reply. He is risen indeed! It is here, in the church on Easter morning, when we test whether or not that phrase is the heart and soul of faith and life for us or if it is simply a seasonal ritual that takes its place alongside planting daffodils and cleaning out closets. Today we either affirm our belief in the sovereign grace of God who acts out of love through the suffering of Jesus, or it is simply a day to go through the motions because this is what people do on Easter Sunday.
All four gospels, of course, include an account of the events which took place on the 3rd day after the crucifixion of Jesus. They differ somewhat in their details but they are similar in that none of their accounts are overloaded with details. They are decidedly silent on how Jesus became alive again, something we would just love to know. But the raising of Jesus from the dead is the heart of the mystery of the power of God. Human words would ultimately trivialize it because human reason cannot grasp the depth or scope of what happened. The heart of the Gospel of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is not in the how but in the what, in the who, and most importantly, why God raised Jesus from the grave.
Matthew is the gospel writer who tells the story of Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. Matthew makes no mention of them carrying spices to anoint the body, because in his telling, Joseph of Arimathea had seen to those details. The purpose of the women has more to do with grieving, with focusing their grief on the stone tomb into which his body had been sealed the day before by the Roman soldiers. This is the purpose of having a marked burial place. I think of my dad often, but I rarely cry about his death anymore unless I am at his graveside in the cemetery. The stark reality of the place converges all the loss and sadness of his absence. For me, it has been almost 20 years, but for these 2 Marys, this was 36 hours after they saw Jesus’ mutilated and lifeless body still hanging on the cross. So they came to the tomb to focus their stunned disbelief and grief.
The men grieved differently. They stayed away from the burial site. The text tell us that they were afraid, but surely not of a dead body. Ancient Palestinian Jews knew how to handle a dead body. They were afraid of more earthly threats, of arrest and imprisonment, of trumped up charges which carried the terrible penalty of crucifixion. They had just seen it happen to Jesus so they stayed huddled behind closed doors, away from the soldiers posted by Pilate to guard the tomb. The women were not afraid of a dead body or were they afraid of political fallout, for Roman soldiers would not have considered the presence of women important enough to take notice. So, once the Sabbath ended at sunrise, they felt free to visit the tomb, even with soldiers present.
Their arrival was marked by an earthquake. When I was a sophomore in high school, we lived in California. I remember sitting in class when the ground began to shake, and our desks and chairs bounced along the floor until the shaking stopped. As earthquakes go, I am told that was just a tremor, but it was my one and only earthquake and it frightened me. The earthquake that Matthew reports announced the presence of an angel who rolled the stone away from the tomb’s entrance then sat upon it. The soldiers were so frightened that they fell into a stupor. The women were frightened but they also heard the voice of the angel. Do not be afraid. I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples.
The angel did not describe how Jesus was raised. No human or angelic eye witnessed the intimate interchange between the Father and the Son in that holy moment. The angel was merely a messenger and a tour guide. This is what happened—come and see that his body is no longer here. This is the heart of the Gospel. God has done this marvelous thing, so you do not have to be afraid. Come and see for yourselves, then go and tell someone else about it.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not a recitation of the facts, for even the biblical narratives do not agree on those. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is an affirmation of faith. Not everyone who saw the body gone from the tomb believed that Jesus was alive again. Not everyone who heard the story of his post-resurrection appearances believed them. These facts by themselves are not persuasive. Those who are waiting for someone to prove the facts of the resurrection will wait forever, for no one has the facts. Jesus’ resurrection is not about the resuscitation of a dead corpse but about the extravagant redemptive love the Creator has for the world. In the Greek, it is clear that Jesus did not resurrect himself. God raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus was obedient unto death, even death on a cross, and God raised him from that death. God’s act affirmed Christ’s obedience and reinterpreted a cruel and brutal death into the central act of God’s saving grace and mercy. In that light, the empty tomb is not proof of the resurrection. It is a sign of the resurrection. It points us beyond a graveyard, a place for dead bodies, back into the world where there is life.
There is a majesty and a mystery in the sparse Gospel accounts of the resurrection, a sparseness that attests to it inexplicability. I cannot explain the facts of the resurrection to you, for they have not been explained to me. But this I can tell you. I am not persuaded of its truth by an ancient story of a tomb that had a body one night and was found empty the next morning. I am persuaded because I know the living Christ. I am persuaded because history attests to the faithfulness of God’s saving work among the people.
The resurrection is credible because God and God’s work are credible. I know the power of the Holy Spirit because I know Jesus Christ. The most powerful and poignant statement of faith, not fact, that I can give you is an invitation to come and see for yourself. Come and know Jesus. God’s self-revelation in the person, work and resurrection of Jesus Christ is found in relationship not in doctrine. Come and see for yourself and experience the power of our Risen Savior around his table today and everyday, for every morning is Easter morning.
To God be the glory.
Alleluia and Amen.