It is a little too easy to jump to Easter without remembering all that precedes it. This underscores the importance of preparation throughout the Church Year. All of the events and experiences of the Church Year position us to rightly receive the Easter message:
- the month of waiting during the season of Advent,
- encountering Jesus as if for the very first time during Epiphany,
- opening new paths to know God in Lenten practices,
- celebrating Jesus triumphant entry on Palm Sunday,
- walking through the lessons and painful stories of Passion Week, including Jesus' "new command" given on Maundy Thursday: "Love and serve one another as I have loved and served you"
- all culminating in Jesus' betrayal, rejection, abandonment, condemnation, crucifixion, and death.
Those who've walked with Jesus through the path of the Church Year are ready for Easter.
Or, are they?
No matter how prepared we think we are, we are never quite prepared for the shock of resurrection. We must not domesticate the event. It is wild and untamed, unforeseen and unexpected. It casts its shadow (or better, light) on all that precedes it. It reveals God's satisfaction in the Son and his mission. It proves that Jesus' way of living is eternal and enduring, and that death cannot thwart God's purposes.
Easter demands that we reevaluate all that we've learned so far. There are lessons we've missed along the way. Like the first women at the tomb, we are called to "remember what Jesus told you." In other words, we must reevaluate our journey with Jesus in light of his resurrection. No matter how many times we experience it, Easter should always come as a surprise. Yet it is the only event that makes sense of all that has preceded it.
On the Way to the Tomb
In order to fully enter the Easter Story, we must begin with the mindset of the women going to the tomb. Nobody goes to a tomb expecting it to be empty. We go for other reasons. We go to pay our last respects, to remember the dead, to display one final act of love, that is, to express grief for the loss of the beloved.
We approach the tomb like we attend a funeral: soberly and somberly, with hearts broken. We assume that death is death - the final word, an irreversible act, the stage is empty, the curtains close, the play is over.
This is the mood of the women approaching the tomb. They are heart-broken, wallowing in grief and despair. To them, the death of Jesus seemed so tragic, useless, and worthless - not a crowning achievement or saving event, but an abject failure. Meanwhile, at the very moment the women were approaching the tomb, Jesus' male disciples were locked away in hiding, in fear for their lives, doing everything possible to distance themselves from Jesus.
The mood was dark, with no hope of lifting. The disciples knew what we all know too well - dead people remain dead. Therefore, we shouldn't suppose that the women were "going to the tomb saying to themselves, 'Well, we've got the spices in case he's still dead, but let's hope he's alive again.'" They bring the spices along to anoint the body of Jesus. They come to pay last respects for the dead. They come to the tomb to remember their insightful teacher, a fiery prophet, and a compassionate healer. But he's dead. They seek the dead among the dead, not the living among the dead.
It is for this reason that resurrection is not just good news, but an absolute surprise. To truly experience it afresh, we must experience the shock of Jesus' first followers as they move from disappointment to surprise, from despair to joy. In other words, we must first share their despair in order to share the explosion of joy that must have accompanied their recognition that Jesus' death was not the end, but a new beginning to his ministry among them.
The discovery of the empty tomb does not lead to an easy change of perspective. It initially brings confusion, not clarity. We come with the women, not expecting to be surprised. But if anything is true of God, we should expect the unexpected. If God is truly God, then there's always more than meets the eye. In fact, if they had listened, they wouldn't be surprised. But like you and me, they listen to Jesus - but they don't really listen. They need the shock of the resurrection to put Jesus' life and teachings in proper perspective.
What Are You Looking For?
The surprise began with their arrival at the tomb:
They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen." (Luke 24:2-5)
In the midst of their confusion, two heavenly messengers appear and witness of the truth about Jesus. Two appear here because, according to the Law of Moses, two provide a more reliable witness than one (Deuteronomy 19:15). Their message is simple: "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen" (Luke 24:5). This message runs counter to everything the women believe to be true. It is so outrageous that when the women run from the empty tomb to tell Jesus' male disciples, they receive this response: "But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them" (Luke 24:11). The disciples thought the message was complete nonsense and that the women were delirious.
Modern people can easily relate to the skepticism of Jesus' disciples. "Their reaction makes them look as 'modern,' 'skeptical,' and 'sophisticated' as any contemporary person." It is important to recognize that ancient people were not gullible airheads ready to believe anything. They were no more prone to believe that the dead rise than we are. And here, their doubts and disbelief are presented in crystal clarity. These early moments of the first Easter demonstrate that Jesus' disciples had to overcome a strong sense of doubt and disbelief in order to embrace the resurrection. Just like us!
This is all the more startling when we recognize that belief in and hope for the resurrection is central to the Christian faith. Preaching the resurrection was the central theme of every sermon in the book of Acts. Likewise, the centrality of the resurrection was preserved in one of the earliest creeds of the Christian church handed down to Paul:
Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you--unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (1 Corinthians 15:1-5; cf. Romans 10:9-10)
The resurrection is central to Christian witness, but the church did not come to believe it easily. If the church hoped to fabricate a religion, they could have done better than make resurrection so central to the faith.
And that same message of resurrection is the one we encounter in the witness of the church. Craig Koester writes,
What is most striking is that the women encounter the resurrection through this message. They are told that Jesus has risen, but they do not see the risen Jesus himself. What they have is a word, a message.
This brings the Easter experience uncomfortably close, because this is precisely what we have--the word of resurrection. One would think God would work differently. It would seem so much easier to have the women come to the tomb and watch Jesus walk out into the light of a new day. And it would seem much easier for Jesus simply to appear in dazzling glory to us, who gather on an Easter morning generations later. And this is precisely where our situation is like that of the women on the first Easter: we are all given a message of resurrection, which flies in the face of what we know to be true.
Matters of faith are never finally proven in a scientific sense. Nor is faith generated by incontrovertible philosophical arguments. Rather, faith is communicated by witness. We receive as true the apostolic witness of the risen Jesus. And we preach what we have received. This is what makes our faith apostolic - we trust that the apostles were telling the truth. And we have good reasons to believe that they were. N. T. Wright writes,
If Luke had been making this story up a generation or more after the event, as people sometimes suggest, not only would he not have had women going first to the tomb (women were not regarded as credible witnesses in the ancient world, as this story itself bears out); he would have had the apostles believe the story at once, ready to be models of faith and to lead the young church into God's future. Not so: it seemed to them a silly fantasy, exactly the sort of thing (they will have thought) that you'd expect from a few women crazy with grief and lack of sleep.
Furthermore, the lives of Jesus' disciples completely changed from fearful to fearless. They left the security of their hiding places and turned the world upside down through their courageous witness of Christ's resurrection.
Finally, according to the most reliable ancient tradition, all of Jesus' apostles - with one expection - died martyr's deaths because of their witness to Jesus' resurrection. The exception - John the Apostle - was tortured but could not be killed and thus was exiled. History teaches us that twelve men would not die for a lie. We can assume that at least one would have capitulated under pressure. But none did. They all died confessing faith in the resurrection.
Clearly, "[t]he resurrection was not created by the church; rather, the church was created by the resurrection." And we now stand as heirs and witnesses of this good news.
The Easter message is that Jesus lives - now rethink everything! Our certainties about the very nature of this world are challenged. Either the message of resurrection is complete balderdash, or it is the truth. And if it is the truth, then our world is changed forever. We must take the words of Jesus more seriously than ever. There is more there than we first realized.
Remember What He Said
The angelic message continues: "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" (Luke 24:6-7). There is a mild rebuke in the angel's words: "You should have known better. Don't you remember his words? Jesus told you all about this, and since he's not one to tell you, 'I told you so,' we will - He told you so!"
Previously in Luke's gospel, Jesus plainly spoke of his betrayal, crucifixion, and resurrection. But it fell on deaf ears. Two notable examples will suffice:
While everyone was amazed at all that he was doing, he said to his disciples, "Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands." But they did not understand this saying... (Luke 9:43b-45a)
Then he took the twelve aside and said to them, "See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again." But they understood nothing about all these things... (Luke 18:31-34a)
The messengers remind them that if they can but remember them, Jesus' own words provide the authoritative interpretation of this otherwise puzzling event of his bodily disappearance.
This doesn't mean the message is easy to believe. Indeed, all that Jesus says makes sense only in view of the hope of resurrection. It was only after the resurrection that Jesus' disciples remembered and understood. They moved from perplexity to clarity by means of remembering Jesus' words.
We do the same!
This is the reason we remember and rehearse the gospel stories throughout the Christian year. This is the reason our central sacrament - the Eucharist - is a call to remember.
Remembering is often the activating of the power of recognition. For this reason alone it is most important that the teacher and the preacher share with the listeners the story of Jesus and of the church. Such recitals may not strike fire at the time or be heard as matters of burning relevance; however, the times will come when the congregation will remember and it will make all the difference. But one cannot remember what one has not heard.
There are things we have trouble understanding the first time around, but as we listen again and again, as we recognize who is speaking, and as we consider Jesus' words in light of the resurrection, we come to deeper understanding of the faith once delivered to the saints. For the resurrection changes everything!
Easter is always a surprise. Jesus' disciples were just as unprepared for this event as we would have been. This is good news.
From the beginning, the gospel is good news not least because it dares to tell us things we didn't expect, weren't inclined to believe, and couldn't understand. Did we expect the gospel would be something obvious, something we could have dreamed up for ourselves?
Sometimes we are simply looking in all the wrong places. We are looking for a moral message or a message of self-improvement. We are seeking a political message or a philosophy. But then we find that the message is simply this - the very life and love of God has come among us in the person of Jesus Christ to share the divine life, the life of the Spirit, a life that cannot be crushed. None of the hostile powers of this world - including death - can ultimately thwart God's plan and purpose. The ultimate horizon of this world is not death, crushing all life, but rather, the God of love who saves all life. We can follow Jesus without fear, for nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus, the Lord of all.
The women come looking for a dead Jesus, but quickly discover, because they lack understanding, that they are looking in the wrong place. They are looking for the dead when they should be seeking the living Christ.
What are you seeking this morning? Did you come, as if to a museum, seeking the dead among the dead? Or did you come, as if to a new creation, to seek life from the living Lord?
The world is turned upside down by the shocking reversal brought about by the resurrection. We move from despair to hope, fear to joy, darkness to light.
Easter is coming
But for many of us, this is not the ultimate reality
There is too much pain and suffering in the world today
Death has the last word
It would therefore be foolish to say that
The life and death of a first-century Jew named Jesus makes a difference
Might makes right
Power is superior to compassion and
Despair is stronger than hope
So I refuse to believe
A man can come back from the dead
Sometimes the most important facts are the hardest to accept
Resurrection is a false hope
How can you say
An empty tomb changes everything
Don't you see
"God loves the world"
Is a lie
"Money is God"
"The one who dies with the most toys wins"
I will tell you what I tell my children
There is no more to this world than what you can see, hold, and buy
There is no mystery in everyday life, and
There is nothing sacred about ordinary things and people
Many of us simply do not believe that
God can give life to the dead, bring light from darkness, and create something out of nothing
But what if the testimony of the women at the tomb was true? Then... [now read the above from the bottom line to the top line (beginning with "God can give life...") for a splendid surprise!]
 Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2001), 290).
 Leros is the Greek work translated "idle tale" but it is better translated as "nonsense." It is the basis for our English word, "delirious."
 Darrell L. Bock, Luke: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 606.
 Wright, Luke for Everyone, 290.
 Bock, Luke, 606.
 Fred B. Craddock, Luke: Interpretation Bible Commentary (Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 1990), 283.
 Wright, Luke for Everyone, 291.
 Written by David Lose.
© Richard J. Vincent, 2010