Luke 24:1-12, John 20:1-18
I have always thought preaching on Easter Sunday was one of the hardest days to preach on, one of the hardest sermons to write. See, I'm trying to set you up with low expectations right from the start! I’ve told some of you about the various adventures I’ve had during children’s time, and two of my most memorable come from Easter Sundays, both from the same church, in fact. I can’t remember now which order these really happened in, but I’ll tell you the good one first. I had this little boy – 2 or 3 years old. He was a busy boy during worship. Sunday School was before church, so he was with his mom during worship, and he might say or do anything during children’s time. But on Easter Sunday that year, I asked the kids if they could tell me the story of Jesus, and the kids all kind of looked at me blankly, until finally he stood up, and said in one big breath, “They came to the tomb, and the soldiers were asleep and the stone was rolled away and Jesus wasn’t there because Jesus was alive!” The whole congregation burst into applause. He totally got it. His mother was beaming. But there was also the year I was telling the kids about Jesus rising from the dead, and one little boy said, loudly, no need for a microphone to carry it through the sanctuary, “Eww, gross! He was buried and then rose up! Gross!” I thought I might as well quit then, since I’d clearly lost children’s time that day. And I’ve always thought his reaction was maybe more compelling than the adult reaction. He, at least, was shocked. Surprised. He reacted, deeply.
How do we react to Easter? Do we react? Sometimes I wonder how much of an impact Easter makes on us. Jesus is risen, but didn’t we know that already? We celebrate new life – but do we feel any differently on Monday than we do today? We are celebrating resurrection – but I wonder if we don’t find ourselves struggling with death and decay instead of birth and life, even as we still have “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” stuck in our heads. How do you react to Easter? In our closing hymn we’ll sing the words, “Every day to us is Easter.” It is meant to remind us that we always live in the fulfilled promise of resurrection. But I wonder if we’re singing it with a different tone of voice, “Every day to us is Easter.”
We heard two accounts of the resurrection today, from Luke and John. We’re probably more familiar with John’s intimate one-on-one encounter between Mary Magdalene and the resurrected Jesus. But there are a couple of particulars in Luke’s telling that stand out to me. In Luke’s account, a group of women come to the tomb of Jesus to dress the body with the traditional spices and oils. This group includes Mary Magdalene, who is a woman who was healed by Jesus, Joanna, who is the wife of a member of Herod’s court, Mary the mother of James, and “the other women,” unnamed by Luke. But when they arrive, they find that the stone has been rolled away. They enter the tomb, and find that there is no body there. And then suddenly, two men in dazzling clothes are standing with them. We’re meant to understand that they are messengers from God. The messengers ask them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” as if the women are crazy for expecting to see Jesus in the tomb. “He is not here,” they continue, “but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that … on the third day [he would] rise again?” And suddenly, they do remember. The women, who have been with Jesus just as the twelve have, remember his teaching, remember Jesus saying he would suffer and die, and rise again. And as soon as they remember, they stop looking for Jesus in the tomb, and instead go and find the disciples and tell them everything that’s happened. The disciples, however, don’t react, really. Instead, they hear in the words of the women “an idle tale” and don’t believe them. In fact, that nice phrase “an idle tale” is actually much more direct in the Greek. The disciples believe the women’s story is nonsense, rubbish, useless, silly trash. That’s actually a more literal translation! And so most of them, nearly all of them do nothing. They don’t react at all. But Peter, at least, is inspired to check it out for himself. He runs to the tomb, looks in, and sees the linen burial cloths. He goes home, amazed. And that’s where our text ends. For now.
John’s account of the resurrection focuses in on Mary Magdalene in particular, and in John’s account alone, we witness the resurrected Christ. As in Luke, Mary has come to the tomb and sees the stone rolled away. She doesn’t see Jesus where he had been laid, and so she goes to tell Peter and another disciple. They run to the tomb, and also witness the empty grave, the linen clothes lying there. But they return home. Mary, however, stays, weeping, still looking at the tomb. It is then that she sees God’s messengers, who ask why she is weeping. She says that Jesus has been taken away, and she doesn’t know where they’ve laid him. And then Jesus speaks to her. She’s not expecting him to be there, alive, speaking to her. She mistakes him for a gardener. But finally, he speaks her name. And her eyes are opened. She calls him teacher. And Jesus instructs her to go and tell the others what she has witnessed. She does. She tells them everything, saying, “I have seen the Lord.”
In all of the gospel accounts, it is the women who come first to the empty tomb. It is the women who first announce the good news. They’ve been with Jesus all along, in the background, never wavering, even through his death, through the crucifixion. The men consider them unreliable witnesses. The testimony of women had a pretty low standing in Jesus’ day. In many legal settings, women couldn’t testify, witness, on their own. Only men had a place in court, in giving a legal accounting of events. The women witness the resurrection first – and the disciples think they’re making stuff up.
But see, the women finally remembered, because of the question the messengers ask them: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” When they’re asked that, they remember all that Jesus had taught them – Jesus would be resurrected – and so Jesus would no longer be where they had lain him, no longer bound by the tomb, no longer bound by death. When Mary at last sees Jesus, he is not in the tomb, but outside of it, in the garden, in the place of life, not death.
I wonder, when we are searching for Easter, for our reaction to Easter, I wonder if we don’t know how to react because we are like the disciples, or like the women before they remember what they already know – we are like people who are looking for the living among the dead. Still looking for Jesus in the empty tomb. It’s hard to react to the absence of something. We’re thrown off. We expect to find Jesus, there where we left him. And when he’s not there, we get stuck.
There’s a video that I’ve seen going around that I just love. It’s a video of an orangutan at a zoo, in his enclosure, and a man, a zoo visitor sits on the other side of the window. The man is showing the orangutan a magic trick. He has a piece of fruit, which he places into a Styrofoam cup, and he puts a lid on the cup. He shakes it all around, and then, out of sight of the orangutan, he drops the fruit out of the cup. Then, he shows the orangutan the cup again, and opens the lid, and shows him that the cup is empty. And the orangutan looks totally surprised, and literally falls over in astonishment, it thinks this trick is so amazing. The orangutan cannot imagine how the fruit is not where he saw it last.
I love that video. But I’m hoping we can have a bit more sense than the orangutan. If we’re not “getting” Easter, perhaps it is because we keep looking for Jesus, who is alive, among the dead. We’re looking in a tomb for someone who promised that death could not stop God’s reign. Writes one seminary professor, “Following God is like painting a picture of a bird in flight. By the time the brush touches the canvas the bird has moved on and the picture doesn’t represent it anymore.” Easter is about following this God who isn’t where everyone expected, in the grave, finished, conquered, but about God who is alive, giving life to us. I wonder if we are so used to expecting death and failure and endings in our lives that we can’t turn our heads away from the grave.
Easter isn’t about where Jesus isn’t, though, as much as we’re astonished by an empty tomb. The heart of Easter is about where Jesus is. I think about graduations – it is so hard for students not to think of graduations as endings. The end of high school, or college. The end of homework, the end of classes. Even probably the end of some relationships, as people move into new places, into new directions. But graduations are always more formally called Commencements. They are beginnings, not endings.
Sometimes we treat Easter like an ending. It comes at the end of the season of Lent. It’s the end of the 40 days. The end of whatever you might have given up these past several weeks. The grand finale of special worship services after an emotional holy week. But Easter isn’t the end. It’s the beginning. And that is in fact, the message of Easter. Death is not the end of Jesus’ story. Jesus’ crucifixion is not the end of what God is up to in the world. The empty tomb is not where we’ll find Jesus. Instead, we find Jesus sending us out. “Go and tell.” We find Jesus asking us to be witnesses: “I have seen the Lord.”
If we’re looking at the grave for Jesus, for God, for meaning, for the next step, we’re looking at the wrong place. That’s what God’s messengers tell the women at the tomb. “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” You’re looking in the wrong place. Don’t expect Jesus to be here, where you left him.
We are called to be witnesses. Stop looking for Jesus among the dead. Start looking for Jesus among the living. And then testify to what we see. Because there are a lot of folks still looking among the graves. Have we seen Jesus? The tomb is empty. But Jesus is alive. Not where we left him at all, thank be to God. How will we react?
(1) Dr. Christopher Duraisingh, as quoted by TJ Tetzlaff,