Imagine that you are one of the women who went to the tomb at dawn to apply spices and ointment to the dead body of Jesus. You, along with others, have been Jesus’ disciple during his ministry. You have left your home and your family and traveled with him from town to town. You have witnessed his miracles. You have watched him debate with the Pharisees, Sadducees, priests, and scribes. You have listened to his Sermon on the Mount and his parables. You have eaten with him. You have watched the conflict with the religious and civil authorities escalate, reaching its climax when Jesus cleansed the temple. You have been fearful, wondering what would happen to your beloved Jesus. And, in this last week, you have been among the crowd who shouted, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” as Jesus rode into Jerusalem. You have been among the crowd who watched him arrested, tried, convicted, beaten, and crucified. Your fears about Jesus’ safety have come true, and you have been horrified at what has been done to him. Jesus, the one whom you thought would be the Messiah, has died a horrible death. Jesus, the one who graced so many lives during the last three years, has been crucified with common criminals. Jesus, the one to whom you have devoted your life, is dead. Jesus, the one who you love more than anyone else, is gone.
So, with a heavy heart and a despair that can’t even be spoken, you gather with the other women and prepare the spices and ointments that you will use to bury Jesus properly. You barely speak to each other as you work, each one of you wrapped in your own grief. Finally, the preparations are completed and you set out for the tomb at dawn. You walk silently, still not quite believing that Jesus is dead.
But when you get to the tomb, you find that the stone has been rolled away from the entrance. You wake up a bit out of your grief. You look at each other to see each other’s reaction. You pause a moment, wondering if you should go inside. Then one of you boldly walks into the tomb. The rest follow. Another surprise awaits you: there is no body! The tomb is empty. Before you can even take in this fact, two men in dazzling clothes suddenly appear. It is clear that they are angels. Angels have never visited you before and you are terrified! You fall to the ground, keeping your eyes averted. And then, the angels speak:
"Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 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" (Lk 24:5-7).
And you remember his words – yes, he did say that – although, at the time, you weren’t sure what he was talking about. But now, with the tomb empty and the body gone, the meaning of Jesus’ words begins to dawn on you. You must tell the others, especially the apostles.
And so you run, unladylike, to where they are gathered. And, agitated and out of breath, you tell them the story, stumbling over your words, not getting the sequence quite right, but ending with: “The body wasn’t there. The tomb was empty. And angels appeared and told us he has risen!”
And as you breathlessly finish the story, you expect surprise and amazement to appear on the apostle’s faces. Who could not be surprised and amazed by such a story? But they’re just sitting there, looking at each other as if to say, “Those crazy women.” And they don’t believe you. They dismiss your story as nonsense, just an idle tale.
It’s easy to sympathize with the women. As a reader of the gospel, we know that they actually had the experience they said they had. We know that the apostles are wrong; that, later, they’ll realize that the women were telling the truth. But I’m going to ask you to sympathize with the apostles for a moment. Nothing in all of your experience has prepared you for the resurrection of a body from the dead. You saw Jesus crucified. You saw Jesus die. You saw Jesus buried. End of story. The glorious future you had envisioned, with Jesus as Messiah restoring Israel to power, is not going to happen. As a matter of fact, the women’s story makes you angry: How dare they raise your hopes when you know what they’re telling you is impossible! You think they’re telling you a story because they can’t deal with their grief, can’t deal with the fact that it’s over. “Leave us be,” you think to yourself, “to grieve as we must and then figure out how to get on with our lives. Don’t tell us a story you’ve made up to make yourselves feel better.”
Let’s return to the women. There they were, wrapped in their grief, turned inward, their hopes dashed – until they went to the tomb. They went to the very place where death has its final expression and, instead, they found life. The angels asked them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Their expectation, their worldview was suddenly turned on its head. Expecting death, they found life. In the midst of a tomb, where the dead are left to decay, they found a birthing room, where new life was beginning to flourish. “He is not here, but has risen.”
All the boundaries they had previously known fell away. Their minds and hearts were open to the idea that death is not the final horizon. From despair and silence, they moved into hopefulness and speech – they wanted to spread the word: “He is risen! He is risen!” From that point onward, they could never again assume they knew what would happen next, assume that they knew what the future would hold, assume that the way it is now would be the way it is in the future. From that point onward they could never again assume anything. They were faced with a future that was an endless and open horizon.
The apostles, on the other hand, refused to believe the women. They refused to believe in a future that was an endless and open horizon. It was too fantastical to believe that life could come from death, that a tomb could become a birthing room. And so, they stayed wrapped in their grief and entombed in their current worldview. “Life leads to death,” they believed, “but death could never lead to life.”
Isn’t that how we feel, at times, about the resurrection story? It’s just an idle tale, part of the myth surrounding Jesus, created by the followers of Jesus to further their own agenda. We can believe that the crucifixion took place. The crucifixion makes sense to us because we see people persecuted unfairly all the time. There’s enough evil and sin in this world to succeed in killing good people who are trying to make a difference, who are trying to redeem us. The crucifixion is easy enough to buy. But the resurrection? No way. We’ve never seen that. It’s impossible. It doesn’t fit into our experience, so it couldn’t have happened. It is just an idle tale.
Whether you believe the resurrection story or you don’t believe the resurrection story, it is not an idle tale. Something that is idle is something that doesn’t move. A car that is idling has its motor on but isn’t moving. If you’re sitting in the car, you’re not moving, either. But the resurrection story is a story that moves us. It either moves us to belief or disbelief. And when it moves us to belief or disbelief, it influences our whole life. Remember, the women believed and were moved to imagine all possibilities, to live in hope and expectation, to run out of the tomb and share with others; whereas the apostles didn’t believe and were moved to imagine no possibilities, to live in hopelessness and despair, to stay where they were and to not share with others. The movement of belief was a positive movement, whereas the movement of disbelief was a negative movement.
You see, what you believe or don’t believe influences your whole life. It influences every thought you think, every feeling you feel, and every action you take. Once the apostles believed that Jesus had been resurrected, what did they do? They were freed from their hopelessness and despair and they went out and created communities in which people of all shapes, sizes, races, and genders were welcome and equal. They created a heaven on earth, because they believed it was possible. They believed that the power of sin and evil had been defeated on the cross, and they believed that the power of death had been defeated by the resurrection. They were no longer willing to live as if sin, evil, and death had the last word. Instead, they lived as if life and love and God would prevail.
There is a woman, Sharon Price, who I knew while I was Pastor of the United Church of Stonington. Sharon is a missionary. On a short-term mission trip to Guatemala, Sharon fell in love with the country and the Guatemalan people. She decided to put her love into action. In partnership with a Guatemalan minister, she founded an organization called Children in Villages and Faith Agency. Through the agency, Sharon and her partner organized and built a center in Guatemala. The center was to include an orphanage, a daycare center, a school, and housing. Sharon and her partner, moved by the poverty of the Guatemalan people, had a vision of improving the economy of Guatemala and the standard of living of its people, and they were working toward doing so.
When Sharon began this project, she had no idea how to make it happen. But she believed that her vision for Guatemala and its people came from God, and she believed that God would provide. He has, guiding Sharon every step of the way, bringing her into contact with people who could help her, and continually inspiring her to keep going.
When I was in contact with her years ago, I received an e-mail message from her. I’d like to read a portion of it to you:
Please excuse my delay in writing to respond to your [e-mail message]. I have been quite 'indisposed' this past month, starting with a bad fall in one of the snowstorms, followed by two more, the last happening two weeks ago. As a result of the falls, I badly sprained a left ankle, tore ligaments in my right knee, and broke several ribs. To exacerbate the situation, I contracted bronchitis, which is only now responding to a third series of antibiotics.
In the midst of this, I was organizing a statewide collection of donations for one of the two orphanages, which is ready to receive children as soon as the furnishings, baby equipment, clothing, etc. arrive in Guatemala. An agency . . . in New London has lent me a 24-foot truck to transport the items. The truck is almost full, with only some major items, such as the appliances, still to be donated. In addition, we are trying to resolve the transportation [question]: drive the truck to Guatemala (a rather dangerous endeavor), or ship it there (an expensive endeavor). God knows the solution, which has yet to be revealed. . . ."
Here was this woman, with a sprained ankle, torn ligaments, broken ribs, and a bad case of bronchitis, organizing a statewide collection of donations for an orphanage she was building in Guatemala. It sounds like an overwhelming task if you’re healthy, but she was doing it while she was unhealthy! Yet, she trusted that God would provide, stating, “God knows the solution, which has yet to be revealed.” She had no idea what the solution would be, but she knew that God would provide a solution, so she moved forward in faith.
In the closing to her e-mail message, Sharon revealed what it was that sustained and supported her in the face of obstacles and unknowns. She wrote,
"May your Easter be a blessed one, a time of anticipation of new birth and rebirth through the miracle of the Resurrection. . . .In the faith, love and hope of Easter, Sharon"
It was her belief in the Resurrection that sustained and supported her. It was her belief in the Resurrection that enabled her to imagine a Guatemala where people have the education and the health to make a living and sustain themselves economically. It was her belief in the Resurrection that enabled her to imagine an orphanage where homeless and abandoned children could live until they were adopted. It was her belief in the Resurrection that enabled her to live as if life and love and God would prevail, despite the brokenness and poverty she could see around her.
The resurrection story that the women told the apostles is not an idle tale. It is a tale that moves us. May we allow it to move us toward life and love and God despite the sin, evil, and death that we may see around us. Like the women. we are not to look for the living among the dead, for Jesus Christ is not in the tomb; he has risen. We are to follow him where he leads us: into joy, into hope, into a future of possibilities. Amen.
Sermon preached by Amy R. F. Johnson at the Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, March 27, 2016, Easter Sunday.
Image is from Harvest Cove Community Church website, http://www.harvestcove.org/