The Living Among the Dead (1 Corinthians 15:19-26; Luke 24:1-12) EASTER
Many Easter sermons are full of doctrine and argument about the right way to believe in Jesus’ Resurrection. Indeed, Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15 gives us much to ponder, and I take what he wrote to be true. But before we get to Paul, let me start with something much more basic from the Gospel reading in Luke 24.
We don’t know exactly when the first Easter was, except that it was probably around the time of the Jewish Passover (which won’t begin this year until April 22, at sundown). We also don’t know, physically, what happened. None of the Gospels reports the resurrection-moment, and it has never been the teaching of the Church that Jesus’ dead body was simply resuscitated, as Lazarus had been in John 11, although some Christians have believed something like that. If we stay close to the Church’s texts, what we can say, for starters, is that disciples found an empty tomb. The women found it empty and were “perplexed” by it. Chief disciple Peter found it empty and went home “amazed” about it. Disciples have been perplexed and amazed ever since. They didn’t know what to make of it. There was no question in their minds that Jesus had been in that tomb, but, when they looked he was not. We dare not make an easy thing of it, today’s Gospel begins with disciples in perplexity, terror, awe, idle tales, lack of belief, and amazement because the tomb is empty. These disciples represent many others till now who have found an empty tomb and questioned the significance of Jesus’ resurrection.
Luke tells us that these women were heading off to anoint Jesus’ body at the tomb as soon as they could after the Sabbath (when no work could be done) because with the approach of the Sabbath they had buried him in haste. Since we know the latter part of this story, we sometimes don’t read this part of it as slowly and carefully as we might. These women had followed Jesus from Galilee. They had watched him die. They knew that he was dead. They didn’t go early that morning thinking “Well, we’ll just see if Jesus is still dead in there, and we’ll use these spices if he is.” They knew his body would be there. When it wasn’t, they were perplexed. It didn’t pop into their minds, “O yeah, this is what Jesus said would happen, he’s been raised, and break into a chorus of “Up from the Grave He Arose!” They didn’t know what to make of it. The empty tomb was proof of only one thing so far as they could see, Jesus wasn’t there, and that was perplexing or, more likely, terrifying. Who had desecrated the body by removing it? The empty tomb was a huge shock because they weren’t looking for what they found.
Is it possible that Easter no longer contains that kind of shock because we celebrate it every year? Do we not sometimes get a little impatient with all the Lenten fussing and discipline and just want Jesus to “get on with it,” “get out of the tomb”? We know how all this ends. When Easter gets here and we celebrate the Resurrection on Easter day, we can get back to life and church as normal for the rest of the year. Well, this wasn’t like that.
So, we probably need to hear the words that come next. And these don’t help right away. All of a sudden the tomb wasn’t empty anymore, there were two people dressed in blazing white (Matthew and John say that they were angels). And the words they said were: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” What could they mean “living”? We watched him die! He isn’t “living!” He should be right here among the dead!
Could it be that some of our problem with resurrection faith today comes because we, too, are looking for the living among the dead, albeit in a different way than they did in that distant day? We thought we understood Jesus, we thought we knew what to do with him. We may have felt the touch of his hand, or listened to his words, and thought we had it down pat: “And he walks with me and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own…” We always thought of Easter as the time when good old Jesus just popped bodily up from the tomb long ago. We thought we knew about this. But then, when we really needed him, or God, where were they? I mean, we looked for them right where we left them. Where is God or Jesus now? Well, did we expect the God we know in Christ to stay just where we put them? If so, we have laid God in Christ in a tomb, and we are looking for the living among the dead. Easter can be a bit of an unpleasant surprise because the tomb where we left Jesus is empty. Jesus has moved on from our baby faith in the places we were taught he would be. We did not learn all we needed to know about (or from) Jesus in Kindergarten.
The women’s puzzlement was increased even further when those two messengers continued: “He is not here. He has risen!” Again, we sometimes act as if their response should have been, “O yeah, I should have thought of that, do I feel the perfect fool, thanks for clearing that up.” The women’s response was not that. There’s a saying in the ancient prophecy of Joel: “Has such a thing happened in your days, or in the days of your ancestors?” (Joel 1:2b). The fact is that the disciples (the women and the men) would have heard of such a thing as resurrection from the dead, but for them – as for a fair number of others – resurrection meant that, at the end of time, God would bring back to life some or all of the wicked and the just to receive just what they’d earned in this life. Resurrection had to do with everybody and it was “way beyond the blue,” not about one human being raised today. It’s hard to hear anything that’s completely outside of what our culture or our education or our inherited beliefs and values make it possible to hear. Such words may get as far as our ears, but no farther. Had Prophet Joel asked his question “has such a thing happened?” The answer would be “no”!
But, when those two messenger’s said, “Don’t you remember how he told you while you were still with him in Galilee that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again?” Don’t you remember that? something wonderful happened. They did. In Hebrew “to remember” means “to make something experienced in the past real in the present.” It doesn’t just mean to call it to mind, but to make it alive to our present moment. Often, in new (and perhaps puzzling) experiences, we will be led by words we have heard before, but not quite understood, to a “remembering-moment” that allows us to understand and make contemporary what we already knew. There were three aspects of all this in the experience of those women: the puzzling discovery of the empty tomb (a disorienting moment), the word of the two messengers that offered an explanation that they had already heard (an understanding moment), and a remembering moment that helped them to a new orientation, an application of what they had already heard, and, really, already known, but did not comprehend as meaningful for their present.
These women from Galilee then did what most folk have done when they have finally had that transformational “remembering-moment” dawn upon them. They shared what they “remembered” with someone else, which began the process afresh. The English translation of the other disciples’ response is quite bland, “But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” The word translated “idle tale,” is unique in the New Testament, but was used of something that was “nonsense,” or, in medical writers of the day, to indicate the delirium of people who are out of their minds. “That’s rubbish! You’re crazy!” You see, these other disciples, had also watched Jesus die. They knew it was real. If Jesus was gone from the tomb, it was foul play, not a miracle, as the women said. The women were nuts. The women’s words were disorienting.
Only Peter was disturbed enough by what he was told to get up and go see for himself. Maybe it was because he was still stinging from his recent denials of Jesus, we don’t know. We read that he went and saw the empty tomb, just as the women said, but without the commentary from the messengers. So he went home puzzling, wondering at this. Does this sound familiar? We don’t exactly know how long his puzzlement lasted. Later on the same day (in the next story) we find a report that Jesus had appeared to Simon. And I can only remind you of Simon’s most famous sermon about Jesus on the Day of Pentecost, not long after. But his Easter began in disorientation, and moved on to understanding, “remembering,” and, finally, to telling his story.
The response of Christians to this unbelievable story has always been simply to tell it, really to re-tell, it, to pass it on, and to remind people of what Jesus said about himself and his mission in the world. Today is no different, for people will never “remember” unless they have already heard the story. And we can go no farther toward understanding, or an encounter with the Christ, until we have understood and remembered. And so, today, we tell the story yet again.
Although the events upon which this, puzzling, amazing tale were based happened in, say, 30 CE, Luke’s Gospel was not put together for another half century. But a quarter century before Luke wrote and maybe 15 years before Mark, the earliest Gospel, Paul was already trying to help people far from Jerusalem to an understanding moment. 1 Corinthians 15 is, as I said at the beginning, both profound, and true. In our little sliver of it today, Paul didn’t try to get people simply to grasp the resurrection as an intellectual concept. He tried to show how Jesus’ resurrection made any difference to life. He wrote about two kinds of humanity – the old humanity which he named with the Hebrew word for it, Adam (“humanity”), and the new humanity which he named with the Greek word for Messiah (“Christ”). He says that, because we all belong to the old “humanity,” our mortality rate is 100%. For some it is sooner and for some later, but the end result is the same. We all die. Insofar, however, as we belong to the new humanity (the Messiah’s humanity, called “Christ”) we, like Messiah Jesus will all be made alive in the same way Jesus was – 100%. Messiah Jesus came to new life, so shall we.
Of course, this does not take the puzzlement from life, or the pain, sorrow, grief, and anger of death from any of us, nor does it get us in an instant beyond the need for those transformative “remembering moments,” nor does it force us to believe, nor does it prove anything. It simply proclaims a story and a message and a person: We can, in time, be transformed by “remembering/making real” the reality of the story of Jesus, and the relevance of the person of the risen Jesus for us into a new kind of life that looks like Jesus’ life. Because Jesus lives, we too, shall live! That’s our story and I’m sticking to it.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. AMEN.