On the first Easter morning, a number of Jesus’ devoted female followers went to his tomb to properly prepare his body for burial. When they arrived, they were perplexed when they found it empty. Two men in dazzling clothes (whom we assume are angels) appeared and said, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, he is risen.”
The women rushed back to Jerusalem and told the apostles this astonishing news. According to Luke, when they relayed the news of Jesus’ resurrection to the apostles, “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”
Imagine the apostles sitting around the living room watching the basketball finals on a widescreen TV. The women rush in, breathless, and relay the events of the empty tomb and the angels. The apostles, barely paying attention, say, “Yeah, yeah, right. Say, while you’re up, would you mind grabbing another cold one from the fridge for me?”
How many people throughout the centuries have considered the story Jesus’ resurrection an “idle tale?” How many of us do? How can we ever receive the gift of new life God offers us if we see the empty tomb and Jesus’ resurrection as:
- Some children’s fairy tale;
- Some fabrication of deluded minds;
- Some irrational belief that an imaginary sky god is the creation of human weakness?
If we’re too wise, too rational, too scientific, too savvy, too sophisticated and too enlightened to believe in the resurrection as anything more than an idle tale, how are we can going to truly live the new life that God gave us in that first Easter?
United Church of Christ minister and theologian Walter Bruggemann writes, “The force of the Easter drama cannot be accommodated to Enlightenment rationality. No use in even trying to make such an accommodation.”
He’s right, of course. It’s pointless to try and explain the empty tomb rationally as proof of the resurrection. It’s not persuasive evidence. After all, Jesus’ companions didn’t believe the empty tomb was evidence of his rising all that persuasive either, and they – unlike us - were not victims of the Enlightenment.
If we focus on the empty tomb, we’re focusing on the wrong place for evidence of Jesus’ resurrection. The two angels, perplexed on the women’s focus on the tomb, infer this when they tell the women, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?... He is not here, but has risen.”
The tomb is a place for the dead, not the living. To dwell there is to become dead yourself, or at least one of the living dead – a zombie – but nonetheless dead to receiving the gift of real life, which is the Resurrection’s ultimate gift. To believe in the resurrection, you need to get out of the tomb. The empty tomb alone never leads to Easter faith.
If the empty tomb doesn’t lead us to believe, what exactly does lead to Easter faith? Scripture is clear: Easter faith comes through personal encounters with the Risen Jesus.
“The Road to Emmaus” follows today’s encounter between the women and the angels. In this story about the first Easter, two of Jesus’ disciples talked about recent events as they walked toward the village of Emmaus. Jesus approached them and asked what they were discussing. Unable to recognize him, the disciples told Jesus about the events that recently occurred in Jerusalem.
As they walked, Jesus interpreted all the events of his passion, death and resurrection. When the group arrived at a village, the disciples invited Jesus to eat supper with them. As Jesus blessed the bread, the disciples suddenly recognized their rabbi:
“They said to each other, 'Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?'” (Luke 24:32) They were so excited that they leaped from the table and ran back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples about their encounter with the Risen Savior. This personal encounter with Jesus convinces the disciples he is alive.
All four Gospels report personal encounters that provide evidence of the resurrection:
- At the tomb, Mary Magdalene, perplexed, frightened and crying, encounters a man she believes to be a gardener. When he speaks her name and offers compassion in her moment of distress, she recognizes him as the Risen Saviour.
- The apostles, hiding from the authorities fearing persecution, meet Jesus, who lovingly reassures them he is real and not an apparition. This personal encounter convinces them Jesus is alive.
The resurrection is made real when we meet people who embody the loving ways of Jesus. It occurs when we are those people who embody his ways. When we preach good news to the poor, welcome the outcast, offer kindness to the lonely, embrace the marginalized and forgive the penitent, we proclaim, “He is risen!”
By raising Jesus from the dead, God is responding to his son’s hideous death and the powers that caused it. God’s vindication of Jesus is the resurrection. God validates Jesus’ preaching the fundamental qualities of His reign to all those outside the margins of society. By raising Jesus, God denies the power of those behaviors, attitudes and beliefs in the world that create broken people… that divide and separate us… that establish one group of people as being better than another. God’s response of resurrection to those who killed Jesus for proclaiming the message of God’s reign is no less profound for us today.
Let’s consider this concept in current events. The resurrection is the ultimate power that leads us to reject those hateful behaviors and beliefs embodied in the vitriolic political climate we are experiencing in government and the presidential campaign.
Ask yourself this:
How are we going to encounter the risen Christ if we:
• Build walls;
- • Legislate restrictive laws against people we don’t like, like in North Carolina;
- • Keep people in impoverished conditions because of a corrupt economic system, ignoring the safety of the basic needs of human life like water, as we’ve witnessed in Flint;
- • Deport honest working people, separating them from their families;
- • Require religious litmus tests for people to live among us, like Muslims?
Some people may think that kindness, compassion, respect for others, dignity and love are – like the empty tomb – not very convincing evidence of the risen Christ. I would argue the exact opposite. Look at the decline in civil discourse in our society. Look at the deplorable tenor in politics! Read the anonymous comments to articles posted on Cleveland.com. You only have to look at Syria, Brussels, Istanbul, Ferguson, the Ivory Coast, Hough and North Carolina. To say that there is a dearth – if not downright absence – of kindness, compassion, respect for others, dignity and love is to engage in gross understatement. These foundational qualities of God’s reign that Jesus proclaims are so disparaged by so many people, that when we do encounter them, it is nothing less than miraculous! Like the biblical encounters with Jesus, when we encounter these qualities, they are proof positive that Christ is risen.
Welcoming the stranger, loving the outcast, healing the broken and loving the unlovable all attest to the truth that God’s power for life is on the loose among us. They are proof that Jesus lives. When we encounter them in others and embody them ourselves, they get us out of the empty tombs, those places of death, and they give us life. Life like we never imagined. Life that is eternal.