Beginning in December we have been following the life and ministry of Jesus through the eyes of Luke’s Gospel. There will be one more Sunday of that as we look at a resurrection appearance next week, then we will shift into Luke’s recounting of the early church’s beginnings in the Book of Acts. I think there is a tendency for us to come to the point of the empty tomb and view that as the end of the story, but it is not primarily an ending. It is not like a fairy tale where Jesus emerges triumphant from the tomb waving to the crowd like Houdini and we sing “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” while the credits roll up the screen and everyone lives happily ever after.
The empty tomb is not the end, but rather the center of the story. Everything that comes before and everything that comes after revolves around that event and should be seen in its light. So what does the empty tomb really mean for us? The writers of Texts for Preaching put it this way: “The resurrection of Jesus is more than a miracle; it is an eschatological event that makes possible a radical style of new life. Closed worlds are broken open, and old perceptions of what is plausible and possible are shattered.” (Year C, p. 266)
I’m going to suggest that the resurrection was God’s big Reveal party. I’m sure you have been to a Reveal party, where the gender of an expected baby is revealed to guests as they bite into a cupcake and find either pink or blue filling to indicate that the baby is a girl or a boy.
So who shows up for God’s reveal party? Well, women do. Most men don’t really get the importance of such things, though we will show up if told. The women who had been with Jesus from Galilee on were prepared to go one last mile with him. They had been present for the crucifixion. They had followed to see where he was buried. They had procured the spices to do the last thing they could do for Jesus, and as soon as it was daybreak they were present to anoint him for burial. But what the break of day revealed to them was that the stone had been moved and the tomb was empty. As you can imagine they were quite puzzled about the meaning of this, then they noticed two men in dazzling clothes standing beside them. They asked the women, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? Don’t you remember that he told you this would happen?”
Then they did remember, and they went back and told the eleven disciples and all the other followers of Jesus. But their judgment was that this was just an idle tale, and the women were not believed. As the day went on, though, other things happened. Jesus appeared to Peter, and was revealed to the disciples traveling the road to Emmaus, then he stood in the room among the larger company of disciples, eating fish and showing them the wounds in his hands and feet. He reminded them of his words preparing them for his death and resurrection, and he gave them their commission: “that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in the name of Jesus to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” And he told them the Spirit would empower them for this task.
And after this, the disciples who had missed so much during the life and ministry of Jesus, began to get it. Fred Craddock writes, “After the resurrection, disciples remembered and understood. Faith does not usually move from promise to fulfillment, but (moves backwards) from fulfillment to promise. Remembering is often the activating of the power of recognition… But one cannot remember what one has not heard.” (Interpretation, Luke, p. 283)
From this point forward I’m sure the disciples were constantly recalling sayings of Jesus, as well as his teachings and actions, and seeing them in a whole new light – able to put the whole picture together for the first time in light of the crucifixion and resurrection. But that wasn’t just for the purpose of reminiscing about the good old days. It was for the purpose of witnessing to other people about all that they had heard and seen and experienced so that others could come to faith.
And within the words of the commission Jesus gave them which seem so commonplace to us was the shocking and radical surprise in this day long reveal party. The invitation to repentance and forgiveness in Jesus’ name was to be taken to all nations! The distinctions between Jews and Gentiles and the walls that kept them separate were to be brought down. This is really good news for us, because most of us would not have been invited in otherwise.
Very soon in Acts, then, we see the Spirit leading the disciples to do amazing things. Philip teaches and baptizes an Ethiopian eunuch. Peter and the Gentile Cornelius are brought together and as Peter preaches in the home of Cornelius the Spirit falls upon everyone there and Peter baptizes them all. The martyrdom of Stephen causes disciples to move out from Jerusalem and the circle gets wider and wider. Saul’s conversion to Christianity and call to be the missionary to the Gentiles accelerates this movement in an amazing way.
Lauren Winner writes, “This is one thing that Jesus’ resurrection means. Suddenly, what seemed absurd before Easter is now a real possibility. This church… can become a community of active peacemaking, a community of radical reconciliation, between men and women, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile… Because God is the God of impartiality, we are called to be a people of impartiality. Because God makes peace with us and with all, we are called to make peace with other people.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2, p. 368)
The old way sets up “us and them” rivalries. It is still hard today to move beyond that and accept what the resurrection reveal teaches us that God wants. Can we believe that God does not show partiality? That God is not a white man or a black woman; not a Democrat or a Republican; not an American or an Israeli or a Russian or a Syrian? Can we believe that God loves us all the same and wants us all together at the table? Can we stomach that God wants us to accept each other and even love each other despite the huge differences we dwell on so much?
Will Willimon writes, “This is the way it sometimes is in the church. If Jesus Christ is Lord, then the church has the adventurous task of penetrating new areas of his Lordship, expecting surprises and new implications of the gospel which cannot be explained on any basis other than our Lord has shown us something we could not have seen on our own… Faith, when it comes down to it, is our often breathless attempt to keep up with the redemptive activity of God, to keep asking ourselves, ‘What is God doing, where on earth is God going now?’” (Interpretation, Acts, p. 98)
For me that describes very well what it means that the tomb was empty. Jesus is loose in the world. Our job is to prayerfully discern where he is at work and to follow the guidance of the Spirit to be a part of that work. We can expect that it will be work which shows the fruit of reconciliation, forgiveness, acceptance, and grace poured out for all. We are beneficiaries of that grace, and we daily live in the hope of those promises which are secured in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
Nancy Pittman says, “The boundless gift of the empty tomb cannot be separated from the words and actions of Jesus. Resurrection, after all, is not some buoyant ideal, unconnected to the real world. It is an invitation to live as Jesus lived, a doorway to a life in which meals are shared with enemies, healing is offered to the hopeless, prophetic challenges are issued to the powerful. Only now it is not Jesus who does these things – it is we ourselves who see at last the subversive power of the resurrection in order to live it now.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2, p. 353)
The results of the big Reveal are in: The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed! In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
April 16, 2017
Central Presbyterian Church