NRSV MATTHEW 28:1-10
28 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.
3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here; for he
has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”
8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.
9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
It was the week after Easter. We were back at our studies at Columbia Seminary near Atlanta. I can’t remember if it was 1981 or 1982, any more than I can remember what kind of mental, emotional or spiritual state I was in that made that day stand out. We had heard that for chapel that day a special preacher was going to grace us with some dynamic reflections. He was a friend of many of our professors, a guy who taught at nearby Candler Seminary on the Emory campus.
I had never heard of Fred Craddock before, but from that Monday morning on I took every opportunity to listen to anything he had to say, to take in any sermon he preached. It all came back to that one chapel service almost 40 years ago.
We had just returned from celebrating Easter at our home churches. We were flush with the good news, the great proclamations of the resurrection of Jesus. With the backdrop of all we had witnessed or participated in, Dr. Craddock shared with us “The Pathos of Easter.” Pathos – deep feeling, deep meaning, of the resurrection; a pathos that defies words.
In the course of that sermon he told a story. He told of the time when his Mother died, and he and his family gathered to say good bye in their hometown in western Tennessee. Friends and other family members came in and expressed their condolences, including one lady, carrying a very large Bible. She seemed to dance around the funeral home parlor on tiptoe, saying, “Isn’t it wonderful?! She is risen! Hallelujah!” And as Dr. Craddock said, “All who tried to meet her were unsuccessful.” Like many well-meaning but ego-driven zealots, she had her own agenda, which apparently did not include comforting the mourning family.
She circled the room a couple of times until Craddock stopped her and said, “Lady, will you stop a minute.” She stopped, and wondered what was going on. To which Craddock replied, “My mother is dead. She is risen. But she is not here. Do you want me to feel guilty because I miss her?”
Maybe it was the memory, then still fresh, of my own Father’s passing just a few years earlier that made those words, that image, hit me somewhere deep. Missing a special loved one who is not coming back is especially painful, and rejects any superficial attempt at resolution. But it was his next point, lifted up slowly for impact, that has stayed with me over the years, but especially this year:
“I am not one, you take it, for glibness at the empty tomb.”
Over the years – 35 to be exact of ordained ministry – I have more often than not trotted out that story for the Easter sermon. Not because I lack originality, though I do. But mostly because that one story encapsulates for me the whole thrust of this day. Especially this year. There has been no Easter in which those words have been as compelling as they are this Easter morning.
The tomb is empty. In other times we would sing, “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today,” while the choir proceeds down the aisles. We would behold wonderful music, hopefully a good enough sermon (though it can be argued that no sermon can match the impact of this day), heart felt statements of faith and prayers fervently lifted up. Sure, they are lifted up with the intoxication of too much Easter candy or the smell of Easter lilies or maybe the thrill of seeing so many people in worship with so many new outfits just for the occasion. Easter has, for better or for worse, become a performance; a performance not just for the pastor and the choir, but for all of us. We thrill at the excitement of the day and all of the sights and sounds that make it even more special.
Not this year. This Sanctuary, like so many other sanctuaries, is empty. Those that are not empty should be. They are empty not because of our lack of faith, but because of where our faith moves us – to love one another. To love one another to the point of giving up that which is most sacred, that which is most important. We are giving up our memories of the way things used to be, and which we wish still were. We are giving up that day which is the most holy of days for us Christians. This is the day that every other Sunday points to. It is the day that makes every other day possible to live through. It is the Day of Resurrection. It is the day to celebrate our Lord’s raising from the grave, trampling down death by death, as our Orthodox friends proclaim, and which we echo. We have given it up to keep people safe and healthy. We have given it up so that others might live. In that regard, it is not inconsistent that we should give up worship even on this day.
The sanctuaries are empty.
But the tomb is also empty. Nothing can stop that. In Jesus the Christ, God has taken on the worst that the world can deal out and has overcome it with life. Whether or not the sanctuaries are full, this day marks God’s eternal movement in every life, in every moment: Life, death, and then resurrection. Or as someone has pointed out: Order, disorder, reorder. Whatever you call it, this is the day that blares louder than a trumpet blast that God is moving in our worlds, moving in our lives; and God’s movement always, inextricably, inscrutably, takes us through the agony of death into the glory of resurrection.
As has been noted by so many leading up to this day, this is an opportunity for us Christians to remember that Easter does not come in on an Easter lily, or a chocolate bunny, or even in a choir-filled procession. It first came to a small group of people, at most three. And those people do not greet the news with unadulterated joy. Theirs is a mixture of wonder, fear, and incredulousness. There is no glibness at the empty tomb for any of them.
Each of the gospels has their own unique take on the empty tomb. Matthew is the only one that seems to be a real-time account; there is an earthquake – a common experience in this part of Matthew. Since the triumphal entry there has been one earth-shaking movement after another. The guards, sent by Pilate, shake in their boots. Matthew tells us that they are like dead men, though dead men don’t usually shake. They are just, well, dead. But the image is unmistakable: the forces of empire, the forces of the political mighty of this world, cower in their tracks before the impact and wonder of God’s gift of new life. Nothing can stop resurrection.
In Matthew’s words it is interesting to note how the angel identifies Jesus to the women. No longer is he “Jesus of Nazareth.” That title has passed on. Now the angel says simply “I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.” Jesus is now identified not by earthly location but by his self-giving, suffering love. He is now exalted, “glorified” as it says in John’s Gospel. The crucified son of God, with all of his wounds, has now been lifted up, transforming all flesh for all time.
It’s also interesting to note that in each of the Gospel resurrection accounts Jesus does not show up first. There are always angels ahead of him. They are there to get the women, the first apostles, ready for what is to come – an encounter with the resurrected Christ. And with the resurrected Christ, glibness, a phony sense of formality, will never do.
When the angels come, when Jesus appears, they tell the women not just to stay there, but to go – to go tell the disciples, to go to Galilee. That sounds strangely appealing in our days of being quarantined at home. We know we have to stay there, to stay put, not to spread this virus around, because you do not know whether or not you have it, or if anyone else has it. There have not been enough tests. Just stay where you are. For now.
But the time is coming – and may be here even now for some of us, even in our quarantined state – to be on our way to Galilee once again to see the resurrected Jesus. To see where Jesus is active and involved and ministering. Galilee is the emergency rooms and intensive care units of inner-city hospitals. Galilee is the home of African-American families who have been hit disproportionately hard by this virus. Galilee is where people have lost their jobs and are having a difficult time paying the bills. Galilee is where the owners of restaurants and other meeting places live, people who now wonder if they will ever be able to open up their places for fun, for meeting, for fellowship, again.
That is where Galilee is, but that is not only where Galilee is. Even in our self-isolated states, we can make our way to Galilee. It’s the place where we live, the place where we can still do ministry. The place where we can make a phone call, pick up groceries, serve those in need. Lutheran pastor and teacher Mary Hinkle Shore wrote recently: “The stories of the resurrection encourage us … to regard ourselves as worthy of the company of the risen Lord and to get ourselves to Galilee. Jesus appears to the littlest of people: he appears to women whose closest companions do not even take them seriously when they report the resurrection … He appears to a couple of grieving, hopeless travelers on the road to Emmaus, to followers cowering behind locked doors, and to someone who remains steadfast in his unbelief. Nothing in these stories suggests that you or I have to be more important or powerful than we are to witness and bear witness to the resurrection. In fact, the less ‘at the center’ we are, the more chance we may have for such witness. Jesus directs his disciples to Galilee. That is, he directs them to their home, to a place that is unimportant to all except those who live there.”
There is no glibness at the empty tomb. There is no superficiality, no artificial religion. Maybe it is good that we are here alone, without the crowds and the noise. For there is a depth of wonder here, there is awe, there might also be a bit of fear. But it is not the kind of fear that paralyzes us. It is the fear, the wonder that merges itself with faith in a crucified and resurrected God who leads us into a hurting world, so that we might proclaim in word and deed: “He is risen! He is risen indeed!” Amen.