NRSV LUKE 24:1-12
24 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5 The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8 Then they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
It was a time when it seemed that all was lost. So many hopes, so many dreams, so many lofty expectations were swirling around, lifted up as on angel’s wings. But now they lay in the dust, dead as the hopes of those who bore them.
And then, triumph! Victory! What was lost was now found in a state of indescribable joy, a state of exhilaration that no one could have predicted. The triumph was so much richer and deeper than anyone could have realized because of the pit from which they had come. What once was a time of utter despair had been transformed into a reality of wonder and victory for all to see.
Yes, of course, I am talking about the University of Virginia winning the NCAA Basketball Championship.
Even if you are not a UVA fan – and yes, we know who you are, you Virginia Tech Hokies – and whether you have lived in this state all your life or for just a few months, this triumph was a special one. Especially for a team coached by one of the really good guys of the coaching craft in any sport. Their early dismissal of a year ago –and the ignominy of being the first and so far only number one seed to be bounced out by a lowly 16th seed – provided the backdrop for a championship season that was all the sweeter from those moments of bitterness.
Of course, we are not here to celebrate a basketball team winning a championship. We might use some of the same words, maybe some of the same emotions, to note the specialness of this day. But – hopefully – we know that all of that falls woefully short. This is a day that does mark a triumph but itis not a triumph of human will or effort, not the kind of victory that can be so easily found on a scoreboard or on a stat sheet. This is a day that cannot be marked as a success based on explaining how this play worked out or how many points someone scored.
To any attempt to try to explain the beauty of this day, or how things worked out or the details of this event, all I can say is: Don’t even try. Don’t even go there. People have tried, and all they did was to put some folks to sleep.
I was reminded that in Israel there are signs out in front of churches marking holy sites which read, “No Explanations Inside of the Church.” It’s a way of discouraging tourist guides from talking too loudly as they tell tourists about the significance of this place. As we enter this day, we could use that sign: No explanations inside of the church. No explanations inside of your head. You can’t explain resurrection. It is beyond us. It is a work of God. No one saw it, no one described it, no one offered up a color commentary of it. It is God’s work, and God’s work is always beyond human explanation.
Note that I did not say that resurrection was a work of God. Resurrection is not something that happened in the past, it is not a historical artifact, not something that went up in smoke when the Cathedral at Notre Dame burned last week. Resurrection is not something we can hang onto, not an object we can hold, not something we can grasp. It is not something encased in a trophy to put on the shelves and feel good about ourselves for having accomplished this.
Resurrection is as much a present reality as a line out of a history book of what happened one day in 29 CE. Resurrection is the women coming to the tomb with spices for burial and then running away completely transformed. Resurrection is you and me and everyone else coming to the tombs of our lives and encountering something there so mysterious, so beyond our expectations, that it pulls us out of ourselves, and trashes any attempt to explain it.
But please note this: Just because resurrection makes us different doesn’t mean that people will believe you. So don’t try to explain it. Experience it, let it change you, let it reshape your world. But don’t think you can wrap it up with a nice neat bow and put it on the shelf of explanations nice and neatly figured out. It doesn’t belong there. It doesn’t fit. And thank God, literally.
It starts, as our own resurrection stories usually do, in the darkness. Not just the darkness of your favorite team losing, but the darkness that comes from seeing a loved one die, or hearing that there is no hope; from having a dream shattered; from being in such a case of utter disorientation that you do not know where to go or do next. I’ve been there and so have you. Times when the stark and grim reality of death in one form or another mocks our capacity to dream of something new, to hope for what might yet be.
But that’s life. As Richard Rohr, Walter Brueggemann and others have pointed out, life has a pattern: Life, death, resurrection. Order-disorder-reorder. Orientation-disorientation-reorientation. Whatever terms you want to use, you get the picture. Life falls apart. Death seems to be all there is. We are walking to the tomb with the women in the predawn darkness because all we can do now is accept the reality of death and do what love commands. Bring the spices. Prepare the body. Get your things in order.
But God has other ideas. The stone has been rolled away, and like the women we are perplexed. Not scared, really, just wondering what in the world is going on. In Luke, it is only when the two men in dazzling clothes show up that the women are terrified. No wonder. A stone rolled away is one thing; heavenly beings are another. Something out of this world is on the loose.
They offer up words that are found in Luke and nowhere else: Why do you seek the living among the dead? Why, well, the last time we saw him Jesus was stone-cold, graveyard dead. Not just knocked out, not just feeling poorly. He was beaten up as badly as any human could possibly be, hung on the cross to die. Of course he was dead.
Except that now he is risen. Remember, the divine beings tell them, and then the pieces start to fall into place. This is a calling to mind what Jesus had told them, and then they rush back to the disciples to tell them.
Only they don’t get it. Again, Luke is the only one who tells us that the old boys back in the locked room blew off the women, and dismissed what they said as an idle tale. It was nonsense. It does not compute. It is unexplainable. The dead don’t come back to life, and so the disciples don’t come back to life, either.
And yet that is what the disciples are called to do. One, Pete has his doubts about his own skepticism and runs to the tomb. He looks around and is amazed. Sure, he should be amazed. Amazed at what God is up to. Amazed at what is going on.
And we all should be amazed. When you explain something, you figure it out. It’s all very logical. It can be stored away now and forgotten until an opportune time. But resurrection cannot be explained. It can only be the recipient of our amazement. It cannot be stored away. It is not a fact of history but the ongoing movement of God in a world of death that calls forth life in any and every situation, in any and every life. It is God’s ultimate in transforming work, transforming life, transforming death, transforming us.
Debi Thomas has a wonderful way of looking at this event and what it means not just to ask “What happened to Jesus back then?” But, “Where is Jesus now for us?” From the perspective of the story out of John’s Gospel, she writes:
“What I see in the resurrection narratives are individual people having profoundly individual encounters with Christ. The encounters don’t look identical. When Peter sees the empty tomb, he runs away. When the beloved disciple sees it, he believes without comprehension. When Mary sees it, she weeps and waits for more.
“In other words, we come to the empty tombs ourselves, for good and for ill. We don’t shed our baggage ahead of time; it barges in with us and shapes our perceptions and conclusions. What matters, then, is encountering the risen Jesus in the particulars of our own messy lives. What matters is finding in the empty tomb the hope we need for our own struggles, loses, traumas, and disappointments. Whatever universal claims we make as Christians must begin in the rich, fertile stories. Whatever acclimations we cry out on Easter Sunday must begin with a willingness to linger in the garden, desolate and alone, listening for the sounds of our own names, spoken in love. For our testimonies to ring true, they must originate in radical, intimate encounter. The question is not, ‘Why should people in general believe?’ but rather, “Why do you believe? How has the risen Christ revealed himself to you?”
She concludes by quoting the poem “The Answer” by R.S. Thomas:
“There have been times
when, after long on my knees
in a cold chancel, a stone has rolled
from my mind and I have looked
in and seen the old questions lie
folded and in a place
by themselves, like the piled
graveclothes of love’s risen body.”
This is a morning beyond our human capacities for explaining, holding or grasping. This is a day for us to let God’s Spirit free us from all the grave clothes we carry. It is a day for us to be liberated to live a life that shows God’s claim on every part of our lives. As another pastor, Jim Friedrich put it, “Easter isn’t something we remember. It is something we live and breathe.”
That doesn’t mean it will be easy. Easter faith can lead others to blow us off, to dismiss how we live our lives or what we believe as an idle tale. But we live it anyway. We live it because resurrection is God’s gift for everyone, even for those skeptics. It is God’s movement in our lives, sure, but not just there. It is God’s movement throughout the world that life wins out over death, that hope overcomes despair, that joy prevails over sadness.
But there is still death, there is still mourning, there is still grief. The worlds we live in seek to say “No” to life in all its fullness. But Easter is God’s unmistakable proclamation of “Yes” to us; that life will go on, that newness is always possible, that transformation can always make us new, if we allow it. If we let go of our own grave clothes.
In a nice cemetery in North Augusta, South Carolina, are the graves of my Mom and Dad. When I go there I have this eerie but wonderful feeling that they are not there. They have been risen.
How do I know that? I don’t. I don’t need an explanation. I just feel it. I feel it just like I feel it when God’s resurrection comes in all of the other tombs of my life. It is there for all of us – that trust in the idle tale transforms us and our deaths into opportunities to witness to life in all of its fullness.
Believe in the idle tale. Trust in resurrection. Experience it. Live it. Have faith that it will show up when you least expect it. Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Amen.