a sermon for the Resurrection of Our Lord, Easter Day [Year C]
Luke 24:1-12 and 1 Corinthians 15:19-26
The women were terrified, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”
In all seriousness, I actually had an experience almost like this the other day. The staff and I were trying to find one of the church’s crosses to get ready for Good Friday. We have several large crosses people have made and there was one in particular that we thought might work. However, no one seemed to remember where it might have gotten stashed, so I just started looking in some of the most logical places. I went out to the garage and snooped around. Not there. So then I looked in the storage room inside the Star Lodge. There are a lot of things in there, for sure, but a cross wasn’t among them. Finally I checked the new storage units that Tod Mitchell built a couple of years ago on the back of the Star Lodge. It’s not a place people go very often because you have to have a special key and it faces the back of the property and is a bit creepy.
What I didn’t know what that the big mannequins that we use on our front lawn for the Christmas display were stored in there. I unlocked the padlock on the door and slowly opened the door to the darkness inside, and—hiya!—there they were, these huge towering faceless figures right in front of me My heart about stopped and I jumped back a foot or two, especially because their arms are all bent upright and for a split second—a very short split second— I thought was being jumped by some tall dudes in sequined outfits. When I came to my senses, it was like they were asking, “Phillip, why are you seeking the Easter props among the Christmas decorations. The cross is not here. It is in some other location.”
The whole incident was pretty funny, but there was no one there to laugh at it. But it did get me thinking about how much of what we’re doing right now revolves around remembering how we used to do things. It has been three years since we’ve had an Easter like this. The other night on Maundy Thursday we distributed Holy Communion at the altar rail for the first time since March 2020. It felt a bit like the Keystone Cops up here. I couldn’t exactly remember which side we were supposed to go to and which direction we served. I thought I’d skipped someone with the bread; a worshipper, still chewing his morsel, kindly pointed to let me know I needed to keep going down the line. At one point Joseph asked me, “Psst. Is there another chalice bearer?” even though Matt Greenshields was standing right behind him, exactly where he was supposed to be.
I take comfort in the fact we’re all in that place, to some degree, these days. The COVID pandemic disrupted so many aspects of life. Teachers are trying to remember how to run a classroom in person. Students are trying to remember how to be in a social educational setting again. Some experts say that we were all living in crisis mode, more or less, for two years. Even thought life is moving on we find ourselves also looking back, trying to remember. As you move farther into a more open 2022, what kinds of things have you been trying to think back on?
That is where the women at the tomb find themselves on that first Easter morning: having to remember. They come to the tomb with their spices, the props of death. We can imagine they are still very much in crisis mode. As torturous as the events of Friday night had been when Jesus had been crucified so hastily because of the anger of the crowd this was still the thing you did when someone died. You gathered and prepared the spices to anoint the body in the tomb. You instinctively grab the facemask when you go into the store. You back away from the stranger who gets a little too close. You douse yourself in hand sanitizer when you get back in the car.
The stone is rolled away from the tomb when the women get there. That should have been the first clue that things had changed, that their spices might not even be needed. But they go into the tomb anyway, the darkness most likely overpowering them at first as their eyes get adjusted to the dim, damp space. They walk around, unable to locate Jesus’ body. Historians tell us tomb-robbing was a problem in first century Israel, but it wasn’t all that common for people in this socio-economic bracket; plus, the day before had been a holy day and therefore not much activity had been going on anywhere. The stone rolled away, the empty tomb—there are two very peculiar and out-of-the-ordinary occurrences that might have tipped them off to what really was going on.
Then suddenly there are these men in dazzling, maybe even sequined, clothes in front of them. The women bow down in fear and terror. It is not until the men encourage them to remember that they begin to understand what has happened. Not until these mystery figures tell them to think back to life before the great crisis of Holy Week, to cast their memories back to the more pleasant days in Galilee, that the women start to realize that the stone is rolled away and the tomb is empty because Jesus is risen from the dead.
To remember. It’s funny, isn’t it, that they find their faith in what God is doing now in Jesus doesn’t take shape until they think back to what has already been said. The men in dazzling clothes say, “Remember, women, how Jesus told you that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again?” This, itself is significant because Jesus had only shared that kind of information with his inner circle of disciples. If women at the tomb were being asked to remember something like that, then clearly women were part of Jesus’ inner circle.
The point is that long before this morning on the first day of the week, Jesus had been laying the groundwork for his resurrection. Long before the cross, long before the suffering, long before the ridiculous trial before Pontius Pilate, long before the donkey ride into Jerusalem when things start to go off the rails, Jesus had been lovingly and openly sharing with them the truth about his life and mission. All along he told them that he had come to be handed over to the authorities and be crucified. They had heard it, and now they remember it, and they are ready to understand and believe that Jesus is risen, that death has been conquered and creation is released from its bondage to sin and free to live a new life. The terror and the chaos of the crucifixion had caused them to forget, but God is always moving creation towards freedom and life.
We can think about all the times we have been told things that don’t make much sense in the moment, that don’t fully register when we hear them, but that later become crystal clear. It’s information that stays lodged somewhere, insignificant at the time, like a seed in the soil that later germinates and blossoms into faith that forms your future. Or maybe like an anchor that the sailor tosses into the sea but then forgets is there, keeping him steady all along when the fear of the rough seas takes him over. These are the words of Jesus for those first believers at the tomb.
I wonder how often someone has had to remind me, in a moment of fear and frustration, things that a teacher once told me, or a camp counselor, or one of my parents. Indeed, this is the promise of our baptism that anchors our lives. Words spoken over us by the water become the anchoring memory which guides our lives. In the crisis of faith or identity we have this moment of which we may be reminded where God claimed us with his unconditional love and spoke promise over our lives. Maybe it didn’t mean much to us at the time; maybe we don’t even remember it. The world makes us feel we are worthless, our failures make us feel we are hopeless, and our griefs make us feel we are loveless. But God thinks and knows differently, and our baptism assures us of that. It tethers us to Jesus, and Jesus is risen and God will bring his promise of new life through any thing that currently seems insurmountable.
As the apostle Paul says, reminding his Corinthian church in much the same way that the men in the tomb remind the women: “for as we all die in Adam, so we all will be made alive in Christ, but each in his own order.” And since Christ is like the first fruits of the eternal kingdom, the first return of the harvest that indicates more will come, we can be reassured that we will, in our time, die and then find ourselves awake in the presence of the living God forever.
All this is to say that God is always, always, moving things forward into new life. From the beginning this has been God’s plan—to bring the fullness of life to all to unleash each of us in service to one another. Pandemics will not stop it, chaos will not stop it, death will not stop it, and our lack of faith and memory will not stop it either.
So I don’t know what you are trying to remember from two years ago. But don’t seek the living among the dead. Christ is risen, and God gives us the courage to step out of the fear and fog and into the freedom of God’s future which he has claimed through the cross. Remember who and whose you are: forgiven and loved. Even death cannot take that away.
And then go forth like those women disciples did, to remind others who may still be in their darkness. Remind them of what Jesus has said, that they too are free to move forward into this great new life. You won’t even need to jump out of a storage shed to do it.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.