Listen to the sermon from Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016 titled “Look for the Living” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.
This past Monday dawned with news of another terrorist bombing, this time in Brussels. For hours the news was all confusion and speculation, different networks with different details, a rising death toll and apocalyptic reports from the scene. The violence and confusion make you feel like the world is coming to an end. Which is what the terrorists want to do – provoke fear, violent reaction, chaos and division.
It’s unnerving, so we can imagine the distress of those women heading for the tomb early in the morning of the first day of the week after another regime had used violence to send a message. The gospels don’t agree on all the details, which is to be expected in the confusion of those hours.
According to Luke, the women begin to prepare a proper burial as quickly as Jesus is removed from the cross, but have to stop at sunset to keep Sabbath. They rise at first light on the first day to finish their task, worrying as they walk who will roll away the stone that seals Jesus’ tomb. They get to the garden where they saw his body placed in a narrow cave, and this is what they find:
Nothing. Emptiness. Void. The stone rolled back. The space vacant. Nobody there. No body there! This cave, this hole, this cleft in the rock is the bedrock of our faith, ground zero of Christian identity. We use the cross as our symbol, not only because no death/no resurrection, but because how do you symbolize an empty space?
The Bible gives us no dazzling movie moment of Jesus opening his eyes and striding out of the tomb like the Terminator ready to wreak havoc on his enemies. He is dead and buried, but then early on the morning of the third day we get – emptiness. Lots of confusion. Speculation. Women and disciples running back and forth. Reports from the scene. Announcements that he is risen. But Mark doesn’t even have Jesus appear again after the announcement at the tomb.
To be sure, there are stories of the risen Christ appearing, but these come a little later. In John, Jesus appears to a weeping Mary Magdalene, who recognizes him when he calls her name.
In Luke he appears to two disciples trudging in dejection on the road to Emmaus, who recognize him in the breaking of bread at table.
And John has that story of Jesus appearing to the gathered disciples in the upper room on the first day of the week, first without and a week later with “doubting Thomas,” whose doubts are all resolved by his own encounter with the risen Christ. Yet these stories are all about how other people met the living Christ. And they are written as spiritual paradigms for us, how we might be surprised by Christ, who is with us even when we don’t recognize him, even when we are trudging along in dejection, especially at the Lord’s table or when we gather with the other disciples on the first day of the week.
But before we hear their experiences of the Christ risen, or have our own, we must first enter that moment of confused shock and encounter the emptiness of Christ missing. Don’t rush to the rest. Stand with those women for a moment staring into the void.
Suddenly two men “in dazzling clothes” stand with the women in this tiny cave. They are startled! They are frightened! They are freaked! They hit the dirt. The men speak. First a question, which rises even above this context to the level of spiritual motto: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Then the bad news: “He is not here.” Now the unbelievable good news: “He is risen!” and just to seal the deal: “He told you so.”
The women run to tell the disciples. But those guys are nonplussed. After all, women, you know? The men disregard their report as “an idle tale.” Hysteria. Hallucination. Hocus-pocus. I know it’s hard to believe, but in those days men often discounted the voices of women. Aren’t you glad we don’t do that any more? But honestly, you can’t blame them. The news they bring really is hard to believe in the world in which we live.
For his part Peter finds the courage to race to the tomb himself to see what gives. And this is what he finds:
Nothing. Emptiness. Void. The stone rolled back. The space vacant. Nobody there. No body there! He doesn’t even meet any angels, has only the word of the women to go on.
Luke says Peter goes back home, amazed. I guess he doesn’t know what else to do. He hasn’t seen Christ risen yet. But you can bet: he’s looking for him. Because if the news is true, then violence doesn’t have the last word. Evil doesn’t have the last word. Injustice doesn’t have the last word. The political Powers don’t have the last word. The corporate Powers don’t have the last word. The rabbis and the imams and the gurus and the preachers don’t have the last word. God has the last word, and that word is life.
Forget about the other Easter stories and appearance accounts in the Bible. Forget about two thousand years of church proclamation and our annual – or actually weekly – celebration of Easter. This is where we stand today. In the cemetery, staring into: nothing. Emptiness. Void. The stone rolled back. The space vacant. Nobody there. No body there!
And we have an announcement: He is not here; he is risen! But he isn’t risen for us until we encounter him ourselves. This is where our faith begins and where we must return from time to time if our faith is to be refreshed, if we are going to move beyond experiences borrowed from others, traditions passed to us from generations before, taking the word of strangers rather than having a spiritual experience that is alive and dynamic and our own.
Christ is not risen for us until Christ rises among us and we see him ourselves. Like the women we can share the announcement. Like Peter we can visit the empty tomb. But that’s intended to send us all searching for Christ risen here and now. Go out and look for him.
Look for Christ risen as the new day dawns in Austin, in your work, in your commerce, in your travel, in your home.
Look for the risen Christ in the highways and byways of our city and state and nation and world.
Look for the risen Christ in the church, because the church is called to be the Body of Christ, Christ rising to continue his mission to extend God’s love to all humankind.
Look for Christ risen in your darkest hours and hardest times when it’s hard to believe he’s with you even when you have encountered him before.
Look for Christ risen in the rainbow of people you meet every day. More than that, let Christ rise in you and be Christ risen to a world of people who have never experienced such amazing grace and forgiveness and healing and love.
This is where we start again today, with an empty tomb and an announcement too good to believe. Why do you look for the living among the dead? Will you look for Christ risen to meet you with new life? Let go of dead end trails and paralyzing fears and trivial pursuits and memories of glory that are past and gone. Look for the living. Christ might just surprise you soon. Amen. May we pray?
Holy God our Salvation:
you roll away the power of death,
bringing forth the One
who makes everything alive.
Out of the garden
of violence and hate
which evil has planted,
you bring forth
a spring harvest
of love and forgiveness.
Jesus Christ, Creation’s Gardener:
you went into the grave
to drive out the power of the world;
you shut the doors
of pain and death
and open the gates of glory
to those who trust in you
and follow as your faithful servants.
Holy Spirit, Anointer of new life:
and open our eyes to faith;
you touch our lips
with glad songs of victory;
you roll away our fears
so we can tell everyone
we have seen the Risen Lord.
God in Community, Holy in One,
on this great day of Easter,
we pray as Jesus taught us, saying,
Our Father who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses
as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
and the power
and the glory