A Disappointing Surprise
Disappointing, to say the least.
It is Easter Sunday. Yet the sanctuary is empty. There is no gathering of groups greater than ten people. No Easter Breakfast. No worried choir members hoping the tricky timing of the special anthem will be presented without error. No awkward moment when first time attendees sit in a beloved standard pew of a regularly attender.
Disappointing, to say the least.
Even the scripture today is a disappointment. Usually we hear the soaring narrative of the gospel of John, where Mary Magdalene mistakes the risen Jesus as the gardener. Or the gospel of Matthew. This reading from Mark is short, basic, and abruptly ends with no words, just fear.
No wonder some copyists added at least two different, expansive endings to Mark, filling it in line with Matthew or Luke.
But I’m drawn to Mark this year because of its brevity and awkward ending. It leaves the response open to terror, amazement, and speechlessness. The first Easter was not a large group experience, or really that organized. The news spread awkwardly, intermixed with terror, doubt, and fear.
None of the gospels actually give a description of Jesus’ resurrection. They only give varying descriptions of who went to the tomb and how the heavy stone covering the tomb’s entrance was moved. In Matthew’s version, an angel of Lord descends upon the tomb guards and rolled away the stone and sat down upon it. The guards shook and became like dead men. But there’s no mention of Jesus leaving the tomb when the stone was rolled away in this version. It appears the resurrection already happened, but the stone had to be moved in order for the women to see it empty. Jesus is already on the way to Galilee, just as he said. Go and tell.
Each of the gospels are consistent on the gender of the first group to visit the empty tomb: women. It gets a variety of names accompanying Mary Magdalene, including John’s famous “the other Mary.” The disciples are locked up, hiding from authorities, fearing their fate awaits a similar end as Jesus.
Mark tells us that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome are bringing the preparatory burial spices to anoint and are worried about the logistics of moving the large stone from the tomb’s entrance. And they are then alarmed when a young man, dressed in a white robe, is sitting on the right side.
How easy is it to not be alarmed in alarming circumstances? And now, mysteriously, the irreversible or inevitable has been upended. The suffering and evil of the last couple of days did not achieve victory, nor endure forever. All suffering and death-dealing witnessed on that Friday has been countered with irrefutable, life-giving action early on Sunday. The tomb is empty. See. Don’t be alarmed. Go and tell the disciples and Peter what has happened.
How will you respond to God’s action in overcoming the worst thing is not the last thing of your life? What tomb needs to be opened and declared empty in your life?
The world seems to have an endless supply of fear, alarm and terror. We may be afraid of both personal and global economic situations, or the health of the vulnerable in our households or on our streets. We see hospitals and healthcare workers dealing with the daily stress of working against the unknowns of this virus while caring for names and faces of others’ loved ones. We can’t live normally anymore; can’t do the rituals and gatherings we frankly didn’t appreciate enough until they were no longer possible. We lament over all that is lost, all that will be lost, and the losses experienced by those personally impacted by the fatal outcomes of this pandemic.
In the graveyard of our former lives, our homes, hearts, and world, we should show the world a tomb not sealed, but empty. A door not locked but opened. Despair transformed into joy. Hopelessness changed to hopefulness. What act of love can be greater than for God to love us so much that what is experienced as the absolute limits of life becomes only a doorway to endless love?
Are you locked behind the doors of fear, alarm or terror? On this Easter Sunday, God declares fear empty, alarm needless, and terror conquered. Step into the empty tomb. See what God has done. Then go and tell.
Have you seen in the middle of the graveyards of our former lives, a stone rolled away, a tomb unoccupied by our Lord, a messenger declaring our fears and anxieties no longer rule our hearts, then burst out from fear and alarm and terror and go and tell those still desperate to hear some good news. At the moment when you most expected death, but instead heard the unmistakable voice of life, then go unafraid to tell those who are certain that everything they had hoped for had ended.
The story of resurrection was given into the very eyes and ears and mouths of those who were still uncertain and still seized by both terror and amazement. But we can fill in where Mark leaves it out to silence.
The women did tell.
Peter and the disciples did encounter the risen Lord in Galilee.
According to the Apostle Paul, some five hundred believers encountered the risen Jesus, also.
Then he also appeared to the Apostle Paul, whose previous life was to persecute and to kill early Jesus followers.
And while the scriptures fall silent with the fates of the apostles, traditions tell us that these incompetent, illiterate, itinerant believers from the lowest classes of people spread this story along the roads of the very empire who condemned Jesus to death for insurrection.
The art of conspiracies is that those in power create the necessary means to remain or to gain more power. This dissident group of believers had no powerful allies, nor powerful groups, yet slowly, as the centuries continued, their testimony, their allegiance to this story was tested, tried, convicted, and killed, only to rise again and again and again.
The story is either foolish or life-transforming.
But it can’t be received without first being heard and shared.
And it is too good to be held by fear, even in a pandemic.
Do not be afraid.
Jesus is risen.
Jesus is here.
Our sufferings are not unknown to a God who breaks into any tomb to release us from our fears and our terror and into amazement.
I think our building may have kept us from sharing the story of Easter. We may have discovered in this alteration of our routines that we can still share the story without the additional structures.
If your life has come out a tomb and into the Risen Jesus, then get up and tell the world that death is not a negotiating party to the terms of God’s will; evil of any form, power, or influence cannot triumph in a world where resurrection is on the loose; and life, that most precious gift God provides, is eternal and abundant, because Jesus came not to condemn, but to save.
This needs to be shared by any means available to anyone, anytime.
After a while, when it is safe for all people, when it is the most loving choice, we will come out, gathering together, singing and shouting the good news that God brings life even out of death, that love always has the final say.
Even tombs can’t keep love locked away.