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Living Among the Dead"
For us believing Christians, Easter Sunday does not begin the way the first Easter began. We can awaken to Easter morning with the thrill and the joy of the resurrection. But the first disciples did not. Indeed, for them it was not a special day.
It was just "the first day of the week." For them, as Jews, the day to celebrate was the day before, the Jewish Sabbath. And for those who had been following Jesus, on THAT particular sabbath there probably didn't feel like a whole lot to celebrate.
After all, their leader, their teacher, their HOPE had been crucified the afternoon before. So as Jews, they may have observed the sabbath in the usual manner; but as Jews who were followers of Christ, it would have been a sabbath observance loaded with despair, a time of mourning.
When those folks arose on what is now our Easter morning, they arose to just another day. And maybe worse. What must they, unlike us, have been thinking? One week earlier their leader, their Jesus, had made a triumphal entry into Jerusalem amidst much excitement. But now the excitement is drained out of them. They no longer have their teacher with them. They are beginning a new week with no prospects for the future. The original twelve disciples had given up everything to follow Jesus. And now he's not around anymore.
But maybe it's not quite all over for ALL of his followers. While the MEN who had been following Jesus may have given up, and maybe even have gone into hiding, for the WOMEN there is a continuing event.
Listen to the last two verses of the twenty-third chapter of the gospel according to Luke: "The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment."
And then Easter arrives. "But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared."
And we can hear these followers of Jesus caught between two cultures. Indeed, at the very pivot-point between Judaism and Christianity.
They prepare the spices and ointments for Jesus body on the day of preparation, the day before the Jewish Sabbath; they REST on the sabbath in keeping with Jewish law; and on the day after, OUR Sunday, they head for the tomb.
But consider what is HAPPENING here. We don't hear these women saying anything, but we KNOW what they are doing.
While they adhere to their Jewish beliefs, while they know that the physical, earthly Jesus is dead, they have not lost TOUCH with their feelings, their respect for this man who was their leader, their teacher, their hope for the future.
And there is a surprise in store for them.
"They found the stone rolled away from the tomb."
Now, according to the gospel of Mark, in the third verse of the sixteenth chapter, "They had been saying to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?"
But I really doubt that they experienced a sense of RELIEF that the stone had been rolled away. I really doubt that they were saying, "Oh, great! We don't have to worry about moving the stone." Instead, they are probably wondering what on earth has happened.
But there's something else going on here that I don't think we should miss sight of. They set out for the tomb with their spices and ointments without preparing for the removal of the stone in advance.
So great is their commitment to Jesus that it did not occur to them until they were on their way that they had to contend with that stone.
Now, they could have decided, "Hey, we can't move that silly stone; let's not go." And they might have stayed home. And that would not have been a MINOR reason for not going. But how often do Christians find truly MINOR reasons to not attend a worship service? It's sprinkling, or the temperature drops a few degrees, or we don't believe we have the proper clothes, or we have company, so we stay home.
Well, I'm really glad that those women did NOT stay home. Because "when they went in, they did not find the body."
Now allow me to backtrack a bit here, to give another view of what's going on with these women. And I would invite you to hear the words of the Gospel of Peter. Now, don't bother to try to find this in your Bible, because it's not there.
It comes from the middle of the second century, and the details of it were not discovered until late in the nineteenth century.
But listen to these words: "Now early on the Lord's day Mary Magdalene, a disciple of the Lord--who was afraid because of the Jews, for they were inflamed with anger and had not done at the tomb of the Lord the things which women usually do to their loved ones when they die--took friends with her, and came to the tomb where he was laid.
"And they feared lest the Jews see them, and said, "Even if we were not able to weep and lament him on the day on which he was crucified, yet let us now do so at his tomb.
"But who will roll away the stone for us that is set against the door of the tomb, that we may enter and sit beside him and perform our obligations?" For the stone was large. "We fear lest some one see us. But if we cannot, then let us lay beside the door the things which we have brought in remembrance of him, and we will weep and lament until we get home."
So there was a contingency plan. But they did not need it. The tomb was open. But there was a development for which they had no contingency plan. The tomb was empty.
"While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them."
Now, I'm going to take the gospel writer's word for this, that these two men did appear "suddenly." But I'd be curious to know what those women were thinking. What did they say to one another upon finding an empty tomb? What did they suspect might have happened? It usually seems that in my life when I want answers to tough questions, the answers don't come "suddenly."
I usually have to work at finding them, and it usually takes more time that I want to spend. But here, in the tomb, in the midst of one of the greatest events in the history of the world, these women barely have time to think about what they're seeing--or not seeing--and "suddenly" two men in dazzling clothes show up. But then again, maybe it just SEEMED sudden to these women. May they DID have thoughts and words, but they just did not get recorded.
"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."
On Easter Sunday it's easy and tempting to focus on the punch line: "He is not here, but has risen." I mean, after all, isn't resurrection what it's all about? And what is the point of that seemingly mocking question, "Why do you look for the living among the dead?"
Well, I think that these two messengers are trying to tell these women--and us--you're looking for Jesus in the wrong place. Or is that too simple? Jesus told us in the sixth verse of the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel according to John: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life." But how often do we look for the "way" amidst the blind alleys of this earthly life? How often do we seek "truth" amidst lies?
How often do we seek "life" amidst death? Or are we looking for Jesus in the wrong places?
If we are truly seeking a living Jesus, we must understand that Jesus has not only risen from the dead, but continues to rise above all that is earthly. Jesus rises above all limitations, Jesus rises above all distortions of truth, Jesus rises above all that would defeat us.
If we would FIND Jesus, we must seek him as a living presence in our lives.
And the messengers go on to tell the women, "Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again."
But what the messengers don't add is this: "Did you believe him?" Now, our hindsight is twenty-twenty. I mean, we know the whole story. But what if we DID NOT? What if we were there, with those women? How might we have responded to that jolt to our memory? How might we have responded to the unspoken question?
We might have said, "Oh, yeah, NOW I remember. He DID say that." But did we BELIEVE it? What DID we believe of what he told us? Or do we even now pick and choose what we WANT to believe of what Jesus told us?
Do we pick certain parts of the sermon on the mount as being important to us, and throw out some other parts that might make us uncomfortable? Do we like certain parables, but ignore others? Do we squirm uncomfortably about some of the things that Jesus said and did because, just maybe, there might be a little bit of sin in us?
So here are Jesus' followers, supposedly Jesus BELIEVERS, who weren't really believing all of it. And the messengers are telling them, BELIEVE ALL of it.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ was not just another miracle of God. It was the ultimate PROOF that Jesus was--and is--the way, the truth, and the life.
When Jesus is on the Mount of the Transfiguration with Moses and Elijah, the voice of God identifies who Jesus is; and God's closing three words are the same in Matthew, Mark, and Luke: "Listen to him!"
Too often in our lives we fail to trust those who speak the truth to us. We listen to that which fits, with which we are comfortable, and ignore the rest, the parts that make us uncomfortable. When politicians tell us uncomfortable truths, we refuse to vote for them.
When parents give us advice that is uncomfortable, we insist that they really don't know what they are talking about.
When experts speak truth out of their experience, and we get uncomfortable, we suddenly become know-it-alls and claim that "that doesn't apply to ME!"
Well, if it's any consolation, we aren't alone. Look at the disciples. Even with the depth and intensity of their teaching by Jesus, even with all of their experiences with him, even with his ability to tell them what they were going to do before they did it, they still could not fully BELIEVE. It was just asking too much to believe in the prophecy of the resurrection.
So what effect do the words of the messengers have upon the women? "Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest."
But I have to ask myself, "Had they really FORGOTTEN them?" And if they HAD forgotten them, why was that? Many times we hear words, we remember them, but we choose to not BELIEVE them.
If we are reminded of them, we may realize that we never forgot them, we just chose not to BELIEVE them. We might also ask whether Jesus followers UNDERSTOOD these words. Scripture tells us that the disciples frequently had difficulty understanding Jesus parables and would even ask him to explain them. They might remember the words, but they wouldn't know what he was doing with those words.
So in all of this we have to continue to ask, for ourselves, do WE understand Jesus, his life, his teachings, his death and resurrection. And if we understand, do we always BELIEVE? Now I am not about to question anyone's faith. But if you're EVER anything like me, or any other clergyperson, I suspect that there are moments when, even though you think you understand the teachings of Christ, you find yourself wandering off in some other direction.
In being reminded of Jesus words, the women also understand and believe, because they have evidence of fulfillment of prophecy. Jesus WAS handed over to sinners, was crucified, and did rise again.
So the women run off to tell all this to everyone. And WHAT are they going to tell? That the stone had been rolled away from the tomb, and that the tomb was empty? That two men in dazzling clothes greeted them? Are they going to tell what these messengers said? You know, I think it took a lot of courage for the women to return and report what had happened to them. But I wonder if THEY looked upon it that way. I think it took courage, because they're going to be reporting some pretty unbelievable stuff.
But I also think that they were too excited to worry about any negative response they might get. And maybe that excitement is the key to having courage. Maybe that excitement is the key to BELIEVING.
And how often have we been so EXCITED about what was going on in our church that we couldn't wait to tell somebody OUTSIDE the church all about what was going on INSIDE the church? Those women have gone through a transforming experience.
They have come to understand that Jesus meant exactly what he said about the resurrection, and that has changed their whole outlook. And they have to TELL everybody about this.
"Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them."
You know, whenever I get really depressed about where my life is going, whenever I wonder if I'm accomplishing anything at all, I am consoled by knowing that Jesus had it worse. Here he spends several years building up a reputation that draws crowds of thousands. He hand picks a dozen men and trains them intensely with his teachings. But because of what he teaches, he is crucified.
And when God raises him from the dead, and the story is brought back to the apostles, the story is dismissed as an "idle tale" and not believed. And I have to ask, "Did I miss something here?" Whatever happened to those dedicated followers?
Aren't they even curious about the empty tomb? Or were they just sunshine patriots, along for the ride as long as everything went well for them? If they truly believed in Jesus, whatever happened to that belief? What is going on inside their heads?
Well, the disciples are not a totally lost cause. "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."
No, that first Easter was not like our Easters. Or was it? Are we like Peter, wanting to believe in the resurrection and being amazed by it, or are we like the apostles who find it an idle tale?
Now that may sound harsh, but I don't mean it to be. Rather, the question I'm asking is "What DIFFERENCE does the resurrection make in our lives?" Can it renew the excitement we feel about being Christians?
Can it help us to take a new and closer look at the life and teachings of Jesus and find new meaning in what he has to offer us?
"Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen."
Jesus was not just a good person who was born, lived, and died. Of course, he WAS a good person, but he was so much MORE than that. And if we look for him among the merely good people, we will be looking for the living among the dead. But he is not there; for, as he told us, on the third day he would rise again. And he did just that.
"He is not here, but has risen."
Rather than be like those who accused the women of spreading idle tales, can we be like Peter? Peter who told Jesus he would follow him to prison and to death and then denied him three times, but Peter who WANTED to believe that there STILL WAS HOPE.
And in believing in that hope, RAN to the tomb? Can we be like Peter, and go home, AMAZED at what has happened?
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