A friend of mine, a New Testament scholar, has a very clear idea of the perfect Easter sermon. The minister would climb in the pulpit, say, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!”, promptly sit down, and let the choir do the real preaching.
It’s a little early in my ministry to attempt such a feat, but I understand what she means. No spoken words can capture the awe-filled experience of the women at the tomb.
Mary Magdalena, Mary the mother of James, Joanna and their friends, have faithfully followed Jesus from Galilee. They have watched him be betrayed, anxiously awaited the results of his trial, and watched, aghast, as he was crucified. Then, as they make their way toward the tomb, their spices in hand, they realize something is terribly wrong. Jesus’ body is nowhere to be found.
We now have the scope of history and years of theological reflection to guide our understanding of this empty tomb, but for these women the empty tomb was horrifying. Mary, Mary and Joanna had been on an emotional rollercoaster the last few weeks. Following a leader they thought would save them somehow, only to watch his story end, not with victory, but with death. An empty tomb was just adding insult to injury.
Imagine their shock when the men in dazzling white approach them and tell them the reason Jesus is not in the tomb-he is risen! Dazed, they return to the disciples to tell them the good news.
The Marys and Joanna may not have had the benefit of the long view of history, but we do.
During our Easter Vigil [tonight/last night] we read passages from the Old and New Testaments that give us context to help us understand the enormity of the resurrection. After all, the resurrection is not an independent event, but the culmination of thousands of years of relationship between God and humankind. This story-of God’s relationship with humanity was also told during the seder dinner on Thursday.
The Old Testament tells the story of a God who carefully created a world filled with beauty and meaning out of chaos. This God created humans in his own image-creatures with the capacity to think and love and choose. For better or wrose, these early people are too curious and independent to follow God the way God expects. God goes on to try again and chooses a particular group of people-the nation of Israel–to follow him. He creates this nation through Abraham and Sarah’s bravery and years later, calls Moses to free the Israelites when they are captured as slaves by the Egyptians.
The Isralites successfully escape, but unfortunately, like all people, the Israelites are unable to follow God perfectly. They have a hard time trusting a God who is so mysterious and ephemeral. They want evidence and constant reminders of his faithfulness. Even in the midst of God giving them a law to govern themselves, they betray him and begin worshiping a Golden Calf.
As a consequence, these Israelites then spend 40 years wandering in the desert, before they enter the Promised land. Again, they are unable to follow God even when they have this land. Their society ends up being an unjust one-that takes advantage of orphans, widows and the poor. Eventually, God calls the prophets to warn Israel that it must change its ways. However, the prophets also hint that God is preparing a new kind of relationship between himself and humankind.
The Prophet Ezekiel records God as saying, “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
Rather than trying to change his followers’ behavior, God promises to change our hearts. And to do this, he sends us Jesus.
Mary Magdalena, Mary, and Joanna have seen the enactment of this promise first hand. They have felt the shift in their own hearts as they came to love this Jesus who was more than just a man. They have seen his ability to love people from all walks of life. They have seen his power to heal the sick, restore sight to the blind, and restore the ability to walk to those who were lame. They have heard Jesus teach with confidence about God and the Kingdom of God. They have seen his bravery as he stood up to the powers of the day, challenging their empty faith.
Imagine with me, the wonder these women must have felt when they realized their Jesus, their friend, their Lord, whom they thought was dead, was alive again. Imagine integrating this mind blowing news into your idea of who Jesus was. Imagine the fear and joy and awe these women must have felt as they fully understood, for the first time, that Jesus truly was more than a human being-Jesus was God.
No longer is their image of God an abstract one. In Jesus, they have found God enfleshed. They now know God as someone who cares for them deeply, personally. Their hearts now respond to God not out of fear or respect, but out of love.
You and I have known Jesus was God for as long as we first heard the Christmas story, but our minds still have a difficult time deeply understanding the joyous implications of the incarnation and the resurrection. In coming to earth in bodily form, Jesus blessed our lives. He hallowed what it meant to be a human, so that we, too, can live holy lives.
By rising again from the dead, he transformed our lives. No longer are we trapped by the limitations of this world or by our bodies’ natural infirmities. Not only do we now have free access to God, but when our physical lives are over, we will join God fully in the Kingdom of God.
That transformation is not limited to what happens to our bodies after we die. The resurrection transforms the way we live here and now. With the resurrection, with Christ’s victory, we can trust that in the cosmic scheme of things, God wins. Good wins. This knowledge can give us a deep rooted confidence as we face seemingly insurmountable odds when helping the poor, the sick, and the uneducated. We do not need to fear governments as we hold them accountable to be governments of justice. We do not need to tremble in fear as we begin to right the wrongs that have been done to our planet. The resurrection frees us to pray and to act with a holy abandon.
The new life Christ gives us in his resurrection is for our whole lives-our spiritual lives, yes, but also our intellectual, physical, and emotional lives. The resurrection calls us to an intimate relationship with God, who has experienced all our joys and sorrows, and then broken the power of death over us. If we give God a chance, by opening ourselves and our lives to him through prayer and discernment-we, like the Marys, Joanna, and the disciples, can live transformed lives, resurrection lives, lives marked not be fear and timidity, but by wholeness and joy.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!