Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Sermon: Not About the Empty Tomb

John 20:1-18

As I was reading one commentary (Seasons of the Spirit), I was shocked by what it said. It said that Easter is not about the empty tomb. Like I said, that shocked me, because it seems very much like Easter is about the empty tomb. If the angels hadn’t rolled the stone away, if Jesus’ body were still in the tomb, then there would be no resurrection, no hope, and well, Easter would be pretty meaningless. So how can it not be about the empty tomb?

What the writer explains is that Mary arrives at the tomb and it is empty.

If Easter were about the tomb being empty, she would have immediately celebrated, the body was gone, Jesus was raised. Hallelujah. But instead she is disturbed, she is upset. She does not assume that Jesus has risen, but that someone has taken the body, moved it, or stolen it.

Which is a pretty natural reaction, honestly. Graves are pretty different now and in our area, they aren’t just niches cut into the stone, with the body placed in a stone box, and then the niche covered with a heavy stone. Still we now bury people in stone vaults, but we cover the graves with dirt. But the effect would be much the same if I were to walk up to someone’s grave and all the dirt around it have been dug up, and the stone vault opened, and the body gone. My first assumption would not be that the person had risen from the dead. No, most likely I would assume that someone had dug up the grave, and well, I don’t know why they would do this, but they had taken the body out for some reason.

So Mary has seen the empty tomb, and it worries her. It doesn’t give her hope, it doesn’t make her happy. In fact, she is so concerned that she runs to tell the disciples.

Two of the disciples, Peter and the one Jesus loved run to the tomb.

The first to arrive looks in the tomb and sees the linen cloths lying there. Peter then arrives and goes right in. The other disciple then joins him in the tomb. And they acknowledge it is indeed empty. The gospel of John then tells us, “They didn’t yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead.” So they went back to the place where they were staying. You see, they also saw the empty tomb, and it didn’t impress them. They didn’t understand.

No one understood just from seeing the empty tomb. Not Mary, not Peter, not the other disciple. Easter isn’t about the empty tomb because simply witnessing the empty tomb meant nothing to them.

So what is Easter about? Easter gains its meaning when Christ appears to Mary.

That is when it gains its power. It is in the moment when she thinks he is the gardener, and he speaks her name. That is the moment that brings the goosebumps and the tears of joy. Oh, that is when everything changes for her. She believes in the resurrection when she meets the risen Christ. That is the moment that changes everything. When she looks upon his face, and wants to grab him and hug him, but he says, do not hold onto me, for I have not yet ascended to God. Go and tell my disciples what you have seen, and so she does, she runs to them and she shouts, “I have seen the Lord.”

Which must have been quite a shock to them. I am sure they looked at each other with questions about her sanity. Peter and the disciple that ran with him to the tomb must have thought, “Is it possible? His body was gone? Could he be alive?” But their questions would be answered soon when Jesus would come to them and meet them. He would even offer his forgiveness to them for how they had run away on the night he was arrested and abandoned him. And then they would believe too.

In each of these situations, belief in the resurrection doesn’t come from the empty tomb, but in reunion with Christ and a restored relationship with Christ. Easter is in Mary’s shout that, “I have seen the Lord”. It is in Peter hearing Jesus say, “Feed my sheep.” Thomas having Jesus tell him, “Put your hands in the holes, if you doubt that it is me.” Easter is about meeting the risen Christ and the relationship with him that is built or rebuilt in that moment.

So here is where that gets personal. What that means for us is that for us Easter is not simply about celebrating an empty tomb.

For one thing, just talking about that can leave us mystified, and worried and upset as we try to figure out the details.

For example we could study the shroud of Turin. If you don’t know what that is, it is supposed to be the cloth that Jesus was buried in. And on this cloth is an imprint of a person, supposedly of Jesus. It is now housed in a cathedral in Turin, Italy. Several times throughout the years, international teams of scientists, consisting of Christians, Jews, Moslems, and non-believers, set about to prove or disprove the story behind this ancient cloth. The results of their findings have been published over and over. There are doubts, there are possibilities, and there are those that believe and those that don’t. Looking at the information about the shroud leaves us mystified, in good and bad ways, but all of that looking is meaningless unless in looking at it we meet Christ.

That’s where Easter is. In seeing the face, and then finding ourselves journeying to meet the risen Christ in our lives now.

The same thing would happen if we went and visited the place where Jesus was buried, or if we could see the stone that was rolled away. When we focus only on the details of the story – the empty tomb, how the cloths were lying there, how the stone was rolled away, even how Jesus could have possibly come back to life. When we put all of our energy into studying those things, we miss the true meaning of Easter.

Easter is about you and I hearing Jesus call our name, like he called to Mary, and about how we respond to him.

You see, Easter is about us meeting the risen Christ, it is about you and I having a restored relationship with Christ. It is about us being able to say, “I have seen the Lord.”

But how do we see the Lord today?

I mean, without hallucinating. How can we honestly see Christ, meet him, have him call our name, and not be called crazy by the psychologists?

Well that is where it gets tricky, because usually we don’t literally see Jesus, although some have. Usually we don’t hear Jesus, although some have. Most of us end up meeting the risen Christ in what can only be called a moment of spiritual mystery, a holy encounter sometimes brought on by worship, sometimes by prayer, sometimes in conversation with another, sometimes in looking at artwork depicting him.

And like the first Easter, if we get caught up in the details of trying to explain it, we simply can’t. Except that we come away knowing that Jesus was there. Touching our hearts in a way that nothing else can, restoring our lives in a way nothing else can. Offering us forgiveness, and relationship as a gift from God.

It is a moment when John Wesley says our heart is strangely warmed, a moment in which songs speak of Amazing Grace, or Blessed Assurance. It is a knowledge that if nowhere else in the world is there evidence of Christ being alive, there is evidence in our heart – clearly he is alive there, because we can feel him so close to us.

That’s Easter for us. It isn’t about the empty tomb, but the filled heart, the one that recognizes he is alive because it has met him, encountered him and been changed by him. That’s how we know he lives. Because he has come to us and is in relationship with us – even today, 2000 years later – changing hearts, and restoring hope. And I pray, I pray, if you have never had that moment, that you will soon. Perhaps in worship, perhaps in prayer, perhaps in conversation with another, or while looking at artwork – and you will find yourself in a heart to heart spiritual conversation with him that leaves you shouting, “I have seen the Lord!” Oh, I pray that for you. Because that moment will change your life!

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