It’s the event that sets people apart in faith – and, unfortunately, sometimes, against one another. Some ask, “How can we, as modern people, have a faith based on a missing body?” The darkened tomb with its stone seal rolled back in the early hours of morning is more than an unanswered question for these people – it can be a vast, dark chasm that people simply will not cross. They may go to an Easter service, perhaps to have the warm feeling of family, friends and joyous music surrounding them – but no further. For them, faith dies at the entrance to a tomb, no longer filled with death.
So it might be for all of us, were it not for a small group of people two thousand years ago, the gospels tell us. No, the gospels are not history books in the way that we think of them today. But then again, history books have their own tales to tell. History is the past as we want it recalled. The gospels are the story of how people came to believe that Jesus was the Son of God, and how people hearing the story anew could come to believe in it. The stories of the gospel tell us many things, but all four of them agree on one thing – the women who went to Jesus’ tomb on the Sunday after his crucifixion found it open -and empty.
What the Easter story really tells us
Can we refer to the Jerusalem police blotter for an account of this? No, there’s nothing from the authorities like “At 5AM, persons reported an open tomb near Golgotha, body missing.” And, at the same time, we have people in modern times trying to find alternative sites for Jesus’ tomb for a variety of purposes. History from a modern perspective has a hard time making sense of the events of two thousand years ago that happened to everyday people in the shadows of empire and an oppressed ancient culture. We search for something called “real” – something tangible, perhaps a bit like people in Medieval times who sought slivers of Jesus’ cross and other relics of Christian history to make their faith more tangible.
And yet, it’s also important to remember that movies, books, and many other artifacts of modern culture have colored our expectations of that the open tomb means. These events have been reinterpreted more times than any one can count, in countless church pulpits, in video, film, artwork, and every other medium that we could think of. Yet all we really have for faith’s sake is the gospels. We have the sparse words that draw us into amazing events. And either we come to believe in those events, or we don’t.
We may have our doubts about them, as the apostle Thomas did when he missed out on one of Jesus’ first appearances to his followers after his death. John’s gospel tells us that Thomas was invited to feel the wounds on his body, much as he had invited the other disciples to verify his real presence. But notice Thomas’ response. He does not say, “It’s real! You’re not dead!” No, instead he says, “My Lord and my God!” The reality of Jesus’ conquering the grave didn’t lead Thomas to focus on scientific facts. Instead, he immediately understood what his faith had not understood as real without that proof.
Facts and fiction can help us to build our sense of the events of Jesus’ resurrection, but the events themselves are about a story of faith that changes our lives. The issue isn’t Jesus’ rising from the dead – the issue is our fear of death. Sometimes we want to worship that fear more than we want to worship a God who promises us that death is not the end of the story, and that we can live active, fulfilling, giving lives on this earth based on faith. And in that fear, we wind up trying to control the story of our lives to hide that fear. We worship our careers, our families, our hobbies, our problems – we try to create a story whose ending we control. But Jesus’ rising from the dead conquers such fear-filled story-telling. Life is God’s story, not ours, and God invites us to choose “His story” over our history as the real story of our own lives. What we worship, who we worship, and how we worship, matters in how that story unfolds.
Faith that conquers death
I have seen death. I have heard the last death rattles of breath escape troubled lungs for the last time, and felt the body’s warmth slip away into coolness. Our bodies die. Even Jesus’ resurrected body merged into eternity after forty days. Our worldly histories come to an end. But God’s story will be alive through all eternity. What we have done, moment by moment, will stand for all time as the record of our lives. The promise of faith in Jesus Christ is this: you can live each moment of your life as if the fear of death has no power over you, and that God’s eternal love, demonstrated for all time in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, is absolutely, positively unconquerable. We may doubt it, but God promises that this is only our humanness forgetting that we are fearfully and wonderfully made creations of God, redeemed from the illusions of our fears in God’s Son, and ready to be transformed by God’s Holy Spirit for a new kind of living.
When Jesus appeared to his disciples in John’s gospel after his resurrection, he said, “Peace be with you,” showed the disciples his wounds, and then sent them into the world with the Holy Spirit. This tells us three important things about Jesus’ resurrection. The first thing that God wants us to be is at peace – it’s the very first words that Jesus offers us. Don’t be angry or afraid – be still in your hearts with God’s promises. Secondly, God wants us to have faith that the promises of eternal life are real – God invites us to probe them, as long as it takes, for us to believe in those promises. Third, God gives us these promises for a purpose – to help God to free the world from the bonds of sin and death. Jesus came not as God’s once-off project – Jesus was God’s evidence of a wholly new way to live a life as if we are already children of God, safe in God’s eternal love, prepared to move through our fears and pain into living every day in harmony with God’s eternal plan – no matter what it takes.
This Sunday, we celebrate the rolling away of the stone from Jesus’ tomb. I hope and pray that, whatever your faith, or lack of faith, that it will be day when you put aside your fears of death, and consider how your life can be lived as if this world were already in eternal hands. I believe that Jesus rose from the dead to assure us all of this for all time. May the time for our believing this be upon us all. Be blessed.