“There was no death in that tomb.”

“There was no death in that tomb.”

A Sermon for Easter Day
April 1, 2018

The Reverend Donna J. Larson, Interim Priest
Trinity Church
Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

Alleluia, Christ is risen.
Response: The Lord is risen, indeed. Alleluia.

Feels pretty good, doesn’t it. It feels great to be able to proclaim the best news of the good news of our faith on this Easter Sunday. Nevertheless, that Mark’s gospel account does not seem to be very helpful in proclaiming such good news this morning. Did you notice? Mark’s gospel ends abruptly at the open tomb. Unlike other gospel accounts Jesus does not appear to anyone outside that tomb; he doesn’t even show up. As a result, there seems to be no cause for Easter joy, or celebration for the three women who go to prepare him for burial that morning.  Yes, they are amazed that the huge stone has been rolled away. But they are also frightened by the young man who is sitting in that tomb; terrified even when he tells them that Jesus is not there, that he has been raised. So terrified, in fact, that when the young man bids the women tell Jesus’ disciples to look for him in Galilee, they vow to say nothing to anyone. Then they run away as fast as they can, fearful of what they have just experienced.

So, we have to ask, what is going on here in Mark’s account of Jesus’ resurrection? How does Mark want us to understand this event, no less believe it? Even more, how does he want this story to make a difference in the lives of Easter people like us. Good questions, I think, for us to conjure with because Mark seems to give us little reason for assurance at that tomb this morning, at least not by the standards set for us in the other gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. Unlike the accounts of Matthew and Luke, Mark does not tell us what to think or believe about Jesus’ resurrection. Instead, Mark requires us to engage our own minds, our own hearts and our own faith in this story. He invites us into the mystery of resurrection so that we can make sense of its promises for our own life; right here, right now in this world.

So, I’d like to share with you why I believe Mark’s story makes sense to believers like us; and why it holds much meaning and purpose for our life of faith. For me it all begins at Mark’s very abrupt ending. Mark tells us the women “fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.” And that’s it. THE END.

We don’t know what happens after that. The only information we get about Jesus’ resurrection comes from a young man, who may or may not be an angel. He asks us these women to accept what he says on faith, and run with it to tell others; instead, they run away. And they decide they are not going to tell anyone what they have seen and heard. But their fear and their flight from the tomb tells us a lot, I think, about our own fear of death and our own flight from anything that reminds us they we will die.

When these three women come to Jesus’ tomb they have the same experience and expectations as we have about death. They expect to anoint Jesus’ body for burial, but he is not in that tomb. And nothing the young man says to them about Jesus being raised makes sense to their experience of life or death. So, one important message I believe we receive from Mark’s story this Easter day is this: resurrection from the dead does not make sense to our human experience of death. When a person dies, all we see is a dead body, and we conclude that there is no more life in this person. We presume that this is the end. We see to it that the body is prepared for the grave, we pay our respects at a service for the burial of the dead, and then we get on with the business of life. But we continue to live under the shadow of death; under the realization that we, too, will die. And death will also be our end. Because that certainly appears to be true.

So, we can hardly blame the response of these women. I am inclined to think that any one of us would have acted in the same way. But Jesus is not in the tomb that morning. Death no longer lives there. When that stone was rolled away Jesus was set free to go back into the world to be with his disciples. And what I read in this important part of Mark’s story is this: Jesus is, and will always be in the world, present with us in life and in death.  But we will never find him if we will not look for him. The young man told the women that day that Jesus’ disciples would find Jesus if they just looked for him in Galilee. And when Jesus ascended to heaven he assured us that we could find Jesus, too, and live our lives and die our death in the promise of his resurrection. All we need to do is look for him, as his disciples did, even though he doesn’t appear to us or seem apparent in our world.

Nevertheless, finding Jesus can be an endless journey for people whose hearts will not believe. People whose minds remain entombed in their doubt of his resurrection and fear of their own death. Doubt and fear make it is easy for people to walk away from this story. For such people, dead is dead. And there is no denying the negative impact death has on our life by ways we fear it, or deny it, or welcome a premature end by it in moments of desperation or despair. When we believe death brings our life to an end, death casts a shadow of fear which makes us anxious for our life, and we become incapable of living fully into God’s hope and expectation for the life he has given us to live eternally right here, right now, in this world.

But for those who believe in this story of resurrection, there was no death in that tomb. When God raised Jesus, he raised us out of our human expectations of death to a divine expectation of life beyond the death of our bodies. Because just as there was no death in that tomb; there was no death in Jesus. And so, the empty tomb gives us a new understanding of death. We learn that death is merely a moment of transition from the life we live in this body to the life we live eternally with God. All fear of endings is ended. And when we can believe this and know it to be true, then just like Jesus we become free to live into the fullness of our life, because we have nothing to fear by losing it. And we have nothing to fear by living it, either, because death no longer has power over us. Like Jesus, we are set free in this world to live our life, not in denial but in trust; not in despair but hope; not in fear, but in love; not in threat of our human end but in the assurance of God’s promise of eternal life. Resurrection changes everything we once knew to be true by the limitations of human sense and knowing. In a world which seems to be stuck in the greed and betrayal, pain and suffering, violence and death of Holy Week, Easter people are no longer held hostage to fear and death; we are free to live our life in the life-giving power of love. The kind of love Well-known pastor William Sloan Coffin calls “the victory of powerless love over loveless power.”

So, I am glad for the other gospel stories of Jesus’ resurrection and appearances to them, but I must admit, I favor Mark’s account. Because Mark shifts the burden of proof of resurrection, not on appearances and eye-witness accounts, but on us. Mark invites us to discover for ourselves what this story means for our life and how it can make a difference in the way we live it, right here, right now, in this world. When we no longer fear the power of death over our life, we are able to walk out of tombs of our own making, and the tombs others put us in—like doubt and fear. We become free to be the people God created us to be, free to live the life God has given us to live.

Today Mark invites us to complete his Easter story of resurrection by the life-giving example of our own life. Because we know there was no death in that tomb. And we know there is no death in us.

Alleluia, Christ is risen.
Response: The Lord is risen, indeed. Alleluia.

 

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