Humankind has always been preoccupied with death and what happens to us after death. The largest human-made structure on earth is a tomb, the Great Pyramid. The oldest human-made structure is a tomb, the step pyramid of Sakkara. The only seven great wonders of the ancient world that survives are tombs, the pyramids of Egypt. It appears that humankind has always had a fascination with as well as a fear of death. St. Paul writes about how we live our lives in bondage to fear. And that is the life-giving difference that Christianity offers. We focus on life, not death. Even though it was the death of Jesus that allows us to have forgiveness and eternal life, it is the defeat of death in the resurrection that makes that possible. We do not live our lives in bondage to the fear of death because we focus on living the resurrected life both in the here and now as well as when we will ultimately leave our earthly lives and transition to eternal life.
There was a story in Crossway magazine in the spring of 2009 about a minister who was in Italy and visited a cemetery near Rome. There he came across the grave of a man who had died centuries before who was completely against Christianity, but at the same time apparently a little afraid of it too. His solution was to have a huge stone slab put over his grave so he would not have to be raised from the dead just in case there is a resurrection from the dead. He had insignias put all over the slab saying, “I do not want to be raised from the dead. I don’t believe in it.” Apparently when he was buried, an acorn must have fallen into the grave. Eventually the acorn grew up through the grave into a tree so strong that it gradually split that slab. Now it is a tall towering oak tree. It immediately occurred to the minister that, “If an acorn, which has the power of biological life in it, can split a slab of that magnitude, just imagine what the [seed] acorn of God’s resurrection power can do in a person’s life?”
When we hold Christ at the center of our lives, and allow the power of the Holy Spirit to come into our lives, we are accepting the power of the resurrection. There are many things that we may see as immovable slabs in our lives— anger, bitterness, insecurity, fears and self-doubts. But with the power of the Holy Spirit those things can be split and rolled off. It is then that we grow into the power of the resurrection and live the resurrected life here and now.
Our gospel reading for today is the resurrection story in the Gospel of Luke. The traditional account is found in the Gospel of John. But sometimes we may choose to hear the story as told by the gospel writer for the lectionary year. This is the year of Luke, and for a writer who normally gives us more details that the other gospels his account of the resurrection is surprisingly short. The story begins as all the accounts do – Jesus is dead, his followers believe his body is lying in the tomb donated by Joseph of Arimathea. As in all the accounts, the women come at dawn on the morning after the Sabbath to anoint his body with spices. All they can do now is to show respect for the dead. Sometimes it seems that is what we do – we remember the legacy Jesus left but fail to emphasize the fact that he rose and is present in our lives every day.
The women are naturally frightened by what they find – the stone rolled away, the tomb empty, and two men in dazzling clothing – in other accounts they are called angels, but Luke, who loved to tell stories of angels, calls them men. The men ask them a provocative question – “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, he is risen.” In spite of the fact that Jesus told them many times that he would die and three days later rise again, his followers had not really believed it. It was too far removed from their knowledge and experience of life to take seriously, but now, coming from these mysterious men who spoke with such authority and conviction, the women remembered and believed.
So they went to the other disciples to share this wonderful news, but, just as in the other gospel accounts, the men said it was an ‘idle tale.” Those women are hysterical! But just to be sure, Peter ran to the tomb, he observed the linen cloths in the empty tomb and was “amazed at what had happened.” After observing these things for himself, Peter also believed the words of the mysterious men.
In Luke, no one encounters the risen Jesus at the tomb. They believe in the words that are spoken to them and the fact that the tomb is empty. Peter thinks the women are telling tales until he sees for himself that the body of Jesus is gone. Just as it did for those original followers of Jesus, the Easter message calls us from our old belief in death to a new belief in life. The story is so outrageous that it leads us to wonder if it must really be true. Is it true that Jesus is not just a story of the past but a living presence in our lives today? There is a joke about a husband who left Easter service with his wife complaining that the sermon seems so similar every year. She reminds him that since Easter is the only day he comes to church, of course there isn’t much variety in the sermon. But if we only come once a year, we hear the most important story of all, the proclamation of the resurrection.
As commentator Craig Koester notes, the Easter reading in Luke stops with Peter’s amazement, but the power of the Easter story continues far beyond, as God continues to challenge the certainty of death with the promise of life. Koester suggests that if we have doubts, then we should go ahead and challenge God with the human assumption and fear that death gets the final word. After all, the story of the resurrection is pretty outrageous. That would not be news to God, who has heard it all before. God’s response is to wonder, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” It is through the living Jesus that God gives us the gift of the resurrected life, and God would never offer us anything less. Amen.