Fleeing the Tomb: Easter Sunday
16 When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6 But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 8 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
From the moment Jesus breathed his last, and the son died, and the sun set, these women – Mary Magdalene, the other Mary, and Salome – waited and pondered death. Until the sun rose again, their minds were on death: the death they witnessed, the tomb, the duty to the dead they longed to perform. It is only natural: death, loss, grief. These things are natural. And as they made their way to the tomb that morning their thoughts were on natural things: that they had the spices, that they remembered which tomb, that they would need to find people to move the stone for them. Their heads were covered, their hands full, their faces down as they made their way in dawns early light.
As a Navy Chaplain, I spend most Friday mornings at the national cemetery in Fort Indian Town Gap, performing funeral honors for deceased Navy veterans. Every single time I am struck by the beauty of that place. Often there are deer and a flock of turkeys that greet me at the gate of that place with its rolling hills, woods, and paths lined with flags. If you’ve never been to the national cemetery, likely you’ve seen a picture of Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington D.C. You can then imagine the row after row of perfectly uniform white headstones dotting those hills and fields. The lawns are always perfectly manicured, tended daily by the busy grounds crew.
By the time the funeral procession arrives I am already standing at attention with two other sailors, holding a salute as the coffin or urn is taken from the hearse. We go through the motions of folding the flag. On bended knee, I preset the flag to the next of kin, often a widow, son, or daughter, and I say, this flag is a symbol of our appreciation for their loved ones honorable and faithful service. Rifles are fired, taps are played, there is much saluting and solemn marching and then the body is taken away. The family does not see the opened tomb, the hole in the ground. Mostly gone are the days of watching a coffin lowered into the earth as loved ones toss fistfuls of soil on the top of the casket. We have become removed from that part of death. For those laid to rest at the national cemeteries, when their loved ones return to see the place they have been buried, the sod has been near surgically replaced over the grave, grass perfectly trimmed. There is no trace of the earth torn open, no pile of freshly turned soil. It is pristine and in good order.
The place Jesus was laid was a bit like a small cave. His would not have been the first body to lay in that tomb. The women who headed to Jesus’ tomb were well aware of the picture of death that awaited them. Jesus died a gruesome, long, and dirty death and his body would show it. Most who faced a death like Jesus’ remained on the cross long after they died, as a warning to others, left to the elements. Jesus had been spared that indignity, but the women were under no illusion; they were prepared to face the results of his death, to enter his grave, to touch him, clean his broken body, and cover him with ointments and spices, as was their custom, as was their process of grief and respect. And they had been waiting and they were prepared.
What they were not prepared for is what they found…nothing.
What they found was the stone already removed.
What they found was a young man in a white robe.
What they found was the place Jesus had been laid, but no body.
What they found was unnatural, and it scared them.
For three days Mary Magdalene, Mary and Salome were waiting, expecting to go through the motions of death. They entered Jesus’ tomb but death is not what they found, and they were not prepared, they were not prepared for HOPE, for JOY, they were not prepared for resurrection.
Beloved, what are you waiting for? What are you expecting? For what are we preparing? Death or resurrection? Can it be both?
We are all waiting on something – Waiting for the right conditions to make that change we’ve been wanting to make. Waiting for the days to get less stressful. Waiting for the right job to come along. Waiting for a vaccine. Waiting for the right politicians to put the right plans in place for the change we want to see. Waiting to feel better. Waiting for a vaccine.
And our waiting is natural.
Some folks have been waiting for a long time: Waiting for healing. Waiting for justice. Waiting for freedom. Waiting for love.
For a long time now, the church in America has been waiting. Waiting for the pews to fill up again. Waiting to have a balanced budget again. Waiting for the right pastor or program to bring young folks marching back into church. Others are waiting to close. Some are waiting to go back to the past. Others are waiting for death. But I suspect, because this is Easter, that we should be preparing ourselves not to go back to a time long past, nor should we be preparing to tend the lifeless body of a church, but we should be preparing ourselves for hope, joy, love...for resurrection: individual, communal, and universal.
Church, let me tell you something, today: This is Easter, and on Easter we remember that for all that we are waiting for, God’s work is resurrection. There is death, yes, there is the cross, yes, there is the tomb. But those women back in Jerusalem were waiting for all that time to tend to a lifeless body, and when they got there, he was not there. They were prepared for death, but not for resurrection.
“Do not be alarmed,” said the teen angel. “You are looking for Jesus, who was crucified, dead.” And that’s right. They were looking for someone who was dead, waiting to see someone dead, expecting death. They are standing inside a tomb after all. But, “He has been raised; he is not here. Look!”
Look, church! We just might be amazed to find that what we are waiting for is not what we expect it to be. Jesus was the one who told us, “for God all things are possible,” and Mary and the others still expected to find him dead, which is only natural. “But look, he has been raised and he is not here, see,” said the teen angel. See!
I wonder how these women felt being talked to like this by an angel young enough to be their son or grandson. And then he gives them a command: to go and tell the others that they went to the tomb and Jesus was gone. “He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”
Think of all that Jesus told us: “for God all things are possible,” “your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease,” who calmed the storm and said, “why are you afraid?” who called us his brothers and sisters, who looked at the broken and ignored and said, “I do choose,” of all that we’ve heard and seen of Jesus, still it was only natural that those who loved him most, who hoped in him the most, were still waiting and expecting and even looking for a lifeless Jesus in a tomb.
And what about us?
This is how Mark’s gospel ends, church, with an angel tossing the ball to us. Mark says, the women were told to go and tell the disciples but standing there in Jesus’ grave they were seized with terror and amazement; “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” But here we are and we have heard the story, and we know the good news. The tomb was empty, and so what do we do with that? What we have been waiting for, what we are expecting, is being transformed, from death to life. And Jesus is on the move, going on ahead of us, ahead of our expectations, even while we’re still waiting.
We talk a lot about how God brought Jesus out of the tomb, but in all the gospels, nobody saw that happen. Resurrection is something we take on faith, that we live in hope. Resurrection, and our faith to trust it, are the mysterious works of God. But what we do see, church, what we do witness with our own eyes, if we can perceive it, is that God brings the church out of the tomb, and that is also the good news of the gospel.
We don’t see Jesus exit the tomb, but we see his followers flee the tomb. The Apostle Paul said, “Now you are the body of Christ,” and there they go in terror and amazement, and here we are right there with them. That is the first action of the church: those women running from the grave. That is the incarnation of the rising body of Christ.
We don’t meet a lifeless Jesus in a tomb, nor do we come to this church to pay our respects to a nice man who lived a long time ago, we come to be his body, his church, to participate with those others who hope and trust in him and each other. We meet this body right here, these people, this community and all the other communities of faith gathering in hope and love today around the world. Though those first followers were filled with amazement and terror, and though they didn’t understand or know what to say, still God took their expectations, their fear, their doubt, and their silence and created the movement of the followers of Jesus Christ in the world, the still rising body of Christ, a movement that we are part of these centuries later.
This is Easter beloved, and Christ is already risen, and he’s gone on ahead of us, while we were still waiting, while we were still expecting something short of miraculous. The fact of the matter is, it is all of us who God is pulling out of the tomb, we are the still rising body of Christ. And that is very good news.