March 27, 2016 – Easter
The United Churches
John 20: 1-18
Empty tombs are unusual in the Bible. You see there are a lot of people who are raised from the dead, but it happens right before your eyes, so there are no empty tombs with missing bodies. In 1 Kings, Elijah the prophet raised the widow of Zarephath’s son. Elijah was a guest in the widow’s house in the midst of a great drought. Her son became ill and died. She thought that her son died as a result of her sin, so she brought him to Elijah as sort of an act of confession. Elijah prayed over him and the boy’s life returned to him, the scripture says, and he lived. Elisha the prophet does the same in 2nd Kings with the Shunammite woman’s son. In Luke 7, Jesus raised another widow’s son from the dead in the city of Nain. Jesus just said “Get up” and the dead man began to speak. Then there is Jairus’s daughter raised from the dead in Luke 8. Jesus took her by the hand and said “get up” and she did. Of course the disciples continue this work. There is Tabitha also called Dorcas in Acts 9. Peter prayed over her and she rose up. There is Eutychus in Acts 20 raised from the dead by the apostle Paul. And of course, the story that we are all familiar with found in John 11: Lazarus being raised from the dead.
The Lazarus story has a lot of detail. He was dead for three days. That is the amount of time it was believed that the spirit lingered around the body before leaving. Jesus gave a detailed prayer and commanded Lazarus to “Come out!” Then Jesus told the group surrounding the grave to “untie him and let him go.” I sort of imagine Lazarus shuffling out from the tomb unable to see.
There are a lot of stories in the Bible of people being raised from the dead. But, there are no other empty tombs. Why is this tomb empty? Wouldn’t it just have been better for Mary to arrive on the scene and give a prayer and have Jesus come to life and shuffle out in his grave clothes? If that happened, the disciples could see the miracle before their very eyes, and telling the story to others would be easy. God would be praised and everyone would be amazed! Jesus could go round to everyone who put him to death and scare the heck out of them and maybe even quickly expand his followers into a massive throng and end the occupation of Rome. Really, that is how we do it in the Bible. Look at all the other stories! People get prayed over and get up and walk and talk and serve dinner. But the tomb is empty and Jesus is unrecognizable! Mary thinks that he is the gardener. The disciples do not recognize him. The two that walk on the road to Emmaus do not recognize Jesus until he joins them for supper and he offers prayer and breaks the bread.
Why is the tomb empty? Why is Jesus unrecognizable? I suggest that the tomb is empty because there is no going back. Jesus is unrecognizable because he is completely transformed. It is probably easier for us to imagine the butterfly. First there are eggs, then a caterpillar, then the caterpillar makes a chrysalis. Then the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis and it is empty and there is no going back. The butterfly cannot fit in the chrysalis ever again. The butterfly is unrecognizable as a caterpillar.
In our lives as Christian people, or in our lives as decent human beings on the planet, we all long for transformation. We deeply desire to learn, to grow, to change, to become. Even though we so deeply desire this, change is so very hard, and sometimes very painful and we are afraid. We like our tombs. We know what they look like. Some of us have made them a comfy place to be. Because we are afraid, we resist transformation. We resist growth. We resist becoming. What if our friends and loved ones don’t recognize us?
I was discussing all of this with my friend Ned a week ago Friday. We were talking in the visiting room of the Federal Correction Institute in Sheridan Oregon. Ned was finishing out a nearly five-year sentence there. Ned is the kind of guy that makes the best of everything. I can’t imagine what I would be like in prison, but Ned woke up every day planning to have a good day and do things that would be helpful. He cleaned the bathrooms every day. He washed the exterior windows. He taught classes. He painted. He ran. He practiced Yoga. He organized a series of “Gong Shows” for others to participate in and wrote much of the music for the shows. He wrote daily to many people and provided council for some. If Ned was in a tomb (so to speak) he made it the best tomb ever. When we talked on Friday night he knew that he would be released on Tuesday and return home to California. His wife and daughters would be waiting at the airport. He told me of his surprise when a wave of sadness washed over him that evening when he went into the chow hall. He thought that his sadness was because others were not leaving and he was. I thought his sadness was because he was leaving. Don’t get me wrong, Ned had been counting down the days of his incarceration from day one. He wanted to leave. But at least FCI Sheridan was a place he understood. He had figured out his part in it and played it well. Now that he was leaving, he was facing a great host of unknowns, and he was not the same person. I think he might be afraid of new life.
How are we afraid of life? What are the new opportunities that invite us forward on our path to transformation? What opportunities make us want to hide out in our metaphorical tombs? Do you feel called to tackle a sensitive political issue, but it seems like too much effort? Is your relationship with your spouse in need of some hard work on your part, where you might need to change? Are you in the midst of complicated grief and loss unable to embrace new possibilities? Are you longing for a new work environment, but afraid to make a decision? In what ways might you be hugging the tomb, unable to walk out where the stone has been rolled away?
God ended death in transforming Jesus the Christ into someone so new that he was unrecognizable, and the tomb is empty. May it be so for you and me. Christ is Risen!