The Empty Tomb

April 10th, 2014

Easter: An End or a Beginning?

On Easter morning, some will come to worship because they want to experience an ending and others because they want to experience a beginning. Some will think back to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Lenten journey that Christians take in the 40 days before Easter. Some people gave up soda. Some gave up eating out. Some sought to implement new spiritual disciplines. Perhaps it was a challenge to see if we could do it—to see if God would really come close to us if we tried to come close to God. We walk through the wilderness of Lent, and we come to Easter to see it through to the end.

Some come to Easter for something new. Churches are decked out in flowers. There’s bold, beautiful music. There’s the story of Resurrection. Perhaps we come to Easter because we haven’t been to church in a while and we feel the need for something new, something fresh, something alive in our weary souls. Some want to experience a beginning.

What is it that we find in these Easter texts? The empty tomb has been with us for many centuries now. What is new for us to hear there?

A Distracting Show

It’s easy to get distracted when you read the Easter story from Matthew 28:1-10. It’s the loudest of the Gospel accounts, something that might attract the attention of a Jerry Bruckheimer or Cecil B. DeMille—people who make hyperactive action films. Let’s give it the Hollywood treatment:

It’s the first day of the week. The sun is just coming up in a garden where two women—Mary Magdalene and the other Mary—head toward the grave of Jesus. They are coming to look at the grave. Suddenly, there’s an earthquake. (I told you this is big!) And as if the earthquake isn’t enough, an angel comes down from the skies and rolls away the stone and sits on it. The angel is bright like lighting, and his clothes are white as snow.

The guards . . . Did I mention there were guards? There are guards! And why are they there? Because some of the religious leaders were afraid that the disciples would come take the body of Jesus and claim that he was alive. They wanted guards to watch the tomb to make sure that body wasn’t coming out. But when the earthquake comes, the guards fall down on the ground like dead men. (Get it? They’re supposed to watch the dead man, but they become like dead men!)

Behind the Noise

So that’s the pitch, but pay attention. Matthew wants to show you wonders. “Look how the earth shakes! Look how the angel comes down! Look how the guards fall out!” There’s so much going on that you could almost miss what doesn’t happen. Jesus doesn’t come out of the grave.

Matthew is the only one of the four Gospel accounts that gives us the tomb opening—in the other three, it has already happened when the story begins. But even here, the tomb is already empty, and Jesus is already gone. The special effects are impressive, but the Resurrection takes place before any of the pyrotechnics. In fact, the dramatic displays may distract us from the fact that the Resurrection happens in ways the world can’t detect.

Keeping Focus

It’s easy to get distracted. We can come to the Easter garden like the women, preoccupied with grief and worries, with a sense of guilt or loss, utterly unmoored from anything stable. The Resurrection comes to tell us that grief and loss and lost-ness are not the sum total of our lives. There is something more.

Perhaps we are also attuned to the anxieties of the powerful. The authorities who posted the guards may look like they are in control, but their authority is built on a foundation of their own fear. They would like to maintain the illusion of power, but the Resurrection comes to say that real power is now unleashed in the world. Systems that are corrupt and broken are ripe for transformation. They may try to crucify hope, but they will fail and fall.

We can also be distracted by the earthquakes. Natural disasters. Human disasters. We’ve seen them. Mudslides. Drought. Fires. They’re in the news every day. We think the terrors we face are a sign that God has abandoned us. But the Resurrection comes to tell us that the earthquakes don’t have the last say.

The angel can even draw our attention away. He only rolled away the stone so that we could see what had already happened. He is only there to say, “He is not here.”

But the most important encounter in the story happens when Jesus meets the women in the garden. Without any accompanying drama, he greets them. They grab hold of his feet and know that he is not floating above the world, but really walking within it. He provides the focus we need in a world of distractions.

Finding Our Lives in Christ

In some ways, the world doesn’t change much following the Resurrection. Unlike the aftermath of an earthquake when you can look at the shifted soil, the changes are not so visible. Even Jesus’ interactions with his disciples don’t seem to change immediately. In other post-Resurrection Gospel accounts, Jesus sits down and eats with them, just as he had done so many times before. He invites them to continue the life they have known with him—sharing life together and following in his footsteps.

The logic of the Incarnation has made the activities of the company of disciples mean something more, however. God came into the world. God suffered and died with us. And now the cycle of birth to death is not the measure of life. Life is defined by relationship to God. We find our lives in Christ. To use the language of Colossians, our life, which we have been searching for amid all the distractions, “is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). The Resurrection opens up the possibility of a qualitatively different life.

Empty or Open?

Maybe it’s not the things that catch our eye that are really real. Maybe the most real thing in the world is the empty tomb. And maybe empty is not the best word to describe what it is. Empty space implies a lack, as if the only thing to say about the tomb is that the body is missing. But what if it’s open space—open to possibility and God’s new thing?

We have a choice when presented with this space. We can ignore it. After all, what’s going to change if we pass it by? The world will still be defined by its problems and its brokenness. But if we choose to live in this space, this open space, which God has opened up in the very place where the world marks death, then our lives get redefined and reoriented. Suddenly the God who speaks behind the distractions can instruct us to go where we have never been before.

The lectionary readings for Easter Sunday challenge us to see and choose what really matters. Will we see in the open tomb what Jeremiah sees—God appearing to say, “I have loved you with a love that lasts forever” (Jeremiah 31:3)? Will we see the psalmist’s affirmation that God has remained with Israel in a “faithful love” (Psalm 118:1)? Or will we only be like the guards by the tomb, unable to witness what God is doing? In the Acts passage that is an optional reading for the day, Peter talks to the household of Cornelius and shares with them that when God raised Jesus up, he could be seen “not by everyone but by us” (Acts 10:41). Easter is a miracle of seeing and it isn’t automatic. It takes open hearts to see what God is doing with the open space.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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