It seems we’ve had the wrong idea about Easter, at least according to our gospel passage this morning. The point, Luke seems to say, is not that Jesus is with us, but that Jesus is out beyond us somewhere. The message is not that he’s here, but that he’s not here.
“Early in the morning, on the first day of the week,” Luke writes, “The women came… they saw two men in dazzling clothes who said, ‘He’s not here… Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
Why dowe? Maybe it’s because we spend so much of our time looking at death, or at least the evidence of death. We know death and its power well. Easter itself begins not with resurrection, but with death. We’ve told the story again this morning in baptism. We are “buried with Christ in baptism,” we say.
My friend Greg is a pastor in Greenville, South Carolina, where he was once baptizing two teenage brothers — fairly big guys, Jake and Cole. Younger brother, Cole, went first, outweighing my friend Greg by at least 100 lbs. Down he went, buried with Christ, but it was all Greg could do to raise him up once again. Cole came up spitting and sputtering. Staggering, he stumbled up the 3 stairs out of the baptistery looking like a baby giraffe just learning to walk, before collapsing at the top of the stairs in a heap in front of his brother, who was next up for baptism. So older brother coolly stepped over him and came into the pool, and as he did the whole congregation heard him say, “Welp… Cole’s dead.” (1)
A theologically poignant statement, in fact. Colossians says that we who follow Jesus have been “buried with him in baptism” and then Colossians says that we have been “raised to walk in the newness of life” — what is later described in Colossians 3 as “a new life of love” in some translations. This is the life we’ve focused on at First Baptist Greensboro throughout these days of Lent, leading up to Easter. Our Lenten theme, “Clothed in Christ” is a reminder of the life made possible by Christ, that puts on the virtues of compassion, kindness, humility, patience, endurance, forgiveness. We are buried with Christ and raised to walk in this new life. But sometimes we struggle to move past the death. We understand death so well, so we never quite come up for air; we struggle to find our footing in this new life of love; we so often end up collapsed, exhausted, wobbling in weariness or grief.
That’s how we find these women of Galilee at the start of our passage in Luke. These first to arrive to the tomb were also the last to leave the horrible scene of Jesus’ death. They had heard his last words, watched the agony, and the end of chapter 23 tells us that they had even followed to the grave and seen the hole and the stone. Death was definitive and final for them — a reality as cold as the walls of the tomb in which he was laid.
So as our passage begins, the women arrive not for a resurrection, but for a burial. They come to the tomb not because they believe this is the first day of a new life, but because they wanted to check on things and make sure all was secure.They’re not carrying an Easter array of flowers, but spices for a body, along with the weight of their grief, all of it rounding their shoulders and lowering their heads as their feet strike the path with the rhythm of mourning and defeat. It was over. Pontius Pilate signed the death order, and covered the tomb with stone, positioning guards against anything disruptive, Rome exercising its authority over life and death once more.
The cross was still perched outside of the city, visible against the early morning horizon with it’s daybreaking message of “this is the way things are and will always be.” As they walked, those women might have looked at that cross and recited the Psalm they had heard Jesus quote at the last, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The gospel writers agree. Each of the four tells different parts of this resurrection story, but all four gospels are utterly consistent that nobody – nobody – was expecting a resurrection. Dead people stay dead. So they’re just checking to make sure everything is sealed, you see. They just want to make sure it’s all settled and closed — some closure before trying to move on with their lives. They’re looking for a body, nothing more.
I wonder how often that’s all we’re looking for. How often is that all we’re believing can happen amidst the broken pieces of our lives? How often are our expectations limited by the evidence of death and defeat we see as we make our way in this world of ours where broken people stay broken and dead people stay dead.
“It’s a great year for Easter,” Henry Emerson Fosdick once said. (2) And we know the feeling. We have lost loved ones. We’ve buried friends. We have held funerals and memorial services for dear saints of this church, where inevitably someone tells me, “I’ve been to far too many of these.” Too many luminaries on the altar table. Too many sympathy cards and letters. We say with the American poet, Dorothy Parker, “When it comes to death, I do not approve.”
Our intimate experience as a church family is repeated in the evidence all about us. We have friends and family who are struggling for life. We grieve parents. Worry about children. We feel despair over the state of our world. We are weighed down by the suffering seemingly reaching to the ends of the earth. Innocent people die. Powerful people collude and corrupt at the expense of the most vulnerable. Systems and instruments of death dominate the lives of God’s beloved children. We wonder, does the fate of this world really matter?
Then we awake this morning to the dawn-shattering news of coordinated bombings in Sri Lanka, including some targeting Christians gathered to pray and hope early on this Easter day. We can echo Pope Francis, who said, “I entrust to the Lord those who have tragically been lost and I pray for the wounded and all those who suffer because of this dramatic event.” But how it rounds our shoulders and lowers our heads. It slows our pace, and it shapes our expectations as we make our way to look for Jesus.
“I don’t have the right personality for Good Friday.” Anne Lamott wrote these words years ago, reflecting on her mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s and the start-up of the Iraq War. “I don’t have the right personality… for the crucifixion: I’d like to skip ahead to the resurrection… We’re Easter people in a Good Friday world.” (3)
It’s a world that fills our hands with spices for burial, and finds us making our way amidst the tombs rehearsing the same old stories, where fear carries the day, where Rome wins as they always do, where promises are broken and hopes are laid open, where what we seek through the early morning haze is so limited and lacking.
But then they tell us, “He is not here.”
He is not here amidst the tombs, the finality, the death. He is not here amidst the same old expectations of dead people staying dead. This is not where Jesus stays. And we’re not meant to stay here, either. We are raised with him for a new life.
Years ago, the late author, E.B. White, wrote an essay about his wife who had died a few years earlier. She loved to garden. Every year she planned carefully, ordered from seed catalogues, created a new diagram for each year’s planting. After she became ill, and eventually unable to walk, she continued and managed somehow to get herself outside when it was time to plant. She’d positioned an old director’s chair by the garden plot, armed with diagram and clipboard in shabby old raincoat and little round wool hat, burying the seeds hour after hour.
E.B. White watched lovingly and wrote a poignant description of the scene: “There was something comical, yet touching in her bedraggled appearance on this awesome occasion. The small, hunched-over figure: her studied absorption in the implausible notion that there would be another spring: oblivious to the ending of her own days, which she knew perfectly well was near at hand; sitting there with her chart under those dark skies in the dying October calmly plotting the resurrection.” (4)
“He is not here. He has been raised by God,” which means that we who would seek him can defiantly insist on the newness of life. We can claim what is ours in Christ. He’s not amidst our stories of limit and lack. He’s not behind a stone or bound by the limits of those who put it there. He’s been raised and is calling us to join him. He is not here. We have to go out and find him. We have to seek him out beyond the limits of our imagining. We have to see in new ways, and expect what we’ve never thought possible. We have to reconsider where he’d be, and look for him in new places.
Rev. Joanna Adams is a retired pastor and writer, who years ago heard a benediction that changed her life and eventually led to her call to ministry. She was in her mid-twenties, wrapped up in the demands of life and not particularly religious. She went to church, held to a certain set of beliefs, but that was the extent of it. Then one Sunday morning the new minister at her church stood and said, “I have news for you. If you want to find Jesus Christ in the next six days, don’t look for him here, because he won’t be here…. Where will you find him? You will find him wherever people work together for good, wherever voices of people long silenced are listened to with respect, wherever the lonely are welcomed, and the hungry are fed.” (5)
You will find him wherever there is evidence of the new life of love made possible that morning amidst the tombs. You will see him anywhere there is defiance in the face of death. Where there is insistence that brokenness and suffering are not definitive or final, there he is. He is there when we remember that our hands were made to carry more than spices for burial, our lives were created to reflect more than the same old story. Christ has been raised from the depths of death and carried all of us along with him into newness of life.
I heard the story once of a man named Gordon, who was a pastor on the Upper Eastside of Manhattan. Every morning he would take the train from his home in Roosevelt Island to Manhattan, walk down the stairs from the station to the same coffee shop for a coffee and a donut. He did that every day for a month. After a month he stood up in the coffee shop and said, “Hi. I come here everyday and I know most of you do too. I don’t know you. I don’t know your names or who you are. I’m Gordon. I’m the pastor of the church around the corner. I’d love to know who you are.” And after looking at him like he was out of his mind, people actually went around one by one and shared who they were. A couple of these people were pretty famous — one was the author Tom Wolfe. Another was a successful screenwriter. They all shared their names and something about themselves. From then on they all greeted each other by name each morning. But, the one person no one knew anything about was the owner of the place — Harry. After a few months someone said, “Harry, we don’t know anything about you. We all talk, but you never speak. What’s going on?”
“I’ll tell you what’s going on.” he said. “My name isn’t Harry. It’s Hasim. I’m from Baghdad, and my family is still there.” Everyone fell silent. The year was 1991, and the Gulf War was at the height of its conflict. The United States was hostile toward Iraq, and at that moment Saddam Hussein’s missiles were pointed at Israel. Half the people in the diner were Jewish. Hasim was Iraqi and a Muslim, and his loyalties and his family resided in enemy territory. In that tension, everyone ate their donuts quietly, drank their coffee quickly, and left as soon as they could.
The very next morning, Gordon’s phone rang early, and a church member said urgently, “Did you hear the news? We’re bombing Baghdad!” Gordon didn’t even finish shaving. He washed the soap off his face and headed out the door. He wanted to get to the coffee shop before Harry would open the doors. He just wanted to express his concern for him and his family before he would have to face the rest of the customers. Gordon climbed onto the train from Roosevelt to Manhattan and hurried as quick as he could — down the stairs to the coffee shop, up the street to arrive just before it opened at 6am. And as he ran up to the shop he saw assembled there on the street were all the regulars. Early that morning, they were all there — all the people that had been drinking coffee together those months. They had all had the same thought when they saw on the news that the war was beginning. They all wanted to get to the coffee shop for Harry’s sake. So there they were on the street, gathered together to share their concern. And Tom Wolfe, author and humanist, turned to Gordon and said, “Well, you’re a pastor, why don’t you pray or something?” And Gordon stumbled through a prayer. After he said “Amen,” Harry spoke up and said, “Don’t get the wrong idea — you still have to pay for your donuts. But, none of you will ever have to pay for coffee again.”
Gordon said later that it was like a resurrection moment, an Easter moment. It was moment of defiance in the face of death, of human compassion and hope amidst all the evidence of death. In its own way, it was an Easter moment of God’s people coming together early one morning for something more than the same old story where death has the final word. Gordon said he’d never felt it quite like he did in that moment outside the coffee shop. (6)
Because just when you think you know, where he is to be found, you discover what those women of Galilee did: Jesus is not where you thought he was at all. “He’s not here,” said the two men in dazzling clothes, and the truth echoes from the tomb to us today.
We can hear it when we gather for baptism, stumbling our way in and out of the pool, and Jesus says to us “Will you join me out at the river, in the middle of the wilderness? Will you come out to the prophet John with his message of repentance and change?”
Or when we gather for worship, he strolls up to the front as he did at Nazareth in the gospel of Luke, and he finds that place in the scroll with his life-changing message of release for the captives and good news for the poor, a message that seems to arouse – even in his biggest fans and admirers – those parts of us that would drive him away.
And when we gather for communion — our grape juice carefully lined up — he asks, “Who wants to get out of here and go turn some water into wine?”
Or when we’re starting to enjoy security and safety, settling down in comfort, he turns to all of us 99: “I’m not staying here. I’m going out beyond the fence where someone is lost. I’m going to find them, to bring them home. If you’re looking for me, I’ll be out there.”
How we want him to stay in one place. To be close to us. Where we expect. But Jesus Christ is always somewhere beyond us, leading us to places we never intended; calling us to walk into the light of a new day; leading us to encounter people we would never have met on our own. He gave his life to this. He gave his life for this.
And when we thought it was all over, and it’s all we could do to gather enough of our strength to carry the spices to the gravesite, just to make sure the tomb was sealed and the body contained. Just to start to come to grips with life without him. Just to start to resign ourselves to this world where our best hopes seem to die and stay dead, we hear it once more:
“He’s not here. He is risen.”
- Thanks to Dear Friend, Greg Dover, for sharing this story.
- Fosdick, “A Great Year for Easter,” in Living Under Tension: Sermons on Christianity Today (New York: Harper Brothers, 1941).
- Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, 140.
- E.B. White: A Biography, 353
- “When You Want it All” (Fourth Presbyterian Church, October 2003)
- Shared by Tony Campolo to Wilshire Preaching Practicum (September 2018)