John 20:1-8

It’s a great joy to welcome all of you to what is the pinnacle of the Christian year. This is the day every year when just about everything seems over the top—flowers everywhere, the greatest music, long lines for services. For those of us who work in churches, this is the one we look forward to all year long.

I heard once of a man who stopped to complain to the priest on Easter morning as he was headed out of church. “You know, I’m getting tired of this. Every time I come to church you sing the same hymn, ‘Jesus Christ Is Risen Today.’” Well, I want you to know that we do have a wider repertoire than that, and we’re doing this church thing 52 Sundays out of the year. I hope you’ll come back again, and I promise the parking won’t be nearly as challenging.

“Sir, could you say a word or two about the resurrection of the dead?” Some bright college students put that seemingly simple question to Carlyle Marney, one of the grand Protestant ministers of a generation ago.

“I will not discuss that with people like you,” he replied.

“Why not?” they asked.

“I don’t discuss such matters with anyone under thirty.”

“Why?”

“Look at you,” he said, “prime of your life, potent, never have you known honest-to-God failure, heartburn, solid defeat, brick walls, mortality. So what in God’s name can you know of a terrible world that only makes sense if Christ is risen?”

Now, I’m not so sure the old man was being fair to the life experience of college students. But he was right that the story of Easter begins with hard things such as death, failure, and a tomb. In our Gospel, three disciples come to a tomb to anoint the body of their Lord. The trauma of the past three days was over. The man who had been their teacher, leader, and friend was dead. They were just finishing up the good-byes. Another good man put to death. Why should they be surprised?

Tombs. Dead ends. That’s where the Easter story begins and that’s where so much of life takes us. It wouldn’t be hard to make a case for this as a world where Death is the real ruler. Everything we love and cherish will pass away.

The hardest part of growing old, an older parishioner once said to me, is seeing all your closest and dearest friends die. As the poet William Butler Yeats put it, “Man is in love, and loves what vanishes, what more is there to say?”

But there is much more to say, I’m afraid. Because the tombs, the dead ends aren’t just the natural ones. There are the tombs of loneliness, betrayal, of job loss, of millions who have lost their homes; there are the tombs of one phase of our life coming to an end in retirement or divorce. There are the tombs of the 80 freedom fighters killed in Syria two days ago, the thousands in Libya, the tens of thousands of children who perish each day for lack of such basics as food, water, and malaria nets. There is the darkening tomb of a planet choking on the fumes of the human race and with seemingly no real will to protect it.

And all of that can be enough to leave us, like those women, not expecting that anything much can really happen. The best we can do is shrug, accept that that’s the way the world is, and bring some oil to anoint the dead. Things can’t really be better. We just shouldn’t expect much.

But the disciples who came that early Sunday morning found something utterly unexpected, something that had all the marks of some other world. With all the grandeur of Easter morning it’s easy to forget that the first Easter didn’t begin that way. All of the accounts capture a sense of darkness, confusion, and uncertainties, and even when it dawns on the disciples that their Lord may be alive again, we don’t hear great cheers of joy, but rather fear and disorientation. Everything is happening in half-light, and the disciples have no better mental categories to put resurrection into than we do.

In the Easter account we just heard from John’s gospel, Jesus’ closest friends make their way to the tomb of their Lord to say good-bye to their friend and find themselves shocked to discover his tomb empty. Not long after, Mary returns to the tomb and this time she meets a mysterious man she assumes is the gardener. But when he calls her name, “Mary,” she immediately recognizes who this is. “Rabbouni!” she cries. “Teacher!” It’s a riveting moment of recognition and reunion, filled with incomprehension and dawning awareness. Her Lord was alive. And quickly the word spread.

What exactly Mary and the others saw, we don’t know. But we do know that people who had seen the worst that life could bring became convinced that God was doing something new, that death could no longer contain their Lord, that new life still lay ahead—for Jesus himself, and for them, too. They were as confused by these encounters as many of us still are. But slowly they began to trust in a whole new possibility.

Do you remember the disturbing video shots of Japan as the earthquake shook everything? No matter how carefully buildings are put together, when the earth under them moves, nothing stays put, and everything gets tossed around. For those early disciples, Easter was an earthquake.

Years ago after the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco, people were saying, “We’re still waiting for the Big One!” In a meeting with the clergy of that area, Episcopal Bishop of California Bill Swing said, “For us, the Big One has already happened.” We’re living, he was saying, on the other side of the event that has changed everything. If death is not the end for us, if no tombs are final, everything about our lives will look different.

Within days these timid, unimaginative, unreliable disciples were discovering a new clarity and confidence in who they were and what God was doing. And those same frightened disciples who had abandoned their Lord in the crisis of his arrest began to move forward to spread the word everywhere that Christ was risen and a power greater than any tomb had been unleashed everywhere.

Sometimes though resurrection happens slowly. It can be hard to understand, hard to spot. And it demands that we face our tombs and not run away from them.

Reynolds Price, the North Carolina writer who died recently, wrote a memoir called A Whole New Life ten years after his being diagnosed with an excruciating spinal cancer that left him without the use of his legs. He wrote of the agonizing struggle of learning to live in a wheelchair, the problems of putting back together his personal and professional life, and of all he had to learn to deal with chronic severe pain. It was a death of everything he thought his life would be. But, slowly, very slowly, a new life emerged from the ruins of the old.

At the close of his account Price offers advice for people facing a calamity—illness, divorce, loss—the end of one self, the need for a new one. It takes struggle and fighting, he says, and the refusal to give in, to demand that healing come. When something hard hits, do the grieving you need to do. Have a good cry, he says, or several. It’s important to grieve for that life that has ended.

But then, he says, get on with finding your way to that somebody else you have to become a new life. He says he wishes someone had said to him, “Who will you be now? Who can you be now [that the old Reynolds Price is dead] and how can you get there, double-time?”

That is resurrection struggle—new life coming out of the tomb of the old. It can take years of facing into one dead-end and its consequences before the new resurrection life can begin to emerge. Resurrection almost always takes time.

If Christ is raised from the dead, new life will come in your dead-ends and mine—new, unexpected life we couldn’t imagine. Your own life can never be a closed story. And if Christ is raised then this amazing Arab Spring we have been watching unfold across northern Africa and the Middle East had to happen sometime. In country after country a spirit of freedom and human dignity has risen up to throw off brutal dictators. If Christ’s Spirit is on the move, then the Spirit of compassion and service will emerge in our young people and many will and are being called to lives of service in our cities and across the world.

Does this sound like too big a claim to be “realistic?” Of course, none of this is “believable,” if we are going to depend on common sense for our beliefs. In fact, all the accounts of the disciples meeting the risen Lord describe the witnesses as doubtful and incredulous.

The fact is that many Christians don’t know what to make of this talk of resurrection. And for many of us Christians trusting this resurrection claim has taken time. It is such an assault on the airtight space-time-material box our age has us trapped in, in which something isn’t real if you can’t see it, touch it, or find it on the internet. In our frenetic lives we have squeezed out the realm of the spiritual. For most of us we need to start slowly, worshiping, going to a class, coming to Eucharist, learning to pray. And slowly, like that first dawning trust in the resurrection, you can begin to sense that someone’s calling your name, that Christ is somehow with you, and you can begin to trust a life in you deeper than your own.

Today we’re being given, even in this world of tombs and dead ends, a chance for real joy and hope. Christ has been raised from the dead. He will meet us in the thick of our daily struggles. He will meet us wherever truth is spoken, whenever people face what they thought was a wall and discover that it is a door into a new life, wherever people struggle for decent lives. He will meet us in the bread and wine we’re about to receive, he’ll meet us at work and at home next week as we struggle to love and care and work for a more hopeful world. He will meet us in this church community as his Spirit draws us together.

The earth has shaken. The Big One has happened. No tomb, no loss, no dying will ever be the end for you or any of us. The walls of this world have been blown open.

Because Christ the Lord is risen.

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