Not one; not a single one of them who had lived with Jesus, who listened and learned from him, who loved him—expects resurrection. Jesus tries to tell them. He will die, be buried, and be raised to new life with God. They cannot take it in.
The women come to the tomb to complete the rituals of death; bearing spices and oils for anointing his bruised, battered, broken body. Witnesses to the torture and pain, the sweat and the blood, the agony and the shame of the cross; these women do not turn away. Faithful women, they place themselves in danger to serve Jesus in the only way they believe left to them.
What happens next startles and unsettles them. They discover the enormous stone; meant to seal off the tomb, rolled away. A young man, dressed in a white robe, greets them; proclaiming resurrection, speaking Easter, inviting Easter faith. “Jesus has been raised. Go and tell. He is going ahead of you. You will see him.”
Silent and shaken, numb in their grief, the women simply cannot comprehend this astonishing proclamation. Terrified, amazed, fearful; presented with the mystery of resurrection, they flee.
The cross, the grave, the tomb: the womb of resurrection. (Marney) In the risen Christ, God’s transforming power is pushed out into the world, and nothing, nothing, nothing can contain it. God pours mercy and forgiveness, justice and love, grace and redemption into every dead and dying, bruised and broken, stone sealed place. We live now in a world where resurrection has happened. (Buchanan)
Resurrection shatters our certainties; unsettles our settlements. And like these first disciples of Jesus—the fleeing women, the men returning to their fishing nets and boats, the broken hearted followers leaving Jerusalem by way of the Emmaus Road—we also flee resurrection.
In its place, we create a sentimental and ghostly journey from this life to the next. We rely upon our technology and our medicine to save us. We hold fast to the notion that we possess within ourselves everything necessary for immortality. And as long as we place our trust in our hearts, our minds, our souls, our strength to save us from the power of death; God’s resurrection cannot come to us. (Marney)
There is a poem making the rounds in funerals these days. Multiple times over the last few months; families, raw in their anguish, fresh in their grief, have brought it to me. “Rev. Gina” they say “We would like to read this instead of Scripture at the funeral. What do you think?”
Hear the poems opening lines:
Death is nothing at all.
I have only stepped away into the nest room.
I am I and you are you
Whatever we are to each other
That we still are …
I finish reading and look up into the faces of those hoping I will tell them it is true; that death is nothing at all; that their loved one is not really gone, that the smell and scent and sound of the one so precious to them has not really left them.
I know what they want me to say and yet I cannot say it. For I find no cross in these words. Comforting as they may seem; comfort proves a small substitute for resurrection. The shadow of the cross falls across God’s promise that what God did in Jesus, God will do for us.
Considering my response to these good and gracious people, I remember the words of my teacher Fred Craddock, about this night’s gospel. “Christian witnesses must draw their breath in pain to tell the story of death and resurrection. And those closest to God seem to be the one’s most sensitive to the inclination to be silent before God. … And yet the fundamental human sacrament is to say something important; to say something important proves hard.”
And so, I draw in my breath and to their pain, I speak, the most important truth I know. “If death is nothing, if your loved one is not really gone, then why are we here? And why are we planning a liturgy of death and resurrection? Because the church makes a profoundly different proclamation.”
Death is something; a period at the end of life; a sealing stone. And by the power of God, death becomes something else; an exclamation point, the opening of new and everlasting life that exceeds our wildest imaginings. I wonder if we really expect that? I wonder if we really expect resurrection?
To a family, they have sat silently; and after a long silence, when they finally speak, they say, “Let us think about it.” And to a family, the next day, an email arrives citing Scripture they have chosen in the place of the poem. And then this: “Thank you. We hadn’t thought about it that way. It was important to consider.”
“It is finished,” Jesus says on Good Friday with his dying breath. When everything human lies exhausted, poured out, depleted. At the end of our human efforting, only then can the God who is God appear. Then quietly, behind the stone; in the dark, airless, stinking, sealed off places of death; God begins the mysterious work of resurrection.
My friend Charles had a neighbor who loved tennis and decided to build a tennis court in his spacious back yard. Paying no attention to the small spring that trickled up in the middle of the yard; the construction crew scraped the yard, laid the asphalt base, painted bold, white lines.
Within three months, that little spring had eaten a hole in the tennis court. Three time, the man rebuilt; the last time using thousands of pounds of poured concrete. Charles remembers visiting his neighbor and looking down at a pile of concrete, steel, and rubble; a gentle, sweet spring bubbling up softly in the midst of it all.
Resurrection comes like a sweet spring, bubbling up through life’s broken places; bubbling up in the rubble, squalor, and squander of our world.
Jesus lay silent, still, cold; dead and buried for three days: as God’s mysterious, merciful, broken heart willed and worked life out of death for God’s only begotten and beloved Son. God promises that life to us, and we receive it; God’s gift of resurrection, with astonishment and gratitude.
Desmond Tutu describes a meeting in South Africa during the days of apartheid. “I met a man while I was praying with the people of Mogapa one night,” Tutu said. “Now this was someone whose house was going to be demolished the next day. Clinics and churches and shops had been demolished already, and people were going to be moved out at the point of a gun. This man got up in the middle of the night and he prayed, ‘Thank you God, for loving us.’
“You couldn’t imagine a more nonsensical prayer in the middle of the night. And yet, and yet, there was a man who didn’t seem to know any theology,” standing in the rubble, praying in astonished gratitude for the love of God.
A gentle and yet profound mystery moves among us this night; bubbling up like a sweet spring of living water. Jesus has been raised. He lives free among us; victorious in death, glorious in life. Resurrection has happened. We need not fear. We need not flee. And yet, I wonder—do we expect it?
There’s a world out there; waiting for God’s holy church to draw our breath in pain, to participate in the fundamental human sacrament, to risk saying something important.
So dear church: Go and tell. He goes before you. You will see him. For the Lord is risen! The Lord is risen indeed. Thanks be to God.
These are sermon notes and are not intended for the purposes of publication. —Gina Gilland Campbell
“The Lord Hath Reigned from the Tree,” The Crucible of Redemption, Carlyle Marney, Chanticleer Publishing, Wake Forest, NC, 1968.
“Life after resurrection,” Christian Century, John Buchanan, April 18, 2012.
“And They Said Nothing to Anyone” and “And the Witnesses Said Nothing,” Fred B. Craddock, The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 2011.
Desmond Tutu, “Cloud of Witnesses,” Sojourners/Orbis, 1990.
Henry Scott Holland, “King of Terrors,” sermon at St. Paul’s Cathedral, May 15, 1910.