Luke 24:1-12 The Rev. Helen Havlik Easter Sunday April 21, 2019
Even the bravest among us sometimes wake up in the night with anxious thoughts racing through our minds. And we all have fears that get in the way of our loving God and loving neighbor. So during Lent this year we looked at what Jesus says and does about fear—so that we can “fear less.” I think it’s safe to say that the disciples—including everyone who traveled with Jesus—were overwhelmed by fear as the events of Holy Week unfolded. Who wouldn’t be? But in the end, Jesus triumphs, love wins. And as we’ve heard before, perfect love drives out fear. Our Gospel is from Luke 24, beginning with vs. 1. Listen to these words from the book that we love.
Before my brother Bob got married, he traveled a lot on his own. He especially enjoyed Central and South America. Before he and my sister-in-law Laura were married they went to Nepal together—and later spent their honeymoon in South Africa and Zambia. Even so, they have very different ideas about adventure—Laura would just as soon spend time at a resort in Cozumel. Bob often hired guides who took him to places off the beaten track where he would just camp out. Even though I enjoy seeing new places, I often find traveling stressful and anxiety-producing. Just ask my friend Jacque who put up with my near-hysteria as we navigated the Paris subway system without knowing the language or what stop would lead us to the friends we were hoping to stay with. That trip was instructive to me—apparently when I travel, I like to know where I’m staying the night along with the route that will get me from here to there. Back roads are interesting, but you won’t see me signing up for a trip to Mars, though I bet my brother would at least think about it. He’s the kind of person who would go where no one has gone before.
Like it or not, that’s where the disciples found themselves on the first day of the week. Following the crucifixion, following the mandatory Sabbath rest, first the women, then Peter, then all of the disciples find themselves in new and unknown territory. Things looked the same—same Jerusalem, same Temple, same room in which they had shared their final meal with Jesus. But it wasn’t the same. Too much had happened in a really short time. They were in unfamiliar territory, needing a guide and not knowing what to do next. They had Jesus’ words, but nothing added up yet.
Jesus is the resurrection and the life, but before Easter is about new life, Easter is about a cross and an empty tomb. Easter is about the reality of all the fear and disappointments and losses each of us has along the way. That last week of Jesus’ life, is drenched in tears and grief and fear, as the big unknown of death quickly gathers everyone in. The short-lived triumph of Palm Sunday falls away and everything for Jesus and his disciples turns horribly wrong. It doesn’t take much imagination for us to get what the women are thinking and feeling as they go to the tomb where Jesus’ body lay. All appears lost and they can’t know what they’ll actually find when they get there. We know what that’s like, don’t we? To lose a dear loved one, to lose a friend, to lose a dream? We need to be clear about this: before Easter is about new life, Easter is about the unknown. Isn’t that why we gather here today? Don’t we hope for directions to get from here to there? Don’t we want to be assured we have a place to spend the night? Don’t we look for some word of hope that will make a difference? Don’t we look, year after year, to be sure that tomb still is empty—and that Jesus’ words still mean today what they did back then?
That’s why for us Christians, some of the most important words in scripture are “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” On these words our lives as Christians turn. Death, that vast unknown, is not the final word: the tomb is empty, death is defeated, we no longer need to be afraid of the unknown because new life is possible. Jesus’ resurrection gives us a perspective no one else has by affirming that God’s power is (present tense) at work in the world and for the world. Resurrection assures us that nothing in this world can stop God.
Jesus had more to do and the plan was and is for us to do it. But first we have to stop “looking for the living among the dead” and grab onto what is and will be. We have to let go of death and grab onto life, with all its possibilities and unknowns. We all know people who live as though every day were Good Friday: they can’t get rid of anything; their mementos become idols; whole rooms become shrines to the past. We all know people who’ve lost their curiosity and pine for the good old days. We all know people who hold grudges, who won’t forgive something that happened a long time ago, who won’t let their grief heal. Of course, Jesus expects his disciples to grieve—he acknowledges their fear of the unknown. But he has so much more to offer them—life abundant, life spent in living out the way he had taught them of loving God and loving neighbor.
The empty tomb isn’t the end of the story—it points to a destination, somewhere we want to go, maybe where no one or very few have gone before. The resurrection of Jesus isn’t an end in itself. When we first meet those first disciples, they are confused, fearful, oppressed, inexperienced, some of them are physically and mentally ill, some of them are outcast—if we’re honest, not so very different from you and me. Jesus calls them to a different way of life—one that runs counter to the way the world normally works. He asks them to think of others at least as much as they think of themselves, he asks them to think about their faith and to look at scripture through the eyes of love. He tells them God loves them and all people as a good father loves his children—and so they must love as they have been loved—even their enemies. He asks them to serve others, as he has served them. Jesus asks them to open themselves to a new way of life, and in the process, they are transformed from confused, fearful, insecure people into disciples who can stand up and preach to even hostile crowds, who can stand up even to the political and religious authorities of the time. They are transformed into faithful people willing to risk their lives on behalf of God’s purposes.
That’s what finding the empty tomb does. Resurrection sets them free to follow unafraid wherever Jesus continues to lead. Despite their worst fears, their journey takes them where no one has gone before. And Jesus continues to be with them, giving them—and us—the courage to follow him where he continues to lead us. Like those first disciples, we’re not to come by ourselves, but together, and to bring others with us—as many as we can, in fact, the whole world. For, as Barbara Brown Taylor says, “God has planted a seed of life in us that cannot be killed, and if we can remember that, then there is nothing we cannot do: move mountains, banish fear, love our enemies, change the world.”
Like many of us, I was sad and horrified to see Notre Dame cathedral burn this past week. I went looking for pictures I had taken on that infamous trip to Paris. And I was reminded that as beautiful as that cathedral is and as glad as I am that it will be rebuilt, the church is not a building and it’s not a tomb. Jesus can’t be contained by our either our structures or our fears. He takes us out of our sanctuaries and into the big, wide, often unknown world. “He is not here”—those are the words of hope and encouragement we need to hear now. The tomb is still empty! He is not here—may we stop looking for the living among the dead, turn our eyes on him and follow wherever he leads.