One day, at the beginning of class in my introduction to Christian Doctrine course I had to take in college, the professor got up and gave us this hypothetical: if a report came out that archaeologists had found the tomb of Jesus and that in the tomb was a body and they were confident that that body was the body of Jesus, how would that impact your faith. If Jesus’ body was still in the tomb would you still be a Christian. Now to understand what happened next you have to understand the dynamic of an upper-level college religion course: in the average class you have people who consider themselves super conservative theologically and then there are the people who fancy themselves super liberal theologically and then there are the rest of us who are trying not to get hit as the two throw stuff at each other. Because, and I can say this because I was one relatively recently, there’s nothing worse than a 20-year-old religion major. Its like they’re the first people to ever read the Bible. But on this day, there was agreement. Both sides came together, both said that no matter what, no amount of outside of evidence, nothing could make them abandon their faith. And the professor listened, and then said “good for you all, but I don’t know if my answer is the same. Because if the tomb isn’t empty this is just an interesting story about a man who said some interesting things and then got executed. But if the tomb is empty, then everything changes. Resurection changes everything.”
Mary went down to the tomb that morning, presumably to grieve. It was the third day since Jesus’ death, and it was time to start coming to grips with that. She went early, while it was still dark, when she knew that no one else would be there. She wanted time alone. Those of us who have been through the death of a loved one know, sometimes you have to be alone for the grieving and the healing to begin. Being surrounded by people can be comforting but it can also be smothering. The area around the tomb is a good place to grieve. It gives her an opportunity to do what she needs to do, to get anything she needs to say off her chest, to say her goodbyes and begin to move on. But then she gets there, and the stone is rolled away. The text doesn’t say if she went in to the tomb itself, but she’s confident enough to know the body isn’t there. And when she realizes it, despite her grief, she comes to a very logical conclusion. Bodies don’t just get up and move, “they,” whoever they are, must have taken it. The empty tomb doesn’t ignite or prod her faith, it raises her fear. Resurrection is far from her mind.
It’s also far from the minds of the two disciples she tells. Peter and John come and look and they “saw and believed,” but believed what? Its pointed out that they still don’t understand what has happened, so if anything they believe what Mary believes, someone has taken the body.
They leave Mary at the tomb, go off to do whatever they go off to do. But Mary remains. And Mary weeps. And Mary grieves. Because not only is he dead, but the body is gone. She’s not going to be able to come back and see the tomb and remember the good times, she’s not going to be able to visit and bring others with her, there’s nothing there. And then she sees angels, but she doesn’t understand who they are and they can’t help her find the body. And then she sees a man, and she doesn’t know who he is but maybe he knows something and she begs him to tell her what happened to the body and then he says her name. And when Jesus says her name, Mary’s world breaks wide open. Because the possibility she didn’t even acknowledge turns out to be the one that’s true. The body wasn’t stolen, the body isn’t there. Her grieving is ending, because there’s nothing left to grieve.
That’s a remarkable thing in and of itself. Jesus coming back to life is an amazing event. But the empty tomb is so much more than that. Resurrection is so much more than that. This is about more than one miracle, this is an event that changes all of human existence and history. Closed worlds are broken open, old perceptions of what is possible or plausible are shattered. This is about so much more than one person coming back to life, resurrection is about the faithfulness of God to God’s promises. Resurrection is about God’s refusal to abandon creation to what it is. The empty tomb doesn’t simply call us to reflect on a moment in time 2000 years ago where God did something amazing. The empty tomb calls us to take seriously the fact that God can do something amazing right now in our lives and in our world.
Paul speaks to the change resurrection can have on our lives in Colossians 3. He points to the difference in the things that define a life controlled by death and a life controlled and defined by resurrection. Because that’s where a lot of our issues come from. Deep down so much of the things that he mentions further on in the chapter are the results of looking at life with an expiration date, of thinking of life as a finite, as temporary, and as the end goal. Sexual immorality, lust, impurity, greed, anger, rage, malice, slander and lies, racism, all of these things stem from an understanding of our lives as two dates with a dash between them on a stone and believing that all that matters is what we fill that dash with. If we think like that, if we look at life as something empty that needs to be filled with all the experiences and wealth and relationships and whatever else we think will make our life “well lived,” then we’ll fall into the traps of those things Paul lists off to avoid. We’ll see other people as either sources of our pleasure or obstacles to it. Life becomes a series of transactions, of decisions made purely based on the outcome. And we might look at the “way of the world” and wish it wasn’t so, we might think of alternatives and say “wouldn’t it be nice if everyone did…” but we’ll buy in to the status quo every time. Because life is short, and at the end of the day you better get what you can while you can.
That mindset doesn’t work in the face of an empty tomb. Resurrection breaks into the world defined by the finite, the temporary, and introduces a life defined by the eternal. Resurrection speaks to the reality that in Christ humanity, and the whole world, is being renewed. In Christ we don’t just see alternatives to the “way of the world,” we receive a call to embody, because we have confidence that God still creates, that God’s power still triumphs, and that mankind is not beyond redemption. Our lives and our world are not beyond redemption. Jim Wallis is the founder of Sojourners Magazine, he puts it like this, “believing in the resurrection means we believe despite the evidence and watch the evidence change.” We believe that God is at work in the world despite all the evidence to the contrary, we believe that as followers of Christ we still have a role to play in the world and the opportunity to be a part of what God is doing, we live like that is the reality, by rejecting the “way things are” and pursuing the things that could be, again to referencing Paul’s words: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, and love, and when we live that reality in our families and communities and jobs and world, we begin to see the results, we begin to see the evidence change. If we really believe in resurrection, if we really believe that God’s ultimate goal for creation is something different in our lives and in our world, then we should be something different in our lives and in our world. Resurrection means we don’t have to sit around hoping God will make things better, casting judgement on those who don’t see that what they’re doing and the path they’re on leads to nothing but emptiness and death. That’s what the Pharisees did. They believed all the right things about what God was going to do in the world or what God might do in the world or what might happen to them when God dealt with the rest of the world, but there was nothing in them that sought to see and be a part of what God was doing the world in the moment. And so when God was among them, speaking, teaching, urging them toward something greater, they completely missed it. No, we can put a vision of resurrection, a vision of all those virtues Paul lists, into action right now. How different would our lives look if we committed right now to practicing patience and forgiveness in our families? What if we committed to humility as went about our work? What if kindness and compassion and gentleness defined the way we treated every person we dealt with? What if every decision we mad was prefaced with the question, “am I putting love before all things?” I believe the evidence would start to change. I believe we would see resurrection in our lives. And if it starts to come in our lives, we’ll see it come in our world.
Tony Campolo, who many of you have heard me reference before, talks about the Christian response to resurrection and anticipation of God’s renewal by referencing the French underground resistance during World War II. He says if you asked them what they were trying to accomplish with their small group and their haphazard attempts to be freedom fighters they’d say “Isn’t it obvious? We’re trying to defeat the Nazi army occupying our land.” And you’d respond “but you’re a small group of untrained soldiers. You’ve barely got any weapons. You’re up against the greatest military machine ever assembled in history. You don’t stand a chance against them.” And Campolo believes they would respond “We’re going to go on fighting to liberate our land because we know that one day the signal will be given and a huge force will get on ships and come across and join us. That force will link up with what we’re doing now and carry us to victory.”
The empty tomb means that God has won and God will win. The victory over death that day is a victory over evil and death forever. The empty tomb means that we do not seek and hope for a better world in vain, we do so because we know how this ends and if we know how it ends there’s no logical reason for us not to live into that victory now. Indian Christian Arundhati Roy said “another world is not only possible, she’s on her way. Maybe many of us won’t be here to greet her, but on a quiet day, if I listen very carefully, I can hear her breathing.” Paul said in Romans that creation is groaning for kingdom of God to come, groaning as in the pains of childbirth. He adds “we ourselves grown inwardly as we wait.” That’s not passive waiting, that’s not wishing things would get better but embracing the way they are until they do, we wait expectantly, like a pregnant mother waits, she doesn’t just sit around, she starts exercising and breathing and practicing for what’s coming. If the tomb is empty we don’t have to wait for what God is going to do, we can be a part of what God is doing right now.
Several of us went this week and heard Shane Claiborne at Gardner-Webb. The very last question he got asked was this: “in a world with so much going wrong,” this was Monday night, with missiles having been fired into Syria over the weekend and warships on the way to the Korean Peninsula and the school shooting in California, “in a world with so much going wrong, where do you find hope? What do you see that allows you to keep hoping for a better future?” And he responded “grass grows through concrete.” In the face of nothingness, new life breaks through. Today especially we remember and celebrate that, that in the face of nothingness life breaks through. In the face of grief, joy is renewed. In the face of death, there is resurrection. In the face of a cross, a grave, and stone, there’s an empty tomb. And if the tomb is empty…then everything changes.