“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” It’s a good question. Jesus himself had told them what was going to happen to him, and that on the third day he rise. And here it is, the third day, and the women were in the cemetery, carrying the spices used for dead bodies. They weren’t looking for the living Christ; they were seeking a corpse they could treat with respect, bury properly, and then leave in the tomb marking his final resting place as a remembrance of him. Similar to our cemeteries today, they probably expected to return again and again to that tomb, to remember Jesus’ life, to feel close to him, and to miss him.
We hear this story so often and know it so well, it’s easy for us to sit back and judge the women and the other disciples for their lack of faith. Of course Jesus had risen from the dead; he was the Son of God. That should have been made clear by all the miracles he’d performed, and of course they should have believed him when he’d said he would rise from the dead. But we have an advantage; we have two millennia of people telling the story, believing it enough to try to follow this Jesus in the way they live their lives, and passing their faith on through the generations. Billions and billions of people have entered into the mystery and wonder of this story and found faith enough to believe—we know this, and that’s why this is an old story to us.
But for the women and the disciples, it wasn’t a story—it was their lived experience. It was their reality. They had believed in this man completely, thinking he was the Messiah, thinking this time the ancient prophecies would surely come to pass. Israel would be saved from her enemies and made to be a light to the nations once and for all. But all of sudden, he’s betrayed, arrested, tried and executed in a matter of hours. He’s gone. No way to bring him back. He’s dead, and placed in a tomb, and left there for days. Despite what they may have believed, despite what he may have told them about himself, his death seemed pretty final. And in the ensuing grief and shock, they struggle to make sense of this man, the one they loved so much, the one they admired, the one who, it seemed in retrospect, was just a man like any other.
Think now of a time when you’ve lost someone, and even attended the graveside service. You know where his or her grave is, so if one day you returned to the gravesite, went to the plot and found it opened and empty, would your first thought be “resurrection?” Probably not. You would think either grave robbers or vandals, or maybe you would be so kerfuzzled that you wouldn’t even be able to think of an explanation. Maybe you would just stand there speechless and lost.
Now imagine that you’re standing there in shock, and suddenly two men in dazzling clothes appear and tell you that your loved one is risen from the dead. Maybe you’d be a bit more open to the idea of resurrection, or, more likely, you’d think you were hallucinating. What if you weren’t at the gravesite at all, but rather, you were simply at home overwhelmed by your grief. Imagine some close family members rushing into the house and telling you the story of the empty grave and the men in dazzling designer clothes from the Oscar di Laurenta spring line? Would you believe them?
Honestly, we all have to admit that we would not believe them at all, and furthermore, we’d insist that they get some quality grief counseling immediately! It’s not healthy to live in fantasy; death is final and we just have to accept the fact that it comes for young and old, without regard for wealth or status, gender or occupation. Death is real and that’s all there is to it.
But here’s where the disciples have an advantage over us. In the verses that come right after today’s Gospel reading, Jesus himself appears to the disciples. It’s hard to argue how illogical the idea of resurrection is when the deceased man is standing right in front of you talking to you, after having been 3 days in the grave!
While we are grateful for the long history of the Church, in fact, those 2,000 years of people telling us this story can also work against us. It was so long ago, after all. Our first century ancestors in the faith were, by post-modern standards, backward and superstitious. Remember, the Enlightenment was still 16 centuries away, and the scientific era was 17 centuries away. We have come to know and trust that many of things people used to call “miracles” have rational, scientific or medical explanations. Besides that, we have all played the game of “post office”, so we know how stories get changed in the telling and retelling. Maybe this resurrection story is nothing more than an idle tale borne out of wishful thinking. It got told so many times that it morphed from “if only it had happened” to “it really did happen.” Isn’t that a simpler, easier, more rational thing to believe??
“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” In other words, “Why are you here? This is not where you’re going to find what you’re looking for.”
And so I ask each one of you here today, “What are you looking for? And where are you looking for it?” Some of us come here looking for comfort, some for answers, some for guidance, and some don’t have any idea what they’re looking for—they only know that something is missing in their lives. And when all else fails, when the philosophies of the Enlightenment, and the verifiable truths of scientific inquiry and method fail to satisfy, they come to these large, tomb-like buildings whose only reason for being built was to continue to remember a crazy story about a dead man being resurrected. When nothing else in our lives is working, a lot of us are willing to give crazy stories a second look.
I remember my years at the U of Wisconsin as a religious studies major. A lot of students my age and younger lost their faith in Christ because their exposure to other world religions—which had been scrupulously avoided while they were being raised Christian—had provided them with many other sacred texts, scriptures, traditions and stories that also seemed to contain truth. Groups of us would wrestle with these questions over coffee at the student union on a regular basis, and for many, they just couldn’t get past the knowledge that other religious traditions also had powerful stories that supposedly carried the Truth. The problem, of course, is obvious: stories aren’t the answer. Stories tend to give us information, yes, but on a cold, sleepless night when something isn’t right in our soul, information is not what we’re seeking.
“He is not here, he is risen.” The living Christ is not locked inside the pages of a sacred text, no matter how sacred, and he’s not locked in any one of the Christian traditions that bear his name. Christ is not limited to any one time or place, nor is his sole residence to be found at Holy Redeemer Catholic Community or Grace St. John’s United Church of Christ. To be sure, the living Christ IS here, but not only here: he’s also out there, in the world, working in, with, and through people and events, political ideas and dangerous theologies of liberation and radical equality. We love and treasure our Scriptures. They give us a great deal of information about who God is and what Jesus came to teach us—but we need a living community of other believers to help us digest, learn and interpret that information. Remember, Jesus never promised his presence to individuals at all, rather, he reminds us again and again that “where two or three are gathered “ he is there. In other words, Jesus reveals himself in and through the community of faith. And that is the sole reason we exist as a congregation: to help each other see the risen Christ working in our lives.
As some of you already know, I lost my firstborn son on Maundy Thursday, sixteen years ago. On the Tuesday after Easter, after singing his funeral at the parish were I was deacon, I led the final procession out of the church behind Chris’ body singing an Old Slavonic Easter hymn, “Christos voskrese…” in other words, “Christ is risen from the dead…” And the congregation of well over 100 people, sang the refrain over and over in 3 part harmony until we were outside in the street. I will never forget it. But notice, we weren’t singing, “Christ rose two thousand years ago” because, really who cares about that?? What does something that happened 2,000 years ago have to do with us? Instead, we sang that hymn exactly as sang it this morning: “Christ is risen…today.” Present tense. It’s not a historical event we’re celebrating, it’s our present reality. Jesus Christ is risen, today and every day. That’s what we’re celebrating.
“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Jesus is not locked up inside a book or a building anymore than he was locked up inside the tomb. He is risen. He is alive. He’s with us in the depth of our hurting and pain, and he’s with us when we’re laughing out loud. He’s walking with his disciples on the road to Emmaus; he’s guiding them in the upper room. He’s driving with us on the way to Indianapolis and he’s in our room late at night when we lie awake, unable to pray. He’s on every road, in every room, walking with every one of us, guiding every one of us, embracing every one of us, loving every one of us just the way we are. The power of his resurrection fills our hearts, even when we can’t perceive it, even when we have locked ourselves away in the tomb of fear and doubt and sadness.
Our holy Book and our beautiful building can, with the help of a living, believing community, help us understand what all this resurrection business is all about. That’s why we’re here. But you don’t need to come looking for him here because he’s already found you where you are.