As you know, I have the great joy of leading Bible Time for each of the Sunbeam Christian Preschool classes once a week. This past week, it was my job to tell those three-and four-year-olds the Easter story—all of the Easter story. It’s a challenge. They need to know that Jesus died, but the details of a crucifixion are too gory for most adults, let alone little children. And then there’s the resurrection. Most of them have had a pet that died. Some have lost grandparents or great-grand-parents, and they know those dead loved ones are not coming back.
I start telling them during the Palm Sunday lesson that the stories coming up will have some sad parts in them, but I promise there will be a happy ending. I tell them that some people were afraid of Jesus, or jealous of how much people loved him, and so they didn’t want him around anymore. I tell them that these people hurt Jesus and made him stay on a cross, and that he died, and that his friends the disciples were very, very sad. And then I tell them the happy ending of the women going to the tomb and discovering that Jesus isn’t there.
The main point I want to get across to them is the good news that Jesus is alive. All through the story—when the women learn what has happened, when Jesus appears to Mary, when the women tell the other disciples, I pause so we can say those words together. Jesus is alive! But we just don’t say them. We yell them out loud! We cheer! We wave our hands in the air, and they wiggle in their seats. The sad story has a happy ending. Jesus is alive!
The story is a very exciting one because the Bible the children use kind of mashes all the gospel accounts together. The good news would be the same, but the story wouldn’t be nearly as exciting if we just stuck to Luke’s account. Of the four different gospels, Luke’s version is probably the least interesting. In all four gospels, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb very early in the morning—alone in John and with some number of female companions in the others. In Mark, they have a conversation on the way, asking the well-known question, “Who will roll away the stone?” In Matthew, an earthquake occurs, and with the descent of an angel who rolls back the stone and sits on it, while the terrified Roman guards drop in fear like flies. In Mark, the women flee in terror from the tomb, and they tell no one what they had seen. John’s account, with Mary dramatically and tearfully encountering Jesus in the garden, and recognizing him when he calls her by name, is the one we may remember best.
But Luke’s account lacks that drama. In Matthew and Mark, an angel invites the women in to see the empty tomb. In Luke, the women find the tomb open and just walk on in. In Luke, there are angels, but the two men just appear; there’s no flamboyant entrance. The women are terrified; who wouldn’t be? But the divine messengers don’t seem to notice or care. There’s no reassuring “Be not afraid” here. Luke’s messengers even seem a little dismissive. “Why do you look for the living One among the dead?” they ask. “He’s not here but has risen—duh.” . Do angels roll their eyes?
As far as the angels are concerned, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to the women. Jesus had told them this would happen. The angels don’t even tell the women to go and report their findings to the other disciples, as they’re told to in the other three gospels. For Luke, this is old news.
It’s no news at all for the apostles when Mary and the other women go back and tell them all that they had seen and heard. The men are unimpressed. The words of the women seem to be, in Luke’s words, “an idle tale.” Talk about eye-rolling. Only Peter decides to investigate the women’s report. And, to give credit where credit is due, he does run to the tomb. But after seeing the empty tomb and the burial cloths laying there on the floor, he just goes home. He’s amazed, Luke tells us, but there’s no excited report to the others—no vindication of the women, no challenging the others to remember what Jesus had said, as the angels had challenged the women to do. There are no light bulbs going off in the other disciples’ heads.
Luke’s account is just so unexciting. He offers us no earthquake, no footrace to the tomb, no angelic commission, no appearances by Jesus or promise of any future meetings. So, what does Luke’s telling of the resurrection of Christ offer us? What in Luke’s telling helps us to absorb and celebrate and respond to the truth that Jesus is alive?
First, it tells us that the good news of Christ’s resurrection came amidst the ordinary things of life and death, even when life and death take an extraordinary turn. The women were the first to learn about what had happened because they had gone to perform the usual rituals for the dead. They’d watched as Joseph placed Jesus in the tomb, and they knew he hadn’t had time to do anything more than wrap the body in cloth before the Sabbath began. So, the women got their supplies ready and then, as observant Jews, honored the Sabbath. Surely Jesus would have wanted them to do that.
As soon as they could, they took their spices and ointments to the tomb to do what they had probably done many times. It was a sad task, but one that was necessary, both to honor the dead and to help them in their grieving. This was not a special act reserved for a special man, but one they had offered other loved ones—fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, friends and neighbors, maybe even sons and daughters.
In the midst of this sad but ordinary task, they are given an extraordinary gift. They are the first to see that Jesus was no longer in the tomb. They didn’t understand what this meant at first. But the extraordinary had broken into the ordinary. The divine, which had broken into the world with Jesus’ birth, had made its presence known once again at his death. The good news of the gospel of Christ didn’t end with his death, but continues through and after it. they didn’t need earthquakes and dramatic angelic entrances. In the midst of their everyday tasks, the women came to know that Jesus is alive!
Second, Luke teaches us that believing doesn’t necessarily depend on seeing. Often, it depends on hearing. What did the women see when they arrived at the tomb? Not much. They went in, and they were alone. No Jesus. No angels at first. Peter saw the linen cloths, but Luke doesn’t mention the women seeing them. Maybe they didn’t have a chance to look around before the angels appeared and the women bowed their faces to the ground. There was nothing in the tomb to see. All the women had were words. They had the angels’ words, telling the women to remember Jesus’ words. It was Jesus’ words about how he would be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day be raised by God from the dead that gave meaning to the empty tomb. They didn’t need any more visible proof. They had heard Jesus’ words, and that was enough for them to believe that Jesus is alive!
They also had their own words—words they could use to tell all this to the other disciples. But, for the other disciples, the words of the women were worthless. The disciples who had heard the angels’ words—Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and all the other women who had gone to the tomb—told them to the disciples who had stayed home. But, they were treated as though they were nuts. Hearing was enough for the women. It wasn’t enough for the other disciples who refused to hear.
We have nothing to see, either. But we do have words to hear—the women’s words, the angels’ words, Jesus’ words. We can choose not to believe them, or we can allow them to turn an empty stone cave into a sign of the good news that Jesus is alive!
Finally, Luke teaches us that “remembering” is the key to fully understanding the meaning of the empty tomb. The angels instructed the women to do only one thing: to remember. “Remembering” for Luke is more than just recalling what Jesus had said. Remembering is more like re-membering—putting things back together. For the women, and anyone else who is willing to take the angels’ advice, it means employing a sense of holy imagination to recreate what they had experienced with Jesus, taking all the many pieces of their life with him and assembling them into the picture which his resurrection completes, like putting the last piece into a beautiful jigsaw puzzle.
Specifically, the angels told the women to “Remember how Jesus told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” And the women do remember. They remember his words, but there are so many more pieces to the picture. They remember those words, but they also remember all that he said—words of love, of acceptance, of forgiveness and, yes, of judgment.
They also remember his deeds. The women had begun their life with Jesus early in his ministry. They had travelled with him and were his friends, as were other women like Peter’s mother-in-law, and the sisters Mary and Martha. They had been among the uncounted women who witnessed the miracle of God’s abundance when Jesus fed thousands with a bit of bread and fish. They supported him with their own financial resources. Perhaps Jesus thought of these generous women as he observed the widow making her meager offering in the temple.
They had witnessed healings of so many kinds—physical, mental, and social. They had watched as Jesus healed a woman of the bleeding that had plagued her for twelve years, and another woman who had been bent over for eighteen. They’d witnessed Jesus healing children, even bringing a little girl back to life. They had watched lepers and the disabled and outsiders drawn back into community. They had experienced healing themselves, like Mary who had been healed of seven demons.
As the angels reminded them, they had heard Jesus’ predictions about his own death. Maybe they had even been in the upper room when he revealed the betrayal that was about to happen and predicted Peter’s denials. But, like their male counterparts, they probably didn’t really understand Jesus at the time. How could anyone want to hurt Jesus—this man whose concern was always for the least and the lost? How could anyone want a world without this powerful healer and teacher in it? How could one of their own betray or deny him? They didn’t fully understand who he was, but they knew he was special. They knew he was worth following. They knew he was worth caring for.
As he died, their caring led them to witness the very suffering he had predicted. It led them to watch over Jesus’ body as it hung on the cross, long after he had breathed his last and the gawking crowds had gone home. They had watched as Joseph of Arimathea took the lifeless body down. They followed Joseph as he carried his awful burden to the tomb, and watched as he tenderly placed Jesus inside.
The women remembered how they had gone about the necessary tasks of preparing to honor their dead loved one—how they prepared the spices and ointments they would need as soon as the Sabbath was over. They observed the Sabbath, and then they went to the tomb, found it empty, and were told by the angels to “remember.”
The women didn’t see the risen Christ there in the tomb. But they remembered what Jesus had said and done before. They remembered it all. The angels stated what they assumed was obvious: Jesus had been raised from the dead. But it was in the women’s remembering that they would come to understand the full meaning of that empty tomb. Not only had the prophecies of Scripture been fulfilled in Jesus, but his own prophecies had also proven true: Jesus was alive!
They didn’t need instructions from the angels. They took the initiative and returned home from the tomb to tell the eleven and all the other disciples all the things that they had heard and remembered. But the apostles and other disciples refused to hear and don’t remember. They don’t remember that these women have been witnesses to Jesus’ life, death, and burial, and so they don’t take the women’s testimony seriously. They miss out on what the women have to say: that Jesus is alive!
But we have not missed out. We, too, can “re-member.” We can put together the words we hear in Scripture and all the times when we have been witnesses to Jesus’ presence in our own lives. We can re-member what we have heard about the empty tomb, even though we haven’t seen it with our own eyes, and understand all that the women told. We, too, can tell all this, as Peter eventually did in the household of the Gentile Cornelius: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, commanding his followers to tell all this: that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead…and everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
And all these words are not just for the present but for the future. As Paul expressed in his letter to the Corinthians, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But, in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
On the cross, Jesus destroyed the power of sin. In his resurrection, Christ destroyed the fear and power of death. We are Easter people, who are blessed because we have come to believe what we have not seen but have heard. We are Easter people, who hope in what we cannot see. We are Easter people, who remember the words of Jesus and can boldly leave the empty tomb to tell all this, and tell it to all: Jesus is alive! Thanks be to God! Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young