The Empty Tomb, The Empty Church and The Way of Resurrection

Easter 2020  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  20:39
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How remarkable that the women find the empty tomb and run to tell the good news to the rest of the disciples? As we find our churches empty, may we be people who celebrate resurrection as the Body of Christ who have been sent out of our gathering places to proclaim the good life for all, wherever we are! The Resurrection Life!

The New Revised Standard Version The Resurrection of Jesus

The Resurrection of Jesus

(Mk 16:1–8; Lk 24:1–12; Jn 20:1–10)

28 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

The First Easter and Our Quarantine Easter

This Easter Sunday is not playing out how we would have expected it to. Months ago, we were looking ahead to this day of resurrection with hope of being together.
But remember, the first Easter Sunday did not go how they had expected, either. More downtrodden than we are, the disciples and community of Jesus were deep in their mourning. This was the most deflating Easter Sunday ever - the first one, the one where they slowly ventured to the tomb to tend to a dead body. Defeated and heartbroken. Their movement had died on the cross days before.

The Empty Tomb

Think about these women, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, heading to the tomb that dark morning. Think about the sadness, the loss.
Think about the lament and insecurity they felt. Think about how they were probably looking over their shoulders, hiding from the angry mob that had killed Jesus.
Think about, as well, venturing out into our town these days. If you haven’t, good, but also if you have, you know that it feels eerie, too quiet. Think about the lament and fear you feel as you see folks masked up, gloved up, in every store, in every public interaction. We walk amidst the fear of death, the witness to the power of a virus, the grief of all that we are losing collectively.
We have to feel this grief, lament, and open pain in this season. It is here, among us. And so we can also feel something of what these women would have felt. Loss, grief. Expectation that upon entering a place of the dead, a tomb, they would be among the unclean, the cast off, their friend now gone.

The Messenger - Do Not Be Afraid

And things keep going in unexpected directions. The ground shakes and the stone is rolled away from the tomb. An angel the Lord arrives.
This morning we proclaim Good News amidst such grief. Because what happens at the tomb is wholly unexpected, surprisingly other than what could have been imagined by the women.
The place Jesus was laid is empty. The site of death, as they had expected to encounter it, is utterly changed.
And we hear from the messenger — do not be afraid.

The Empty Church

Were you to venture to our building today, you would find a similar sight. Closed doors. Lights turned off. No candles lit, no organ humming, no laughter of children, no coffee brewing or cookies being set out for fellowship.
It is a stark picture that on Easter Sunday, the day when we are supposed to be in our church together, celebrating and joyfully welcoming each other in the name of Christ, that the church is empty. People of faith around the world are wrestling with this reality today.
The empty church and the empty tomb can be places of great despair. What good are they anyways, if they can’t be used? Is all hope gone?
But today, I want to offer a different read on the Empty Church phenomenon. The church and the tomb are, instead, sites of remembrance. They are the places we visit in order that we would remember God’s goodness. And look, we’re doing it right now. The place is important only as much as the people who gather together there make it. We have found that the Empty Church does not keep us from being the Church, the picture of the Body of Christ in the world, here, now. We will gather again in our building and when we do, we gather not because God is there only, but because it is the site of remembrance, the place for us to come together and tell stories of the resurrection, to gather and support one another, to bear witness to what Christ has done in undoing the powers of death.
And so today, the Empty Church and the Empty Tomb are gifts in that they remind us to go out and to share the story beyond their walls. They beckon us to come and see, yes, but then we must turn around to go tell the story. Without fear, fully of hope and resurrection life.

The Way of Resurrection - The Church - Do Not Be Afraid

As a church, this is our moment to be the ones who say, “Do not be afraid.” Not out of some sort naive notion that “it’s all going to be alright” or that we should just get on about the business of regular life again. But rather, it is the witness of God’s people in times of tumult that says — “do not be afraid.”
We say “do not be afraid” because we trust in God’s providing hand, even when times get hard.
We say “do not be afraid” to comfort the fears of a child who worries about getting sick.
We say “do not be afraid” because the church steps up to provide care and relief to those who are burdened.
We say “do not be afraid” because we can stand in confidence at the door of an empty tomb and and empty church and know deep in our being that God was never bound to places or buildings, burial grounds or gravestones. God is unbound, wild and at work all around us. We are not afraid because God has overcome the powers of the grave.
This is our moment, as a church, to offer words of comfort, words of peace, actions of care, gifts of our lives, on behalf of those who most desperately need it. This is the moment for the church to speak words of “do not be afraid” by speaking other words — words like trust, words like peace, words that dismantle and expose those who would profit off of fear or misinformation, words that tear down the powerful for all their privilege and oppression. We say “do not be afraid” with defiance, with power, with the great confidence that comes from knowing we are beloved by God and held steadfast in God’s mighty hands.
This is the Way of Resurrection. To stand in the garden and hear the words, “do not be afraid.” And then to take those words and spread them like the wildfire of Good News that they are to anyone who will listen.
Do Not Be Afraid.
This is the Church rising. This is the Way of Resurrection.
Let’s remember Christ’s words to the women, as they prepare to go off to tell the rest of the disciples. “Do not be afraid” he says. And then he tells them “go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
He says “Do not be afraid.” And then he tells them I am going out ahead of you. I am not bound by this site of death, this place of dying, but rather I am God on the move. Christ is risen and out before us on the road, preparing the way, inviting us to follow and share that hope of all that is in store beyond the grave. The hope of resurrection life that moves beyond the curse of death and pain and worry.
We go out to find Jesus and pursue his loving presence in the places he calls us. This is living in the Way of the Resurrection. Resurrection is not about a return — not about going back to how things were. The way things were is a way of death — a life lived in fear of death and in response to pain and sorrow. No, resurrection does not return to the grave site. Resurrection life is about the Good News entering into a world made new, a world where death and fear and worry are no more.
Certainly, there is pain and suffering and death in our world. But because of the Risen Christ, we can live boldly into all the pain and suffering and death, acknowledging that they no longer hold power over us.
One of the most beautiful things I have come to experience in pastoring people at the end of their life is the great freedom that many begin to experience. With the knowledge that they are dying, many people let go of pretension, let go of fear, and begin to share their lives, their stories, their love with those around them in open, liberated ways. Certainly, there is pain. But the pain is second to the joy of being able to let go of all that has held them for so long. Tears flow, laughter and smiles. Its a funny thing to experience amidst death and dying, but what it speaks to is the liberating joy found in Christ.
We are meant to live in this liberated joy, this resurrection way, each and every day. Because we know death still exists, but no longer are we bound to the worry and fear of it being the final word. We are people who proclaim resurrection and life everlasting in Christ. And so we go into all places, expecting Christ out ahead of us. We go into all places, the joyful and the desolate, the church and the gravesite, and find God’s presence there and tell about it. We go into the joyful and desolate places in ourselves, our inner pain, our struggles, and we find that Christ is working in us too, resurrecting us, making us new, healing and making us ready to share that redeeming love with our world.

Final Word

Friends, we live in a time of great upheaval and disruption. In so many ways, we live in a time that connects us to the ways these early followers of Jesus must have felt - confusion, uncertainty, wondering what will happen next.
These past few days, as we’ve celebrated Holy Week alongside news of spreading pandemic and death and sickness in our own town, we have felt the pain of Good Friday mixed with sorrow in a very present sense. And yet we remember, the death of Christ on the cross is God’s deep love for us, coming close, knowing our pain and suffering, living into all that alienates and separates us from that love we long for.
Christ’s death is a statement about undoing the powers of death and oppression.
And…therefore…Christ’s resurrection speaks an even better word. The Resurrection Story, told amidst pandemic and despair, as it has always been told alongside the great pains and struggles of our world, speaks a profound word to us today: The resurrection says an emphatic “no” to the powers of death and pain and sorrow. It says a profound word of defiant protest to systems of oppression and despair. The resurrection speaks a deep word of love from the God who comes close to our pain and says, “no more.” The resurrection is God standing alongside humanity and setting us free, once and for all.
The church is empty, closed today. And the church is resurrected, Christ’s body spread out and living outside the walls, no longer afraid to be witnesses to the good news in every place we go.
This is what the resurrection looks like, here and now. In each of us. Christ out ahead — let’s keep journeying together unto his Good and Perfect Way.
Peace. Let’s pray.
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