April 21, 2019 – The Rev. Dr. Stephen Shaver

Year C, Easter Day, Revised Common Lectionary
Isaiah 65:17-25
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:19-26
Luke 24:1-12

This is the gate of the Lord; whoever God makes righteous may enter.

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It’s been said that there’s only one monument in the world that was built over an empty tomb.

There are many, many monuments over tombs with bodies inside. New York City has Grant’s Tomb and Arlington National Cemetery, has the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. You can go to Red Square in Moscow and see Lenin, his body still eerily preserved, lying in state. The tombs of the ancient pharaohs in Egypt are empty now, mostly, the remains inside fallen victim to grave robbers over the centuries; but they weren’t built to be that way.

So the church in Jerusalem is different. Westerners mostly call it the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which of course is just a fancy word for the church of the holy tomb. In the East it’s simply called the Church of the Resurrection. And at its heart is the little enclosure built over an empty rock tomb. Is it the tomb of Jesus? There’s no way to know for certain. All we know for certain is that the Romans who first built the church around the year 320 believed it was, and that place has been prayed in without interruption ever since, which surely makes it a special place no matter what.

In the end of course whether or not that particular tomb is the tomb, the one we heard about in today’s gospel reading, isn’t the most important thing. Because unlike Grant’s Tomb or Lenin’s Tomb or the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, you don’t go there to pay your respects to the body inside. Of course you can pay your respects to Jesus there—but not only there. The only place you can see Lenin is in Moscow. But you never know where you might meet Jesus. Because even though Jesus had a tomb, he didn’t stay there.

The Egyptian pharaohs planned on staying in theirs. They stocked their tombs with everything they thought they might need in the afterlife: gold, jewels, food, musical instruments, and even little statues of slaves to do the manual labor for them, the same old power structures from this life replicated in the next. Jesus’s tomb wasn’t stocked with much at all: a few linen wrappings, which he left behind once he didn’t need them anymore. The women came bringing spices, but he was already gone.

I read a piece commenting on this gospel passage recently that pointed out what a difference it makes that the women step inside the tomb.[1] “When they went in,” Luke tells us, “they did not find the body.” And the women meet the two men in dazzling clothes who tell them that Jesus is risen; and they believe. But later, when Peter comes, he doesn’t go in. He stoops down and looks in from the outside. And he goes home amazed; confused, maybe; hoping against hope, perhaps; but not yet fully on board the resurrection train. And there’s something significant about that difference. Only the women actually go all the way in and stand in the place of gloom and death. These were the same women that had stayed with Jesus at the cross, while Peter lied in his fear and said he didn’t even know him. Now Peter will eventually meet the risen Jesus and come to believe, and go on to be a great preacher of the good news. But here in this moment, it’s the women who hear the good news first, because it’s only they who are willing to face the full reality of suffering and death.

In a similar way, when Jesus came to live as one of us, he didn’t just stoop down and look at the human condition from outside. He came all the way in. This is the Word of God we’re talking about, one with the Father from all eternity, dwelling in light and glory indescribable. But Jesus wasn’t content to stay that way. Rather than holding onto his privilege and power, he let it all go and was born as one of us. Not a particularly rich or powerful one. A traveling preacher and healer, going from town to town in a small province under the occupation of a big empire, talking about God’s love, and putting it into effect through his very presence.

But Jesus came farther in still. He didn’t just come to relieve suffering from the outside. He knew it from the inside, because he tasted it as one of us. The frustration of being misunderstood. The sting of betrayal by a close friend. The fear of death, and not just death, but maybe worse, the fear of pain, and the fear of shame and humiliation.

Jesus knows what it is to be human, and he knows what it is to suffer. In the suffering and uncertainty of our lives, that’s a truth we can hold on to. Jesus didn’t just stoop down from the outside. He came all the way into the tomb with us.

And he doesn’t intend to leave us there.

Maybe you’ve seen Eastern Orthodox icons of the resurrection of Jesus. They tend to show Jesus practically springing out of Hades, the gates of hell lying shattered at his feet. And they don’t show him alone. Instead they show Jesus reaching down to grasp Adam by the wrist with one hand and Eve with the other, yanking them bodily out of their tombs.

That’s the promise God is offering us today. Jesus Christ, who loves us and gave himself for us, is alive. Not just resuscitated to some more of the same life, but raised to a new and eternal life. And that life isn’t for him alone. He came to share it with us. We can share in the resurrection of Jesus, not only in the next life—although there too, thank God, because that means death is no longer the obliteration of all our hopes and loves but one moment in our journey deeper into the heart of God. But we don’t have to wait till we’re in our own physical graves for Jesus to start yanking us out of Hades. The new life of freedom and joy in Jesus is here for the taking, right now, today.

We baptized two new members into that life last night at the Great Easter Vigil. We renew our connection to that life every time we come to this table to receive the holy food and drink of Christ’s body and blood. And we seek to practice that life here in this community day after day, week after week, as we share our lives and care for the sick and feed the hungry, as we study scripture and sing and serve.

“Open for me the gates of the Lord,” says the psalm we sang earlier. Today we step into the empty tomb with Jesus. We face the reality of all the world’s brokenness and evil headon. And in the face of it all we sing our Alleluias, knowing that the stone is rolled away and the doorway out of that empty tomb is the gate of the Lord, the gateway to a new and risen life.

Alleluia: Christ is risen!

[1] Machrina L. Blasdell, “He is Risen! Easter Day (C) 2013,” https://www.episcopalchurch.org/library/sermon/he-risen-easter-day-c-2013.