Alleluia! Christ is risen!
[Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!]
This joyful greeting is the same one that Christians have used for centuries to greet each other on Easter morning. This is indeed a day of great joy! For many of us, that joy is obvious – the joy of gathering with family, of seeing children and grandchildren, the joy of a time to rest and a time to celebrate with the people we care about.
But of course, the true joy of Easter goes much, much deeper than these things. Today we celebrate the fact that the fundamental order of the cosmos has been shifted. When Christ was killed and then rose from the dead, he broke death itself. On Easter, we remember that we have been freed from slavery to sin and death; we have been joined to Christ forever in both life and death, and we too will rise again to eternal life in God’s kingdom. Surely this is a cause for boundless joy!
It is kind of strange then, that this joy seems to be almost absent in our gospel reading this morning. This text from Luke is certainly full of feelings, but joy isn’t really one of them. Instead, it moves from grief to perplexity to terror to disbelief, and finally to amazement – which is really all the closer we get to actual joy.
You can kind of understand why. Just imagine the journey these women had been on. Their journey had probably begun in disbelief and perplexity. They had heard this man from Galilee preach and had seen him do extraordinary things. And gradually, they allowed themselves to hope, to believe, that this man really was the Messiah and the Son of God. Like the disciples, they too left everything behind. They followed Jesus all the way from Galilee to the foot of the cross in Jerusalem. They watched him die.
This is the same journey whose steps we trace in our liturgy, year after year. We have heard again the call to turn our hearts and follow Jesus. And like these faithful women, we have turned in repentance, leaving behind our material worries and following where our Savior leads – if only for a little while. We have gathered to share the last supper and to wash each other’s feet. We have wept with the women at the foot of the cross. And we have followed them to the tomb, carrying their burdens of spices and sorrow.
When these women came to the tomb that first Easter morning, they were certain of what they would find. They knew the rules of this world as well as we do. This world kills prophets. Those who are brave enough to stand up against the powers of violence and empire and injustice on behalf of the poor and oppressed usually wind up dead: Martin Luther King Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Abraham Lincoln, Oscar Romero, and many others whose names we don’t even know who lived their lives in imitation of Christ. These women knew as we do that the powers of this world are hell bent on snuffing out the light of God.
And they knew – or thought they knew – that death was final, that death was the end. There was no coming back. And so they came to the tomb that morning ready to prepare the body of their friend for a proper burial – a final act of love. But nothing could have prepared them for what they found instead. The tomb was empty. The massive stone across the entrance had been rolled away and only a few linen cloths were left lying where Jesus’ body had been. From grief, they were plunged back into perplexity and disbelief.
But these feelings were then quickly replaced by terror as two strangers in dazzling white robes appeared out of nowhere beside them. They ask the women, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Well, what kind of question is that? They had come looking for a dead body. Instead they receive the mind-blowing news: “He is not here. He has risen.”
The women then run to tell the others what they had seen – and more importantly, what they had not seen. But the others meet their news with that same disbelief and perplexity. Peter at least goes to see that the tomb really is empty and he is moved to amazement, but then at the end of the day, they all just go home.
And I don’t know about you, but this is a place where I often get stuck – where I think the church often gets stuck. We have heard the news. Someone has told us – perhaps someone wearing white robes like these ones, or perhaps our neighbors and friends – someone has told us that the impossible has happened. A dead man is alive again and death itself has been defeated. But then we go home again, and it doesn’t necessarily feel like anything has changed. I’m sure many of you even as you sit here listening to this sermon are already thinking of the stress and details of family gatherings, and your thoughts are moving on to work and school in the coming week. Not to mention that we as a community are still dealing with the aftermath of record flooding and anticipating the possibility of more to come. Christ’s resurrection hasn’t stopped the floodwaters or the stress or even the illness and death of people we love. The tomb is empty, but just as on that first Easter morning, it can sometimes feel like Jesus is just absent. And we can get stuck in feelings of grief and perplexity and disbelief.
Thankfully, Luke’s gospel doesn’t leave us sitting there in those feelings. The news of the empty tomb continues to spread, and the women and Jesus’ disciples all come together to compare notes on what they have seen and experienced. And it’s in that moment, when they are all gathered together, that Jesus himself finally appears among them, in the flesh. Luke even throws in the detail that Jesus eats some fish to prove that he wasn’t a ghost or a hallucination. And with Christ in their midst, the grief and perplexity and disbelief of Jesus’ followers finally transforms into true joy.
It is as true now as it was then that when we gather together, Christ is truly present and alive. He is present in tangible signs like bread and wine and water and light. And he is also physically present in us, ourselves, our embodied presence. Gathered together, we are Christ’s body. We are Christ-bearers for one another, sharing the love and communion of Christ. The Christ we encounter here may not wear the same face that he wore when he walked the earth as a human two thousand years ago, but he is no less truly present. We walk with Jesus Christ even now, in this life, because he is truly alive.
But of course, the good news doesn’t stop there. As Paul says, if for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. Instead, gathered together as Christ’s body, we remind ourselves of the very best news of all: that the tomb truly is empty. And the empty tomb of Christ is the first of many, many empty tombs to come. And so it doesn’t matter whether we feel joy today or whether we are still stuck in grief and disbelief, the truth does not change. Death no longer has the final word. God’s life and love have triumphed over the grave forever. And we look forward with hope and faith toward the last day, when death – the last enemy – will be destroyed forever.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!