SCRIPTURE – Matthew 27:57-28:15
When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. 58 He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. 59 So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth 60 and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. 61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.
62 The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate 63 and said, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’64 Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first.” 65 Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.” 66 So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.
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[a] 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.”
11 While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. 12 After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, 13 telling them, “You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.
Explaining the Resurrection
April 5, 2015
I learned a new word this week I want to share with you. It’s “ineffable.” Do you know that word? I learned it in a book called “Baseball as A Road to God,” which may be the best book title in the history of Western literature. The word “ineffable” is defined as “that which we know through experience rather than study, that with ultimately is indescribable in words yet is palpable and real.” For example, the beauty of a sunrise or the joy of a baby’s laugh is ineffable. You can’t explain it or describe it; you can only experience it.
That certainly describes the joy of this day. The ineffability of Easter makes it for me both the easiest and hardest day on which to preach. It’s easy to preach on Easter because, well, it’s Easter! Frankly, I’d have to try really hard to mess this one up. And even if I do mess it up…it’s Easter! It’s a day of forgiveness and new life and resurrection.
This is also a hard day to preach. I understand the purpose of preaching to be education and inspiration. But this is Easter! There’s nothing I have to say that can educate you about the mystery of the Resurrection, and no words I offer that can even come close to the inspiration of “He is risen!” What do you say that can capture the ineffability of Easter?
For Christians, this is the greatest day of the year, because this is the day that makes all the other days make sense. Christmas wouldn’t make sense without Easter. Why celebrate the birth of someone who is going to die like everyone else? Maundy Thursday and Good Friday wouldn’t make sense without Easter. Why commemorate his last meal and his death on the cross if that’s where the story ends? But that’s not where it ends. There’s more to this story.
And what a confounding story it is! In the gospels, we have four different accounts of what happened on Easter morning, but they raise more questions than answers. In fact, even the people who experienced it couldn’t explain it. The women are scared out of their wits. The disciples are completely stunned. And the religious leaders are so caught off-guard they concoct a half-cooked cover-up to try and make sense of a rolled-away stone and an empty tomb. They give the soldiers some hush money and tell them to say, “His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.” A stolen body is rational, it’s manageable, it makes sense. But resurrection is ineffable. It defies explanation. Yet, the chief priests need an explanation, they need to make sense of the empty tomb, because the only other alternative is that Jesus really was who he said he was.
Wanting an explanation is human nature. We want answers, we expect them, and mystery is finding less and less of a place in our lives. A few years ago I was showing a four-year-old the old “Remove Your Thumb” trick. Do you know that one? I showed it to him, expecting him to be wowed by this supernatural display of biological transcendence. You know what this four-year-old did? He looked at my hand for a second and then said “Big deal.” Big deal. He was not impressed by mystery.
Few of us are. We want the mystery in our lives confined to Patricia Cornwell books and TV crime dramas. At all other times, we want answers, and we want them now. And in this age of information, when we can carry the Internet in our pockets, we can get them. Our search engines have become action verbs. Need the name of a song or the one actor in that movie? Just Google it. The answers to all our questions are just a few clicks away.
Well, not all the answers. The resurrection? There’s no app for that. It’s ineffable. We believe that if we can explain the resurrection, then maybe we can explain other mysteries about life, like why kids get sick and why good people endure hardships. But life doesn’t make sense. I don’t see how anyone could read the Bible or the Easter story and come away thinking it paints a picture of a world that makes sense. Nothing about Jesus’ life makes sense. The virgin birth, the healing stories, multiplying the loaves and fish, his patience and forgiveness, his willingness to die on the cross. None of that makes sense. It’s not supposed to make sense. Jesus didn’t come to explain life, he came to show us how to live it, and how deal with it when it doesn’t make sense. If we can’t explain his life and his death, then we certainly can’t explain his resurrection.
I know it would be so much easier to believe if we had concrete evidence to explain what happened on Easter. But the reality is that if we need tangible proof of the resurrection in order for our faith to be meaningful, we’re destined to be disappointed. None of the four gospels describe the resurrection. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John – none of them tell us what happened when Jesus was resurrected. None of them say, “Then Jesus woke up, blinked a few times, stretched his legs, and walked out of the tomb.” All we are told is the after-effects: the empty tomb, the angel, the frightened women, the appearances of a risen Christ. It’s like a Looney Tunes cartoon where Bugs Bunny is staring down the barrel of Elmer Fudd’s gun. One moment Bugs is there, and the next moment he’s gone, with only a few puffs of smoke and squiggly lines where he used to be. We didn’t see him actually leave; we only see the after-effects.
In fact, the only evidence for the resurrection that we DO have is the empty tomb, the ultimate after-effect. Some would say that’s the basis for some faulty logic. We are trying to prove the existence of something by saying what’s not there. We believe if the tomb is empty, then the only explanation is that Christ must be risen. And yet for 2000 years, starting with the chief priests, people have been trying to draw some other conclusion that makes sense, that doesn’t require them to let go of logic and reason and just believe. But we can’t escape the fact that the tomb is empty. Where did he go? We may not know for sure, but we DO know he’s not in there.
Sitting here this Easter morning, we are again confronted with the after-effects of resurrection and like the chief priests, we are given a choice. To believe or not to believe. To accept it or to ignore it or to try and explain it away. And what we choose to believe about the resurrection has real consequences for how we see God at work in our lives. If Christ is really dead in this story 2000 years ago, then Christ is still dead today. But if he was alive then, then he’s still alive now, working all around us to give us a glimpse of God’s kingdom here on earth.
I believe the resurrection not only was real back then, but it is real today, and that reality compels us to live our lives with a resurrection perspective, a perspective that accepts the resurrection cannot be explained. It can only be experienced. Nothing in our lives can help us make sense of the resurrection; instead, it is the resurrection that can help us make sense of our lives. Sometime life is so brutal, so unfair, that it ONLY makes sense when seen through the resurrection and the hope it promises us, that there is life after death, that there is life after pain and suffering and loss. Whether it’s dealing with our aging parents, the loss of our job, or a battle with illness, the empty tell us that because Jesus lives, we are not alone, that there is hope beyond our circumstances. The promises of the resurrection are real and they belong to us when we give up our attempts to understand and simply move forward in faith.
Author John Purdy said, “God is not in the past, shut up in the tomb of our sins, our youthful indiscretions, our wasted opportunities, our shattered hopes and dreams. God is ahead of us – in our future, out there freeing us from our past, easing the pain, feeding the hungry, making for peace, washing the feet, raising the dead. God is gone ahead of us and he is out there waiting for us to get moving.”
We come to church looking for proof of the resurrection, looking for proof of God, and we don’t even realize WE are the proof. In The Color Purple, Alice Walker writes, “…have you ever found God in church? I never did. I just found a bunch of folks hoping for him to show. Any God I ever felt in church I brought in with me. And I think all the other folks did too. They come to church to share God, not find God.” We come looking for evidence the resurrection, but we ARE the evidence of the resurrection, because we experience it all the time in our relationships, in our health, in our jobs. Some resurrections are so big they get written about in the Bible. But other resurrections are small and happen every day in the midst of ordinary lives.
We can stay rooted in the past, fretting over the historical validity of the resurrection. We can stay rooted in our own past, fretting over things we’ve done, beating ourselves or others up for past sins. But Matthew’s account makes one thing very clear without a doubt: Jesus is not back there. Where did he go? He’s in front of us, ahead of us, calling us forward into a future where resurrection can’t be explained; it can only be experienced.
When I was in college, I was struggle with an advanced French class, so I wrote my high school French teacher about my frustration. Her postcard reply contained only one sentence: “Before you can understand, you have to admit you don’t understand.” That’s the paradox of how resurrection works. The more we admit we don’t understand it, the more we see of it. The more I admit I don’t understand how God hears everyone’s prayers, the more answered prayers I hear. The more I admit to not knowing how God can love everybody, the more evidence I see of God’s love around me. The more I confess I don’t understand how God works, the more I see God working in and through this church. The more I surrender myself to a faith in what’s not there, the more I see and experience the One who is there. I can’t explain the resurrection, but I’ve experienced the power and love of the resurrected Savior over and over in my life.
So that’s where we are today. The empty tomb still stands before us. Rationally, we look inside and see nothing. The world is still as it seems. Thumbs cannot be pulled off and put back on. Yet what we can’t see is positively radiant with the glory of the resurrection. There will always be more power – and more hope – in what we can’t know than in what we know for sure. The tomb is empty. Christ has risen. How? I don’t know and I don’t care! All I know is that Christ isn’t back there! He’s out there, waiting for us to see him in our jobs, in our schools, in our homes, in the streets! So are we just going to sit here? Or are we going to get moving?