Texts: Acts 10:34-43; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; Luke 24:1-12
A body in motion tends to stay in motion. That’s a rule of physics. But when a body stops being in motion, well, other rules apply. Chief among those rules is that a body that has ceased to be in motion will require an infusion of energy to be in motion again. You know how that is. Gravity is such a curse when you’ve been weeding the garden and need to rise from your task.
The women who came to the tomb of Jesus early in the morning on the day after the Sabbath were not physicists. But even if you don’t know physics, you certainly understand that a lifeless body placed in a tomb will not be able to move. Let alone rise. So finding the tomb empty just stopped the women cold. Which is a more accurate translation of how they responded than to say they were perplexed. It’s not like they were confused. They plainly understood that the dead don’t ever get up again. And they definitely had seen Jesus dead.
Luke says that the women, along with other unspecified acquaintances of Jesus, were present at his crucifixion and saw him breathe his last. But Luke goes on to report that only the women accompanied his body to the tomb that afternoon, saying, “The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments.”
Their obvious question was, who came and moved the body of Jesus? The women knew that somebody had to be responsible. Probably several somebodies, because a grown man in his prime is a significantly heavy weight to bear when alive. But dead? There’s a reason why we have the term “dead weight”.
Before the women even had time to get the question out, there was a flash of bright light. And two men materialized beside them. Understandably, they averted their eyes. The light was very intense, after all.
But also as faithful Jews they knew their tradition - no one can see God and live. And there had already been more than enough death in the past three days. The women’s terror was justified. Remember how the disciples Peter, John, and James were equally terrified when they were enfolded by a cloud and heard the voice of God on the mountain where Jesus was transfigured? Likewise, the women felt the presence of a powerful force, of divine proportion, at the tomb.
The two radiant men brought a message. With our advantage of centuries of hindsight, we already knew these were angels, right? So the angels said, “He is not here, but has risen.” We celebrate this message as the core of our faith story. We call it the Easter Proclamation. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! End of story. Or is it?
This isn’t a very satisfactory ending anyway because it doesn’t respond to the obvious question: how can something so completely unbelievable be true?
Jesus died and everyone knows that it is true. Jesus was put to death by people caught up in a powerful confluence of religious and political intrigue and protectionism. He died because his commitment to doing good, and healing people under devilish oppression threatened the religious establishment. Which had laws and rules, and all healing and de-demonizing was to be done with oversight and in good order.
Seeing Jesus doing good and healing also caused people to reason that God must be with Jesus. This also is true. The Acts 10 reading says this explicitly, “That message spread…how God anointed Jesus…with the Holy Spirit and with power…for God was with him.” If this were not true, if Jesus had not done things that showed remarkable spiritual depth and wisdom, he would have ended up consigned to dusty memory along with all this world’s pop star religious gurus.
God being with Jesus was also a big problem for Roman civil leaders who were legally bound to promote the emperor as God. The religious establishment used that to leverage their ambition to be rid of Jesus the do-gooder. Their success in motivating Rome to kill Jesus is also true, and recorded in Roman history.
But as the men so radiantly dressed pointed out, Jesus was not there in the tomb. And if you look for yourself you will see that the Easter message doesn’t begin with He is risen. The men’s first words actually were, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
It is just here that Easter’s message begins to be told. If the Easter message begins and ends at “He is not here, but has risen”, well that’s good, but the women could just as well have taken that as a generally comforting message. Our dear Jesus is with God now. It’s over now, go home.
They might have settled back into life as it had been before. Build a nice memorial to the memory of Rabbi Jesus. Wear mourning clothes. Curse death. Harbor resentments and feel wronged. Fetch the water, tend the children, prepare the food. Work until the day you’re done.
“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” This is a different kind of message. It propelled the women right out of death’s black hole. Back to life. They took the message to the men who were inclined to disbelieve them. But Peter’s experience with Jesus and disbelief finally paid off. With unexpected energy he rose up and went to investigate. He met no angels but the abandoned burial cloths he must have taken as evidence of Jesus’s resurrection to life.
“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” The angels prompted the women to remember who Jesus was and why he died. He was the Son of Man with a true body subject to death. Jesus died as a result of common human sin. Jealousy, envy, greed, fear. Who wants to stay in that tomb zone? Jesus didn’t stay there. And that was the angel’s message. Life awaits. So go.
Jesus’s resurrection is not magical, miraculous, or religious fakery. It’s the story of love at work. We need to hear the resurrection message over and over again. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Love is the energy that can put a stilled body back into motion. Love forgives. Love brings joy. Love more than undoes all that hate can ever do. You know this. There are a million million stories of this we could tell. Every one of them absolutely true.
The resurrection still leaves one question though. How can something so completely true be unbelievable? Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.