Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
On the very first Easter, scripture tells us, most of the disciples were holed up behind locked doors full of distress. A few days earlier they had seen Jesus be falsely accused and arrested. Then some stood in a nearby courtyard as the sham trial unfolded and Jesus was found guilty on trumped-up charges. But in that courtyard we saw how quickly Peter disowned even knowing Jesus, fearing for his life. Most of the others had scattered by now, but some followed along with the crowd trying to remain hidden and unknown. Soon enough word got around to all of them that Jesus had died, and had been quickly put in a tomb before sunset.
What happens next is the part of the story that we often gloss over on our way from Jesus’ death to the empty tomb, but it’s important to the story. Matthew’s gospel tells it to us best. He writes:
The next day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.” “Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.
The disciples, of course, got wind of this too. Soldiers camped out at the place where Jesus’ body had been placed. Who knew what would happen if they were discovered near the tomb? Perhaps they even began to imagine the authorities out canvassing the area looking for them. Wanting to arrest them just because they were followers of that rabble-rouser Jesus.
So they hunkered down behind closed doors, fearing for their very lives. And if that doesn’t sound like what’s happening today, well then I’m a monkey’s uncle. As my good friend, the director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, the Rev. Laura Everett describes it, this year we are encountering an “honest Easter.” She writes, “This Easter, we look death squarely in the eye, as Jesus did, and weep. We cannot look away, as much as we try to distract ourselves with other things. A sickness unto death is everywhere we turn. This is not the Easter I hoped for, not the Easter I want for my people. Yet this Easter strikes me as the most honest Easter in my entire life. There is no more playing dress-up.” (Many thanks to Laura Everett and her essay, “A Holy Week Disrupted” which guided my sermon.)
Because, friends, here’s the honest truth: Resurrection cannot happen without death.
Eight years ago this week, I received the call that my dad had only a couple more days to live. His strength was giving out due to the cancer spreading needlessly through his body. It was the afternoon of Good Friday. As a solo priest here at St. Mark’s celebrating my second Holy Week and Easter with you, I felt unable to get away. I called him to talk with him and pray with him. He encouraged me to remain here, to walk with this congregation through the Good Friday liturgy and on to the joy of Easter. To be the priest I was called to be. He signed off by telling me how much he loved me.
Melissa and I decided that we’d pack up the car in order to leave immediately after the last service on Easter morning—flights from Boston to Detroit were full until Tuesday. We ate a hastily made peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch as we hurried out the door. We’d traveled as far as Buffalo, New York when we got the call that my dad had died. Late in the evening on Easter. The Day of Resurrection.
Some 2000 people died on Friday, and yesterday, and likely today from COVID-19. Death and the fear of death are before us right now. Our lives have been disrupted. Trips out to get groceries have doubled or tripled in length. Those in senior living communities are sequestered. Moms and dads juggle working remotely while home schooling their kids. Others have lost their jobs or taken a significant cut in pay. And we pray not to get that text from a loved one telling us that they have spiked a fever. We just want things to go back to normal, to the way they were.
But we instinctively know that they can’t. That they won’t. That things will be changed.
Mary Magdalene got up early that Sunday morning—while it was still dark—and came to the tomb in order that she might grieve. To her great shock and dismay, she found that the stone placed in front of the tomb to seal it off—the one the Roman soldiers had been guarding— was rolled back. The burial site was wide open, and the body gone. She ran back in shock to tell the other disciples what she had seen. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” It was cruel enough that Jesus was executed, but now that they had seemingly moved his body; it was too much for her to bear.
Two of the disciples, Peter and John, cannot believe it, so they run as quickly as they can to the tomb. They find the stone indeed rolled back. Peter enters fully into the tomb, finding just the burial cloths there, and then John goes in as well, and he sees it too. The body is not there, and he is finally convinced about what Mary had told them. And then, our Gospeler reports, they returned home, to their place of sheltering, for as yet they do not understand that Jesus had been raised.
Mary remains there outside the tomb, weeping. She crouches down again to look in once more, but this time she sees two angels in white. “Why are you crying,” they ask. “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him,” she replies.
Here she is on Easter morning with the stone rolled back and the empty tomb, and she still doesn’t know what happened. Just like Peter and John, she doesn’t understand about the resurrection.
Which is a relief to me. The disciples see nothing but the burial cloths in the tomb, but they do not comprehend what has take place. Mary sees heavenly beings arrayed in white, and she’s trying to figure out where the body is. She even sees Jesus himself, mistakes him for the gardener, and asks him if he’s the one who’s taken the body. Mary, Peter and John each had the signs there in front of them, and still they didn’t understand about the resurrection.
Usually on Easter Day we just take the resurrection as a forgone conclusion. We know the end of the story before the characters do, and so we just smile waiting for them to catch on. But this year their story is ours. We’re seeing a lot of death, and we’re closing ourselves off from the world. In a moment Mary will hear the word that will jar her out of it. Jesus will call her by name and the resurrection will be fully realized, but it feels like we are right there with her just before that utterance.
Because we’re waiting too to hear the word that will show us that love is stronger than death. The word that will pull us away from the stupor we find ourselves in. In the midst of our grief, Jesus will say our name. Mark. Carol. Joey. Anna. And then our throats will catch, and the realization will hit us like a ton of bricks as the force of our fears and anxieties surface. We will be there before him and will find comfort in the presence of the resurrected one, the one who surrendered himself to death in order to bring us a deep and abiding love.
Which is precisely what Mary experienced on that day and what the other disciples will eventually encounter too: that love could not be held down by death. As we live with fear, anxiety and uncertainty, let us try to listen for the voice of Jesus calling our names. Can you hear it? Can you come to know, to truly believe in, the strength of the resurrection?
Even today he is here among us. Jesus is surrounding us with his love. He stands before us longing for us to recognize him, to fully know that he is no longer dead, but that he is truly alive. And when we do—whenever that is, either today or in the weeks ahead—we will experience the gift and joy of resurrection. May it be so.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!