ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH May 5, 2019
Rev. Ed Musson
THE OPEN TOMB
Acts 5: 27-32; Revelation 1: 4-8; John 20: 1-16
It began early one morning during that time when dawn has come but it is not yet light. This transition time comes every day, moving from the cold blackness of the dark to the warmth and cheer of the light. The story of today invites us to contemplate the connection between what is and what happened, between what was seen and what was believed. But it is not a matter of understanding, for this story is far beyond understanding. it is a mystery which Easter celebrates.
I love spring. It’s the season of new life, of resurrection, of Easter! Aside from some pollen-induced sniffles and sneezes, spring brings us hope as we begin a new season of growth. As the late Robin Williams quipped, “Spring is nature’s way of saying, “Let’s party!’” But so many people are not feeling it. Because of serious illness, job problems, or relationship fractures, they face pain and suffering, loss and want. They find themselves in a winter of the soul, no matter the season. Maybe you’re one of them or know and love one. Barbara Brown Taylor writes “New life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark. “It’s the light of God’s grace. The light of Jesus’ love. The light of the Spirit’s power.
On many details the four gospels do not agree, but on this they tell the story with one voice: it began while it was still dark, and it moves toward the Light; it began with one woman seeing and does not reach climax until the Light has dawned. “Seeing is believing” some say, as though it could be so easily settled. But is it really so simple? Mary sees an empty tomb but seeing does not move Mary to faith, only to worry that the grave has been robbed, a common occurrence in that time. What other possibility could there be, after all?
Though grieving Mary is not blinded by her grief. She is a rational woman and she quickly comes to the only conclusion a person in her right mind could come to. Dead bodies, after all, do not simply disappear. Somebody has to move them.
After all, there are established rules about such things, an orderly connection between effect and cause, a system which allows us to make sense of what happens based on what we have seen happen before. What other possibility could there be?
She reports what she saw to Peter, who with another disciple rushes to the garden where Jesus was buried. While fleeter of foot than Peter, the unnamed disciple slows down to check things out. Tomb, open. Stone, rolled away. He peers into the darkness inside, hesitant, cautious. Grave robbers may still be lurking inside. But, no, they are done with their ugly work, leaving only the burial cloths. How strange is that. Robbers usually leave the valueless corpse unless ransom is their design.
Peter arrives, barges right in, fearlessly or foolishly, more likely a bit of both. Strange. Grave robbers aren’t usually so neat and orderly as to leave the grave cloths neatly rolled and folded. But that’s all there is. Seeing is believing. They came. They looked. John tells us the unnamed disciple “saw and believed,” but it’s not resurrection faith John is meaning. Only that Mary wasn’t wrong, – the body is gone – Empty tomb. No corpse. Must have been grave robbers, once again. Oh well, that’s all there is. Nothing more can be done. Sort of a fitting end to this last tragic week. Seeing is believing. There was nothing to see, so there’s not really anything to believe, is there?
Friends – listen carefully “If the resurrection were meant to be a historically verifiable occurrence,” says Richard Lischer, “God wouldn’t have performed it in the dark without eyewitnesses. (This) was an event transacted between God the Father and God the Son by the power of God the Holy Spirit.
Not one of the four gospels tells us how it happened. We don’t know if it was a typically warm Palestinian morning or unseasonably cool. We don’t know if the earth shuddered when he arose, or it was peculiarly quiet. We don’t know what he looked like when he was no longer dead, whether he burst the tomb in glory or came out like Lazarus, slowly unwrapping his shroud and, enormously surprised, squinting with wonder against the dawn’s early light.” But it really happened and seeing the nothing that remained didn’t lead to anything at all. Peter and his colleague shuffle back home, hands jammed in their robes as they kick stones down the road in frustration. Nothing happened when Mary finally looked inside, either, except that it gave her a frightful scare. Grave robbers still inside and they didn’t notice, now here she is all alone. But she wants the body. “Where have you put him?” she asks through her fear and her tears. He deserves a decent burial, undisturbed, no matter what it takes. She hears a sound behind her and turns. Another Grave robber! Surrounded! Or maybe it’s just the gardener.
Maybe he knows. “Sir, if you have moved his body, tell me where and I will take him away.” Somehow or other. Though how she expected to handle all by herself the dead weight of an adult male corpse, God only knows.
And then it happens.
The Light shatters the gloom like a starburst rocket on Canada Day. “Mary,” he says, speaking a name which she knows above all others. A brain cell stirs a distant memory, hearing Jesus say, “The Good Shepherd calls his own by name, and they hear his voice, and follow, because they know his voice.” (John 10: 3-4)
And suddenly, Mary’s predictable world is broken open, ours too. Something illogical, impossible, something unnatural happens, all the established and accepted rules are broken, and it is a new day. Not just a new calendar day but a New Day for all human kind and all creation, the First Day of God’s Kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.
Believing is seeing. Not because of evidence. Not by logic or argument. Trusting faith comes as a dawning of the Light in darkness. I suspect it has not yet happened for some of us, and we are here this morning on the off chance that it just might, still. You cannot make it so. Nor can I. No one can command the Light to dawn, or the sun to rise.
But – here’s the thing – you can put yourself where the Light has been known to shine, or where those who have seen the Light gather to tell the story. And so we have today come here. And for others perhaps the Light has grown dim with the passage of time. Timid. Fainting. More a distant memory than a shining beacon illuminating our way. We all need the dawning Light, don’t we, whether faith is strong or trembling?
We need the encouragement of renewed sight so we can live in the new world ushered in by the Light of the world, even while we live in the darkness of a world where the human reality of terms like “ethnic cleansing” is terrifyingly plain.
Light will be found, the gospel reminds us, where light is most needed in our world. John tells of the Light of the world dawning at a well in Samaria, or in Capernaum. The Light may dawn for you anywhere. In factory or office, making sales calls, in clubs or at home, doing research, or teaching.
Friends – Sense the breaking rays of the Light which pull at the best of you, where good is more than what is convenient or comfortable, where truth is more than what you want right now, where joy is more than fun and life more than what gives pleasure. Or Light may dawn where the Light is remembered. It has happened for more than one in a Bible study group, or while sharing prayer.
Though it came for Mary when she was alone, and it could for you, too, more often today it comes where seekers look together. For it is still true that two or three looking together are more likely to see than anyone alone. If the Light has not yet dawned, or if it is growing dim, could it be that the Light is as strong as ever, but that you have moved farther toward the shadows? Or that you are spending too much time in a place so busy with other, lesser lights that the Light is obscured by all the distraction?
Here in the company of Christ’s own at St Stephens the story is told every week, Here the Light is offered in bread and wine, Here Christ’s voice sounds every week as it did in a darkened room, saying “Peace be with you.” And scales fall from eyes and the Light dawns.
The Light dawned, after all, not for Caiaphas or Pilate. It came for those who had the competence of experience and familiarity to recognize the Light in Jesus as the risen Lord. The competence of practice and rehearsal, of searching and of serving, the competence of frequenting grave yards and hospitals and refugee camps and other places of suffering and grief.
Here’s the thing – The Light is there, you see, wherever someone hurts, wherever hunger stalks, where love and mercy is a 10 by 12 sheet of plastic to keep the chilling rain off an exhausted family of refugees, where in pain one cries out, where anyone’s dignity is beaten down by cruel forces beyond reason or control.
But know this: the Light is dawned! Christ is risen! Seek the things that are above, with eyes seeking the Light, and it will dawn for you, as you seek him and discover him here and everywhere.
Oh – one more thing. Don’t forget to do what he told Mary to do. Go, tell someone else.