by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Easter Sunday/C • March 27, 2016
Copyright 2016 • All Rights Reserved
An Audio Version of the sermon may be heard here
Easter began with a hunt in my childhood home. Christmas presents were eagerly displayed under a tree but Easter baskets were hidden, secreted and had to be found. Sometimes the search went on so long that my mom would start giving huge hints so we’d find them and get ready for church. Once, I remember searching fruitlessly for my basket, behind the couch, under the piano, everywhere I could think to look. Finally my mother said, have you looked up? When I did, there it was, hanging in plain view from the curtain rod. Have you looked? It’s a good question for Easter because the heart of Easter is learning to answer the question, where’s Jesus?
Where’s Jesus?: On the Cross?
Where’s Jesus? Not on the cross. That doesn’t astonish us as much as it should. We are used to executions that take place in sterile, hidden places, with a sort of macabre medical motif. The Romans—and it’s the Romans who executed Jesus, make no mistake, the Jewish authorities had no authority to crucify anyone—took a different tack. They made execution public, using its terror to enforce discipline. Crucifixion doesn’t kill from the direct injury of the nails, it kills over a long time as the unsupported diaphragm gives out and the victim drowns even in the sea of air, gasping, dying, crying out. Exposure adds to the process and the death usually took days. The crucified were left hanging there, an lesson in the violence waiting to destroy anyone who opposed the power of Rome. “Where’s Jesus?” Anyone who knew he had been crucified would have assumed he was on a cross, dying, crying, gasping out his last breath.
But the gospel accounts unite in telling us that Jesus died quickly. While his friends hid, he pronounced a final prayer and, according to the gospel, “breathed his last”. It’s near the sabbath, which begins at sunset on Friday. His friends go to the Roman governor and ask for the body; after expressing his surprise at how quickly he died, Pilate lets them take the body down. They quickly stash it in one of the cave tombs around Jerusalem. These tombs were excavated as mausoleums. Typically, a corpse would be wrapped in linens, anointed with oils, and placed on a platform. Later, they would be put into a niche in the wall. Families would gather at the tomb at times to remember their departed, as we might walk in a cemetery. Apparently Joseph of Arimathea owned such a tomb and when Jesus is taken down, he’s placed there hurriedly, no time to finish preparing the body since the sabbath is beginning.
Where’s Jesus? In a tomb sealed by a stone, then. The earliest Christian tradition about Easter includes this detail. Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians about 20 years after the events and quoted a tradition that included Jesus being buried. All the accounts of Easter include the tomb. Later tradition will embellish the story, adding guards and a gardener. But the earliest answer to the question of where’s Jesus is harsh and simple: buried, in a tomb, shut up in the darkness, like a doll that used to mean something but is now stored away in a box in the attic.
Where’s Jesus?: In the Tomb?
Where’s Jesus? The women making their way through the almost dawn darkness of the first Easter are sure they know. When the sabbath ended the night before, it was too dangerous to go out in the dark. Now as first light breaks, they are on their way. Imagine them getting up before sunup, dressing in sadness, hardly having needed to plan because they know what’s needed. There’s a song by the Cowboy Junkies with the line, “It’s the daughter who’s left to clean up the mess.” Where are Peter and John and James and all the other disciples? We don’t know; later we’ll hear about them hiding behind locked doors. It’s the women who followed Jesus, it’s Mary of Magdala, reviled by some, lifted by Jesus, who rises above her grief, gathers the spices to anoint the body and moves through the dawn darkness, perhaps with others at her side. It must have been a quiet walk; dawn does that. What do they talk about? Not about where’s Jesus; they know the answer. Their only question is how to get to him, how to roll back the heavy stone that imprisons him.
So they walk out of the city, sure they know what’s coming, certain of where Jesus is. Yet the story tells us that when they came to the tomb, the stone was rolled back already. Like Christians in every age, they were worried about the wrong problem. Now they come near; now they see the tomb, now they go in. They discover the tomb is empty. Where’s Jesus?
The women are perplexed; it’s such a odd, simple word isn’t it? Suppose you went to a funeral home to say goodbye to a good friend, signed the book, stood in the greeting line, walked finally to the casket, it’s ornate top raised, looked in and saw—nothing. Would you be startled? Would you gasp? Would you wonder what happened? The women are at a tomb, knowing Jesus is there—but he isn’t. I wonder what they said, I wonder at the looks between them as they stood in the musky, damp smelling tomb, holding a basket of spices that are now useless, ready to do a job that will never be done. Where’s Jesus? Not here: not where they expected, knew he would be.
“Why do you seek the living among the dead?”
Where’s Jesus? According to Luke, the women encounter two men in dazzling clothes; Matthew says they met an angel, while Mark simply pictures a young man sitting where Jesus’ body should have been. Luke says they were terrified; Mark that they were amazed. Isn’t it always so when we encounter angels? The first thing angels usually say is, “Don’t be afraid.” It’s hard when you think you’re walking along, knowing where you’re going, and you walk into something God is doing. They are amazed, terrified, perplexed. Have you ever had something happen that changed you forever? They are changed: they are in a tomb, ready to deal with the dead, and in the next moment they are amazed by the living. “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”, the visitor asks and it’s a good question, a question we might ask today. What are you seeking? Did you come to see the resurrection explained, justified, proved? That’s asking for the dead among the living. The gospels have no proofs, no explanations. All they have is this absolute account: Jesus was dead and buried—and came back to his friends, met his friends, inspired his friends. They were living and suddenly there he was, living with them.
We have some experience of this. In The Grapes of Wrath, we hear the story of Tom Joad, a man who takes up the cause of poor people as his own. When he leaves his family, he says,
…maybe like Casy says, a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one…’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where—wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there…I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there.…. [John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath]
Where’s Jesus Today?
Where’s Jesus? Ever since Easter, Christians have had to answer and their answers take them to different places. I used to go to a church where we sang a lot about blood and the cross. They were most comfortable talking about Jesus on a cross; they wanted him to stay there, I think, and leave running the world to politicians whose programs take no account of the generosity and openness Jesus preached. Jesus on the cross is safe: he’s busy suffering for us so we don’t have to do anything about suffering ourselves.
Where’s Jesus? I’ve spent most of my life with Christians who are happy to leave him in the tomb. “A great teacher”, they say, as if we can extract from him a set of principles alone, separate from Jesus himself, a bunch of moral maxims that can keep us from having to wonder about a power that can actually raise someone from the dead. Moral maxims can live comfortably in a rational world; resurrection can’t. Resurrection says all our plans, all our rationality, don’t begin to encompass God’s power. We think it all stops with a tomb but can’t answer what happens when the stone is rolled away.
Where’s Jesus? Not on the cross: so we don’t have to fear the cross, live on the cross, forever. Where’s Jesus?
Not in the tomb: so we don’t have to fear the tomb, live in the tomb, live with the tomb as our destination.
Where’s Jesus? He’s where he always was: where people hurt, healing them, where people despair, giving hope, where people pray, hearing them. This is why we spent six weeks slowly working through his prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, learning to pray with him. For when we truly pray with him, he is present with us, his healing, his hope, his call become ours and we become his. This is an important distinction. A lot of Christian imagery, a lot of Christian songs speak of “My Jesus”. The Christian story is not how Jesus becomes mine but how I become his.
Mary and the others came back to the disciples with their tale of an empty tomb. And it would be a great happy ending if the disciples had fallen down, praising God, believing. But that’s not what happened. As Luke says, “they thought it was an idle tale.” Only in the following days and weeks did they find an answer to the question, “Where’s Jesus?” So if you are wondering, if you can’t believe the women today, this morning, don’t worry, don’t turn away. Neither did Peter, neither did John; neither did Matthew or James or the others. They had to go on farther to find Jesus. Come back next week and the weeks to come because we are going to be thinking about how they answered the question and how we can find our own answer. More importantly, we’re going to think about how they found Jesus and how we can.
Where’s Jesus? One thing is clear: if you want to find Jesus, if you want to go where Jesus is, the path is simple. Go where he’s going: find someone hurting, help heal them, Go where he is: somewhere private and quiet, praying the Lord’s prayer. Go where he is: where hope is sown, believing in God for the growth, for the harvest. Where’s Jesus? Go look: you’ll find him. He’s where the gospel so often tell us: on the way. Go look; go find, go follow.