RCL Year C: Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; John 20:1-18
Fear. Terror. Heart-wrenching grief.
I’m willing to bet that those are not words we normally associate with Easter. But they aptly summarize part of the action in today’s Gospel reading.
Think about it. Let’s say that just two days ago, you buried a family member or a friend. And early in the morning, in the wee hours before sunrise, you went out to the cemetery to put flowers on the grave. But when you arrived, you discovered that the grave had been dug up, the coffin is open, and there’s no body inside.
It’s a horrifying thought.
So just imagine how Mary Magdalene must have felt when, in the darkness of early morning, she discovered that Jesus’ tomb was open and his body missing. No wonder John tells us that “she ran” to the disciples (John 20:2). She was scared! And no wonder, after returning, she sat outside the empty tomb weeping. Grief had been piled on top of her grief.
Of course, the story changes from fear and anguish to joy when Mary encounters and finally recognizes the risen Jesus and he commissions her, as the first eyewitness of the resurrection, to go and preach the gospel to the disciples.
“I have seen the Lord!” she exclaims. “Jesus is risen!”
But the joy of that proclamation doesn’t change the fact that Jesus’ resurrection initially elicits fear.
Odd as it may seem, fear is an understandable initial response to the resurrection because resurrection defies everything we thought we knew about the immutable laws that govern reality. And that's because resurrection means bodily life after bodily death. And that challenges everything we think we know about the world and how it works. Just as the discovery that the earth revolves around the sun displaces humanity from the center of the universe, Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead displaces human reason as the supreme authority and sufficient arbiter of truth. That was true even in the world of 1st Century Palestine. Nobody, including especially Jesus’ disciples, was expecting anything like this to happen.
This is not a matter of rocket science, but of universally available common sense. Dead people stay dead. Dead bodies decay. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and that’s it. End of story. And everyone has always known this.
Death is like the law of gravity: it always works the same way. But the resurrection of Jesus fundamentally alters the law of death.
You see, the resurrection of Jesus is not about the resuscitation of Jesus’ body. Jesus didn’t just appear to die and then get revived by a team of divine paramedics. No, Jesus really and completely died. So the New Testament’s claim that Jesus was raised to bodily life again after bodily death is nothing short of a revolution.
Little wonder, then, that the New Testament teaches that the resurrection is the beginning of “a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). And the risen Jesus is the “first fruits” of this new creation (1 Corinthians 15:20).
It’s a creation continuous in many ways with the world as we know it. But it’s also a creation that differs in unexpected and even radical ways from what we take for granted as reality.
That’s why, in the Gospels’ post-resurrection accounts, Jesus walks, talks, and eats. You can reach out and touch him. He’s not a ghost or a phantom. The risen Jesus is a real flesh-and-blood person.
But the risen Jesus is also different than he was before he died. He can suddenly appear and disappear. He’s not always recognizable, even to his closest friends. And according to John, he can even walk through a locked door.
Jesus’ resurrection is the sign that God’s new creation is underway. In this new creation, might no longer makes right. The powerful are no longer the movers and shakers of history. Fear and despair give way to joy. Death is no longer the end. And so the threat of death – which is the last weapon of tyrants – can no longer be used to intimidate or silence the truth. And a crucified Jewish peasant from Nazareth who proclaimed the way of crucified love as the way of life and peace has been revealed as the true Lord of the world.
It turns out that the Virgin Mary was more right than she could have known when, in the Magnificat, she sang about God casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly (cf. Luke 1:52). For in lifting up the lowly Jesus on the cross, and then raising him from the dead, God reveals that a Power greater than the combined powers of Nature and Empire has been unleashed into this world.
By conquering death and turning the powers-that-be in this world upside down, the resurrection of Jesus opens wide the gateway of everlasting life and gives us a foretaste of God’s intention to heal and transform the whole world.
And so, on Easter Day, we discover the startlingly good news that our prayers that God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven are being answered.
Because Jesus is risen, God’s new world has begun. Because Jesus is risen, this broken, sinful world has been redeemed. Because Jesus is risen, we are freed from bondage to sin and from the fear of death. And because Jesus is risen, all who have been baptized into his death and resurrection have a job to do. As one Anglican bishop has put it, that job is “to bring the life of heaven to birth in actual, physical, earthly reality" (N. T. Wright, Surprised By Hope, p. 293).
We bring the life of heaven to birth right here, right now whenever we gather for worship, for the breaking of bread, and for the prayers.
We do it whenever we resist the evil in our world and we repent of our sins.
The life of heaven is born on earth every time we proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.
Heaven becomes real on earth whenever we seek and serve Christ in all persons and love our neighbor as ourselves.
And any time we do justice and make peace, we are acting as citizens of a kingdom in which the needs of all persons are met, love overcomes violence and strife, pain and sorrow are no more, and abundant life swallows up death forever.
It all starts with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. It continues with you and me as members of the risen Christ’s Body the Church in everything we do to express the love of Jesus. And it will find its consummation on the last great day when, by the power of God, all who have died in Christ will be raised to life eternal, and the entire cosmos will sing, “Alleluia, alleluia!"