Sunday, March 31, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Idle Tales of Immortality"

Luke 24:1-12

Very early in the morning on the first day of the week, the women went to the tomb, bringing the fragrant spices they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in, they didn’t find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4 They didn’t know what to make of this. Suddenly, two men were standing beside them in gleaming bright clothing. 5 The women were frightened and bowed their faces toward the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? 6 He isn’t here, but has been raised. Remember what he told you while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Human One[a] must be handed over to sinners, be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8 Then they remembered his words. 9 When they returned from the tomb, they reported all these things to the eleven and all the others. 10 It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles. 11 Their words struck the apostles as nonsense, and they didn’t believe the women. 12 But Peter ran to the tomb. When he bent over to look inside, he saw only the linen cloth. Then he returned home, wondering what had happened. (CEB)

Easter 2013

The nine of us American missionaries stood in a semi-circle around our tour guide, a nurse at the HIV/AIDS clinic in this small town in KwaZulu-Natal, the region in eastern South Africa, not far from the coast of the Indian Ocean, which of all the regions in the country had the highest rate of HIV/AIDS.  We had come bearing some supplies for her clinic, but we had also come here to educate ourselves, to learn about the force of this plague that had been set in motion halfway around the world.  She fielded our questions gamely but somberly…
How many people in South Africa have AIDS?  About 5.5 million.

How many of them die?  About 900 every day.

And the question that I remember as the one that felt like an ice pick driven through my heart:

How many of the HIV tests that you administer at this clinic come back positive?  About 90%.

And all of this was happening in a country where, that very year, the national government’s minister of health publicly claimed that a diet of garlic, lemons, and olive oil can cure HIV.

I had braced myself for this mission.  I had some semblance of an idea in my head of what I might be facing, but nothing—nothing at all—could have prepared me…or anyone, really.

Because I was, in a manner, doing exactly what Jesus’ female disciples are doing here, in Luke’s Gospel, which is what the angels accuse them of when they encounter the empty tomb:

Why are you looking for the living among the dead?

Luke does not record what answer, if any, the women give.  But I can imagine what it might be:

We are looking for the Christ.  We thought that He would be here.  We came to honor Him.

It was why I was in Africa that summer myself.  I was looking for Jesus.  I had hoped to find Him there.  I thought He would be there, and that I could honor Him by being there.

Jesus WAS there, but my mistake in having that attitude was in the assumption that the world contained, offered, and promised only death.  Who goes on mission to where there is no need?

No, we go where we are sent, where we are called, precisely because of the possibility of transformation, the transformation of sinner into saint, of broken into redeemed, and of, ultimately, death into life.  We plunge forward into our lives with the expectation that every day will, in exchange for our time and energy that we give it, do something or offer something to make us better people and to make our lives more  worth living.

It is why, I have to think, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James go to the tomb as soon as the Sabbath is over.  They brought spices to anoint Jesus’ body with as a gesture of their reverence; that task does, in a manner, offer something to make them better people—there is, I am sure, emotional significance to this as well, and might be meant to help heal them in their own grieving and mourning, much like how we may visit the grave of a loved one today.

But we all know what happens next.  They find the stone rolled away and the body gone.

Do you remember what happens the moment that Jesus dies on Good Friday?

The curtain of the Jerusalem temple is torn asunder.

The curtain that is meant to separate the Holy of Holies, the innermost room where God Himself is said to dwell on earth, from the rest of all creation.  The room was so revered that only one person—the High Priest (Caiaphas)—could enter the room, and only then, just once a year.

The boundary between heaven and earth, between sacred and profane, between holy and worldly, is ripped in two the moment that Jesus dies.  The final boundary between us and God is no more.  No more do we have to wait once a year for only one man to stand in God’s presence.

And here, the stone being rolled away stands in mirror image to the temple curtain.  Because just as the temple curtain being torn in two means that heaven has re-entered earth, so too does the stone being rolled away mean that Jesus has, quite literally, pushed aside the finality of death.

It is not enough for Him to simply disappear from the tomb and reappear outside of it, like a Harry Potter character apparating and disapparting from place to place.

No, instead, Jesus chooses to demonstrate exactly what has just happened.

But as Luke says, the women do not understand all of this, and so two angels appear, and ask them that powerful, fateful, life-changing, world-upside-down-turning question.

Why are you looking for the living among the dead?

More to the point, why do you look for the dead when death was just rolled aside like a stone?

And the light bulb goes on.  They remember Jesus’ words, they remember what He had taught about His death and resurrection, and they go to tell the Eleven everything they had just seen.

And I love this part—the Eleven view the words of these women as, depending on your translation, either “nonsense” or “tall tales” or, my favorite version, “idle tales.”

Keep in mind that the male disciples have not been seen from or heard from since Thursday night.  They all desert Jesus and flee, and the one episode we have of them is a shameful one—Peter denying his relationship with Jesus.

The female disciples, by contrast, stay with Jesus to the very end—they are present even at the Crucifixion, presumably because in that day and age, they were not seen as a threat like the male disciples would have been and so were allowed to be there.

And in Luke’s Gospel, it is they, not the male disciples, who journey to the empty tomb as soon as the Sabbath is over to anoint His body and pay their respects.

So the male disciples considering the words of their female counterparts to be “idle tales” should strike us as particularly rich.  Never mind the fact that the guys were also there for the resuscitation of Jairus’s daughter, and for the raising of Lazarus, and that maybe, just maybe, we were hoping that the mustard seed of faith had grown in each of them just a little bit.

As it turns out, it does, for one of them—for Peter.  He goes to the tomb himself and sees “only the linen cloth.”  Just in case the rolled-away stone wasn’t a big enough clue, this is another.  Jesus is like Hansel and Gretel here, leaving bread crumbs to show exactly what has happened.  Just as the rolled-away stone mirrors the torn temple curtain, so too does the left-behind linen cloth mirror the rolled-away stone.  The linen cloth was, essentially, Jesus’ burial shroud.  And it, too, is left behind.  The trappings of death are left behind in the promise of immortality.

So why do we, too, seek for the living among the dead?  We can take the so-called “idle tales” of the female disciples as our own invitation.  We have now been told the truth of what has just happened, and we too can be as Peter and beat a path for the promise of immortality.  As the late, great Harvard theologian Peter Gomes put it, “Easter is not just about Jesus; it is about you.  He has already claimed His new life, now is your chance to claim yours.”

Now is your chance, your moment in time to take that mission trip to the door of the dead in search of what still lives.  And what still lives is your connection with the God who made you.

Because there is no creation without at some point later having to renew that very same creation. Just like there is now no death without life, there is now no judgment without grace, and there is now no human life without the possibility of eternal immortality, because life and love eternal have finally conquered earthly death.

The empty tomb itself is something of a one-off.  Never before or since have we seen a man rise from the house of the dead, having been gone three days, of his own accord.  But what the empty tomb offers…well, that, much like God Himself, is pure eternal promise.

God created you, and now, today, God seeks to renew you.  Your journey is not yet over.  Your faith is not yet finished.  For God’s love for you has just been demonstrated in the best way that He knew how—to take the gift of His Son that we so selfishly and short-sightedly cast aside just three days prior, and to give that gift new life, to give us the second chance of all second chances of every hope of our place in Heaven, alongside the Risen Christ.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
March 31, 2013

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