When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
1. Freedom from Death
When I was in my mid-30s and my children were young and we were living in the Philippines, I knew a guy named Mike. We were the same height, the same weight, about the same age– his wife was also named Becky. They were in a mission program in Manila with the Mennonites. One day they had to go somewhere and they asked us if we could watch their son, Martin, who was about 2 at the time. My youngest daughter Nora was about 2 or 3. Martin was learning to speak the Philippine language, Tagalog, and kind of making it up as he went along. We gave him some water and he wanted more. The Philippine word for water is tubig. So after he drank his tubig he held his cup up and said "more-big." Nora was sitting next to him and started laughing so hard she just fell over.
After another year or so we moved back to the US, to Baltimore, and Mike and Becky moved back to Kansas. We would email them occasionally to catch up. I remember one email, Mike was saying they were doing really well, "if I could just figure out what’s going on in my gut." Before long, the doctors diagnosed him with stomach cancer. Over the next couple of months he went through increasing pain and suffering, and then he died, at the age of 35, leaving behind his wife and two small children.
This death hit me hard. I liked Mike a lot. He was a very healthy guy, ate healthy, exercised. His death broke through my own bubble of immunity. If it could happen to him, could it also happen to me? I find death sad and frightening. The suffering, the pain, and the finality.
This morning, we’re going to explore the fears we have around death– the frailty and finality. And then we’re going to dare to talk a bit about freedom from the way of death. If there is one thing we know, it is that we’re going to die. No one gets out of here alive. But the invitation of Easter is freedom from the way of death. What difference does the resurrection of Jesus make in our lives? We’ll look first at the fear, the frailty, and apparent finality of death. And then freedom from the way of death.
What has been your experience of death up to this point? Death was not much of a concern for me in my early years. My grandparents died, but they were old, and I didn’t really think much about getting that old. When I was 26, my sister died and that rocked my world. What deaths have you experienced in your life that really hurt? What was grieving like?
As we get older, the possibility of death becomes more real, especially if we experience a serious illness. When we lose a loved one to death it can take months or even years to recover. We miss them. This person who was so much a part of our lives is now gone. Who else might die? When will I die?
This central fear in our lives, this reality that we all must face, is also the central theme of the gospel story. The death of Jesus was particularly terrifying and baffling for the disciples. He was only in his late 20s or early 30s when he began to realize that days were numbered. He was getting threats from the local authorities. And he knew he wasn’t backing down. He began to tell his disciples, "We’re going up to Jerusalem and it’s going to get intense, and they’re going to kill me." But they didn’t want to hear it– couldn’t hear it. It went against everything they believed about this strong powerful healer and teacher that they followed. If he was this special prophet and servant of God, how could he die?
If God is great, compassionate, and almighty, why is there so much suffering in the world? And why does God’s own son, sent to love and liberate humanity, die such a torturous death? The gospel actually redefines life and death. Life and death are not just about a beating heart and a functioning physical body., In the gospel, the distinction is this: The way of Empire is the way of Death. The way of God is the way of life.
3. Jesus Challenges Empire
What does that mean, that the Way of Empire is the way of Death? Jesus is not the only person that brought a challenge to the ways of empire and was brutally killed. Some of the greatest heroes of our history were followed, spied on, smeared, jailed, and killed by Empire. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Oscar Romero, Lean Alejandro, and Steven Biko are just a few.
Always, Empire seeks a scapegoat to blame for its violence. Our current Republican Administration names scapegoats, including but not limited to Muslims, Mexicans, and immigrants in general, and has threatened these populations with raids, deportation, travel bans, and walls. In the days of Roman Emperor Augustus, Jesus was one of those scapegoats who had to be killed so the nation might live.
Jesus and his disciples entered Jerusalem on what we now know as Palm Sunday to confront these Imperial forces of death. Jesus entered Jerusalem from one end of town, about the time that Pontius Pilate was entering the city from the other end of town for the Passover. They were both coming for Passover but for very different reasons.
Pontius Pilate was coming as a representative of the Emperor. Perhaps he had been with the Emperor that morning where over breakfast they bombed Syria and Afghanistan, and plotted an attack against North Korea. Perhaps they discussed walls and raids, and paying for it all by defunding women’s health care, then the Emperor dispatched Pilate out to the far reaches of the empire, to Jerusalem to maintain control during a time that could be volatile. Passover was essentially the Jewish Independence Celebration. It was their annual celebration of freedom from slavery in Egypt. And celebrating their Independence Day while living under Roman rule always brought some tension. Pilate entered the city to see to it that there were extra soldiers on the streets, and extra guards at key centers of power.
Jesus came humble on a donkey in the way of God to the hosannas of the common people yearning to be free. He was coming to disrupt the Empire and its ways of social control and death. He was coming to ignite a movement that would change the course of history. Jesus and his followers entered the Temple, overturned the tables, and shut it down, proclaiming that God has created the Temple as a place of Life and Prayer for all People, but the Empire has turned it into a Den of Robbers and Death. The Empire moves immediately to capture Jesus, arrest him, and execute him. He dies with great suffering and humiliation. He dies a complete failure. His followers flee in fear and the movement quickly unravels. This is all predictable. We wonder why this wise teacher and son of God would fall into such an obvious trap.
4. Surprise and Mystery
But then something amazing happens that no one saw coming. The story does not end as we expected. Some women see where they buried him, go to anoint the body, but the body is gone. An angel tells them Jesus has risen, and they flee from the grave in terror and amazement.
When we talk about resurrection, we’re moving into the realm of mystery. Mystery is something that’s beyond us, that we do not know and will not know in this lifetime. And the reality is that a lot of our life is mystery. The universe is a vast mystery far beyond our understanding. Scientists have learned a tiny fraction of how things work.
We do know that something very unexpected happened after Jesus died. We know it from the gospels and from the Jewish historian Josephus. The Roman historian Tacitus was anti-Christian, but he also refers to this unexplainable happening in his Annals:
Christus the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate, and a pernicious superstition was checked for the moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible and shameful in the world collect and find a vogue’ (Tacitus, Annals of Imperial Rome: Penguin Classics, 1985, 15.44).
Why did this movement break out again, if Pilate had killed the founder in such a way as to strike fear in his followers? According to the disciples, what happened is Jesus rose. They saw him, talked to him, and received instruction from him. And they didn’t have a lot to gain by making that up. In fact, most of the leaders of the disciples ended up being jailed and killed for making that testimony. So they must have believed it.
The good news is that Christ is risen. He went into Jerusalem to confront the way of death, not just to overthrow a government, but to topple death itself. The scapegoat becomes the victor. The way of God triumphs over the way of Empire. Life triumphs over death.
What difference does this make in this life we are living? We have a real choice. The way of death that we see all around us is not the only way. We are all going to die. What matters is how we live. The resurrection invites us to consciously choose the way of life, not death.
This is no easy choice. And a lot of us are not going to want to go there. If the routine is working for you at all, you’re probably going to want to stay with the routine, even if it’s surrounded by and even rooted in the ways of death. We’re just more comfortable doing what we know. If you’ve been in an abusive relationship long enough, it may feel more comfortable to just keep doing what you know than to face the terror of confronting it. If you’re in a job that’s barely paying the bills but certainly not taking you into your purpose, you’re probably going to want to stay there rather than face the terror of economic uncertainty. This is not a light choice.
The movement of God is so flimsy in the face of the Empire, which dominates our daily routines. After the crucifixion, the movement of Jesus consists of three women: Mary, Mary and Salome. But they tenaciously challenge the order of death. They go to the market and buy spices to anoint the body. There is a huge boulder blocking the entrance to the tomb and there is no way they will be able to remove it. But they go anyway.
And just by hanging in there in all its apparent futility, the women become witness to the dawning of a day unlike any they’ve ever seen. The stone has been rolled away; a mysterious man is in the tomb telling them Jesus has risen and telling them to go tell the other disciples that Jesus will meet them back in Galilee. They flee from the tomb in terror and amazement, and say nothing to anyone because they are terrified.
Is there a situation in your life that you have given up on? What injustices have you just decided to live with, because you don’t see a way through them? What compromises have you settled for on your purpose, because it’s just not realistic to expect more? We seek control and live with the illusion that even if our lives are not as fulfilling as we had hoped, at least they are manageable.
Maybe it’s only the moment that we realize they are unmanageable that we are open to the terror and amazement of resurrection.
What does it mean to live in resurrection? To live beyond death? Over the next several weeks we will explore what a resurrection life looks like. Taking a risk and opening ourselves to amazement. Letting go of numbness and allowing ourselves to lament. Letting go of the security of position and embracing the vulnerability of passion. Letting go of fear to live in faith.
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense. - Rumi
In our next series we will explore in depth six areas in which we can choose life over death:
April 23: RELEASING CONTROL, EMBRACING AMAZEMENT
"Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near." - Matthew 4:17
April 30: RELEASING POSITION, EMBRACING PASSION
"Follow me and I will make you fish for people." - Matthew 4:19
May 7: RELEASING NUMBNESS, EMBRACING LAMENT
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted." - Matthew 5:4
May 21: RELEASING FEAR, EMBRACING PURPOSE
"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." - Matthew 5:5
May 28: RELEASING POSSESSIONS, EMBRACING GENEROSITY
"For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." - Matthew 6:21
June 4: RELEASING WORRY, EMBRACING THE PRESENT
"Today’s trouble is enough for today." - Matthew 6:34