He is not here,
for he has risen.
— Matthew 28:6
Dear Disciples of the Risen Lord Jesus,
As I was praying for you and anticipating the wondrous joy that is ours because of the Resurrection of Jesus, I was reading the Gospel accounts thinking about the mixed emotions that filled the first witnesses who arrived at the tomb. Mark’s Gospel helps us to recount the emotional, intellectual and spiritual breadth and depth of this experience.
When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body.
Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”
But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.
“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”
Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. (Mark 16:1-8 NIV)
The central day of Christian faith begins with a group of women walking toward the rocky hillside, the tomb of Jesus. They were so overwhelmed with grief that they could barely lift their heads to carry on a conversation. Making their grief even worse, all their planning to finish the job of anointing Jesus’ body was probably wasted effort. They forgot one important detail in their plan: “Who will roll the stone away for us?”
This day that changed human history began not with celebration but with grief, tears and frustration.
Every time I look at these words in Scripture, I have to ask, “What kept these women walking toward the tomb?” Doesn’t it make sense that if you started out and thought of that stone in front of the tomb, realizing that you couldn’t move it, you would have just turned around and said, “What’s the use, forget it, let’s go back home.”
Those who join us for worship on Easter are just like these women, just like us, overwhelmed by grief, remembering loved ones who have died or are dying. Perhaps they are dealing with their own illness or broken relationships. Perhaps like these women, they will be fear-filled and insecure, in a world rocked by terrorists, extremists, tension, civil war, nuclear proliferation, and unstable leaders. Perhaps that sense of loss and despair is rooted in financial struggles, insufficient funds for retirement, trying to find a job or keep the current one. In the midst of grief, tears and frustration, people will join us searching for answers, hope and faith to keep them moving through overwhelming circumstances.
I am convinced that what kept those women moving forward was more than a sense of duty, obligation, commitment, or righteousness. It was love for the one whose body they were to anoint. They trusted Jesus. They believed in Jesus. These were women of faith!
Faith tells us that, despite the stones that seem immovable and despite mountains along the way that seem insurmountable, we need to keep going! Faith is not trusting in our own ability to move mountains. Faith is believing in a God who moves the immovable and overcomes the insurmountable.
How much faith do you need? This was a question that even Jesus’ own disciples asked Him. Jesus responded by telling them all they needed was faith as big as a mustard seed. That was the faith that summoned those women to the tomb on that first Easter morning. It was faith sufficient to believe in His promises, to love Jesus in the midst of the worst of circumstances. This is the faith that kept the women walking toward the tomb.
This is how Easter breaks into our lives, when all seems lost, when we least expect it. When they arrived at the tomb they saw the stone rolled away.
Every time I look at this Easter Gospel, I think about the stone. Why was it rolled away? It didn’t need to be rolled away by an angel to let Jesus out. I trust Jesus could have moved the stone by His own power. In fact, he could have walked right through it. The Scripture records the fact that he appeared to his disciples by walking through a closed door. The rock couldn’t have stopped Him. I wonder if the stone was moved in anticipation of the question these women were sure to raise. “Who will roll away the stone?”
This mountain-moving God had already acted, moving the stone, raising Jesus triumphant and victorious. In addition to the stone being rolled away, God meets them just inside the tomb with an angel who has an even more powerful message. “Don’t be amazed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified. He has risen. He is not here. See the place where they laid him.”
What do we do with this experience, this message? I am convinced that we must read the Scripture not as though it is the historical record from the ancient past, but as though it is happening to us — our experience — now! You are the one on your way, you are the one taking those painful steps to the tomb. You are the one amazed by the stone that is rolled away, overwhelmed by the angel and his words. The Easter proclamation is God’s intervention in your life and our life together.
This is intervention we desperately need as we struggle to survive in a world filled with fear and hopelessness, where people are confused and skeptic of all our human solutions that fail to overcome our largest problem, sin and its consequences. This intervention is vital as we have become addicted to our own solutions. When will we finally admit that governments cannot save us? That all the well-intended humanists striving to create a utopian society cannot save us? When will we learn that our wealth cannot save us, nor will our innovation, our science, our technology, nor all our combined knowledge?
Many in our culture are working endlessly to lead us away from the empty tomb to trust in something far more empty. C.S. Lewis, a scholar who began his journey as an atheist but became a follower of Jesus, writes about the bias of scholars and their rejection of miracles. In his treatise called “Fern-seed and Elephants,” he writes,
“As many academics look at the Scriptures they begin with the assumption that miracle passages must be unhistorical, that is, they never happened. Such a belief is not one they learned from the Scriptures, but one they bring to the Scriptures. They are therefore not true students of the Scriptures but students of the culture. Their own cultural bias is superimposed on the Scriptures. This however is not true biblical scholarship. The authority of those who speak in this way count as nothing for they speak only as men, influenced by and uncritical of the culture in which they have grown up.”
The message of Easter draws us into not just any miracle but the greatest miracle of all, Resurrection. Jesus, who died, is now alive! The entire mission, power and faith of the Body of Christ is focused on this one central miracle. Yet even in the church today there are those who minimize the critical nature of the Resurrection.
One lady was so confused about Easter after listening to her pastor’s sermon she asked this question in an online blog:
On Easter, my pastor said that Jesus just fainted on the cross and that the disciples nursed Him back to health. What do you think?
The host of the blog wrote back,
Beat your pastor with a lead-tipped whip 39 times; nail him to a cross; hang him in the sun for six hours; run a spear thru his side … put him in an airless tomb for 36 hours and see what happens.
This humorous anecdote is an apt description of our human response to those things we don’t understand. Miracles give us a glimpse of a Biblical worldview — a Kingdom of God worldview that Jesus proclaimed. Miracles have no place in our secular worldview and our first reaction is to reject them or find some reasonable explanation.
Some have tried to share with me their experiences that defy reason. They have difficulty finding words. Even some of the best communicators realize the limitation of word choices and communication skills. They simply declare, “This is beyond words!” Some experiences seem so out of the ordinary, so bizarre, that people fear recounting them because others will think they have lost their minds.
I understand this not only from the reported experiences of others but also my own. Contemplating this reality will help us understand even more deeply the experience of these women, the first witnesses of the Resurrection.
Some time ago, I remember reading the words of an author who wrote, “at the cross our hearts are broken, but at the empty tomb our minds are broken.”
Perhaps God knows that, before we can glimpse the depth and vastness of His Kingdom, both our hearts and our minds have to be broken. With a broken heart and mind, we are forced to realize that we can’t save ourselves. There is only one source of salvation, only one power that can redeem and save us from our perilous situation.
God calls us to a new understanding of love and a new worldview in the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus. Resurrection is what you get when you combine God’s power with God’s grace — love so powerful nothing can stop it, nothing in life and nothing in death.
How much faith does it take for this Easter Gospel to transform our lives as it did these women, the first witnesses of the Resurrection?
It takes just enough faith to take one step in the direction of Jesus and then another and another. It takes just enough faith to trust in the promise, to trust in His profound love for you in life and even in death. Every step in His direction will convince you that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. There is salvation in no one else. His love draws us in and His Holy Spirit empowers us even before we take that first step or the next one.
In many ways, the Word of God is so believable because it is so painfully honest about the human experience and condition. If this was a story of human invention, the Gospel would not end this way. In spite of the angel’s proclamation and instruction, the women run in fear. In Verse 8, we read, “They said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.” The most powerful, defining story of their lives and human history and they said nothing to anyone! How can this be?
When we consider our own culture in North America, our lack of going and telling is now showing. The number of those who proudly declare that they have no religious faith is expanding. Agnostics and atheists are organized as a political movement. Not only have mainline denominations been in a state of decline for the past two decades, but even Evangelicals are declining, and mega-churches are struggling. We so desperately want to fit in with our culture, fearing what others may think of us, we say nothing to anyone. We try to do good without telling. We try to love without sharing the love of Jesus.
I contend that our conformity to culture makes it even more difficult for Christians in other parts of the world to continue to be bold in their witness. They have much to teach us as they risk imprisonment and even death for going and telling.
Isn’t it interesting that churches in North American and Europe that have sold out to contemporary culture are dying? Their members are loyal to institutions and organizations, playing it safe, risking little or nothing.
Yet, where churches have remained faithful in their proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, even in the midst of harsh persecution, their churches are growing. Those disciples of Jesus are risking everything, even giving their lives for the sake of the Gospel.
Leaders in some of those churches have offered challenging words to us. Not long ago I met with several pastors from Rwanda who were concerned about what they found after spending six months in North America. They offered these two comments that will haunt me forever. They said, “Your problem is that you no longer believe that Jesus is the only Way, the Truth, and the Life, but we do. Your second problem is that you no longer believe that the Gospel of Jesus is Good News that needs to be shared with the whole world, but we do.”
Jesus’ instruction is the same to all He encounters following His Resurrection: “Go and tell!”
We come this Easter to worship a living Lord Jesus who is still moving mountains, softening hardened hearts and igniting the spirits of His people to go and tell. He is just as personally present today as He was when He met those disciples on the first Easter morning. He is calling us to have faith in Him, to keep moving in His direction, nurtured by a community of faithful followers relying on the Holy Spirit, the truth and power of Word and Sacrament.
His Resurrection guarantees our forgiveness, salvation and new life in His Kingdom that is eternal. Death has no power over us. Sin and brokenness are defeated. Guilt can no longer hold us captive. Restoration of relationships is assured and the hope we have is real and permanent. This is the Good News we have to share with the whole world: “The stone is rolled away, and Jesus is accessible to all.”
They are only waiting for someone to let them know. Jesus is depending on us to get out the message of Easter.
As I speak about discipleship I recount Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s contention that faith and obedience are inseparable. I have also learned that love and obedience are also inseparable. “And this is love: that we walk in obedience to His commands.” (2 John 1:6).
The Easter Gospel does not end in silence. The additional verses had to be written to conclude Mark’s Gospel account. These women who loved Jesus were also obedient. They did go and tell the other disciples. They were the only ones who could share this experience with us. They may have been silent for a little while, but not long afterward they followed the angel’s instruction. They went and they told others, and so must we!
No fear or threat is stronger than this Easter proclamation.
Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed!
Have a blessed celebration of our Lord’s Resurrection,
Bishop John Bradosky