Note: Sermon begins at 2:11 of audio --
Absent but Present
When was the last time you visited a cemetery?
Many Latin American nations observe El Día de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead). The national celebration occurs on All Saints Day, November 1. Families visit the graves of their relatives. They clean up the area and decorate the site. Then they eat a meal together in the graveyard.
We do not have anything quite like the Day of the Dead in our country. About the closest custom would be the observance of Memorial Day. The first occurrence of Memorial Day was in Columbus, MS, on April 25, 1866. The graves of both Confederate and Union soldiers were decorated by the local women.
I do not know whether it is because I grew up in Latin America or because I have lived in the South for so long, but when I return to our family’s home place in Virginia, I always make it a point to visit the graves of my mother and father, my brother, and my maternal grandparents. I check to be sure the graves are being well-kept, and I stand in silence for a time remembering them, missing them, and paying my respects. I expect many of you have a similar practice of your own.
This morning’s reading form Luke 24 is about a group of women who visited a graveyard. It is important to remember what they had experienced just two days prior to the events of Easter morning. Their master, Jesus of Nazareth, had been arrested, tried in a kangaroo court, tortured, sentenced to death, and executed by the horrific method of Roman crucifixion. After Jesus was dead, a Roman soldier stabbed his lifeless body with a spear to be sure he was deceased.
These women had followed Jesus for three years. They were part of his inner circle. They knew him and were devoted to him. The women, along with all of Jesus’ followers, believed he was God’s promised Messiah, the true king of Israel. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, like the Jewish kings of old, they expected God would dispatch legions of angels who would defeat the hated Romans, dethrone evil Herod, exalt Israel as chief among the nations, and establish the promised kingdom of God on earth under the kingship of Jesus. None of those things happened. Instead, Jesus was executed like a common criminal. All their high hopes had been dashed against the harsh rock of reality.
These women were profoundly traumatized. It is hard to imagine the depth of grief they were experiencing as they made their way to the cemetery at dawn on the first day of the week. In addition, they had a grim task to perform. They were carrying embalming species with which to prepare Jesus’ mangled body for a proper burial.
They expected to find Jesus’ corpse in his tomb, but when they arrived, the stone sealing the grave had been rolled away, and Jesus’ body was missing. Imagine that the next time you visit your family graves, you discover that they have been dug up, the bodies taken, and only empty caskets remain. Such a horrific and shocking scenario will help us to imagine what the women must have felt. Dead bodies do not move. They have no life in them. Someone had stolen Jesus’ lifeless corpse. Could things possibly get any worse? This was adding insult to injury, horror to agony. The women must have been beside themselves with grief and anger. The contemptible Pharisees and priests had colluded together against Jesus. The despicable Romans had murdered him, a totally innocent man. Now someone even more depraved had stolen Jesus’ body.
The women expected to find an occupied grave. Instead, they found an empty tomb. The text says they were perplexed. The Greek word means “stymied” or “confounded.” Now what were they to do?
But then the story takes a completely unexpected turn. Literally, out of thin air, two men dressed in dazzling clothes appeared and stood beside them. The poor women were terrified. They bowed their faces to the ground in reverential submission to the appearance of angels.
And not only did the angels appear, but they also spoke! The angelic beings began with a gentle rebuke. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” The answer, of course, is that you do not look for the living in a graveyard; you look for the dead among the dead. Tombs are for dead people.
Jesus’ dead body was absent. It never occurred to the women that he had risen from the grave. The missing body and the empty tomb were indicators of Jesus’ presence, not his absence! Jesus had risen from the realm of the dead. He had returned to the land of the living. He was not manifestly present in his resurrection body. Jesus’ actual appearances would come later that day. (Next Sunday we will consider Jesus' first appearance to two disciples traveling from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus.) However, Jesus was present to the women in another way, in the form of proclamation and memory.
Listen again to what the angels said. “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again” (vs. 6-7). Jesus had told his inner circle on three separate occasions that the Son of Man would be handed over to sinners; he would be crucified, and after three days, he would rise again (see Luke 9:18, 21-22, 43-44; 17:23, 25; 18:31-32).
Luke tells us in verse 8 that the women themselves remembered Jesus’ words. “Then they remembered his words.” Suddenly, the women began to put two and two together. Even as the sun was rising, another light was beginning to shine in them. Jesus’ body was missing, but the absence of his corpse suggested something the women had never considered before: Jesus’ absence meant he was present!
Christian theology has long distinguished between Deus Absconditus and Deus Revelatus. These two Latin phrases are translated as the absent or hidden God and the revealed God. Jesus was absent now, but he would be fully revealed as the present risen Lord in just a few short hours. The distinction between the hidden God and the revealed God converged in this moment in the graveyard. The absent God was present through the power of proclamation and memory.
We are much like this group of women. We have not suffered as they did, but we have been battered by life, especially over this last year. To all appearances, God seems to be absent, missing. The good news of Easter is that despite all appearances the risen Christ is present as the resurrected Lord of heaven and earth. We do not see him, but we remember him and proclaim him. We remember through Jesus’ own testimony and the testimony of these women preserved for us in the Word of God Written which preserves the memory of both and forms the basis for our proclamation.
The women visited the graveyard full of grief and anger. They expected to find a body, but instead they discovered an empty tomb and angels who reiterated Jesus’ own words predicting his death and resurrection. In the process, they also discovered their own memories of Jesus’ predictions of suffering and glory. All these elements set the women in motion.
They returned from the tomb and told everything to the eleven (Judas had committed suicide.) and to all the rest (perhaps the one hundred and twenty who later gathered on the day of Pentecost). As Dr. Michal Beth Linkler observed, not only did the women remember; they set about the task of “re-membering,” reconstituting the community that had been dismembered by fear, confusion, grief, and distress. The women became the “apostles to the apostles" (quae apostoli ad apostolos).
It is highly significant that the revelation of the resurrection was made to women first. In his earthly life, Jesus broke down many walls of partition. Jesus welcomed tax collectors and sinners and ate with them. He touched dead bodies and lepers. He cast off the traditions of the Pharisees regarding the Sabbath. The same surprising changes continued with his death and resurrection. When he was arrested, the apostles’ courage failed them, and they scattered. It was the women who watched with him at the cross. Only John remained to comfort Jesus’ mother, Mary. As one commentator observed, “Think of it: not only is his resurrection made known first to women, but he also reveals himself in his resurrection body first to a woman (Mary Magdalen) – and to a woman who is not his mother or a relative – something perhaps almost unthinkable in first-century Palestine.” Literally everything was starting to change dramatically. In Luke’s telling, the women were not commanded by the angels to tell the apostles. They took upon themselves the mantle to become the apostles to the apostles!
But the women’s report was not well received. Their testimony to the apostles seemed like an idle tale. Luke, who was a physician, uses a graphic medical term to describe the apostle’s response. The Greek word leros describes the delirious babblings of a person who is gravely ill. A modern equivalent would be that the apostles thought the women’s report was “fake news!” The apostles flat-out did not believe them.
You can hardly blame them. They did not see the angels. They were not reminded of Jesus’ predictions of his own death and resurrection. The gift of their own memories had not begun to stir in them yet. Only Peter roused himself to see what the women were talking about. He found the tomb open and empty and the grave clothes inside, but Jesus’ absence did not suggest the possibility of Jesus’ presence to Peter. He went home amazed and perplexed, nothing more.
We should not be too harsh on those who are unable to believe Jesus rose from the dead. The empty tomb by itself does not produce faith in the resurrection. The absent God does not inevitably lead to the revealed God.
For us who by grace can exercise the gift of holy memory, the absence of Christ, the empty tomb, suggests the presence of Christ, but that is not true for everyone. We believe that Jesus has returned to the land of the living from the realm of the dead, but such faith is a gift of grace.
Nonetheless, we too are apostles, sent ones. We have caught a glimpse of the risen Lord and the vision of faith sets us in motion even as it propelled the women into action. We too are seeking to “re-member” the body of Christ with those who currently sit in darkness. Ours is to tell the story. God is responsible for the rest.
Some will listen and conclude that the story is nothing more than an idle tale, delirious babblings of deranged minds. Others will investigate the matter further but remain only amazed and perplexed. But some will be like the unlikely women who heard and grasped the real news. A light will begin to shine in them. The possibility that Jesus Christ trampled down death by his own death will gain a foothold in their hearts and minds, and like a good leaven, faith in the possibilities of God will spread throughout their beings, transforming them. They will realize that the God who appears to be absent is present and revealing the divine self to all who have eyes to see.
Brothers and Sisters, if you believe that Jesus’ absence suggested another possibility, the truth that he is risen, then praise God with your whole being on this Easter day for the good gift of revelation and the grace to embrace it by faith.
If you are like the apostles who thought the whole thing was an idle tale, the babblings of women delirious with grief, do not despair. Try to open yourself to the possibilities of the empty tomb. The apostles eventually came to believe, and they turned the world upside down. God can take hold of you too and make you exceedingly useful in his service.
So, do not look for the living among the dead. He is not here but is risen. Remember how he spake unto you when he was yet in Galilee, saying, the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful people, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.
Today, remember his words and believe he is present. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As God was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Alleluia! Amen.