24 Very early on Sunday morning the women went to the tomb, carrying the spices that they had prepared.
2 When they found the stone rolled away from the entrance, 3 they went in.
But they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus, 4 and they did not know what to think.
Suddenly two men in shining white clothes stood beside them.
5 The women were afraid and bowed to the ground.
But the men said, “Why are you looking in the place of the dead for someone who is alive?
6 Jesus isn’t here!
He has been raised from death.
Remember that while he was still in Galilee, he told you, 7 ’The Son of Man will be handed over to sinners who will nail him to a cross. But three days later he will rise to life.’ “
8 Then they remembered what Jesus had said.
9-10 Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and some other women were the ones who had gone to the tomb.
When they returned, they told the eleven apostles and the others what had happened.
11 The apostles thought it was all nonsense, and they would not believe.
12 But Peter ran to the tomb.
And when he stooped down and looked in, he saw only the burial clothes.
Then he returned, wondering what had happened.
Nothing has changed since last Easter.
Oh, sure, we didn’t meet in person last Easter.
We have a different president. The ice caps are melting faster. Babies have been born. People have died.
ZOOM is now a household word.
We wear masks.
But nothing important has changed since last Easter Sunday. The tomb is still empty. Jesus is still the conquerer of death.
The women, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and some other women, expected to perform one last act of love for their dead friend.
They had had no opportunity to prepare Jesus’s body for his final resting place. They knew what to do; they would use perfumes and spices to anoint the body, wrap it in cloth and put a special cloth over the face. At a normal death, the body would remain at the person’s home for a visitation, much like our visitations at funeral homes. Jesus’s death was not normal; he was taken down from the cross and buried immediately.
Matthew’s Gospel tells it this way:
57 When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. 58 He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. 59 So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth 60 and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. 61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.
The Gospel according to John tells us that Jesus had already been anointed:
39 Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. 40 They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews.
Regardless of which report is 100% accurate, the women needed to do this one last caring thing for their friend. Perhaps they knew that usually women prepared the body, that men did not. Joseph and Nicodemus probably didn’t do it exactly right, so they needed to go in to make sure Jesus was properly buried. As it turned out, the perfumes and spices and clothes weren’t needed. Jesus wasn’t dead. There was no body.
What was their first thought? That the body had been stolen? That was the fear of chief priests and the Pharisees; they convinced Pilate to have the stone at the entrance sealed and to have soldiers posted to guard the tomb.
Imagine! All the efforts of men to make sure that Jesus would no longer be a threat to the establishments of the Roman Empire and the Jewish community were for naught. The authorities, both secular and religious, did everything they could to silence Jesus. Jesus could not and cannot be silenced.
What does this mean for us?
It means that we are freed from sin, freed from death, freed from our mortality. Those are abstract ideas, but we Christians cherish our freedom. We did not earn this freedom, we did not fight for this freedom. This freedom is a gift, given without any conditions attached.
To be freed from our sin frees us to love as Jesus loved. That is what it means for our earthly life. Jesus not only showed us what love looks like, as he helped and healed and cheered the people of Galilee. Jesus did more than free us to be the force of love in the world.
Jesus freed us from death. That is hard for us to imagine. We still die; we still prepare bodies for burial, so what does it mean to be freed from death? We do try to imagine what life after death will be. We hear stories of people who have died and been resuscitated. Usually, the people describe meeting God or angels or the people from their family who have been dead for a few years.
That glimpse of heaven—we call that place we go to after death, heaven—is comforting because it sounds familiar. Dying is frightening because all we have ever known is life. Even when life is painful, it is preferable to death. Why else do we seek cures for every disease? Why else are we lining up to get vaccines? Why else do we give money to the American Cancer Society and similar organizations? We fear death. And yet, Jesus gives us a reason to ignore that fear and look forward to something better.
We observed the four-year anniversary of my father’s death this past week. I wrote a little tribute to him that included this:
I have no doubt that the saints wander among us, seeing only the beauty in our lives. Thanks be to God for this marvelous creation and for the miracle of human life, which continues even after death, without the sorrow.
I can say this because I know that my father and all the people I’ve loved have or will move from this life to a new life. I know this because I believe what Jesus did and what Jesus said are meant for me as much as they were meant for the men who put him in the tomb, as much as they were meant for the women at the tomb.
I find great comfort in thinking that the saints walk among us, that heaven is wherever they are. I cannot prove this; it is only my idea, but let me tell you a story about my cousin, Jane, her mother, Anna, and her daughter-in-law, Nancy.
Anna’s mother was my great grandmother. Anna’s daughter Jane, is a good friend, as well as my cousin. Jane told me about a visit from Anna—after Anna died. Anna did not visit Jane. She visited Jane’s daughter-in-law, Nancy. Nancy had only met Anna once, so it was surprising that she would dream about Anna. But it seems that it was not so much Nancy dreaming as it was Anna visiting Nancy in her dream. Here is the other part to the story.
When Anna died, Jane came back from Ohio to Muscatine to close up Anna’s house. She chose a few things to take with her, including a plate with roses on it. When she returned home, she hung the plate on the wall of her home. In Jane’s words:
Nancy seemed so unlikely. But what do I know? I believe this was the last plate of the set that didn’t have a chip in it. I brought it because I always liked how those dishes went so well in the kitchen. After I hung the plate, Ron was the only person who saw it, and neither of us told anyone. (He wouldn’t anyway. It is not a guy thing!) The plate still hangs there and makes me smile every day.
What did Anna tell Nancy in the dream? She told Nancy to tell Jane she liked where she hung the plate. Anna was dead. Nancy had only met Anna once. Nancy lived in New Hampshire. Anna is buried in Muscatine. Jane lives in Ohio. But Anna saw that Jane took the plate from the house on Cedar Street and took it to the house in Ohio.
So, in my mind, the saints, freed from death by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, are with us.
Likewise, Jesus is with us. We proclaim that when we celebrate Holy Communion. Jesus said “Remember me,” but Jesus is more than a memory for us.
Barb Hedges-Goettl, a Presbyterian pastor and liturgical scholar, expands on this idea.
Since the Ascension, while believing in the Resurrection, we too are witnesses to an “absent” Jesus with regard to his body. In the Church, we live out the words about the Word through the preaching of the Word. In the Church, we participate in the absent, ascended, resurrected Jesus through sharing in the body of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. And, in the world, we live out our witness to the Word and to the resurrected Christ by speaking of God’s selfless love and by acting in selfless love as the body of Christ.
The first and last people to expereince something really, really new on this day were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and some other women. What those women saw was a change that would change the world.
Since then, that empty tomb has remained empty and Jesus Christ has remained risen.
Michal Beth Dinkler, Assistant Professor of New Testament at Yale Divinity School says exactly what I believe, exactly what I want you to hear and believe:
The women’s experience, and their response to it, remind us that when we love God, neighbor, and ourselves with our words and our actions, we render Christ visible in a world where the divine all too often seems absent. We draw community together, instead of being pulled apart by fear, confusion, grief, and distress. When we do that—draw attention to a deeper reality that is often hard to remember or believe—God is still present and working in the world. Death does not, and will not, have the last word. That good news—that gospel—is what Christians proclaim when we say that Christ is risen. He is risen, indeed.
The resurrected Christ gives us so much that it is hard to realize it in the space of one sermon, in the space of one Holy Holiday, in the space of four Gospels.
We are who we are, not because of where or when we were born, not because of what a few pieces of paper say about us or what a few people say about us. We are who we are, because we believe in God the Father Almighty, in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, who died for us, who conquered death for us, and in the Holy Spirit, the Giver of Life. We walk in the presence of the Triune God, and the Triune God walks in our presence. What greater joy, what greater comfort, what greater strength can there be than to say to each other “He is risen!” “He is risen indeed!” Amen.