A sermon preached by the Reverend Dr Trevor Jamison at
Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church
Easter Sunday, 17th April 2022
‘On the first day of the week, at early dawn, they [women who had come with Jesus from Galilee (23:55)] came to the tomb, taking the spices that they prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body.’ (24:1-3)
What’s all that about? What are we to make of it? What should we tell others? If we ask those questions, then we echo those of the women. After all, ‘they [too] were perplexed about this’ situation. (24:4)
Today, they would not be alone in their perplexity. In the part of the twenty-first century world we inhabit, many, if not most people, would be at one with those male disciples with whom the women first shared their experience: ‘these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.’ (24:11)
So, as we today celebrate Easter, as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, let’s be clear about how we understand about this empty tomb, and about the story we should share with others, just as faithful women followers of Jesus did on that first Easter Day.
And the first thing to be clear about is that this was no idle tale – the tomb that had held the body of Jesus really was empty. On the first Easter that was easy to demonstrate, even to sceptical apostles like Peter. They could go and have a look: ‘Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths [which had covered Jesus’s corpse] lying by themselves; then [we’re told] he went home, amazed at what he had happened’ (24:12) though, at this point, none the wiser about what it all meant, it seems.
You could take sceptics to the empty tomb back then, but you can’t do that now. Instead, we rely on making a case that the tomb was empty. Some will remain sceptical about that. That said, consider this: if this was a made-up story this is not the way you would go about making it up! If, two thousand years ago in Palestine, you conspired to start a worldwide religion, for whatever reason you would want to do that, you would not centre it upon someone who had been publicly executed.
Then, if for some reason I can’t think of, you decided to persevere by claiming that your leader was actually alive and risen from the dead, you would not choose a set of women as your first and foremost witnesses; not in a society that accorded such low status to women. A conspiracy story like that? You couldn’t make it up because you wouldn’t make it up that way. It actually makes better sense to believe that the women said what they said because, when they went there, the tomb really was empty.
But what are you supposed to make of an empty tomb? It’s just an empty tomb! At least, it is unless there is a story to go along with it which makes sense of it; one which makes sense of life for you and for me. And the women were given that story; the whole story of Jesus Christ, which is the story of God’s gracious dealings with the world and with us; a story capped and completed by the resurrection, which entails an empty tomb. And here’s that story, as told to them by two messengers at the tomb …
‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of man must be handed over to the sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’ (24:5b-7) Now the women ‘told all this to the eleven’ (24:9) remaining apostles, but they were not in listening mode: ‘these words seemed to them an idle tale.’ (24:11) The men should have listened better. The whole story was before them; the one that makes sense of the empty tomb. Take a closer look at those words, for here is the whole story, the one that gives meaning to an empty tomb, the story that Jesus had laid out for them in advance.
‘While he was still in Galilee …’ (24:6) In other words, during the time of Jesus’s ministry of words and actions. If you want to understand the significance of the empty tomb, remember that it’s the tomb of Jesus, whose ministry taught a radical human lifestyle of whole-hearted love of God and neighbour, and who backed it up by drawing all sorts of people together, and by healing those in distress.
‘That the Son of Man …’ (24:7) This is the Gospel story abut God’s choice of God’s self to be present here on earth in the person of Jesus, who lived life as the representative of how humankind should be; as the representative creature of God’s creation.
‘Handed over to sinners …’ (24:7) This teacher, God’s representative, confronted and came into the power of the other representatives of humankind; those, like us, who have gone astray in life; who have turned away from how God wants the world to be; a place of abundant life for everyone.
And was ‘crucified …’ (24:7) The great teacher and healer, God’s representative, in placing himself in the hands of sinful human representatives, took on the pain of the world that flows from human flaws and wrongdoing; ones that lead to death.
‘And on the third day rise again …’ (24:7) But then God capped it all – the teaching, the divine presence in a human being, the awful mistakes and missteps of humankind, with resurrection from the dead … of which the first indication on that ‘first day’ (24:1) was an empty tomb, discovered by some women – ‘Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and other women with them.’ (24:10)
It’s all one story: the teaching and ministry of Jesus; human representative of God who is also God present here on earth; reconciling the world to God through suffering and death at the hands of the world’s representatives, which spells freedom and life for all; for us and for them. The lifestyle Jesus advocated is no wishful thinking; his suffering and death no mere disaster; the empty tomb no confidence trick. The whole gospel story, the good-news story, both makes sense of, and is made sense of, by an empty tomb, and by Christ risen from the dead. In Jesus Christ, God is with us, teaching us, loving us, suffering for us, dying for us, and risen from the dead that we too will have life: Alleluia!