“Who are you going to tell?”
An Easter Morning Reflection by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower[i]
March 27, 2016
based on Is 65:17-25 and Luke 24:1–12
Some women go to the tomb where Jesus was laid. This is women’s work. Men did not go to the tombs, men did not prepare bodies for burial, this was a chore assigned to women. Sadly, the women knew what to expect. In the time of Jesus, there were no professional undertakers to embalm the body. The task of preparing a body for burial was assigned to women. They came early in the morning before attending to other chores. They came with spices to prepare the body of their beloved friend.
Do you think they were ready to sing with the psalmist “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it? Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD.” These are ironic words for people walking away from Jerusalem, away from the gates that lead to the Temple.
These women are most likely remembering the events of the past week: about the Pharisee’s meeting Jesus at the head of the parade, telling him to quiet the crowd; about Jesus overturning the tables in the temple; about the meal in the upper room; about going to the garden to pray; about Jesus being arrested in the garden; about Jesus being moved around town all night long being tried by different officials; about Jesus hanging on a cross, a bloody, painful execution.
It seems to be far away from promises Isaiah announces. It seems far away from a new heaven and a new earth. It seems far away from a place when weeping and crying are no longer heard.
Now, early in the morning, the women came to the tomb. They had no expectation of life here among the rocks. They had seen death before, had returned to the tombs many times, and always found the same thing. The hillside was honeycombed with tombs, filled with the ancient dead as well as the more recently deceased. Those who laid among the rocks were always dead – cold, lifeless. That’s why they came with spices that morning. You didn’t bring those along unless you were expecting to find death amid the stones.
Jewish burial rites at the time meant anointing the dead body with spices to hasten decomposition and cut down the smell. A year later, they would come back among the rocks and gather the remaining bones. They put them in a stone box, an ossuary, and then put the box in a niche in the back of the tomb. The same tomb would be used in the same way many times, and the rocks would remain silent. A large stone would be placed across the doorway. This is very practical. The rock seals had to be moveable, so the tomb could be opened up when the family experienced another death. No matter how far you stretch your imagination the seals would not have been air-tight. The women walk here following paths among tombs, paths they had walked before, tombs filled with death, the air thick with its scent, not expecting to find anything new.
That morning they came to anoint the body of the one whom they had hoped would bring new life to a world desperately looking for it. When Jesus of Nazareth had been with them, they felt like anything was possible. They had seen people healed from disease, had seen demons cast out with a word, and had even seen the dead brought back to life. They had heard him talk about the kingdom of God, which sounded to them like a whole new world, sustaining a different kind of life than the one they were used to — a world where the first become last and the last first; a world where violence and pain are no more; a world where the brokenness and sins of the past are forgiven; and where everything is made new.
But this was not some distant world. In fact, Jesus said that this seemingly alien world was already here and breaking in among them in his own life and ministry. These women, like so many others, had their view of the world changed by this one who at once seemed so alien, and yet, so familiar. And now he was dead, and the familiar burial work of the old world needed to be done. They were certain they would not find signs of life among the stones and rocks and tombs.
When they arrived, carrying spices, they found that the stone covering the tomb had been rolled away. And Luke tells us the women were perplexed, puzzled, they did not know what to think. These are the first of several emotions Luke will list in this story. And the next comes right away: they were terrified. Two men suddenly appear (and in Luke they are named as men) wearing dazzling clothes, which is the costume of angels. This is not what they expected. ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead? Why are you looking for signs of life in a graveyard?”
The women are terrified. The Greek here is the root word we use for phobia: if you have any phobias, then you know haw paralyzing fear can be. The way Luke describes these women gives me some confidence in my own faith: if these women (who are the first people to receive the news about a resurrected Christ) are confused and frightened, then I am probably normal in admitting the resurrection doesn’t completely make sense to me. I am beginning to appreciate that the willingness to be perplexed and terrified and a whole lot of other mixed emotions may be the prerequisite for becoming Christ’s follower. To be a follower of Christ means accepting there will be times of confusion.
These women came, certain in their expectations of what they would find. They had expected to find the same old thing — the dead among the dead, the stones undisturbed and yielding nothing but cold, dry, geophysical reality. What they discovered, instead, was life: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen”
But pay attention here: Luke tells his gospel story with great care. Certain characters are meant to be models of faithfulness for all who hear this gospel. Through Luke’s story women are models for faithfulness. And here, Luke tells us, the women are the first to announce the news that Christ is risen.
Throughout the bible, the number of female characters is vastly outnumbered by the number of male characters. The world of the bible is extremely patriarchal and chauvinistic. That is why the details here are important: it is important that these women, and not men, are at the tomb. Men did not go to the tomb because men did not want to have the additional purity rites that accompany touching a corpse, so men pushed the work off on women. And once it became the work of women, it was demeaned. So Luke is making a point here: this work is significant; this work is not something to be dismissed; this work takes the women to the place where Christ’s resurrection is first confirmed.
Remember, the message of angels always follows a formula: Do not be afraid. God is about to do a new thing. This affects you. God is in charge. Go.
He is not here! He has risen! The tomb is empty! It is no longer the site of death but of new life. Something new has broken into our world.
These messengers invoke yet another emotion – but it doesn’t have much feeling in English. The men in white tell the women to remember what Jesus taught them. In English, “remember” has become an intellectual act, something we do with our mind. In Greek, this activity is done with the guts: “And then the women remembered … “ Maybe a better translation might be reminisce – except this is not about nostalgia. The thesaurus is maybe more helpful: bethink, hold dear, keep forever, know by heart. This is the same word Jesus uses at the last supper when the disciples are told to remember him when they have bread and wine.
It is that act of remembering that sends these first resurrection witnesses away from the tomb, away from the certainty of death, away from the familiar expectations. Because the tomb is empty, they are sent in new directions. Because the tomb is empty, they are given new responsibilities and new identities. They are told to be messengers, to proclaim what they have seen.
Whatever we have experienced of the resurrection, even if we have been confused, scared, or seem to be daydreaming about possible futures: whatever our response to the resurrection we are sent to tell it to others.
The women go to the room where the rest of the disciples are gathered. The women are the ones who have been called to proclaim of the message of God’s good works. But in the customs of their day, women were not supposed to be public speakers, especially on behalf of God. But here is part of the new heaven and new earth that God is creating: those who once were silent now speak in testimony of God’s doings. The Greek gives the a special designation: these are ones who proclaim! Remember: just a week ago Jesus said if these followers were to be silent the stones would shout. These women who were once told to be silent as the stones are shouting out the message of God! Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The tomb is empty! New life has entered the world! God’s promises are happening right here among us!
Are you ready to be surprised by the resurrection? Pay attention to your feelings: even when they are unexpected feelings, they are gifts from God. God uses all our feelings – sadness, surprise, terror, joy – all our feelings are possibilities for God’s revelation. And remember – not just what happened then but what has happened since to get us to today. This is the story of God’s doings, and God is still doing. Go and tell it to others.
The women go and tell the other disciples – the men who thought they had it all figured out. These men could not accept the story the women told them – it was too surprising. These men tried to dismiss the women’s story as an idle tale, gossip, hysteria, nonsense. As you go to tell others about what God is doing in your life, others may not immediately accept your story. That’s OK – go and tell your story anyway. It is the persistence of the women that convinces male disciples to go the tomb.
I think there’s some humor here: Jewish men did not go to the tombs, they did not go to the places of women’s work. But here, in the new heaven and new earth that God is making, we will be called into places where we do not expect to be called. And “going to the tomb” is far too passive to explain how the men went. They ran. In the culture that these men lived, men do not run. They may walk with purpose, they may walk briskly, but they do not run. Running is a sense of panic, a sign of having lost control.
Something in the persistence of these women proclaiming that Christ is risen arisen has forced these men to give up their normal sense of control. Their running suggests an intense emotion going on in them. When they get to the tomb they run right into another emotion: they are amazed, they are filled with awe, they were filled with marveling. It is a sense of being perplexed but also being set on a course of continued contemplation. This is something that they will have to think about for a long time. This is something they will definitely remember. God has indeed done a marvelous thing.
In the rising of Christ we have witnessed the beginning of the new heaven and new earth that God is making. We will be surprised. We will have a wide variety of emotions. We must remember God’s promises and we ready ourselves to tell others of the great things God is doing in our lives. You are called to go and tell. Who will you tell first? Alleluia! Christ is risen! Amen.
[i] Portions of this sermon are indebted to “Signs of Life” in Homiletics March-April 2016.