What about the empty tomb? (Luke 24:1-12; 1 Cor. 15:19-28)
The text we read together in Luke 24 is Luke’s empty tomb story. When it comes to the appearance stories, all the Gospels have their own unique stories to tell, with the exception of Mark, who does not include an appearance story. But all four Gospels have some version of the empty tomb story. Each story is unique and contains variations from the others (there are differences in the details) but the main point, of course, is the main point of all the stories. The tomb is empty, and Jesus is alive. The question this raises for me is this: Why was the story of the empty tomb considered to be of such importance that each of our canonical Gospels contain a version of it?
It’s not, in my estimation, intended to teach that the resurrection of Jesus has to be physical? In 1 Cor. 15, where Paul is responding to questions about the resurrection raised by the Corinthians, Paul struggles to try to explain what the resurrection involves in terms of the body. He says, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the future realm of God.” He says there is a “physical body,” and a “spiritual body.” He says “it is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.” He links our resurrection to Jesus. In resurrection, like Jesus, we are given a spiritual body. What does that mean? Who knows? But it is certainly different than a physical body. If the physical body of the crucified Jesus had remained in the tomb to decay as human bodies decay, that would in no sense disprove resurrection, according to Paul anyway. Because Paul says that in resurrection we are given a spiritual body, not a physical body.
When the spirit or soul departs from the body, the body becomes a shell of our former self. Right? We trust that we will be given a new body – Paul’s says it’s a “spiritual” body, not a physical one. So, if we can trust Paul on this, then the significance of the empty tomb has nothing to do with the kind of body we have in a resurrected state of existence. So why, then, do all the canonical Gospels have an empty tomb story, where the physical body of Jesus is no more?
Personally, I think there are two main two reasons for the empty tomb story. First, the story is important for its dramatic impact in spotlighting God’s vindication of Jesus. Consider the version of the story we read in Luke. The women, grieving the death of Jesus, no doubt dismayed and disheartened, bring spices to the tomb to give Jesus a proper burial. But there is no body to anoint. So, now add to their grief, perplexity and confusion. Then “suddenly” two men in “dazzling” apparel appear. Feel the drama. So now, add to the grief and perplexity fear. “The women were terrified,” says Luke. More drama. We just about have as much drama here as we have in our youth group. Well, maybe not. The two messengers speak to the grief and confusion and fear when they say, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” This is high drama highlighting God’s vindication of Jesus.
A story that Tony Campolo shares demonstrates how this drama works in a contemporary setting. Campolo at the time, and may still be, a member of a predominantly African American congregation in West Philadelphia. At the time he said he loved preaching in his church because of the response he gets. He says they let you know how you’re doing. One time he was preaching and knew he was in trouble when a woman raised her hand and yelled, “Help him, Jesus! Help him, Jesus.” Another time, however, he knew he was connecting. It was a Good Friday service and he was one of several preachers that day. He was getting “Amens” and “Keep going, brother, keep going.” I wouldn’t mind hearing that ever now and then. After his sermon he sat down next to his pastor, who was also his senior and who was to follow him in the rotation. He looked at Campolo with a smile and said, “You did all right! Campolo whispered, “Pastor, are you going to be able to top that?” The preacher smiled and said, “Son, just sit back, cause the old man is going to do you in.” And he did.
The preacher would say, “It was Friday and Mary was cryin’ her eyes out. The disciples were runnin’ in every direction, like sheep without a shepherd. But that was Friday, and they didn’t know that Sunday’s comin’!” “It was Friday. The cynics were lookin’ at the world and sayin’, “As things have been so they shall be. You can’t change anything in this world; you can’t change anything.’ But those cynics didn’t know that it was only Friday. Sunday’s comin’! “It was Friday. And on Friday, those forces that oppress the poor and cause people to suffer were in control. Pilate thought he had washed his hands of a lot of trouble. The Pharisees were struttin’ around, thinking they were back in charge of things. But they didn’t know – they didn’t know it was only Friday, and Sunday’s comin’!
The old preacher did him in – with one line. Back and forth he went. It’s Friday, but Sunday’s comin’ – It’s Friday, but Sunday’s comin’ – until he came to the end of his message. The preacher proclaimed: “It’s Friday!” Then he paused and the whole congregation shouted in joy, “But Sunday’s comin,’” and the congregation erupted in claps and shouts of jubilation. That’s dramatic impact. The empty tomb story is about dramatic impact highlighting God’s vindication of Jesus.
We live in a world full of Friday experiences. There are multiple and sometime massive injustices and inequities. We live in a world of holocausts and genocides.
We live in a world of hurricanes and floods. We live in a world of horrific natural disasters and diseases that take their toll on our families and our lives. We live in a Friday world, but . . . . Sunday’s comin’!
The messengers at the tomb tell us to remember that Jesus told us all this. He told us that he would suffer, that he would be rejected and crucified. But he also told us that would not be the end. The message of the empty tomb and the message of the messengers at the empty tomb is that Jesus is not here. Jesus is not confined to this little place in time, rendered inoperative and powerless. You can’t hold down, you can’t destroy the power of love and compassion present in Jesus. You can’t kill the passion for justice that got Jesus killed.
C.S Lewis, in one of his books calls the world a “bent planet.” It’s true. But there is a divine conspiracy of love afoot that intends to set things right. In the midst of all the alienation, contempt, evil, and hostility, there is a conspiracy of forgiveness, compassion, reconciliation, and hope going on. Even though the world said, “No” – No to the love and inclusion and righteousness of Jesus. God said, “Yes,” and “No” to the injustice and violence of the world. God said “Yes” to everything Jesus stood for and lived for and died for. That is the drama, that is the power, that is the message of the empty tomb.
Now, in my thinking at least, there is a second important point the story of the empty tomb makes. It serves to show the connection between the human being, the man, Jesus of Nazareth and the risen, exalted, Christ. What began in the man, Jesus – the love and compassion and justice of God that became incarnate in the man, Jesus is magnified on a much larger, greater, expansive, and inclusive scale through the cosmic, universal Christ. To bring that down to earth in more practical terms what that means is that Love (with a capital L) never gives up. What God, who is Love, wants to do is bring everything and everyone together in unity, in oneness. God wants to make the affirmation, “We all belong,” an actual, practical reality. In Philippians Paul describes this as every knee bowing and tongue confessing that Jesus is Lord, which implies that everyone will come to live in the humble, self-giving way of Jesus. Confession of Jesus as Lord is a confession of allegiance to the way of Jesus. In Ephesians Paul says that God’s plan is in the fullness of time to gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth. In Colossians Paul says that through Christ God intends to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven. Here in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul says that all will be “made alive” in Christ and everything will be subjected to God by means of the Christ so that in that fullness of time “God may be all in all.” Everything unified, everyone and everything brought together, reconciled, cooperating with God. That’s one amazing cosmic plan that the cosmic Christ is working to bring to completion.
Will it ever be realized? Will it ever be fulfilled? Is Paul right to believe this? I don’t know. Who can say? For that plan to be realized in the human sphere means that everyone will eventually have to come to repentance and willfully give up their little selves in order to be changed into their true self, the image of Christ. Because no one is subjected to God’s will unwillingly. No one is redeemed and transformed who does not want to be redeemed and transformed. No one is changed without great personal investment in the process that brings about transformation. God doesn’t zap people, and suddenly they become more loving and compassionate and caring people. If God could do that don’t you think God would? That’s now how life works folks. Salvation doesn’t work that way. Personal salvation is a process that requires our honest struggle with our ego, with change, and with faithfulness to the way of Jesus, the way of compassion and righteousness. Will everyone eventually be willing to engage in that process, will everyone eventually invest in this struggle and learn compassion and righteousness? I am hopeful, but I honestly don’t know. What about people who are hardened by evil? What about someone like Hitler who was responsible for the suffering and deaths of millions of people? I can image someone like Hitler needing to invest thousands of years, perhaps millions of years getting to know all the people his acts killed and caused immense suffering. Is that possible? I don’t know. But what I believe is that God’s vindication of Jesus on Easter morning means that nothing can sever anyone from God’s love which has been made known to us in Christ Jesus. The door is only locked from the inside. God never gives up on anyone.
Some years ago, when I still held to an exclusive version of the Christian faith and I was arrogant enough to think I had the answers and knew who was in and who was out of God’s favor, I was asked by a funeral director to do a funeral service for a man who had no religious affiliation. The man had lived a self-absorbed, wretched kind of life. Only a handful of people were present for the brief service. After the service, the man’s sister asked me a piercing question. She confronted me with this question: Could you not give my brother any hope?
In the Lord of the Rings, Gollum, you will remember, is a scheming, pitiful, deformed little creature obsessed with possessing the ring. He wasn’t always like that, of course. He thought he could possess the ring, but the ring possessed him and led to him regressing into the pitiful little creature he was. Still, he wants the ring back. Gollum has learned nothing it seems. He is consumed with repossessing the ring even though the ring has and continues to diminish and destroy him. Nothing else matters. Sam and Frodo find themselves traveling in circles lost in the Misty Mountains as they make their way to the Mountain of Doom where Frodo intends on throwing the ring into the fire, which is the only way to destroy it. Here they encounter Gollum, who agrees to help them. He knows the way out. All the while Gollum is helping them he is secretly plotting, and Frodo knows this, to steal the ring back. Gollum could well represent the person you most despise, the person you most dislike. Sam despises Gollum and is harsh and demeaning towards him. Finally Frodo confronts Sam. “Why do you do that—call him names and run him down all the time?” Sam responds, “Because that’s what he is, Mr. Frodo. There’s naught left in him but lies and deceit. It’s the ring he wants. It’s all he cares about.” Gollum is the ultimate narcissist. Looking sadly at Gollum, Frodo says to Sam, “You have no idea what it did to him. I have to help him, Sam.” Sam asks, “Why?” Frodo replies, “Because I have to believe he can come back.” Frodo, who finds himself slipping away under the influence of the ring, understands better than Sam the weakness of the human condition. Frodo holds on to hope. I have to believe he can come back, that he can be saved, that he can change.
I wish I could go back and give the man’s sister who I failed miserably some hope. Because now I know there is always hope. There is always hope because Divine Love overcomes all the forces of death. It’s never too late from God’s side. Is it ever too late from the human side? That I don’t know. But if Paul was bold enough to trust that somehow and someway every person and every reality in this universe will be ultimately brought together in Christ, so that God may be all in all, maybe I can be that bold too.
On Easter morning God said “Yes” to Jesus’s passion for what is right and his compassion for all people, even though the world said, “No.” The way of Jesus – the way of compassion and righteousness that Jesus incarnated – is the way of salvation, and God keeps wooing and inviting us to pursue the way of compassion and righteousness of Jesus. God keeps trying to draw us into God’s love, and God will never give up. That’s what I believe, sisters and brothers, the empty tomb is about.
Today, O God, on this Easter Sunday, we give you thanks, because the forces of death will not prevail. You raised Jesus, up. Your love never ends. Hallelujah. Amen.