Sunday, March 23, 2008

Out from the tomb

It’s hard to write an Easter sermon before it’s actually Easter. As I journeyed through Holy Week in scripture I found it difficult to move past the events and emotions of each day to the glorious surprise that would greet the women when they went to properly prepare the body of Jesus as it lay in the tomb.

Imagine what that morning must have been like. The sun is just rising as the two Marys arrive. It’s the soonest they could go there without violating the Sabbath – what must Saturday have been like for them? Grieving and yet unable to do the things that help with grieving – unable to wash and anoint the body, unable to look at their teacher one last time. And so they arrive, tired and worn from the events of the week, emotionally exhausted, dreading the work ahead of them and yet filled with a great desire to perform this one last service for their master. When they arrive, there was a great earthquake! An angel of the Lord descended from heaven and rolled back the stone and sat upon it! His appearance was like lightening, his clothes as white as snow. His appearance was so unworldly that the guards, military men, fainted from fear! But apparently not the women, for the angel said “Do not be afraid.” If we needed any proof that this was, indeed, an angel, these words alone would let us know. Every time God’s messengers appear that’s the first thing they say “Do not be afraid,” and with good reason. If someone who shone so brightly it was hard to look at him suddenly appeared to me, accompanied by an earthquake, I’d be afraid!

And then his message. “You are looking for Jesus. He isn’t here. He is risen, as he said he would be. Come, look. Then go tell the others.”

Even now, on Easter day, it’s still hard to leave the place of the empty tomb. The temptation is to stay there, and look inside to make sure he’s really not there. To gather some sort of evidence to prove to the others he’s really gone. The temptation is to stay and talk about it, and wonder what to do next. I can imagine myself standing there saying “I know, we’ve been given directions by an angel of the Lord, but really Mary, what do you think happened here? How are we going to explain this? You know the others are never going to believe this!”

They do leave, of course, in great fear and joy. And on their way, they meet Jesus. And they fall to their knees, and grab hold of his feet, and worship him. Probably crying and laughing at the same time. Alternately asking incoherent questions and struck silent by the wonder of the morning’s experiences. And again they hear the words of God’s messengers, “Do not be afraid.” He tells them what the angel has already told them – Go and tell the disciples to meet me in Galilee.

Go back to where it all began, to the place where John was baptizing, to the place where the disciples were chosen, to the place where the water was changed to wine, to the place the first demons were cast out and the first sick were healed. Go, I will meet you there.

We know that Jesus would indeed meet the disciples there – that his ministry hadn’t ended yet. Rather, now would begin an intensive time of study. He would spend the next forty days teaching the disciples the things they needed to know to carry the Good News of God’s Kingdom out into the world. He could have taught them anywhere. But he deliberately took them back to the place where they had first become his followers.

Earlier this week, while trying to understand the message of Easter, I looked up the symbols we use to symbolize Easter. It was a long list including lilies, and eggs, and bunnies, and spring flowers – lots of things that indicate spring and new life. At the very bottom of the list was the butterfly. I found that kind of fascinating, because we’ve been using butterflies as our symbol these last couple of years. The butterfly is a symbol, not just of Easter, but Jesus as a whole. The caterpillar, earthbound and rather ordinary, indicates Jesus’ life, when he lived as an ordinary man for some thirty years. The chrysalis is his death and the time he spent in the tomb, a time when the preparations were being made for transformation. And the butterfly, so delicate and beautiful, but so strong it can ride out a hurricane, is the resurrected Christ.

Have you ever seen a butterfly when it first emerges from the chrysalis? It doesn’t burst out ready to fly. It comes out slowly, with great struggle. It comes out sort of wet and wrinkly and vulnerable and has to sit still for a while until it’s wings are dry and ready to spread.

This is where the disciples were in their transformation. They were changed, but not quite ready to fly yet. They had to go back to the beginning – to the beginning of a new life and a new understanding of the Word. Soon they would be ready to spread their wings and carry the Good News all across the world. But first, they had to prepare. They had to leave behind their old understandings and embrace the new.

What does it mean for us that the same instruction, “Go to Galilee. Jesus will meet you there.” is given twice in this short passage? We know something new was about to enter the world. Something so beautiful and amazing that it would spread across the entire world. But on Easter it wasn’t quite ready yet – the disciples weren’t ready yet.

Perhaps today it tells us to go back – back to the place where we first met Jesus. Back to our early excitement about his teachings, about the knowledge that through him we came to know God’s steadfast love, infinite compassion, and willing forgiveness. Back to that sense of awe and wonder that came when we first believed Jesus Loves Me – even Me!

On this Easter Sunday, let us go back to that beginning. Let us leave the empty tomb behind so we can spread our wings and begin life anew. So that we can shout hosanna with fervor and meaning – with tears and laughter – and let that shout ring out into the world. Christ is Risen! (Christ is Risen! Shout Hosanna! 222)

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