The Tomb is Empty

By The Rev. Anne Michele Turner

The tomb is empty.  Is the morning of the third day, and the tomb is empty.   And the question now: how do you respond?

If you are Peter, you are lucky this morning, because it comes to you quickly.  You run, and you come to the stone pushed aside and you go and, and you see those linen wrappings lying like a discarded towel.  And you understand, and you believe.

If you are that beloved disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, you have it pretty easy, too.  Because you also run to the tomb and maybe you stand aside for a bit, maybe you need some coaxing, but you go in, too, and you understand, and you believe.

But if you are Mary Magdalene, you do not have it so easy, do you?  And I think most of us are Mary Magdalene.

All she wants is a body, really.   All she wants is Jesus back.  She comes as early as she possibly can, all by herself, determined to be the first at the tomb in her grief.  Maybe she just wants to cry alone.  And when she sees the empty tome, she doesn’t understand, and she doesn’t believe.  Her first thought is that someone has stolen the body: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

Even after the others figure it out, her heart is unconvinced.  She just stands there crying. Angels talk to her—“Woman, why are you weeping?”—and she still doesn’t get it.  She insists to them that someone has stolen Jesus’s body.  And then when that body appears in front of her, alive and talking and asking the same question—why are you weeping?—she’s still stuck in her conviction of death.  “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him.”

All she wants is a body.  She would be content with a corpse.  Her heart is so broken that she has no anticipation of a world without heartbreak.  Her imagination is so limited by pain that she cannot dream of a world with peace in it again.  I think she just wants things to be the way they were, because every day brings some new trauma.  First Jesus is arrested.  Then Jesus is killed.  Then his grave is desecrated.   And she just wants him back.

I admire understanding and I aspire to belief, but I have a clingy and backwards-looking heart.  This is the emotional life I know: I just want it back, whatever it is.  When I hurt, I want it back the way it used to be.   Mary Magdalene is me and I think she is a lot of us, us people who struggle with loss and challenge and hurt and change.

It is to her, and it is to us, that the resurrected Jesus speaks: “Do not hold on to me.”  Not now, not yet.  Jesus knows that the first thing Mary wants to do, the first thing any of us want to do, is to fling our arms around that body and grab tight.  But Jesus also knows that grabbing tight does nothing except make us rigid.  The man who has been to hell and back knows that there’s no point in clinging to the past.

Here we have the gift of Easter, which turns out to be a rather complicated gift: the tomb is empty, and Christ is risen, and God is changed.  Jesus is not who he has always been.  The way things were is not the way they are going to be.  How can we respond?

A lot of preachers will talk about Easter joy this morning, but I’m not sure joy is the only emotion we have on this day.  John’s gospel, actually, doesn’t record joy.  Read carefully through the text, in fact, and you will realize that there is no specific emotion recorded at all.  The other gospel writers talk about joy—but when they do, it is accompanied by fear, and indeed bewilderment and confusion and anxiety seem to be the main responses to the resurrection.  Jesus is alive?  We know how to cope with death.  Life?  That’s another story.

I don’t mean to suggest that is not a good day.  It is.  But I want to be honest in naming the way resurrection works for most of us: new life scares the pants off of us.  We are so entrenched in the patterns of our world that we look for death and we expect death.  And following after the living Jesus means that we have to let go of the corpses we would cling to.

Mary came looking for the body of her friend.  She came looking for the teacher and healer that she thought she knew.  What about you?  Who was the Jesus you came looking for this morning?  Who is the Jesus you want to hold on to?  What would happen if you let him go?

We all love the way things were.  In our own lives—we love the homes that were never supposed to change, the jobs that were never supposed to end, the people who were never supposed to die.  And in our lives together—we love the parish that was supposed to be the ground under our feet and the rock under our faith.   Even if you haven’t been in these doors in years—maybe especially if that’s the case—you probably have this sense that some things are never supposed to change, and that God is one of them.

But God does change.  And God’s creation changes, too.  Because after Jesus Christ defeated death, all things are being made new.  And we have the gift and the challenge of opening our hands and our hearts to that new creation. Because our resurrected life is more than nostalgia, and more than memory, and more than inertia, and more than continuity.  Our resurrected life is new.

The good news of Easter is this: we do not get what we want.  Because our wants are too small.  God gives us, as they prayer book says, infinitely more than we could ask or imagine.  We cannot grasp it but we can bear witness to it.  We can name what we have seen.  We can speak, like Mary, the name of the God that is dear to us, seeing him constant with us even as he is someone he has never been before.  We can speak, like Mary, to those around us, telling them the truth of our upended lives: that Jesus is risen, that Jesus is going ahead of us, promising, always, life out of death, beginnings out of endings, blessings out of the grave.

The tomb is empty.  How do you respond?