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A Sermon preached by the Rev. Michael Anderson Bullock

[Isaiah 25:6-9; Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18]

What about the empty tomb?  After all, the proclamation of the empty tomb is the launching pad for the core tenant of the entire Christian faith and experience; and as such it stands at the center of this Easter Day’s proclamation.  So, what does it mean that the tomb is empty?  

While the stories about the empty tomb do not “prove” anything  (that is not their purpose nor in any event can one “prove” love), nonetheless, the empty tomb accounts do exist and stand at the heart of the New Testament witness to indicate something important – specifically to point to something about what God has done in Jesus – something that restates the reality of life with God at the center.  That “something”, that new life echoes resoundingly within the empty tomb and in the meaning of the word “resurrection” itself.  For “resurrection” means “to awaken to”.  Awaken to what?

As I have said before with you, the meaning of this day, this Easter Day, is not about the reality of life after death.  Nor is the meaning of this day about going to heaven when we die.  However, it is about “awakening to” something simpler and yet more profound: namely, “awakening to” the deep and eternal truth that God’s “love is stronger than death”.  

That love, God’s love, being stronger than death, is the news with which the empty tomb reverberates.  And the reason that I am prone to chaff at the all-too-common expression that being a Christian is about going to heaven when we die is because Jesus’ resurrection reveals that heaven (that is, life on God’s terms) – heaven is now!  In Jesus’ resurrection, fear and death are overcome, put in their proper places (if you will) – not as life definers but avenues into something larger, something eternal, something unassailable, something that begins now.  In and through the resurrection of Jesus, God’s life bursts among us; and all creation quivers as in birth pangs.

Yes, in Jesus’ resurrection, life on God’s terms explodes in our midst to reveal “heaven” in our midst.  And yes, this revelation of God’s life in and through the Easter experience is not some magical intervention that makes everything “all better”.  We all know too well that life is not “all better”.  But no, Jesus’ resurrection is the lynchpin on which the liberating life-change that transforms and heals what is the world’s and our addiction to fear and death.  Jesus’ resurrection begins a new creation with God at the center.  And as with any addiction, as with any substitute for God and the God-life, we find it difficult to accept; we even deny the option for release, for true freedom, and for new life – life, not on our terms but on God’s terms.

The empty tomb offers no “proof” of this new life in Christ.  Rather, the empty tomb offers each of us an invitation – an invitation to be changed – changed into what we see in the Risen One.

Good News: We are (as from a deep, Rip van Winkle sleep) “awakened to” the demonstrated fact that in Jesus’ resurrection God’s love, God’s life is stronger than death – no matter what!

This past Tuesday morning, being Tuesday in Holy Week, our Bishop called his clergy to the cathedral to join him in renewing our ordination vows.  This is a liturgical practice many bishops of the church offer each Holy Tuesday.  Reflecting on and reclaiming the call of our ordination vows seem a most appropriate discipline for Holy Week.  Personally, I have noticed and experienced a great deal of dying and rising in being a bishop or a priest or a deacon or a faithful human being.  Yet, the abiding message of this Holy Tuesday occasion and others like it is always: You are not alone!  The liturgical phrase in that occasion’s summarizing prayer puts this tender truth this way: “May the Lord who has given you the will to do these things give you the grace and power to perform them.”1  In Jesus’ resurrection, that grace and that power are in full view.

A dramatic part of this renewal of vows involves the Bishop consecrating the holy oils that are then available for use in the parishes for the coming year.  The oil of Chrismation (used in Baptism to mark each of us as “Christ’s own forever”) and the oil of Unction (used for healing) are then provided to each cleric to take home and put to use.  The point of the holy oils was displayed in the Bishop directing the congregation to anoint each other in the pews, in succession – one after the other -- with the baptismal chrism and to do so with these words: “Remember that God’s love is stronger than death. And to that love you shall return.”  

Of course, this anointing proclamation echoes the sobering words of Ash Wednesday’s imposition of ashes.  At that time, the accompanying words were: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”.  The words that attended the chrism’s anointing speak of our life with God, in Christ, beyond the ashes.  Along with the outward, physical, and olfactory sign of the anointing oil (which is our baptismal inheritance in Christ) these words (“Remember that God’s love is stronger than death, and to that love you shall return”) – they echo eternally for us and for all who dare to hear right now in the empty tomb.

It is true that the world and that part of each of us that is ruled by the world do not see or acknowledge any such “awakening” reality.  While the headlines of the news of our day resound with an excruciating need for Easter’s redemption and rescue, in so many cases resurrection life appears to make no difference.  In this, I take heart in the Easter Day examples of Peter, the Beloved Disciple, and Mary Magdalen.  As close to Jesus as they were, the reality of resurrection and the breaking forth of the God-life in their midst was not understood at first.  In fact, Jesus’ resurrection initially caused pain and confusion for them; and it does for us, as well.

The Easter story that John tells starts with the Magdalen running in terror to Peter and the Beloved Disciple (the “John” of the Fourth Gospel).  For Mary Magdalene had found the stone door of Jesus’ tomb inexplicably rolled away and the tomb no longer containing his body.  Fearing the worst – that grave robbers had struck or even worse than that that Jesus’ opponents had the body in order to desecrate it publicly for their own ends, Mary Magdalen sprinted to the two men.

Upon her breathless arrival, she blurted out both her findings and her fears, in response to which the two men sprinted to the site of the tomb.  Strangely, the text reports that the younger disciple out-legged the older one but, nonetheless, still allowed Peter to take the first step.  (Was this in deference to Peter’s status among  Twelve?).  Bending over to see but not entering the tomb, Peter saw that the burial clothes were lying on the burial shelf where the body had been.  The fact that the cloth that had wrapped the head of Jesus had been neatly set aside and rolled up by itself seemed at least to signal that grave robbers of any sort were not involved.  

With Peter’s visual assessment completed, the younger disciple and running mate entered the tomb to see for himself; and what the Beloved Disciple saw confirmed the same visual clues that Peter had noted – only at the sight of the neatly placed head cloth, the text informs us that the Beloved Disciple “believed”.  Believed what?  That tense question gains some relief by what follows in the narrative: namely, that at that time, neither disciple understood what the scriptures had to say about resurrection and Jesus’ overcoming death.  It seems to me that this is a message that there is much more to come in the wake of the empty tomb and much more to believe than at first glance.

So, both men left the tomb and (as the text says) “went back home”.  (Question: Being in Jerusalem, where did these Galileans call “home”?  Did they return to the Upper Room?  Was that their “safe house”?  Listen to next Sunday’s gospel for an answer.!  In any event, Mary Magdalene was left alone, drowning in her tears of grief.  

At this point in the story, I can’t help posing a bit of an intramural interpretation here.  As the Magdalen considers entering the tomb, I think of the application of our parish motto.  Our parish motto says this: “Be careful.  If you come here, you will grow!”  Hmmmm…fair warning, Mary!

When her curiosity finally drove her beyond her fears, Magdalene entered the tomb only to see what is described as “two angels in white”.  With one sitting where Jesus’ head had lain in death and the other at the place where his feet were initially placed, the angels asked her for the reason she was weeping so hard.  Mary’s response to the angels revealed her ongoing concern for Jesus’ body and where it might have been taken and by whom.  With this overriding concern weighing upon her heart and mind, Mary turned around to see a man whom she initially thought was the cemetery caretaker.  She wasted no time in repeating her concern to the man about the whereabouts of Jesus’ body, when the man the Magdalen supposed to be the caretaker spoke her name.  At the knowing sound of Jesus’ voice, the Magdalen’s whole being switched into another gear – from blinding grief to hope’s possibility.  She recognized Jesus.  He was not dead but alive; and so in unimaginable ways shall Mary Magdalen be, too, 

Her understandable tendency to grasp her “Teacher” in grateful recognition was only halted by Jesus’ warning not to do so.  That warning was not made because he was a male and she was a female or anything like that at all.  It was because his resurrected life could not – it would not – it must not be contained by the old standards, the old, familiar ways and expectations.  Something was different and new about the risen Jesus.  Heaven, life on God’s terms, had broken in; and to the Magdalen’s eternal credit, she let go of what she knew and what had caused her such grief; and in that stupendous act of faith, she “awaken to” the new life revealed in the Risen Christ.

We often speak of Easter and Jesus’ resurrection in terms of issues of “life after death” or of “going to heaven when we die”.  But the heart of Easter, the transforming meaning of Jesus’ resurrection and his triumph over fear and death is this: “heaven” is now.  The life we yearn for and even strive for is now in our midst.  This is what it means to say: “Christ is risen!”  Yet, the truth also is that very few of us are in a position -- now --to receive this gift of new life easily, readily, not to mention completely.  Is Easter too good to be true?  Are the consequences of opening ourselves to the reality of Easter too hard for us to take?  Does resurrection change life too much, too fast for us?  Or like the Magdalen, can we release Jesus to be Jesus and live in his resurrected truth?  A truth that proclaims eternally that God’s love is stronger than death and that in Christ we are returned to that love – no matter what, no matter how timid or hard -hearted we may be!  

So it is: A new beginning.  Love has surprisingly and astoundingly returned.  Alleluia! Christ is risen.  The Lord is risen indeed.  The tomb is empty.  Alleluia.  Amen.


1.  E.g., Book of Common Prayer. page 532

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