March 27, 2005
The Gospel: John 20:1-18
Sermon: "Struggling With the Empty Tomb"
The Rev. William D. Oldland
Struggling With the Empty Tomb
Easter Sunday - March 27, 2005
What do we think or believe concerning the empty tomb? In our world today we have many different views about the event. Some scholars believe the entire event was a story. This story was simply made up by a group of people and that there was no empty tomb. Others believe that everything happened through the crucifixion but that the empty tomb stories are not real. They are some version of the truth. Still others believe the tomb was never empty. This part of the story alone was changed to fit the predictions and thus make believers out of those who did not see. Finally, there are those who believe in the empty tomb. They believe Mary or Mary and others went to the tomb that morning and found it empty. Jesus' body was gone.
Now, perhaps this sounds like a strange way to begin the Easter message. But, let me share a story that occurred at Virginia Seminary. One day some students had an opportunity to talk with one of the theology professors at the school. They proposed the following scenario as part of their question, "Suppose an archeologist found a book in Israel. This book was authenticated as to date, place and author. In the text of the book, the entire story of Jesus Christ was proved to be false. The book proves there was no birth, no teaching, no crucifixion and no empty tomb. What would you do? Would you continue to be a priest and teach and preach?"
The reply from the professor shocked every student listening. He said, "Even if such a book was found, I would believe the story anyway and continue to preach and teach the story we have."
The students were shocked and asked, "Why would you continue preaching and teaching a story proved false?"
He replied, "I would continue because the story of Jesus Christ is the best hope humanity has."
His answer is now my best definition of faith. Faith is believing in the unseen and even possibly the unbelievable because it offers us true hope for our lives and the world. Oh, we can still question and we can still have our doubts, but faith hangs onto the hope even when there are questions.
If we look closely at the Gospel reading from John we see that questioning occurred even for those who were very close to Jesus concerning the resurrection. Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb while it still dark. Perhaps she is afraid she will be seen. Perhaps she is afraid of being arrested. After the events of the previous day, who could blame her? She sees that the stone has been rolled away. She runs back to the disciples. When she arrives she doesn't say Jesus has risen. She tells them someone has stolen the body. Mary Magdalene does not believe Jesus rose from the dead. Peter and another disciple take off running for the tomb. The other disciple reaches the tomb first and stops. He doesn't go in. He is afraid of what he will find. Peter, impetuous Peter, runs into the tomb and sees the linens there. He sees the cloth that Jesus had on his head in a place all to itself. When the other disciple stepped in he saw the same things and the scriptures say he believed. They didn't understand it all, but the disciples did believe.
Mary Magdalene is still outside. She is so distraught that she is crying. She still believed the body was stolen. But her curiosity got the best of her. I'm sure we would be in the same boat. She has to look in and she sees the two angels sitting there. She admits to them that she believes the body has been stolen. Then she turns around for someone is behind her. This person asks why she is weeping as well. She doesn't recognize him. She doesn't recognize him until he calls her by name. When he calls her by name she is overcome with joy. She must have moved to grab him for he stops her.
Please notice that Jesus' appearance was different. It was definitely different than the last time she saw him. He was beaten and bloodied. He had died on that cross. He must have looked different than before as well. But when he called her by name she knew. She knew that her Lord stood before her. The promise had indeed been kept. Jesus had risen from the dead and a new life in God begins for all of creation.
And yet, we have trouble convincing ourselves that this story actually happened. The empty tomb is a mystery. The Gospels don't exactly agree on the events of the day. How can we believe such a story? Oh, we could talk about the various aspects of the writers of the Gospels. We could expound on the ancient texts that foretold the Messiah. If we want to we can question the authenticity of the texts themselves.
However, one question has always remained unanswered. Why? Why would someone want to write such a story? Furthermore, who would have done the writing? Why would they not have claimed the story for their own? What purpose would having another religion do in the world, particularly one where a fisherman is the first leader. What was the gain for a person writing this story? Financial, hardly. Spiritual, to what end? Leadership, what of, a bunch of rag tag fishermen, tax collectors, and other outcasts of society. These questions have never been answered adequately either.
No something happened with Jesus Christ at that tomb. The details are a bit fuzzy, but something happened. For on that day the tomb was empty and the greatest hope for the world became real as it never had before.
We are called to believe in this story by faith and not by fact. We are called to believe that God's salvation has come and that our Redeemer is alive. Jesus Christ is the Son of God, our hope and redeemer.
And today we are doubly blessed. First, we recognize the living presence of Christ because of the empty tomb. We also recognize the beginning of a new life in Christ for Owen. We have the opportunity to share with him our faith in our risen Lord and Savior. We begin to walk with him and teach him about faith in Jesus Christ. One day, he too will struggle with the question of the empty tomb. He will be alright as long as he stands on faith, faith that God through Jesus Christ has redeemed all of creation. Like Mary, we will know, as Owen will know, that our faith has been secure when we hear Jesus gently call us by name.