Empty Tomb

Note: I preached a version of this sermon on April 20, 2019 (Easter Vigil), on Luke 24:1-12 at Church of the Holy Apostles in Wauconda, Illinois

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

As soon as the story was told, it was disbelieved. The women came to the tomb early that devastated morning to anoint the body of the Lord and teacher they loved. The men were hiding, no doubt saving themselves for some more critical task, as men have been known to do. So the women come to discharge this last office of love, scorning the risk to their own lives, staring down the disappointment and horror of the moment. And when they do, they encounter something totally unexpected: an empty tomb, and divine messengers telling them that Jesus is not there, that he was been raised.

As the messenger of God came first to Mary to say that the Savior would take flesh within her, and no one knew and no one could understand except her cousin Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist, so the messengers come to the women at the tomb and no one understands them, no one believes them. The men don’t believe them. Yet the tomb is indeed empty. And Jesus is indeed going to meet them–on the road, by the lake, and on the mountain.

For almost two thousand years humans have heard this story and for almost two thousand years we have been coming up with reasons not to believe it. Perhaps Jesus’ body was stolen, it is argued, and the appearances to his disciples were the work of an imposter. Perhaps the appearances were a mass hallucination by the disciples, unresolved grief expressing itself as a sort of denial that he was even dead. Maybe the empty tomb is a later addition to this story. Maybe the whole thing is a metaphor for the power of Jesus’ teaching. Maybe it is an echo of the stories of the pagan gods of the ancient near east, who go to the underworld for a season and then come back, bringing spring with them. The sun will come up tomorrow and life will renew itself.

These arguments are, briefly, all balderdash. Yes, the stories are strange and filled with mystery. No, they do not create one consistent picture of that morning and the days that follow. But the doubt and confusion are written into the story from the start. This is not a confidence game or a fraud or a metaphor. The stories would look totally different if they were. The people who were there believed this had happened. What and how, exactly, they couldn’t say. But it was unbearably, unbelievably real to them.

And from the start people have evaded the story in part, I think, because the hope and the joy it offers are almost too much. Really, an empty tomb. Really, the defeat of death. It can feel like a cop-out, an undignified temptation to wishful thinking when what we need is to face facts. And the first fact that we need to face is that death is real and final and takes away everything. It can feel indecent to talk about an empty tomb in the middle of so much random suffering and tragedy. Anyone daydreaming about women at a tomb talking to angels and the dead not staying dead needs to grow up. This is wisdom. This is truth.

Yet there it was, and there it is: a tomb with no corpse. A door opening to a possibility we may not even want to entertain. That there is something beyond the grave–not in our warm, rose-tinged memories, not in some distant shore where the souls of the righteous congregate, not in the recurring cycle of nature, spring following winter and day following night, not in our plucky human desire to go on living despite it all–but in the love shown to a broken body as it is knitted back together. In the care shown to a dead body as it is revived to life. In the promise of salvation and in-gathering of all the peoples that is initiated by this one lonely empty tomb. In a new age that begins now, in the devil being cast out from this one cranny of earth, hell being crushed under this one foot, death being deprived of its spoils in this one corpse.

And indeed this is not a balm to every hurt or an answer to every tragedy. We gather tonight as Christians always have, in the midst of terrible mourning and the questions of why the innocent suffer, how can God allow this to happen–questions that it is indecent to attempt to answer. We weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice every day until the end. We pray that a miracle may happen. We pray that the mourners may be comforted. We give thanks when life goes on.

We do our best. When the news came about the nine-year-old boy missing in the lake last night, I would have hoped for anything, for any miracle. A child hidden safe in the rushes. Taken captive by mermen. Replaced by a changeling. Anything at all. Today when the people of Transfiguration Parish opened their church for a prayer service for Geraldo, whose body was recovered from the lake at noon today, we all did our best. We read Scripture and prayed and shared the best words we could come up with. A few of us stood at the chancel and offered prayer to anyone who wanted it. He was supposed to have a birthday party today. All the boys who were invited were there at the church, together.

After a while, the people all left, and then the family arrived. The boy’s mother was trembling with shock. Father Juan-Pablo, Pastor Chael and I did our best to be helpful and comforting. But there’s no help and there’s no comfort. It would have been indecent to offer answers where there are no answers or vague assurances for such a loss. We prayed. We blessed them.

There’s no comfort and no answer. But once upon a time there was an empty tomb. There was an empty tomb, and God’s Son had lain in it dead. He had loved his friends and taught the people and healed the sick and fed the hungry and comforted the afflicted and even raised the dead, and the world turned him into a corpse. But when his friends came to show him the love they could show him, there was an empty tomb.

We are not gathered by a mere miracle, or a comfort, or the endurance of life. We are gathered by a new thing. We are not gathered at the dawn that rises each day, conquering each day’s night. We are gathered at the dawn of the age of the Messiah. We may still be closer to the dawn of that age than to its noon. We are gathered at the mouth of the tomb whose bonds were burst asunder, at the gate of hell that could not hold forth, at the brink of our own hearts and our own lives that need–desperately need–more than we can believe, more than we can swallow, more than we can hope. I can’t explain it. I can’t understand it. But I believe it, because they believed it. They believed it and passed it on, and dared us to believe it in our turn.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!


UPDATE: This got a lot more traffic than I was expecting. Here’s the GoFundMe for the family. They are raising money to have him buried in Florida, from where they moved less than two years ago. It is authentic.

One comment

  1. […] fire, readings, and the water of baptism, and then like that Christ is risen again. I preach my desperate howl of a sermon to twenty-six sets of ears. Someone sends it to Ross Douthat, and by Tuesday it’s been seen […]


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