Easter Sunday – Year C
Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; Luke 24:1-12
In today’s Gospel from Luke, a group of women come to the tomb to apply spices and ointments to the body of their friend Jesus. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and others, make up the group and they are present throughout Luke’s Gospel. They’re at the beginning, providing financial support for Jesus and his disciples’ ministry. They’re at the crucifixion, watching at a distance, as Jesus dies a slow and agonizing death. And they’re present when Jesus is laid in the tomb. They go home to prepare spices and ointments for Jesus’ lifeless body only to return and find he’s gone. And this is when the two angels in blinding clothes ask them: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
The problem for this group of faithful and strong women is that the resurrected Jesus can’t be found in a tomb. The dark and lifeless place of death cannot contain the vibrant and expansive life of Jesus Christ. The tomb is a place for the dead and that’s the last place to look for the risen Jesus. That’s why the angels ask them why they have come to look for the living among the dead.
They tell the women that Jesus is risen and they go on to tell them something very crucial: Remember. “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” They’ve come to an empty tomb because they’ve forgotten that Jesus was to be handed over to sinners, crucified, and resurrected on the third day.
And in light of this, I’m wondering where each us of us might be this Easter morning, because the tomb isn’t just a place from two-thousand years ago. It’s a place where we find ourselves whenever we forget the good news of the love of Jesus Christ. And like our sisters in the faith on that first Easter so long ago, we too can find ourselves in a dark and lifeless tomb in the early dawn of Easter.
This past holy week, I was scrolling through my phone when I came across a striking picture of a sculpture of Jesus on the cross which is located in the Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona, Arizona. The photographer was standing beneath the crucified Jesus, looking up into his face when they took the picture. And as I read the description of the photograph, I was caught off guard by what they had written: “Act right or you’ll disappoint the towering man-god who stares over you with a tortured look that burns a hole through your soul.”
Act right or you’ll disappoint the towering man-god who stares over you. Those words are disdainful and possibly offensive, but I wonder if the non-religious photographer put into words what we as Christians might sometimes only dare to think but never say.
Sometimes we can view God as a meddling customs agent on high, rifling through the bags of our life, looking for the slightest reason to keep us from where we want to go. We put our heads down and try to avoid the disapproving gaze of a God from on high we don’t trust and aren’t sure we really even want to know. This distant and untrustworthy God is someone we might give a little attention to, maybe even pray to when we or someone we love gets sick or when we’re in some other crisis, but that’s it.
And instead of Easter being a joyful celebration of the undying love of God, it can devolve into something we do out of a sense of duty to appease a disapproving god who looks down on us. Like a new set of Easter clothes that are rigid and constricting, or pull on us in different places, our weak ideas about God make us fidget and wonder when all the pomp will end so we can move on with our lives. Worn-out and lifeless ideas of a distant and disapproving God become the tombs we find ourselves in, dead places where the risen life of Jesus isn’t found. And it’s here in the tomb that we must heed the call of the angels.
Remember. Remember how he told you, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again. In order to meet the risen Jesus, we need to remember his great love for us so that we might find him outside of the tomb.
This is the point of the resurrection: There’ is nothing more powerful than God’s love for us. In the resurrection, the early disciples of Jesus come to know themselves as loved by God in a way they had never known before. It’s Peter who realizes his three denials can’t keep away the love of Christ. It’s the disciples who turned and ran while Jesus was arrested, who see that God’s love can’t be bound. It’s the faithful women watching their friend on the cross, who while he died in agony, whispered God’s forgiveness on those who took his life. And now they realize that the same love that led him to the cross is the same love that raised him from the dead. In the resurrection, they come to know themselves as loved by God in ways they never imagined.
The resurrection means that there’s nothing that can separate us from the love of God. Our denial, our betrayal, and even death itself are all powerless in the face of the love of God. Remember how he told you, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.
I don’t know of another god who loves sinners. But I do know there are other gods who are capricious and mean spirited, who wait to torture human beings for their sins. But in the face of Jesus Christ, we see a God who loves sinners so much, that he lets himself be betrayed into their hands and tortured by them. And in the face of the risen Jesus we see a God who will stop at nothing in his pursuit of us.
Easter isn’t about performing some religious duty for a disapproving God. Easter is leaving the tombs built by our dead and worn-out ideas about God and allowing ourselves the courage to actually hope in the good news of the love of Christ that pursues us past death and even into hell itself.
This morning I’d like to offer an image of Jesus that’s wildly different than the one of someone who towers over us from on high and stares down at us with disapproval. It’s called the “Harrowing of Hell” and it’s an ancient example of Christian art. To harrow means to drag an instrument like a plow over land to break it open. And the image of the Harrowing of Hell depicts the risen Jesus, breaking open the gates of hell and death.
In the center of the image is the risen Jesus, standing on the broken gates of hell. There are variations of this ancient image but it’s common to see Jesus grabbing the wrists of two old figures, a male and a female. These two old and gray figures are Adam and Eve, who Christ is pulling out of the place of the dead.
And while this may be surprising to some, it’s a part of our faith as Christians that Jesus descended into hell between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. It’s in the Apostles’ and Athanasian creeds. It’s stated in the thirty-nine articles of religion in the Book of Common Prayer. And one of the main places it’s derived from is first Peter in the New Testament where it says that Jesus shared the good news of God’s love to the spirits in the prison of hell.
The “Harrowing of Hell” is the most fitting image for Easter because it shows that God’s love for us in Christ is so strong in its pursuit that it won’t be stopped by crucifixion at the hands of sinners, death, or even hell.
Easter isn’t about performing some religious duty for a disapproving God. Easter is leaving the tombs built by our dead and worn-out ideas about a distant God and allowing ourselves the courage to actually hope in the good news of the love of Christ that pursues us past death and even into hell itself.
If you find yourself in an empty tomb this Easter morning, heed the angels’ call to you and me to remember: “Remember how he told you, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”
Leave behind the image of a vindictive and distant God who stares down at you, and instead, see the risen Christ who loves you so much that he breaks down the gates of hell to pull you up out of the dark prison of the dead.
Remember how he told you, and may you come to know the depth of the mystery of the Resurrection by knowing yourself loved by God in ways you previously never could’ve imagined.
Alleluia. Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.