Text: Luke 24:1-12 (The Message)
“Say whaat? You went to the tomb the first thing this morning and it was empty? Are you kidding us? The grave clothes were folded neatly on the ledge and you were met by a couple of angels who told you he was raised up? You girls must have gotten into the wine left over from last night’s supper! And so early in the morning! Shameful! This is just plain crazy talk!”
You get the point. The women returned from the burial site and were met with scorn and disbelief when they tried to share what they had seen and heard. I’m sure this was not the first or last time that witnesses were or will be disbelieved, laughed at, written off. We know from many crime dramas that eye witnesses can’t always be trusted and what these women were reporting was second hand. They hadn’t actually seen a risen Jesus, had they?
We’ve heard Luke’s account of the empty tomb before, perhaps many times over many years, but I have to say that this year I was struck particularly by the treatment of the women. Yes, I had noted it before, but this time it really stood out for me, “…the apostles didn’t believe a word of it, thought they were making it all up.”
Sadly, a major reason for the disbelief was that the story came from women. David Lose observes, “Luke says that those who received the testimony of the women regarded their message as an ‘idle tale.’ [But] that’s actually a fairly generous translation of the Greek work leros. That word, you see, is the root of our word ‘delirious.’ So in short, they thought what the women said was crazy, nuts, utter nonsense” (David Lose, “If It’s Not Hard to Believe, You’re Probably Not Paying Attention!” March 24, 2013, workingpreacher.org).
In his commentary on Luke, Richard Vinson writes, “It is well documented that many 1st-century men thought that women were not as reliable as men as witnesses, being more emotional.” He quotes Joesphus who wrote, “…let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex…” He then quotes Philo who “also thought women were naturally inclined to be deceitful; writing ‘…woman is a selfish creature and one addicted to jealousy in an immoderate degree, and terribly calculated to agitate and overturn the natural inclinations of a man, and to mislead him by her continual tricks…’” (Richard B. Vinson, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Luke, p. 743).
Luke, who often goes out of his way to lift up women in his gospel, seems to be underscoring here one of the great transformations needed if the gospel is to be realized. There is a significant place for women in the Beloved Community of God, but the Apostles still have much to learn. Vinson continues, “Luke has told the reader early on that these women were part of the group from the beginning, and that their ministry and their providing of their means kept things going. Why, then,” he wonders, “do the guys ignore them? They heard the same predictions the women did; Peter, James, and John knew that two heavenly messengers appeared with Jesus before [Moses and Elijah on the mount of Transfiguration], and so the testimony of the women should have been credible.” Besides that, “They know these women; James and John are doubting the word of their sainted mother, for crying out loud…they are not thinking straight when they dismiss the testimony of their wives, mothers, sisters, and companions in the faith as ‘foolish chatter’” (Vinson, op. cit., p. 743).
You get the point. We’ve come a long way but we still have a lot to learn in this area. Still, I imagine the Apostles’ disbelief was not to be blamed totally on the fact that it was women who first shared it. The text says goes on to say that Peter became curious enough to check things out for himself. However, he shows up too late. The tomb is still empty, the grave clothes are there but the angels have moved on. He is left in a state of wonder. He walks “away puzzled, shaking his head.” Puzzled, but still without a word of belief in the tale the women had told.
We have heard this story over and over centuries. It has become a part of our lore, familiar to us and largely unquestioned. We celebrate the event annually with color and flowers, with music and joy. We retrieve our “alleluias” and shout “He is risen!” But there were no alleluias on that first Easter morning. No one shouting, “He is risen!” No one responding, “He is risen indeed!” Put yourself in their shoes. Take a minute to try to imagine what it must have been like that first Easter morning.
Imagine the women. Luke implies that a whole group of them showed up – maybe all the women who gather for our monthly women’s brunch. They had come to do their duty and a sad duty it was. They hadn’t been able to prepare properly the body for burial as the sun set on the Sabbath. They had gotten up early to finish the painful task. There probably wasn’t a lot of chatter, idle or otherwise. as they made their way in the dim morning half-light to the tomb.
Imagine the shock of finding the stone rolled away, the body absent, the grave clothes neatly folded. Imagine yourself in the presence of angels, those holy spectral figures bathed in dazzling light. Hear their chiding challenge, “Why are you looking for the Living One in a cemetery?” Caught off guard, what would your response have been? Mark’s gospel records that they fled in fear, but Luke has them flying back to the city, to the place where the rest of the group was hiding, their feet barely touching the ground. Their sad silence was broken. They couldn’t wait to tell everyone what they had seen and heard. How about you? Does the good news ever capture you in such a way that you can’t keep quiet?
And then imagine bursting into that room where the others were gathered – some quietly crying, some pondering the next step, some still in troubled sleep – the room dark, grim and despairing. “Wait! Wait a minute. Listen everybody. We were just at the tomb and, you’re not going to believe this, but the body was gone! The tomb was empty!” Nobody was prepared for this. No one had time for it. It was easier to dismiss these women as delirious in their grief, right? Can you see how difficult belief would have been in that sorrowing environment?
From the vantage point of two millennia of Christian tradition, we can say, “Surely they should have seen what was coming. Jesus had been talking about it for months. Why were they so slow to hear it, to get it?” Reflecting on these questions, Craig Koester, writes that “Unbelief does not mean that people believe nothing. Rather, it means that they believe something else. People say ‘I don’t believe it’ because there is something else that they believe more strongly” (Craig R. Koester, “Commentary on Luke 24:1-12,” April 4, 2010, workingpreacher.org).
They had hoped for a messiah who would drive out the Romans, put the collaborators and religious leaders in their place, re-distribute the land and relieve them of all their sickness, oppression and poverty. Jesus not only failed to meet their expectations, he got himself killed, and without even putting up a fight. You can imagine they were all pretty much down, devastated, hopeless. How could they wrap their minds around the women’s story? How does any of us wrap our minds around such a story?
Koester concludes, “…here is where the Easter message begins its work, by challenging our certainties (Koester, op. cit.). It challenges our certainties much as it must have challenged theirs. In the reminder of the angels, in the subsequent appearances of Jesus, they had their memories jogged as happened first to the women at the tomb: “Remember how he told you when you were still back in Galilee that he had to be handed over to sinners, be killed on a cross, and in three days rise up?” Or as with Cleopas and companion on the Emmaus Road: “’Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Luke 24:25-27). Their response: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32).
Is this not true resurrection, when the Word of God comes alive in us – jogging memory, enlivening consciousness, flaming in our hearts? Above all, Jesus came with an urgent message about the in-breaking of God’s Beloved Community. It was a community different than any they had known or imagined. It was not the Pax Romana founded on imperial power and military might. It was not the obsessive ritualization of religious practice forced on them by some of their religious leaders. It was not the grinding poverty of their daily existence. It was not even an “us overcoming them” way of life.
In a great article from this week’s Boston Globe, Brandon Ambrosino has this to say about the real significance of the story those women brought from the empty tomb that first Easter morning. He writes, “What’s radical about Easter…is not that Christians claim a dead man rose from the dead. What’s radical is what that means — specifically, what it meant for Rome, and, by implication, what it means for all kingdoms everywhere, including the ones we live in. ” He sees that “Jesus’ resurrection marked the end of Caesar’s way of doing things. It established a new kingdom in which enemies are loved, the marginalized are given primacy of place, and the poor are blessed. In this kingdom, hierarchies are subverted, concentrated power is decentralized, and prodigal children are welcomed home. Black lives matter here, as do queer lives and the lives of undocumented aliens within our borders — ‘Remember the stranger in your midst’ is a common refrain in this kingdom” (Brandon Ambrosino, “Jesus’ Radical Politics,” April 1, 2015, bostonglobe.com).
How does this ring for you this Easter morning? Would you rather keep the story enshrouded in ancient myth and mystery, lovely lore that rarely challenges or would you be willing to accept a more radical resurrection with a here and now flavor? If you choose the latter, part of the task for twenty-first century disciples is to remember the deep meaning of the first Easter for those first followers, how it changed their lives forever. Then, it is to let the Christ consciousness fill your mind, the flame of the Spirit kindle fire in your heart and the Beloved Community of God to become real in the living of your life. Compassion and hospitality, justice and equity, peace and love are to become our way of life as we let the Lord of Life rise and live in us. We become Easter people in the way those first disciples did and the world is never the same again. He is risen! Is he risen in you and me? Let us make it so. Alleluia. Amen.