Sermon: An Empty Tomb

Sunday 1 April 2018
Easter Sunday

John 20:1-18

empty-tombAn empty tomb is a serious problem. It may not seem like it to us today. After all, we already know the end of the story. We know that Jesus was resurrected, that he left the tomb and ascended in glory to heaven.  But on that first Easter morning, when Mary Magdalene went to tomb while it was still dark, those first disciples had no idea what was going on. They did know one thing, though: that an empty tomb is a serious problem. An empty tomb is an emotional problem, it is a legal problem, and it is a theological problem. And let me tell you why.

The emotional problem is the most obvious. Mary has come to the tomb to grieve, to take care of the body, to do all the things necessary when someone dies. But Jesus is not there.  Someone has stolen his body.  Now she cannot perform the rituals of burial. Now she cannot care for his body. Now she cannot even grieve for him, because he no longer has a final resting place. They have taken him away, and she does not know where they have laid him.

But that isn’t the only problem. You see, tombs and burial places were considered sacrosanct by the Roman government. According to a first-century ordinance discovered in Galilee, every tomb, no matter who it belonged to, was protected under the direct authority of Caesar. Tampering with a tomb, or removing a body was a crime that was punishable by death. So if someone has stolen Jesus’s body, that means a crime has been committed. And where do you think those Roman soldiers are going to come looking first? That’s right, they’re going to come after Jesus’s friends and followers. If Mary can’t find that body and bring it back, then she and her friends might find themselves as the next victims of the cross.

And there is another problem presented by the empty tomb. It will sound ironic to us, but for those first disciples, an empty tomb meant that Jesus would never be able to be resurrected. He would be lost forever. And this is why:

In first-century Palestine, death and burial wasn’t something that took just a day, or a couple of weeks. It was a process that took a full year. For a criminal, like Jesus, the body would be held by the religious authorities for a full year. Remember, it’s Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the council, who takes Jesus’s body and puts it in the tomb. It was believed that a person’s sin resided in their flesh, but that their personality resided in their bones. During that year, the flesh would rot away, thus cleansing the person of sin. When the year was up, the bones would be collected and returned to the family for safe-keeping. It was believed that when the resurrection came, God would take those bones and knit a new body of flesh on them. That way the person would be returned to life, their personality would be intact, but they would be freed from sin.

If Jesus’s body is gone, then it cannot go through the year-long ritual of purification. Jesus’s bones cannot be saved and guarded. And so, when the resurrection comes at the end of the age, Jesus will not be eligible for new life.

So, as you can see, an empty tomb really is a problem. First, it is a personal slight against Jesus’s loved ones. But it also means legal problems and even death for his followers. Plus, it may make Jesus ineligible for resurrection. That is a problem.

Of course, what they didn’t understand on the first Easter morning, is that God had changed the rules. According the rules of the authorities, Jesus had not yet served his sentence. He had to spend a year being purified of his criminal sins before he could be ready for resurrection. That is what the court had declared.

But God, the Supreme Judge, intervened and overturned their ruling. They had said that Jesus’s crimes demanded death plus one year. God said that Jesus had not committed a crime at all. God said that Jesus had been wrongly executed. And God said that there was no need for Jesus to be purified of sin before the resurrection, because Jesus’s flesh was already free from sin. God said, “You messed up of the verdict and you messed up the sentence. I’m going to make things right by reversing your ruling. And when God has made a ruling, it is final. There is nowhere else to make an appeal.”

God changed the rules. But the disciples were slow to catch on. They were so caught up with the way they thought things ought to be, that they were blind to the ways that God was actually working. They were so caught up with the ritual, and with the physical body of Jesus, that they couldn’t even imagine the miracles that God had in store for them.

And that kind of blindness to God’s new movement is not something that is confined only to the early church. Again and again, followers of God have had a hard time catching up when God decides to do something new. The very existence of a congregation like ours—a single congregation connected to two different denominations—is a testimony to God’s changing ways.

One of our denominations—the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—has its roots in the Reformation movement started by Martin Luther in Germany in the early 1500s. Luther and other reformers sensed that God was calling the church to change. The church should be more focussed on the Bible and less focussed on its own traditions. The church should give ordinary people access to God’s grace by holding worship in the language of the people instead of in Latin, by putting the scriptures directly into the hands of ordinary believers and allowing them to read it for themselves, by preaching God’s message of salvation by grace, through faith, offered without price to all. But there were many in the church who were not ready to hear that message. Luther was condemned and thrown out of the church. It was too much to take. Losing the beauty of the Latin Mass, allowing the scriptures to be sullied by people who weren’t trained to read it correctly, doing away with all of the means of penance for forgiveness of sins. For some, a church like that seemed as bleak as an empty tomb. But Lutherans found that when the religion was stripped of its excesses, it more clearly presented the grace of God in Christ.

Our other denomination—The United Methodist Church—has its roots in 18th-century England in the ministry of brothers John and Charles Wesley. They grew up in a church that had become formal, sterile, and nearly irrelevant to ordinary working people. In a time when the Industrial Revolution was turning society upside down, displacing people and families, tearing up many of the institutions that gave people identity, safety, and support, the Wesleys and other early Methodists saw that God was calling the church to meet people in the world. The Wesleys preached in fields and in coal mines where people were working. They organized believers into small groups that met weekly to keep each other accountable and support each other. They worked for justice for prisoners and the poor. And not everyone went along. Some people were scandalized by the kinds of modern hymns that Charles Wesley was writing, like the hymn we opened our worship with this morning. Others complained that John was disrupting the order of the church by empowering lay people to preach and lead small groups. Still others were turned off by what they saw as the over-political thrust of Wesley’s emphasis on social holiness. It was too much. It was depriving the church of its dignity and its authority. But early Methodists found that when they were willing to look for God in new places, the Holy Spirit always showed up there ahead of them.

Even our more recent history testifies to how we often find God changing ahead of us. When I tell people that I pastor a church that is both Lutheran and Methodist, the most common response I get is, “How does that work?” Many are truly shocked by the idea. Because we know the rules. We know that the church is divided up into hundreds, even thousands of different denominations, and each one has their own way of doing things, and none of them are going to change and try to work with each other in any meaningful way. Sure, we might get together across denominational lines every once in a while for special occasions. Maybe an Easter Sunrise Service. But the idea of forming one congregation out of two congregations of different denominations: that seems incomprehensibly difficult. How will you decide when you have a Methodist pastor and when you have a Lutheran pastor, and how will you hire them? Which hymnal will you use? Whose forms will you fill out? How will you keep the membership roles? Won’t you lose your identity as Methodist or Lutheran? And for some, unfortunately, it was too much. Too much to lose. But for those of us who are still here, and for those who have since, we have found that God brought us together for a reason, that God is doing a new thing, that our life together is more vibrant than apart.

The world is changing. And so we must change. As individual believers, as members of society, as a church. The world is changing, and so we must change. But to change is not to move away from God. It’s staying the same that takes us farther from God. Because as the world changes, God has already changed to meet it.

The test for us is this: do we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear the glories that God is working in this world? Do we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear the signs of resurrection and new life that are all around us? Do we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear the new way that God is calling us to be in this new and strange world? Do we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear that the tomb is empty—the tomb is empty—and will we realize that that is good news?

It may be difficult. Change has never come easy. Those first disciples had a hard time accepting that Jesus really had been raised from the dead. They had received all the warnings and preparation that they needed in order to understand—Jesus had told them again and again that he would die and be raised on the third day—but they still had a hard time understanding, they still had a hard time believing that it was true, that the empty tomb really was good news.

But eventually they did believe. They saw the linen grave clothes. They heard the reports of his appearances. They ate the bread and drank the wine. Some even saw the sign of his wounds. And eventually they did believe, and they accepted God’s call to do something completely new in what must have been a strange new world. And because they were able to change when God changed the rules, we are here today. May we be as able to change when God changes our rules, so that future generations can come to know the grace that we have known in Jesus Christ. O God, we believe; help our unbelief.

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