Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
March 26, 2016
The Great Vigil of Easter – Year C
Of the several remarkable narratives concerning the Resurrection of Jesus Christ in the New Testament, I find tonight’s account from the Gospel according to Luke among the most powerful and arresting of all of them. Its notes of “perplexity,” “terror,” and “amazement” among the followers of Jesus, together with the men’s rebuke of the women’s startling news about an empty tomb as no more than an “idle tale,” are striking. Who knew that Jesus’ eleven remaining apostles were—like us—so thoroughly “post-modern”? And, like Peter, just what are we to make of those discarded burial linens absent a body? Do we, like him, simply take our annual peak at the empty tomb and go “home,” scratching our heads in wonder?
These became urgent and vivid questions for me at the first of many subsequent visits to the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem, built by the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century CE over the traditional site of Golgotha and Jesus’ tomb. A visit to this sacred place is the culmination of every Christian pilgrimage to the Land of the Holy One, and this was most certainly the case for me. I vividly recall, to this very day, waiting in a long line, with scores of other pilgrims, for my turn to enter the aedicule built around the tomb itself beneath that church’s magnificent rotunda. Because the space within the tomb can only accommodate three persons at a time, a very unpleasant and surly Greek Orthodox monk stands at the entrance to usher the traffic in and out. By the time you finally reach the tomb for your two minutes—at most—inside, you have been well-primed for at least an epiphany, if not for a downright theophany! Well, I’m sorry to report that neither happened for me, despite the extravagant displays of emotion and piety by many of the pilgrims all around me. In fact, I can still remember my first startled and totally unexpected reaction before kneeling to pray there: “The tomb is empty!” I thought. And even as I left the church that day, I found myself repeating those startled words—“the tomb is empty”—over and over again.
Well, in retrospect, perhaps I did have an epiphany inside Jesus’ tomb after all. Of course the tomb is empty. What was I expecting? And isn’t that the whole meaning of the resurrection of Jesus Christ? He is no longer confined by the limitations of time and space and history. God has raised Jesus from the dead so that, in the words of Saint John’s Gospel, he “might draw the whole [Gentile] world to himself” and, through him, to God, his “Father,” his “Abba” and ours. Both for the women and Peter in tonight’s Gospel, together with pilgrims to that same tomb for ages hence, the tomb is empty, and it always will be empty—and that’s the point! The resurrected, ascended, and glorified Jesus Christ is now fully present to the world without any restrictions of time or place. And he lives to make intercession for us at the “right hand of the Father,” that same powerful “right hand” by which God delivered God’s people Israel from their slavery in Egypt, according to the Hebrew Bible. God has vindicated his suffering “servant” Jesus by raising him from the dead. The innocent victim of imperial, sacred violence—who “became sin” for our sake—has become the “victory of God” and of life over death. “The stone that the builders rejected,” according to Saint Paul in First Corinthians, “has become the chief cornerstone” of God’s renewal of Creation. And, as the white-robed messengers ask those myrrh-bearing women in tonight’s Gospel—together with you and me in the post-modern era as well—“Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here but has risen.” Indeed, that question is now, and always has been, both the great question—and its answer: “Why do [we] seek the living among the dead? He is not here but has risen.”
My friends, if it’s true that “Christ is risen” from the dead, then this has huge implications for every one of us and for our world—implications stretching far beyond the perennial human hope and quest for meaning, values, and even personal immortality. No wonder the women in tonight’s Gospel—along with so many of us—are “terrified and bowed their faces to the ground.” Worship is the only appropriate initial response to such a stupendous reality. Because, if “Christ is risen,” then God has “called in the chips” and is poised for a whole new era in God’s Creation: the restoration of our original unity with God and the completion of God’s “very good” Creation. And God, for reasons known only to God, has condescended to make us partners again in this work! It is no mere coincidence that the “old Adam’s” fall from grace and Jesus the “new Adam’s” resurrection from the dead both happen in a garden. All four Gospels are very clear and emphatic about this. Hence, if “Christ is risen”—and you and I have died and have risen with him in Holy Baptism, as Saint Paul reminds us in tonight’s reading from his Letter to the Romans—then we must be about the work of “tikkun olam,” the “repair of the world,” and its restoration to God’s original intents and purposes for God’s “very good” Creation. If “Christ is risen,” then you and I are no longer slaves of sin and death, and we have been given the power and the freedom of God’s holy Spirit to do these things because, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” God’s “Shekinah,” God’s unrestricted, hovering “Presence” among God’s people—Jews and Christians alike—has returned with God’s covenant people from exile, and our long winter of discontent “east of Eden” is over. It is long past time for us Christians to rise to this vocation by taking each and every item of this night’s renewed Baptismal Covenant seriously. And it’s time for the Jewish people to do the same through their obedience to the covenant of Sinai, expressed in the written and the oral Torah. God’s promise of “the resurrection of the dead” is neither a Christian invention nor a private invitation to some sort of personal, disembodied immortality of the soul. It’s a clarion call to nothing less than the renewal of the Creation as God’s chosen partners “for the life of the world.” Salvation is “not in the heavens” alone; it is also in the here and the now “that we should do it and live,” according to the Book of Deuteronomy! And the holy Resurrection of Jesus Christ is both a witness and a summons to “eternal life” in the inaugurated “kingdom of God”: life lived always and forever in the full presence of God in this world and in the “life of the age to come.”
My sisters and brothers in Christ, the “resurrection of the dead,” together with Christ’s Resurrection as “the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep,” is truly “gospel,” “good news,” and news is always intended for sharing. Again, all four canonical Gospel accounts of Jesus’ Resurrection contain the command to “go and tell.” Sadly, and far too often, the reaction of the Church—and by the Church I mean you and me, the baptized—is like the response of the myrrh-bearing women in Mark’s Gospel and of Peter in tonight’s: they “go home,” saying “nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” We too are afraid in our secular society—especially here in the Northeast, the so-called graveyard of the churches, and among the intellectual elites and the “cultured despisers of religion”—to proclaim boldly the Gospel in word and deed. But we must take heart, for those “terrified” and “amazed” first witnesses of the Resurrection were also, like us, anointed by the Holy Spirit in due course, and they eventually did become courageous, missionary disciples and evangelists. We too have been “sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism” (BCP) to bring the light of God’s Word into our dangerous and darkened world, together with the Jewish people, our “elder brothers and sisters,” in the one, “irrevocable,” and continuously renewed covenant. “In Christ,” according to Colossians, “all are made to live” and, by the grace of God, we have much privileged work to do as God’s partners in the restoration and completion of Creation after a long winter in a world still very much enslaved by sin and death.
So, we rejoice tonight in the word of God, spoken centuries ago about the suffering “servant” Israel by the holy prophet Isaiah, that “It is too little that you should be My servant in that I raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the survivors of Israel: I will also make you a light of nations, that My salvation shall reach to the ends of the earth.” And we join with Christians all over the globe tonight in proclaiming by word and by deed the great Easter anthem that “Christ is risen from the dead. By death has he trampled down death, and on those in the graves has he bestowed life.”
“Christ is risen”; “Jesus is Lord!” This is not “idle talk.” The tomb is indeed “empty,” and it always will be. And that, my sisters and brothers in Christ, truly is “good news” worth sharing!