This sermon was delivered by Darryl Roberts, assistant to the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, at McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, Ga., on April 14, 2009.
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 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.’ Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened. (Luke 24:1-12, NRSV)
We live in a world where many people spend much of their days in search of life in dead places. We look for life in dead relationships. We search for satisfaction and security in jobs that sap our creative energies and deny the value that we bring to our work. We live in a world that spends a whole lot of time in search of life among the ruins. And the danger is that, while we search for life among the dead, we miss out on the great joy, the marvelous blessings and the unfolding miracles that Christ has in store for our lives.
This preoccupation with searching for life in dead places is not peculiar to the world out there, but is an obsession of many religious institutions of higher learning. Biblical scholarship has soared to great heights in the methods of textual criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, social-scientific criticism, rhetorical criticism, narrative criticism, structural criticism, post-structural criticism, feminist criticism, postcolonial theory and Jesus Research. Although all of these critical methods help to advance our understanding of our faith traditions, the church in the academy needs to remain true to its mission of identifying the gospel of Jesus with the concrete struggles of oppressed and suffering people throughout the world. This may mean that some of our most groundbreaking research might take place when we connect the message of Jesus to the stories, hurts and nameless faces that have been abandoned and left for dead on the Jericho roads of life. If Jesus spent the last moments of his life between two criminals then surely those who stand on the margins of life are worthy of our sustained attention and compassionate engagement. A seminary that is committed to the life-giving message of Jesus engages in theological and ethical discourse that seeks to protect the interests of the powerless and the poor, not the powerful and the privileged, because Jesus’s message disrupts business as usual. Although we need scholarship to help us understand the rich contours of our church history, theological and ethical foundations and biblical traditions, disciplines ought to help us better live out our mission to fight for real life-and-death issues.
While we engage in a united effort to focus on the life-giving possibilities of the message of Jesus in our religious institutions of higher learning, we must also work with many of our churches that are on a dangerous course of searching for Jesus in dead places. If you visit many churches today across denominations, unfortunately worship feels more like a funeral service than a celebration of resurrected life. Worship is often planned with the goal of maintaining and protecting a set of traditions, practices and rituals that have been passed down, rather than using traditions, rituals and new forms of worship in order to draw people closer to God. There is also an increasing concern among believers and unbelievers alike that many churches feel more like a social clubs with dues paying members rather than a universal fellowship of all believers who are drawn together by a common purpose. As Martin Luther King, Jr., reminded us many years ago, in order to keep the church from becoming an irrelevant social club, the church must embody the love-ethic of Jesus and continue to be engaged in the struggle to free all of God’s people from the chains of oppression and dehumanization.
If we are searching for Jesus this morning and he is nowhere to be found, the text reminds us that, in order to find Jesus, we have to remember that Jesus lives among the living. The scripture reads that the two angels raised the question to Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and others as to why they were looking for Jesus in a tomb when he was alive. It was customary for women to bring spices to the tomb as a sign of love and respect for the deceased. In observance of the Sabbath, women came from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday before gathering their spices and perfumes and making their way to the tomb. But the question that the angles raise to the women is no ordinary question because it goes to the heart of the Christian faith: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” It seemed like an obnoxious question but it had profound theological implications. If Jesus put Satan to the test then why are you looking for the living among the dead? If Jesus told Simon Peter to put out into deep water and let down the nets for a catch, after Peter worked hard all night and had not caught anything, and when he listened to Jesus he caught so much fish that his nets began to break, then why do you look for the living among the dead? If Jesus fed about five thousand with five loaves of bread and two fish then why do you look for the living among the dead? If Jesus went up to the Mountain of Transfiguration and, as he prayed, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became bright as a flash of lightning and a voice came from the cloud saying, “this is my Son, whom I have chosen”, then why do you search for the living among the dead? If Jesus reminded his disciples that one day “the Son of Man is coming in a cloud with power and great glory” then why do you look for the living among the dead? I can hear the two men saying to the women that, if you understood the meaning of Jesus’s ministry, you would know that he is not dead but lives forever more. In other words, Jesus is not an historical phenomenon that we can and freeze in time and make into whatever suits our fancy. Jesus is not a relic of a past that we seek to forget. Jesus does not live in the midst of cold, contrived and spiritless Church that is more concerned about making a profit than being a prophet to the nations. Jesus does not live in a church that is more concerned about whether we sing hymns, spirituals, gospel music or praise songs in our worship, but he lives when we sing, praise and preach with the desire to draw closer to God. Jesus cannot be found among the dead, but he lives in the hearts of men and women who love God and serve the Lord with all of our being.
If we want to find Jesus, the text also reminds us that we have to venture into the dangerous territory of radical faith. Notice that the women are going to prepare the body out of love and devotion to Jesus. Based on all accounts, Jesus was dead but this did not stop them from living out their faith. Do you follow Jesus out of a commitment to customs or do you follow Jesus out of a sense of deep love and devotion? Do you have the kind of faith to pursue Jesus even when it seems like all hope is gone? What would Church look like if our sole focus was to glorify Jesus and not feed into church politics, petty disagreements, power struggles and cultural wars over weekly services, Sabbath observances, the appropriate sacrifices and arguments over policies and rules? What would worship look like on a given Sunday morning if everyone in the sanctuary or the chapel came because worshiping God was the sole focus?
Finally, if we want to find Jesus, we have to believe and bear witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Luke is distinctive from the other three Gospels in the sense that it is Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the others who met the two men. In the Gospel of Mark, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome met a young man dressed in a white robe who informed them that Jesus had risen, and to go and tell Jesus’s disciples that Christ would meet them in Galilee. In the Gospel of Matthew, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb and encountered an angel of the Lord that informed the women that Christ had risen as well as instructed them to go and tell the disciples that Christ has risen and would meet them in Galilee. In the Gospel of John, Mary Magdalene traveled to tomb and, when she saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance, she ran to Simon Peter and the other disciples worried that they had taken Jesus away. The common thread that runs through the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke is the message of the resurrection of Jesus and the promise of Jesus to meet us when we bear witness to that blessed hope. Although we ought to rejoice in the good news of the resurrection of Jesus, God has saved us so that we can share that message with others. Go forth and tell somebody that, because Christ has risen, our world will be redeemed, not ruined. Go forth and bear witness that, because Christ has risen, God’s power is at work in the world raising the dead, concurring sin, restoring hope, mending broken hearts and rescuing the lost. Go forth and bear witness that Christ has risen, we have concurred death and one day “we shall see God face to face.” Don’t just keep the keep the message of the resurrection to yourself but go from this place and tell somebody who has sipped from the bitter cup of discouragement that you can face your enemies, overcome your opposition, rise above your disappointments and triumph over your dark yesterdays. And as you face your tomorrows, transformed by the Good News of the resurrection of Jesus, may your spirits be eternally lifted by the words of that old and timeless hymn:
On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,
The emblem of suff’ring and shame;
And I love that old cross where the dearest and best
For a world of lost sinners was slain.
So I cherish the cross, the old rugged cross, Till my
Trophies at last I lay down; I will cling to the cross, the
Old rugged cross, And exchange it some day for a crown.