A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va.
Luke 24:1-12; Acts 10:34-43
We’ve finally come to the most holy day in our Christian faith, a day that we have anticipated through the long journey of Lent and Holy Week. Churches throughout the world are filled with people worshipping on this Sunday. People around the world come looking for celebration; they come looking for renewal; they come looking for an uplifting, soul-nourishing experience. Whether on Easter Sunday or on any ordinary day, most of us are looking for something – meaning and purpose in our lives, happiness and joy in our relationships, a new job that could be our life’s work; a new drug that can offer healing; security and hope for the future. We look for so much, and perhaps we can take comfort from the fact that the women in today’s gospel account were also looking.
The women came not to a lily-decorated sanctuary, but to a tomb, very early in the morning on the first day of the week. Those women came looking not for an uplifting experience, but for a dead body. They came looking to find closure and perhaps comfort in anointing the body of Jesus. They had been on a journey with Jesus that had promised life and liberation, but their journey ended instead in death and despair. And so, with heavy hearts, the women came looking. But as they were looking, they found not a body, but two men in gleaming white who asked, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.'”
Look and Remember. Today, look for the signs of the living Christ and remember what Jesus has done for us. In the burdens of everyday existence, we often fail to remember that Jesus came so that we might have life and have it more abundantly. We often fail to remember that it was for our sins that Jesus was crucified, but that on the third day, he was raised again. That is the Gospel in a nutshell, but sometimes it is so easy to forget. We fail to remember God’s countless provisions, God’s never-ending grace, God’s everlasting presence. So look and remember.
After looking and remembering, the women left the tomb and hurried to find the disciples and tell them what they had found. But as we know, the disciples did not believe the women – this talk of an empty tomb and gleaming robes and Jesus rising from the dead sounded less like fact-based reality than delusional nonsense. It is hard to fault the disciples. For two millennia, people have wrestled with the question of the resurrection, with some trying to prove it while others trying to debunk it. Peter himself didn’t believe the women, but something in what they said inspired him to run to the tomb to see for himself. What he found there were nothing but the strips of linen that had been wrapped around Jesus’s dead body. As we attempt to see for ourselves the claims of Jesus’ resurrection, we might also find only scraps of linen, small clues, and inconclusive evidence. When Peter himself saw the empty tomb and the bits of linen, Luke tells us that “Peter went away, wondering to himself what had happened.”
Let’s stop for a moment and consider – this is Peter, walking away from the empty tomb in thoughtful silence. This is probably the only recorded moment in the gospels that shows Peter silent. Peter was the impetuous one who tried walking on water to get to Jesus. He was also the faith-fill one who confessed to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” He was also the faith-less one who denied Jesus three times and ran away to hide when Jesus was crucified. After all these experiences, when Peter saw the empty tomb, he didn’t shout out “Alleluia!” or proclaim some great statement of faith like “He is risen!” He simply remained silent and wondered what had happened. Peter, who was never at a loss of words, this same Peter was rendered speechless at the sight of the empty tomb. He saw and he wondered.
To us who are here this morning, we see the lilies, we hear the wonderful music, but what are we wondering about? You know, an empty tomb is not conclusive proof that Jesus was really raised from the dead. Perhaps it’s merely proof that his body was moved. So we wonder, like Peter, what does this mean? Could the women be right about Jesus’ resurrection? Can the dead really be raised to life? Or is this just a pipe dream, a superstition, a crutch for people who can’t face the reality of death? Like Peter, even as we see an empty tomb, even as we attend an Easter service, we may leave full of questions, wondering.
But, perhaps, just perhaps, if Jesus was really raised from the dead, the empty tomb then raises a host of other questions. We wonder: What kind of a world would it be where the dead can be raised to life? We wonder: What kind of a world would it be where death no longer has the final power? We wonder: What kind of world would it be where we no longer fear death, and therefore, we can begin living lives of wholeness and health and peace right here, right now even in the midst of the brokenness around us and within us? We wonder: What kind of world would it be where the power of sin, hatred, violence, injustice, prejudice, suffering, and oppression is ultimately overcome? We wonder: What kind of world would it be where the love of God Almighty comes out victorious in the end, and we are finally and fully at one with God and with one another? Wouldn’t that fill us full of wonder? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
While there is no conclusive, scientific proof of the resurrection, there can be no denying that the risen Christ transformed the lives of his disciples, so that as we see them, they fill us with wonder. Just look at Peter. Even though in this gospel text, Luke leaves Peter wondering at the empty tomb, later in the book of Acts, Luke writes about a completely transformed Peter. In our New Testament reading today, Peter boldly proclaimed that Jesus not only hung on a tree, but also rose from the dead. So for Peter, anyway, this time of wondering and silent reflection ultimately led not to doubt and despair, but to a transforming faith. When we think of Easter, we think of this transforming faith. However, we often think of an instant change-over from death to life, from denial to faith, from weakness to power, from “Crucify him” to “Alleluia”! Yet rarely in life and certainly not in this gospel account of Easter do we find such an instant transformation.
Similarly, this year we have not seen an instant transformation from winter into spring. You might remember that on Groundhog Day, Punxsutawney Phil predicted an early spring, which was promptly followed by winter’s full power. Throughout February and March, we’ve had cold days and dreary weather. Most of our winter weather occurred since that groundhog made his prediction. We had a giant, destructive storm a few weeks ago, and a visit from snowstorm Virgil just a week ago. That led to Michael Gmoser, the prosecuting attorney of Butler County, Ohio, to issue a tongue-in-cheek indictment against the furry weather-caster for “misrepresentation of early spring,” which is an “unclassified felony” against the peace and dignity of the state of Ohio. Here in Virginia, we can look at the calendar and see that April is around the corner, but for us, too, winter seems to linger on and on.
Yet if we look carefully, there are signs of spring all around, with glorious daffodils bravely withstanding blankets of snow – our flower cross holds the evidence! In addition, sneaking among our dreary days have been pockets of warm, healing sun. And birds are building nests and cheering us with their songs, songs that rise above a blustery wind.
This tension between the seasons reflects the tension of our larger world. The grip of winter seems to rule our lives. Sickness, loss, and broken relationships abound, in our own lives and in the lives of our friends. In this past week, two of our members died, and we held services remembering their lives. Even in this Easter season, it can seem as though death may have the upper hand and will not surrender its grip. But in the midst of these two deaths, we’ve also seen the births of two babies born to this congregation, and we marvel at the wonder of new life.
Therefore, on this Easter Sunday, despite the apparent grip of winter, we are gathered here today in the confidence that winter will not last. We are gathered today to look for Christ from among the living and remember that the risen Christ promises us the new life of spring. On this resurrection morning, we pause in wonder to consider that life, not death, will have the final word in our lives and in our world. We and our world may not be instantly changed from death to life, from broken to beautiful, but we are confident that in Christ, this transformation is unfolding in our midst. Though it’s a long process, though our eyes and hearts may deceive us, though we must live in the tensions of hurting and healing, of grief and joy, of doubt and faith, ultimately we know that, because of that first Easter morning, spring will win, life will win, love will win, healing, faith and joy will win, because on this day we dare to proclaim in faith that God wins and Christ is victorious! Today, we look and remember that God raised Jesus from the grave! Death is dead! Love is alive! And we see and wonder how the risen Christ can transform our lives and our world!
Therefore, on this Easter morning, in faith we proclaim: Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Amen.