April 15, 2017 by jmar198013
Manuscript of my Easter sermon for 2017. From an ongoing series: “Luke and Acts: The Good News of God’s Salvation.”
The text is Luke 24.1-12.
The resources consulted for this sermon were:
Justo L. Gonzalez. Luke. Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 272-76.
Joel B. Green. The Gospel of Luke. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 838-40.
Beth Kreitzer, ed. New Testament III: Luke. Reformation Commentary on Scripture, ed. Timothy George and Scott M. Manetsch (Downers Grove: IVP, 2015), 477-78.
For details related to tombs in the Second Temple period, see:
Justin Taylor. “What Did Jesus’ Tomb Look Like? An Interview with Leen Ritmeyer (Part 2).” July 24, 2008. Accessed April 12, 2017. https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/justintaylor/2008/07/24/what-did-jesus-tomb-look-like-interview/.
Megan Sauter.”How Was Jesus’ Tomb Sealed?” Biblical Archaeology Society. April 06, 2017. Accessed April 12, 2017. http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-sites-places/jerusalem/how-was-jesus-tomb-sealed/.
An audio link is embedded below for those who’d rather listen.
Early in the morning on the first day of the week
When our Gospel lesson began today, it was very early in the morning on the first day of the week. I imagine it being very dark and very still. Perhaps there was the faintest glimmering, silvery sliver on the eastern horizon. A rumor of dawn way off in the distance. Maybe a small gust of wind rustled the trees now and again.
On this early morning, this first day of the week, Luke says the women went to the tomb of Jesus, bringing the fragrant spices they had prepared.
Which women? If you go down a few verses in our Gospel today, Luke names some of them: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them. And if you back up several verses to Luke 23.50ff, the evening of Good Friday, Luke explains some details: The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee. These were women who’d been Jesus’ disciples since he began his ministry in Galilee. So they’d followed him from Galilee through Samaria into Judea, to Jerusalem and the cross, and now, even after he’d been taken down from the cross and placed in a tomb.
A fellow named Joseph, from a Judean city called Arimathea, had gone to Pilate and claimed Jesus’ body. Luke says Joseph was a good and righteous man, who eagerly anticipated God’s kingdom. That means, like the disciples and many of the people, he was longing for God to send the Messiah and save his people. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he said God had sent him to:
preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4.18-19)
That’s what Joseph longed for, and may have believed Jesus was the one God sent to do all those things. Luke tells us that he was a member of the Sanhedrin—the council that decided to hand Jesus over to Pilate for execution. But Joseph hadn’t agreed with the plan and actions of the council. He had dissented. And after he got Jesus’ body from Pilate, he wrapped it in a linen cloth and laid it in a tomb carved out of the rock, in which no one had ever been buried.
Well, Luke says those faithful women who had followed Jesus from the beginning now followed Joseph. They saw the tomb and how Jesus’ body was laid in it, then they went away and prepared fragrant spices and perfumed oils.
Then, on the Sabbath, they rested. Because, after all, they were good Jewish ladies. But I’m sure that even as they rested their bodies, their hearts, souls, and minds weren’t at rest. All their hopes, their dreams, everything they’d lived for, was sealed up in the tomb with Jesus on Friday evening.
A new morning, on the first day of the week should signal the beginning of something. But these women had come to perform one final act of kindness for Jesus—anointing his body in death. And then where would they go?
For those women on that early morning on the first day of the week, I’m sure it felt more like the end of something. Not a new beginning.
The women’s faith
Luke says when they came to the tomb, very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they found the stone rolled away from the tomb.
This raises a question: The women had already been to this tomb with Joseph; they’d seen the tomb and how Jesus’ body was laid in it—in other words, they’d seen him wrapped in his grave-clothes and the entrance sealed with the stone. If the stone wasn’t already moved when they got there that morning, how had they planned on moving it?
It turns out I’m not the first one to ask that question. I turned to the works of some of the scholars of the Protestant Reformation, and they had answers. Unfortunately, their answers weren’t very kind. In fact, they were downright sexist.
John Calvin said even coming to anoint the body that morning showed they were faithless, and not too smart. Or, as he put it, “we are taught that … they had made poor progress in the teaching of Christ.” In other words, if they’d only listened to Jesus that he would be raised, they wouldn’t have been at the tomb that morning in the first place. They wouldn’t be worrying about anointing the body or how the stone was going to be moved. They wouldn’t be, as the angels said, looking for the living among the dead.
The famous Anglican poet and preacher John Donne went even further. Here’s his take: “Vehemence and earnestness … had flustered them so that they discerned nothing clearly, did nothing orderly.” In other words, they’d gone crazy with grief and were acting irrationally. Like women do.
It doesn’t seem to register with these two guys named John that when they dismiss these brave and faithful ladies as weak-minded and irrational, they’re putting themselves in bad company. After all, when the women went back and reported what they’d found to the faithless eleven, who had all bailed on Jesus, Luke says their words struck the apostles as nonsense. It was the faithless men who thought these women disciples had gone crazy from grief. They refused to believe the testimony that Jesus really had risen. They were probably all trying to figure out how they were going to make it back to Galilee and go back to whatever it was they were doing before. Their fishing boats, their tax collector’s kiosk, or their plots to overthrow the Romans. They were probably worried that they might not even be able to get their old jobs back, and everyone would make fun of them until their dying day.
You know what, John Calvin and John Donne? Maybe those women were crazy. But they were the ones who stuck by Jesus. They were the ones who were strong enough to witness the brutality of the cross. And they were the only ones who bothered to show up and do anything kind for him after he died.
Those women were the faithful ones. They showed up and they stuck it out when no one else would.
And because they were faithful—even if their faithfulness was a little nutty, and they didn’t quite get everything yet—they were rewarded. They were the first ones to see the empty tomb. They were the first ones to hear the Good News of Easter from the angels: He isn’t here, but has been raised. And they were the first ones to go and share this Good News, even though no one else believed them and thought they’d gone crazy.
If that isn’t faith, I don’t know what is.
Here is what we learn from those women: Sometimes faithfulness is just showing up and doing the right thing, even when it feels wrong and hollow and crazy. Those women had followed Jesus from the beginning and stayed faithful to him until the end. And their faithfulness was rewarded. Early in the morning on the first day of the week, they got to witness the page turning on a new chapter. A new beginning. A new creation.
The tomb and the manger
Let’s talk about the tomb those faithful women visited very early in the morning, on the first day of the week. Learning about the tomb can help clear them of John Donne’s and John Calvin’s charges that they weren’t thinking clearly because they were in hysterics. It will also help us see that Luke is using the tomb as a hint that he’s telling us a story about a new beginning—a new chapter in the Good News of God’s salvation.
Recent archaeology has uncovered much about how tombs were made in ancient Judea. Probably, you’ve been trained to imagine a cave with a wide mouth, covered over by a massive boulder or stone disc. It’s true, some tombs were like that, but those were always reserved for the super-rich. Like members of the royal family. Joseph of Arimathea was surely a well-to-do man. But he wasn’t that wealthy.
Remember, Luke says Joseph wrapped Jesus’ body in a linen cloth and laid it in a tomb carved out of the rock, in which no one had ever been buried. So this was a new tomb. Back then, most tombs were carved into a rock wall. They’d carve a new tomb about six feet in, with three benches placed along the three sides: one on the left, one on the right, and one opposite the entrance. A body would be laid on one of the benches for a year or so to decompose. Then the remains would be put in a bone box for final burial. So when the women looked inside, they would immediately see the cloth Jesus had been wrapped in on the bench opposite the opening. And then the two angels standing by the left and right hand benches.
Remember the stone that needed to be removed? Here’s where things get really interesting. The standard tomb entrance would have been less than three feet tall. Remember, Luke says when Peter came to the tomb, he bent over to look inside. He had to bend over because the opening was small. So we need to reimagine the tomb. It wouldn’t have had a huge round stone sealing the entrance. It would have been a smaller stone shaped more like a cork, but still quite heavy.
Nothing in any of the Gospel stories suggests the women weren’t thinking about the stone, or how it would be moved, until right before they came to the tomb. I bet they agonized over that all weekend. All the male disciples had run off and were probably trying to lay low. Maybe Joseph of Arimathea also needed to be discreet—he’d already taken a risk by sneaking Jesus into his tomb. But Luke names three women—Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James—as well as an unknown number of other women with them. This isn’t a group of women who failed to plan ahead because grief had addled their brains. It’s a determined posse of brave and faithful women who are going to get that stone moved one way or another.
Now, here’s something else to notice. Jesus was wrapped in linen cloth, and laid in a borrowed tomb carved out of stone. Way back at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus was first born, we hear how his mother Mary wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom (Luke 2.7). Back then mangers, like tombs, were often carved out of stone. When Jesus was born, he was wrapped snugly and laid in someone else’s manger. When he died, he was wrapped in linen and laid in someone else’s tomb.
Do you see what Luke did there? He hid a rumor of Easter right smack dab in the middle of Christmas! Jesus has been reborn. On the night Jesus was born, angels told some nearby shepherds the Good News about the newborn King. Now, angels tell these women the Good News that their King has been reborn. He isn’t here, but has been raised, they said.
They remembered his words
It’s important that Luke tells us the women disciples had come with Jesus from Galilee. Because that means they’d been around when Jesus first announced: The Human One must suffer many things and be rejected—by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts—and be killed and be raised on the third day (Luke 9.22). He told his disciples this right before they began their journey toward Jerusalem, and these women heard it.
But these women disciples, like all the disciples who heard Jesus predict his death and resurrection, didn’t understand this statement. Its meaning was hidden from them so they couldn’t grasp it (Luke 9.45). So when they discover the empty tomb, the angels have to remind them: “Remember what he told you while he was still in Galilee, that the Human One must be handed over to sinners, be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words.
The theologians talk about faith seeking understanding. As we have seen, these women proved themselves faithful by going to the tomb at all. And because they were faithful to come to the tomb, they were rewarded with understanding.
When Luke says the women remembered his words after the angels reminded them, that ties their experience to Peter’s. In Luke 22.34, Jesus had prophesied to Peter: I tell you, Peter, the rooster won’t crow today before you have denied three times that you know me. Sure enough, when the rooster crowed, Peter had denied three times that he knew Jesus. Luke says then: The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter, and Peter remembered the Lord’s words … And Peter went out and cried uncontrollably (Luke 22.61). For the faithful women disciples, remembering the Lord’s words was a joyful experience. For Peter, it had been a painful and bitter one.
But Jesus hadn’t only prophesied Peter’s betrayal. He had also said: I have prayed for you that your faith won’t fail. When you have returned, strengthen your brothers and sisters (Luke 22.32). The name Peter means Rock; so Jesus said Peter would go on to be a rock—a place of strength and security—for others.
Peter probably believed that his relationship with Jesus ended after he denied him, and Jesus was killed. As far as Peter was concerned, his discipleship was over. He was not a rock when his friend needed him most. But Jesus had promised him a new beginning. And we heard the smallest hint of this new beginning in today’s lesson.
I suspect during that long, dark Sabbath, the faithless eleven holed up somewhere and lamented how Jesus had ruined their lives. How could they begin again? I also imagine the women disciples spent that Sabbath remembering all the wonderful ways Jesus had changed their lives. And how could they just go back to the way things had been before?
And when the women came and told the eleven men how Jesus had been raised—just like he’d said—the men thought they were crazy and refused to believe. But there was one exception, and that was Peter. He was the only one who bothered to investigate the women’s claims. Luke says Peter ran to the tomb. When he bent over to look inside, he saw only the linen cloth. Then he returned home, wondering what had happened.
That’s hardly an act of saving faith. The women saw the empty tomb and went and told the other disciples. Peter saw the empty tomb, and just went home.
But anyone who knows the rest of the New Testament knows that’s not the end of Peter’s story. It’s just the beginning. He will go on to preach with power the Good News that Jesus has risen. Just as Jesus prophesied, Peter will return and be a rock for the other disciples.
Not a happy ending
When we listened to Luke’s Easter story, what were you expecting to hear? Did you think it would be a happy ending? After the all the betrayal and abandonment and rejection. After the torture and terror of the cross. Were you waiting on a resurrection story where all the loose ends were tied up; every wrong was made right; and they all lived happily ever after?
If you come to Luke’s Easter story hoping to find a happy ending, I’m sorry—you’ll be sadly disappointed. What did we hear? The women disciples found the tomb empty. The angels told them Jesus has been raised from the dead. But the women don’t get to meet Jesus yet. They go and tell the apostles, but the apostles think they’re talking nonsense. Peter, to his credit, actually goes and confirms that the tomb is empty. But instead of joining the women in faithfully proclaiming the Good News, he just goes on home, confused.
I don’t know what you’d call all that. But I do know you wouldn’t call it a happy ending.
And that’s okay. Luke wasn’t going for a happy ending when he told his Easter story. For Luke, the story of Easter is all about new beginnings.
Remember, Luke still had another story to write—the book of Acts. The story of the birth and growth of the early church in the days and years after Jesus was raised and returned to Father God.
Easter isn’t a happy ending, but a new beginning, full of hope and promise. And it’s not just a new beginning for Jesus, or his apostles, or the early church. It’s a new beginning for all humanity and all creation and all of us are living in this new beginning now.
Paul puts it like this in one of his letters: if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived! (2 Cor. 5.17) The old order—the one that rejected Jesus and tortured him and killed him; an order that is propped up by violence and lies and shame and fear and the threat of death—is passing away. And a new beginning, a new age, a new world is taking its place. And the death and resurrection of Jesus has made this new beginning possible.
Easter is the beginning and promise of the future God has planned for us. We see and hear what this future will be as the scriptures draw to a close:
God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look! I’m making all things new.” (Rev. 21.3-5)
In the meantime, church, we now follow in the footsteps of Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them, on that first Easter. We believe Jesus has been raised for us. And now we are witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection before an unbelieving world. Because just as the apostles didn’t believe the women at first, the world will not believe us. Sadly, they’re often still clinging to the old story, the old order of lies and violence and shame and fear and death. And so our new, resurrected lives must testify to the world that Jesus is risen. Just like the women in our story, we can’t go back to our old lives, the old story, the old ways.
We have not come to a happy ending. We have turned the page, and started a new chapter.
Here’s to new beginnings.