The Emptiness of the Tomb

Jonathan Nosly

Text: John 20: 1-18

Christ is Risen!

Good morning, 8th Day, and happy Easter Sunday!   It’s been a strange week for me, thinking about what I want to say on Easter while also trying to hold all of the emotions of Holy Week.  For me, this present crisis has made it more important than ever to take things one day at a time, so writing about the empty tomb on Good Friday was a challenge.

It’s also been hard to think about what it means to celebrate the brightest and happiest day on the Christian calendar in our present moment.  Easter bunnies and pink eggs don’t really fit with pandemics and economic collapse. 

But the more I thought about it, the more it actually felt kind of right.  A lot of that brightness and happiness we think of with Easter is a lens we’ve added after the fact.  That first Easter Sunday probably felt at least as grim and confusing as this one.

Besides grieving the loss of their teacher and friend, Jesus’ followers had to be wondering if they had gotten it all wrong.  All along Jesus hadn’t exactly met their expectations of what the Messiah was supposed to be.  Rather than being born in a palace and raised by a royal family, he was born in a barn and soon after his birth became a refugee.  He didn’t build the kind of entourage that a ruler should have, instead eating with those considered the bottom of society and doing things like washing his disciples’ feet.  And last week, they watched him enter Jerusalem not on a war horse, but on a donkey.

And it’s important to remember that this war horse wasn’t just supposed to be a metaphor.  After years of oppression under Roman rule, the Jewish people had very specific expectations for a messiah.  This messiah was supposed to be a military liberator, who would lead his people in rebellion against the Romans and reestablish Jerusalem as the capital of an independent nation.

For myself, the ways Jesus subverted many of these expectations has long been a crucial part of my faith and my understanding of God.  I love the idea of a messiah who washes his disciples’ feet, who rejects royalty and military power and instead sides with the oppressed. 

But I have to admit, it’s a little bit harder for me to be excited about Jesus forgoing his role as liberator of the Jewish people.

We can only imagine the mix of feelings Jesus’ followers had that Easter morning before they got the news from Mary Magdalene.  But somewhere on that list of emotions had to be a crushing disappointment for the future of their nation.

Throughout that day and the days to come, as they got the news from Mary, and then saw Jesus for themselves, much of their grief turned to joy.  Their teacher and friend had risen!   It’s the happiness of Easter that we all know so well.

But if we’re honest, the fears for their nation weren’t relieved at all.  By the time of the ascension, the disciples knew that Jesus had conquered the grave, but they also knew that Rome was still standing just fine.

I think about the disciples, after the ascension, going back to the spot of the resurrection and sitting with the emptiness of the tomb.  What were they feeling?  Awe.  Reverence.  The presence of the Holy Spirit.  But also, probably a small feeling of abandonment.

If you’ll permit a quick Star Wars reference here, it makes me think of the first movie, where Obi-Wan Kenobi warns Darth Vader that if Vader strikes him down, Obi-Wan will rise up more powerful than ever before.  Vader does it anyway, as Obi-Wan’s horrified apprentice, Luke Skywalker, watches.  And after this, Obi-Wan appears to Luke in a few visions, he sometimes speaks to Luke through the Force.  But mostly, the work of defeating the Empire is left to Luke. 

Rather than outright victory over empire, Jesus offered a model of nonviolent resistance imitated by revolutionaries from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Gandhi to Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani advocate for women’s education.  It is a beautiful and brilliant model for change, one that I think many of us have taken as core to our worldview.  But it’s also so much work!

The early church also followed this example, and we can see from them both the promise and the frustration that it offers.  Their movement grew exponentially in the face of empire.  The radical ways in which they practiced love, nonviolence, and sharing of their resources allowed them to build a community that was resilient in the face of constant persecution.

But the persecution was constant.  That future is what the disciples were contemplating Easter morning, minus any assurance of the good times to come.

Text: Romans 12:4-13

From Paul, we hear the words of someone who has been through this struggle.  The joy.  The pain.  The days where we feel filled with the bread of life, and the days where we beg for the cup to be taken away from us.  This is what it means to be the body of Christ in the world. 

Not at all on the same scale as these other things, I did feel some of those highs and lows in my job search last year.  When I first started thinking about looking for a new job, I spent a lot of time wishing desperately that the right job would quickly fall into my lap, that a higher power would arrange things.  Obviously, it didn’t happen that way.  Instead, I had seven months of painful work, filled with fear and self-doubt.  I felt God’s call through that time, but I had to do the work to get through. 

Speaking of my job, I think this model of God’s call also fits perfectly with the work I’m doing around the climate crisis.  At Interfaith Power & Light, we work with so many incredible people from all different faith traditions who believe deeply in our responsibility to care for Creation.  Only occasionally do we run into those who think their faith is contradictory to our work.  But I have to admit that those folks are disproportionately Christians.

Some of you may have heard about the people of Tangier Island, not far from here in the Chesapeake Bay.  This tiny island is losing a huge amount of ground each year to sea level rise, and at some point in the next twenty years or so, those 460 islanders will become climate refugees.  Yet they believe deeply that the climate crisis cannot be real.  They feel God simply wouldn’t allow a climate crisis, that God would first come as a conquering hero on a war horse to save the earth.  That is just as wrong today as it was on the first Easter. 

What God has given us, through the work of scientists and advocates, is everything we need to stop the crisis: Electricity from sunlight and wind; forms of transportation that don’t require fossil fuels; a vision for a green energy economy that works for everyone.  Now we, the body of Christ, must do the work of making it happen.  And I’m so glad today that our Easter offering is going to two groups who are doing that work; we’ll be hearing more about them in a little bit.

The crisis presented by this virus isn’t quite as clear cut, but I think we do still have some answers already.

One clear directive for the body of Christ is to make new plans, because the old ones clearly aren’t cutting it.  Nowhere is this more clear than in our elections.  We watched a disaster in Wisconsin this week, as an election that was and then wasn’t and then was again resulted in thousands of people having to choose between risking exposure to a deadly virus or being denied a voice in our democracy.  And as with too many things in our country, people of color were hit the hardest by this mess, with polling places in black and Latino communities exponentially more likely to be closed than those in majority-white areas.

There is still time to institute vote-by-mail across the country before November.  In a typical election, a quarter of the country already votes by mail, and in western states, it’s more than 60%.  Folks in DC and Maryland, you can help right now by requesting your mail ballot for both the June primaries and the November election.  Virginia voters, it’s not clear yet if the state will allow everyone to request mail ballots for November.

But you and Maryland voters can join Interfaith Power & Light in writing letters to your senators asking them to fund vote-by-mail in the next stimulus bill.  I’ll send around those links, both for requesting ballots and writing your senators, later today.

But most of all, the body of Christ is called right now to take care of each other.  We remember Jesus’ second greatest commandment: to love your neighbor as yourself. 

Now, Brooke says this should always be followed with a reminder that your neighbor may need to be cared for in a different way than you like to be cared for.  I like to always include the reminder that loving your neighbor as yourself means you have to take the time to love and care for yourself.  Being the body of Christ doesn’t mean each of us has to do it all or be on call all of the time.  In real, biological bodies, sometimes an organ needs to be honest about how it’s doing and send some distress signals. 

A few of us have been working on an 8th Day Covid Relief Fund; hopefully you’ve been seeing the emails.  This week, we’re going to be calling you, doing a little check-up on the body. 

And we need your honest feedback on how things are going.  Do you have extra time or funds that you can offer right now?  Are you doing ok, but just getting by caring for yourself and the people in your household?  Or do you need a hand right now?

Today, we celebrate the risen Christ.  It’s the day our Lord conquered the grave, and showed us once and forever that we shouldn’t fear death. 

But it’s also the day we are reminded that we are the body of Christ in the world; that it is up to us to be Jesus’ hands and feet.  Take time today to assess what that means--whether it’s making extra time to care for yourself, having the bravery to ask for help, or showing up with what you have to offer.  Maybe it means all three, just in different moments.

In any case, it’s clear that those sacred words-- “Christ is risen”--mean our work has just begun.