Based on Acts 10:34-43, Colossians 3:1-4, Matthew 28:1-10
How do you feel about visiting a cemetery? Kind of a shocking question here on Easter Sunday morning – but our Gospel story begins in a graveyard. Some people visit to make sure that the cemetery plots of loved ones is well cared for and adorned with flowers or other memorabilia. Some people visit them to connect with long-lost family members who have been “found” again through genealogy research. There are untold numbers of forgotten small family graveyards all across Madison County, especially back in the hollows of what is now the Shenandoah National Park. Some people (and movie/television makers) use them to tell ghost stories of zombies rising to haunt the living – especially popular on Halloween. Some people visit on special holidays like anniversaries or birthdays to stop and talk to the gravestone and open their hearts to the “great cloud of witnesses”. Some people pay them no mind at all – and nowadays about 50% of people are deciding to be cremated and not interred.
For me, as a kid, visiting cemeteries didn’t make much sense. The person was dead and buried and they weren’t coming back. I understood the whole idea of making the grave look tidy and neat as a way of honoring the memory of the deceased – but why would I go to talk to them there when they were in heaven? Because of horror movies, you couldn’t pay me enough to go to a cemetery after dark! Cemeteries now have a special place in my life, because I realize that the main part of our Christian story is the hope of death being transformed into new life. Thus, cemeteries are places of closure and a celebration of a life completed but not ended. They are sacred places where I am able to speak words of healing of a promise of eternal life in and through Jesus who was resurrected – because in Baptism we die and are raised to new life in Him, we are guaranteed to rise again when He comes in glory. Let us go to God now to say Alleluia that God’s plan for us has been fulfilled in Christ!
Our scripture readings from today have to do with Peter, Paul and the Maries. In the reading from Acts, Peter is speaking to the household of the gentile Cornelius – a God-fearing, high-ranking member of the Roman Legion. Cornelius has had a vision and has sent for Peter to come and tell him and his household about Jesus. Peter does this and as he is speaking about the forgiveness of sins through the resurrected and ascended Jesus, the Holy Spirit descends on all in the house and Peter ultimately baptizes them to consecrate this anointing. Paul’s writing to the believers in Colossae is teaching them about how to behave as members of Christ’s Body. Paul’s rhetoric is important for us on this Easter Sunday as he states, “…If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is…Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God….”
Completing the quartet of voices from scripture are the Maries – Mary Magdalene and the “other Mary”. They went at dawn to inspect the tomb, according to Matthew’s Gospel. When they got to the cemetery, they experienced a “great earthquake” made by an angel who came down and rolled away the stone. This miracle petrified the Roman guards but didn’t appear to phase the Maries at all. The angel calms their fears and lets them know that Jesus has been raised and has gone ahead of them to Galilee. Filled with fear and joy at the angelic news, they ran into Jesus who told them the same thing that the angel had spoken. In this case, however, the Maries were able to worship at His feet before quickly heading to tell the disciples the news of the day.
I want to spend some time with you unpacking that story of the Maries, the angel and the resurrected Jesus. Put yourself in the place of the Maries on that early morning so long ago. Walking together in the growing light of day, headed to the tomb of the man who had until just recently been your leader and friend. What do you think your emotions would be on that walk? We are told that the Pharisees and chief priests had ordered guards to not only seal the stone which had been rolled in front of the opening, but to stand watch over the place to avoid Jesus’ followers stealing the body and making “fake news” about the resurrection. The Maries certainly would not have expected to be able to get close – and may have been afraid of being arrested by the guard. After the angelic earthquake they are invited to see that the tomb is indeed empty…it’s empty!! What is your emotional state now – hearing for the first time and seeing that Jesus is alive? A few moments later as you are running back, you encounter Jesus newly resurrected and fall at his feet in worship and thanksgiving.
The angel is God’s way of saying to the humans, “You think you’re all powerful, now get out of the way and let me do what I AM does best”. God creates an earthquake like the one that accompanied Jesus’ death on the cross where the tombs of the saints were opened (see Mt 27:51-53). As you know, angels always tell us to not be afraid before, during or after they do something fearsome (which distinguishes them from demons). The last thing that I would expect to see in a cemetery is an angel of God. As far as humans are concerned, the only living thing in a cemetery is a demonic being. Yet, here we have God transforming what we think we know into something new. In the cemetery that day was the risen Christ, God with us, walking and speaking words of peace and greeting.
The risen Christ is recognized by the Maries immediately in Matthew’s Gospel. He allows them to grab His feet and worship Him before telling them to not be afraid and to go and tell the disciples to journey to Galilee where He will meet with them. Jesus’ body is able to be held by the women and so He becomes real to them immediately. Note that there is no doubt in the women who Jesus is – later we hear that some of the disciples (all male) did doubt after they saw and heard Jesus in the Galilee.
Why is it so hard for us to believe that God accomplished all that Jesus said that God would accomplish – that death is transformed into new life? Multiple times Jesus told the disciples that He would have to give his life for all so that all might be given life. Believing in the transformation of death into life in and through the Christ is the foundation of being a Christian. You cannot believe in the resurrection with your rational mind – the mind that tells you the dead stay dead except in horror movies. Your spirit, however, knows the truth of the resurrection – He lives…through the grace of God, Jesus the Christ is alive for all time! Plain and simple, Jesus was raised by God to complete what had been promised – our slavery to sin and to death has been defeated for all time and we are restored to right relationship with God. He lives!! Say it with me, “He lives!” The Almighty love of God has conquered every human sin to bring us the hope that endures. To tell us that we should not seek the Son of Man among the dead because He lives.
Jesus the Christ lives in us and through the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives and our world. Because He lives, we have a message of hope to tell the world that no one else has. A message of hope that we all so need to hear and trust in this time in our lives. He lives and we live through Him and seek to do God’s will as we have heard He did. He lives and we live as His Body in the world, one Body with an infinite number of equally necessary parts all seeking to do God’s work in the world. He lives and because He lives you also shall live in and through Him. Now, go out into the world as a disciple and expect to meet Him where He lives! Amen and amen!