The story of Easter is the most single most important story in the Christian faith. The resurrection story invites us into a different vision of reality – a vision that assures us that life triumphs over death, love triumphs over hatred, comfort triumphs over suffering, hope triumphs over despair, faith triumphs over fear, and grace and forgiveness are God’s life-giving, death-defying gifts to the world. It proclaims a powerful, enduring message that we need to hear and re-hear, to learn and re-learn, thoughout our journey in this world.
The problem with the Easter story, however, is that we know the ending.
In fact, we know the endings to all of the major Christian stories. The most important stories of the Christian faith are so familiar to us, that we tend to lose any sense of the surprise, the mystery, the shock and the wonder that they contain.
The Christmas story, for example, has become so familiar to us that we actually have to remind ourselves, every year, just how shocking, surprising and strange it is that the long-expected Messiah was born in a cattle stall.
And then, as we ponder the various events in Jesus’ life, our familiarity with those stories can sometimes tend to empty them of the shocks and surprises that they might inspire within us. We have lost any sense of surprise about the types of people that Jesus associated with, or the ways that he challenged those with religious and political power, or his willingness to touch lepers, to eat with outcasts and tax collectors, to challenge tormented spirits and perform wonderful miracles, to associate with people whose reputations were less than impressive. What should surprise us about those stories no longer does – we simply know them too well.
And what is true about those earlier parts of his life is even more true when it comes to the Easter story. Throughout these past weeks of Lent, we may have read the stories of Jesus’ ominous predictions about what was going to happen to him in Jerusalem, but when those events begin to be described, we know what is going to happen. Even as we hear the adoring crowds crying out “hosanna” on Palm Sunday, and “crucify him” on Good Friday; even as we ponder the betrayal and abandonment of his friends and the excruciating scene of the cross – any sense of surprise is long past.
Would that we could approach any of these stories — the birth in Bethlehem, or the miracles that he performed, or the story of Palm Sunday, or the Last Supper — without any sense of what was going to happen next, would that we could stand at the foot of the cross, on Good Friday, and not have the consolation of knowing that the story was not yet complete.
But we no longer have that ability.
We know how the Easter story ends.
Or at least we think that we do.
Today’s reading from Luke 24 is one of those overly familiar passages that is supposed to be filled with shock and wonder, but which stirs very little surprise in us. “But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.”
It can be good for us to try to imagine what it must have been like for these characters, what might their experience have actually been like – especially as they did not know what they were about to discover.
The Gospel writer included details to give us some clues about the emotions, the feelings, the reactions that stirred within them in the light of that strange and surprising experience.
Upon seeing the stone rolled away from the tomb, for example, we read that the women “were perplexed about this”. And then only a verse later, we read “the women were terrified’.
They were perplexed and terrified.
But they did not remain perplexed and terrified for long. Rather, the women ran and told the other disciples, whose reaction was also described by the Gospel writer. “but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”
The initial reaction to the women’s story was disbelief in the minds and hearts of the other followers of Jesus. Except, perhaps, in the mind and heart of Peter, who was not necessarily willing to believe the women, but who was willing to go and to try to find out what was going on for himself. He ran to the tomb and, “stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves, then he went home, amazed at what had happened.” For Peter, disbelief and skepticism gave way, ultimately, to amazement.
In these few short verses, therefore, the Gospel writer offers to us a series of intriguing insights into the emotional experiences of those who did not know how the story was going to end, but who experienced the wonder and the mystery for themselves.
For them, it was perplexing; it was terrifying; it was unbelievable; it was amazing.
Which may, in fact, offer each one of us an intriguing way to enter into this story that we know so well. After all, these very same words can probably be used, at some level, to describe most of our reactions to the claims of the resurrection.
Perplexing? Absolutely. We continue to be perplexed about what to make of this story, whether to believe that he was actually dead, and actually raised from the dead, or whether it all should be received and interpreted as some form of profound and powerful myth. Debates continue about whether his resurrection was an objective, defensible historic fact, in spite of the Bible’s insistence that it was. How does a dead body come back to life? The story, even today, still leaves us all a bit perplexed.
And terrifying? Certainly. In fact, we make horror movies about people rising from the grave – the walking dead, resuscitated mummies, the undead and the wights, the vampires and zombies of our terrified imaginations. Across cultures and generations, in the human imagination, empty tombs are not – at least initially – cause for celebration and joy. They are cause for terror – and in this account, that is precisely what the women felt — “the women were terrified.”
And unbelievable? Without doubt, to pardon the pun. The ancient disciples were clearly not the last to doubt the women’s claims about the empty tomb. How many continue to find still find those claims fairly hard to believe? The first disciples were not the last to greet the news with disbelief.
And amazing? Definitely. Peter might have gone home, amazed at what had happened. But he was not the last. The story of the empty tomb has amazed our ancestors for millennia and, even today, we gather together, with at least some degree of amazement at this familiar story, and amazed at the implications of it if it is, in fact, true.
The Gospel writer described the reactions of those first witnesses to the resurrection as perplexing, terrifying, unbelievable, and amazing – and, at some level, most of us can relate.
But it is good for us to realize that this is not where the story ends. We are left with an interesting question – what happened next?
What happened to those characters after this perplexing, terrifying, unbelievable, amazing event?
To put it quite simply, their lives, and the world, were never the same again. They emerged out of that strange experience into lives that were transformed by the good news that they had heard and discovered.
And they would go on to live and to proclaim that truth to the world, and in so doing to begin a movement for love, for forgiveness, for peace, for justice, for compassion that would change the course of human history.
And now, all across the globe, people gather together to celebrate the good news that those two women discovered on that early morning, so long ago.
That the tomb was empty. That Christ had triumphed. That death was no longer ultimate. That human suffering would give way to divine comfort. That pain would give way to peace. That injustice and oppression, poverty and exclusion are not the ways of God’s kingdom – but that the kingdom of God had come, and the kingdoms and empires and cultures and powers of this world could not – and shall never — overcome it.
And it is that message that has been carried to us – to each one of us, even as we sit here today – from those who heard the message, and passed it on, ever since that fateful morning so long ago.
Which means that even though we think that we know the end of the story, we really don’t.
Because how each one of us responds to this ancient story affects its true ending.
Will we, like the characters in this passage, simply read it as a perplexing, terrifying, unbelievable, yet amazing old story? Or will we allow the truth that it conveys, the message that it proclaims, to change the very course of our lives?
Will we allow it to realign our lives with the One who calls us and claims us, who has suffered pain and death for us, who has called us to be a part of his kingdom, a part of the reign of God on earth? Will we allow the truth of the resurrection to reshape our perspective on every part of our lives? Will we allow it to lift our eyes to a greater and grander vision – of a world transformed by God’s eternal, triumphant, infinite, immortal love – and will we do what we can to make that vision a reality?
We might think that we know how this story ends.
But we do not.
Because how we allow God’s death-defying love, in Jesus Christ, to transform our lives and reshape our world, is how this story is supposed to end.
And that is good news.