THE EMPTY TOMB
Tonight is the defining moment of Christendom. Tonight we meet the empty tomb. In so doing, you and I confront Christ’s resurrection, which marks His victory, His triumph, over evil, sin and death. By the resurrection of Christ, God shows us that hope overcomes despair, that righteousness overcomes injustice, that mercy overcomes oppression and that love overcomes terror and hatred.
It is the doctrine of the resurrection that sets Christians, you and me, apart from other religions and interpretations regarding the meaning of life. By His resurrection Jesus is more than just a holy man, more than a prophet, more than a teacher-rabbi, more than a miracle worker-healer. Christ’s resurrection affirms Jesus as the Son of God, the Messiah, the guarantor of eternal life. Christ’s resurrection changed history and redefined the meaning of life for millions.
Now I am going to tell you three stories. You have heard them before. The first story: Years ago, I met the Easter Bunny. It wasn’t really the Easter Bunny; it was a person in a white rabbit suit out in the day care playground. She was having a great time with the kids. In my imagination I asked, “What are you doing?” “ “Oh, I’m having fun with the children. I guess I am trying to remind folk of joy and peace and new birth.” “ Funny, I replied, that is my job too. Hop along,” I said, and she did.
Imagination transports us through the spectrum of time, enables us to participate in various dimensions of reality and to grasp truths that often seem ephemeral. One of which is the story of the resurrection. It is the story of hope. It is the assurance of eternal life with a loving God. The story of the Easter Bunny moves us to that direction. It is good. The secular world is but a reflection of the eternal world. It prepares us for truths too deep for tears, too joyous for laughter.
For many Easter is simply the seasonal celebration of spring and new birth, a reflection of the life cycle. But for Christians, Easter is more than the religion of nature; it is the statement that through the revelation of Jesus Christ each one of us receives the promise of eternal life with the source of all life and all beauty and all love, God Himself.
Now for my second story: Jesus was a Jew. You cannot understand Easter without knowing about the prophecies in Isaiah, Jeremiah and the Psalms. Israel longed for, hungered for, a messiah. Jesus fulfilled that expectation and hunger. The Old Testament is the foundation for Christianity. Our Easter event is the demarcation of Christianity from Judaism.
The third story: It is part of a much longer story, which is one of my favorites. Some years ago I had a call at 10:30 p.m. from Bouton and Reynolds Funeral Home. “Father Gage, this is Michelle. I have a special request of you. Could you do a Jewish funeral tomorrow at 11:00 a.m.? I cannot get a rabbi. The family had decided they would not have a funeral, but at the last minute felt that they had to have some kind of service. They are more or less non-practicing Jews. When I was unable to get a rabbi, I told them that I knew a really nice Episcopal priest, who would try to help them. It will be just a small family gathering. Can you help me out?” “Sure, Michelle, I’ll do what I can,” I replied. After I hung up and told my wife, Faye, about this, she replied, “Are you out of your mind?”
Apparently I was. I got up early the next morning and went down to my office. I have some books on funerals, and I thought I would find something in them. Nothing. “Oh, well, I thought, I’ll just take the burial service in The Book of Common Prayer and delete any references to Jesus.” Wrong. The burial service opens with, “I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord; he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.” (BCP p.469)
The whole burial service is loaded with Easter and resurrection theology. So I put together a service of an opening statement, a prayer, a psalm, a reading from Ecclesiastes, a prayer, a psalm, a eulogy and a closing prayer.
When I got to the funeral home, the “small family gathering” was of 80, 60 men and 20 women dressed in black. I told them that I was honored to be with them in their time of grief and loss and that my job as a minister was to tend to the needs of all people in the heart of Stamford. They were relieved and the service went well.
My point is that it is the Easter story of the resurrection that is the lynchpin of our Christian religion. Judaism is wonderful and we are deeply indebted to it for our Judeo-Christian heritage. But we part company in our narrative, in our history, in our imagination, in our expectations and in our philosophic/theological worldview as a result of the Church’s experience, of your and my experience, of the empty tomb.
My third story is more of a reflection. On Tuesday of the following week, I gave the homily at the funeral of a woman I had known for 25 years. She was the same age as I am and we shared the same tart sense of the absurdity of life. We also shared a deeply felt reliance upon God and thankfulness for the salvation, which we found in Jesus as the resurrected Christ. We will meet in heaven someday and have a great time comparing our observations and experiences. Following her funeral, I had two other funerals in the upcoming weeks. One woman I’d known for 45 years. The other woman I knew not at all.
In each of these funerals, my job was to articulate the Easter message of the resurrection. It was to affirm that in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ you and I have a personal promise that says that life is purposeful, is meaningful, is positive, creative, recreative and full of redemption and hope. It is the message of the resurrection. The Easter event that you and I celebrate is the affirmation of that which is mysterious and imponderable. It speaks to our own hunger for victory and triumph in life. It speaks to our own instincts and consciences, to the image of God within us, which recognizes the truth of an unimaginable triumphant act of a miracle – of the resurrection event, which is the focus and pulsating signal of our life and our hope.
Brothers and sisters, the old Book of Common Prayer has it nailed when it proclaims, “I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord; he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.
I know that my Redeemer liveth, and he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth; and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God; whom I shall see for myself and mine eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger.” BCP
Tonight you and I celebrate the victory of love over cruelty, mortality and despair. We celebrate that triumph because it speaks to us collectively and individually and because it also speaks for us. You and I exalt in the triumph of Jesus Christ over evil, sin and death. And that’s an amazing victory and triumph! That brothers and sisters, is our triumph. Jesus Christ is risen. Brothers and sisters, let me hear it; Christ is risen. The Lord is risen in deed. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia. Amen. – Fr. Gage