Perplexed, terrified, disbelieving, amazed
| Luke 24:1-35
||Sun, April 15, 2001
Rev. Ed Searcy
|Listen to the Easter hymns of the church. Look at the Easter displays in the
shopping centres. Ask any of your neighbours. Easter is a time of joy. On this
everyone seems to agree. Except for the Bible. Did you notice? In Luke’s telling
of Easter morning there is not one mention of any joy. For that matter, there is
no mention of something called ‘Easter’. No one knows what to call it because
no one has ever heard of it. The first witnesses who come upon the empty grave
do not sing ‘hallelujah’. Instead they are perplexed ... terrified ... disbelieving ...
The grief-stricken women come to the grave to care for the decaying body. They
come draped in black, carrying the spices that will mask the stench of death. But
something is wrong. The tomb has been tampered with ... and Jesus’ body is
nowhere to be found. The women are not rejoicing. They are perplexed. The
evidence is a riddle. It is not at all clear what has happened or what it might
mean. Perplexity - not joy - is surely the first reaction to the events of Easter
morning. What has happened here? Each generation ... each culture ... each
church ... each of us ... cannot help but begin by being perplexed by the strange
events which have been passed on to us. That is why the church, of all places,
must be a safe place for those who puzzle over the crucial events of this Holy
weekend. Here we always begin with the honest truth - that the centre of our
faith is perplexing. We know that death is final. In a culture which does its best
to convince itself that death is not real ... that dead bodies are not to be cared
for, touched or viewed ... that at the end we need only a ‘celebration of life’
rather than a funereal recognition of the heartbreaking separation of death ... in
this culture we are alive to a different reality. Here we name death for the final
physical and spiritual enemy to relationships, to hope and to life that it is. So
when we come upon an empty tomb we confess that it leaves us perplexed.
But then the story becomes something more than a final indignity. The women
assume the obvious. They guess that his body has been stolen and left to the
dogs. Then “two men in dazzling clothes” appear with news. Do the women
receive these angelic messengers with songs of joy as we know they should?
They do not. Instead the women are terrified and fall, face down, to the
ground. We long for the sacred to break into our ordinary world. We assume
that a revelation from God would be all gift, all wonder. But when the women
begin to see visions and to hear voices they are terrified. It is one thing, after all,
to sort out what people may have been up to in the tomb ... it is another thing
indeed to begin sorting out what God has been up to since Friday noon. So ... if
what we gather to sing and pray and speak about today is not pretend, not an
illusion, not a wish-fulfilment but is, in some incredible way deeply and
profoundly true ... then perplexity turns to terror. Here we come very close to
the high-voltage power of God ... and, by the sound of the crackling of angelic
energy in the air, it is clear that this is no time for fooling around. This is not the
time for facile joy. It is, instead, a day of holy terror in the face of an awesome
Lying there, on the ground, the women are the first to hear the news that he is
risen. They recall his strange prophecies about ‘rising again’ on the third day.
They have not seen him, but the evidence is beginning to mount. So they go
and tell. Surely the disciples will receive the news with the first rendition ever
sung of “Jesus Christ is Risen Today”. Wrong. As Luke tells it: “these words
seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them”. The story is received,
even then, as an idle tale. The disciples, of all people, do not believe it. Should
we be surprised when a technologically sophisticated world and a university
campus dedicated to ‘higher learning’ calls Christian faith an idle tale and reacts
with disbelief? The women run from the tomb as the first evangelists ... the first
to spread the news. And no one believes a word of it. This is a great tale but,
frankly, it is hard to believe. Even the characters in the story know this. They
don’t believe it, either. At least, not yet.
Peter has to see for himself. He runs to the tomb. Luke reports that he is
“amazed” at what has happened. Another translation says that he is “puzzled”.
A third reports that Peter “wonders” about it all. Peter doesn’t know what to
believe. He is not shouting for joy. But he is left wondering, puzzling ... amazed at
what has happened. If the women come to the tomb in grief, Peter approaches it
in guilt. The last time he and the Master spoke with one another, Peter swore to
stand with him even if it meant death. But he could not keep his solemn oath.
Peter denied and covered up and distanced himself from the trouble. Their once
close relationship has been irrevocably broken. And Peter is ashamed of himself.
If Jesus is alive and well then Peter may not be in for great joy but for big trouble.
Peter is not alone in this, of course. If it is not grief that burdens us ... it is often
guilt. Guilt that we have not kept faith with God, not stood by our covenant
with Christ by standing by our neighbours - our children or our parents, our
spouse or our siblings, our colleagues or partners, our distant friends or close-at-
hand enemies, the earth or its creatures - in their distress. If Jesus is alive and
well ... if this story is not an idle tale but ‘the truth and nothing but the truth’ ...
then what about our grief and our guilt? Could there be hope for transformed life
and redeemed relationships beyond our expectation and imagination? Might
there be time for repentance and forgiveness ... for change and reconciliation ...
time that seemed until now lost forever? Peter realizes with amazement that the
answer might just be ‘yes’.
Later that day, two of them invite a stranger in off of the road to share a meal.
The unknown guest breaks bread at their table and passes it to his hosts. In this
act Jesus gives the impossible gift: forgiveness ... life on the other side of death.
Christ is risen ... and on the loose. It is perplexing ... terrifying ... hard to believe
... amazing. Yes, it is all of that. Thank God ... it is also true!