Many years ago, not long after I had started my first assignment as a priest, I attended a conference for clergy and lay leaders who were serving small congregations in rural communities. The presenter was one of these really provocative, socratic types, and if I’m honest, I probably perfected my inner eye roll through a lot of it. During of the of the sessions, he singled me out of the crowd and said “Mr. Loya, what do you think?” Caught off guard, I could only manage to mumble back a panicked “I don’t know,” to which he quickly replied, “I know you don’t know, but if you did know, what would you think?” It was a great move. He was trying to move my thinking forward by asking me to imagine I was certain about something I wasn’t. He was asking me to just try on certainty and see what happens.
That seems like a great way to approach Easter. Our gospel lesson this morning reminds us that the resurrection is not simply a historical fact we remember (although it is certainly that), it’s not just a doctrine that we are asked to believe, it’s a new reality we are invited to enter, it’s a new life we are invited to live, whether or not we are certain at all.
If you find all of this hard to believe, you’re in good, biblical company. Faith in the risen Jesus comes slowly to everyone in today’s lesson (and for that matter, most of the rest of the New Testament). The women who discover the empty tomb are first of all perplexed, and have to be jolted by some angelic figures who remind them what Jesus had said about all of this. When they run to tell the disciples they are dismissed with predictable sexism. And even when Peter goes to see the tomb himself, we’re told he’s amazed, but there’s no indication at that point he understood or believed.
So if you find all of this hard to believe, that’s probably because you’re actually paying attention. The joy and beauty with which we celebrate this day can mask just how crazy what we’re celebrating is. We’re here this morning saying that this guy Jesus, who was executed by the state for being a religious and political agitator, really died. He really died the same death we’ve all seen and we all fear. But then this guy was raised from the dead, he still lives, and is a sign for what awaits all of us, too. That’s not just improbable, that is gonzo crazy. If any of us claim to fully understand or perfectly believe that, we’re just not being honest.
But the question the empty tomb poses to us is: what would it be like if we did believe it? What if we really did believe that God’s life is stronger than our death? What if we really did believe that love is more powerful than hate? What if we really did believe that new life can come out of ruin? What if we really did believe that no one is too bad to be loved, no one is too far gone to be saved, nothing is too broken to be healed? What if we lived our lives to show that God’s love can roll away the stones of increasingly hateful divisions, that God’s justice can roll away the stones of exclusion and discrimination, that God’s compassion can roll away the stones of crushing poverty, that God’s peace can roll away the cycles of violence and terror and retribution that keep us all trapped in a nightmarish tomb of fear?
The empty tomb stands in front of us this morning, and says,“I know this is impossible to believe, but how would you live if you did believe it?”
Easter morning begins in darkness, bitter grief, and doubt. Jesus’ friends have had their world shattered, their friend unjustly executed, their hopes dashed. They come to the empty tomb with the same lump in their stomach that all of us know, and some of us can barely contain this morning. As we gather here in the shadow of more terrorist attacks, bitter political divisions, worries about our jobs, uncertainties about marriages, fears for our kids, caring for dying parents, feeling the pain of the person who isn’t sitting next to us this year, Easter doesn’t offer us a cheap and sentimental joy. Easter doesn’t ask us to pretend our lives aren’t what they are. Easter offers us the promise of new life that has gone straight through our deepest darkness and pain.
This day doesn’t just hold up some magic trick God did a long time ago, it doesn’t demand that you believe some religious doctrine. It offers you a new reality. It offers you a new life. Even if you don’t believe a word of it, this day invites you to enter into God’s new order, where hatred, and fear, and death don’t get to finish the story. God’s love finishes this story. God’s love finishes our story. All we have to do is step into it, and join our voices to heaven’s triumphant, joyful, defiant Alleluia. Amen.