A family I knew experienced a terrible disaster at the beginning of Easter. The mother of the family was killed. They were stunned. They could not believe what happened.
Much later, the dad told me, “We sat there, and we thought, ‘Well, it’s Good Friday. Maybe she’ll come back on Sunday morning.’” He gave me a sad smile, and the kids smiled half at themselves and half with sadness at the memory. “She didn’t come back, of course,” he said. “She was still dead.”
We know that feeling. There’s such a loss when people die. Sometimes when friends have died, I have kept on seeing them in the street. We don’t want to believe what has happened… we can’t believe it!
I reckon it’s what happened to Jesus’ followers. They lived in a time when life was short, and even more brutal than now. They lived under a foreign empire. Most of them lived in poverty, and with not much, or even anything, in the way of civil rights. But this Jesus had turned their world upside down with stories of the long awaited Kingdom of God. They reflected later that things were so different in that kingdom, even the wolf would lie down with the lamb.
Jesus was not just a story teller. He was so convincing, and he so practiced what he preached, that they were convinced he was the real deal. It was going to happen.
And then the government killed him. Everything… all the hopes… came crashing down. Can you imagine the shock of this… the disbelief, the inability to grasp what was happening…
I wonder how many of the women coming to the tomb that Easter morning had some secret hope that it would all prove to be a bad dream, and that somehow he was still alive?
The story says, of course, that the tomb was empty! He was risen. And because he has defeated death, the early Christians concluded, then so can we. It’s at the heart of the Christian Faith.
But there is a problem.
For some of us, many of us, indeed, this story works. It makes sense. It is dear to us. It sets us free in some way. It’s a story we can tell others with integrity, and help them with a new approach to life. It’s wonderful.
But for others of us, the story does not work. It does not set us free. At best it mystifies us. It can be an embarrassment. It may even offend our sensibilities. It seems impossible. And even if it actually did happen that the tomb was empty, we don’t understand how that actually works to save us.
such folk love God.
They wish to serve God.
They feel some touch from God.
But the many of our traditional understandings don’t work for them… don’t make sense.
And there are other folk who feel affinity with the church, who sometimes long to believe in God, who simply don’t come. They don’t come because they feel they are expected to believe something about Easter, and other things, which is impossible to believe. They are honest. They don’t pretend. They stay away.
And for other folk again, there is a deep pain, because they believe. They believe Jesus was raised from the dead literally, factually, historically. He walked and talked and shook hands with his friends. And yet, there is something lacking. There is an unreality, something felt missing in their life with God and in the church.
Listen carefully to what I am saying: None of these folk are atheists or unbelievers. They are faithful Christians here in church, or would like to be.
We live at a time where people experience and make sense of the world very differently from each other. It’s not something we choose. We can only be faithful to what God and the world reveal to us about reality.
In fact, it is a rare church where we will not find some of each of the ways of believing I have talked about. We all wish to find an empty tomb on Easter morning, but some don’t… and can’t. It’s not their world.
There are congregations where, if you don’t believe the traditional view that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead, and died as a substitute for our sins, so we don’t have to die, then you are not welcome. There are other congregations where, if you do hold that traditional view you will be open to ridicule, and also made unwelcome.
But in most places, it is a quiet, personal pain. No one talks about it. No one says that finding the gospel endings unbelievable, or not being able to see how they have anything to do with salvation is ok or even a common experience. We remain silent.
So how do we live together? How can we be productive together coming out of such different understandings? How can we not be scared of each other? How can we be honest about our doubts and fears?
How do we find an empty tomb?
You see, in factual history, there was some kind of “empty tomb,” (in inverted commas.) This little bunch of people from the backwoods, who should have faded away before they even got started, began a religious movement based around Jesus that has crossed the whole world. It has nurtured millions, and been the container in which they lived their lives. When they said “the tomb was empty,” and “he is risen,” they were not talking mere air. It was not empty poetry. It was not superstition. It was speaking a powerful reality.
The problem is that the words we always used, fail to communicate that reality to many of us today. This is not wrong; it just is. This is one of the challenges of today’s church.
So how can we find an empty tomb?
When we hear the story, and someone says, “Rubbish, how can you believe that?” what will let us say, with enthusiasm, and without embarrassment, “No! You’re not hearing what it says! It’s poetry, it’s the only way they could make words stretch to express what happened to them. But it’s true!”
What would let us hear Professor Dawkins, or one of the other loud atheists spouting their spiel, and be unworried, and undeterred, because we have experienced the power of the God who does not exist?
It comes back to what I’ve been saying up here for months. It comes from trusting that Jesus’ words about the way to live are true, and then living them out.
It’s not just moralizing and saying “A is right, and B is wrong. Do A.” And then we go off and do whatever we like. It’s about doing things the way Jesus would, or at least trying.
It’s not about saying, “Rev So-and-So said this, so it must be right.” And we tell everyone to do what our favourite minister or author said, but then we go off and do whatever we like. It’s about speaking our experience, and listening to and respecting the experience of others, as they and we have tried to live as Jesus would. And then trying again to live the way Jesus would.
It’s about putting our life on the line and actually seeking to live like Jesus would live if he were here in our shoes. It means we struggle to understand him, and what he meant, as we listen to the readings, and read our bible. It means we try and put it into practice.
A word to describe what Jesus taught is Compassion. It means to value all other people, worldwide, the same as we value ourselves. No one is more valuable than us. We are no more valuable or worthy than they. We have no more rights than they. We are not more important. Our survival and comfort is no more important than theirs. That is what Jesus models for us in the gospel stories.
Generally, I don’t mind too much how people understand the nitty gritty details of their faith, but I will argue pretty strongly at this point. Following Jesus and trusting Jesus is a public thing. It is not just holding our own private ideas.
Living this out turns life upside down. It grips and energises my life It provides a meaning and purpose for life which is big enough to be worthy of a life! There is a real sense in which I suddenly find “the tomb is empty.” Life is full. God is real. Jesus makes sense.
I do not come to this easily, which I think you have probably noticed! Compassion is hard work. People and emotions are hard work. You will have noticed how by morning tea after church, I begin to fade rather fast. You’ll also know that I’m as thick as a brick… and less sensitive, on many occasions, when people are having a hard time. I’m certainly not the best exemplar of compassion we have in the congregation!
But in the moments where I am able to serve, or even just be there for another person and not worrying about how to respond or what to say next or needing to provide an answer, I am profoundly free. God’s payback from living compassionately, is out of all proportion to what we give to it.
Living compassionately is something that’s available to everyone. It’s more important than believing! Remember the parable of the sheep and the goats? People who believed were numbered among the goats because they did not practice compassion.
So what am I saying this Easter, after we have celebrated the resurrection, and met around the table?
First, if you have a problem with what you think you should believe, or if you have doubts, don’t ignore it. Don’t just push it down, and ”believe” and struggle on your own. There’s a whole world of excitement and freedom and comfort to be had when we face the doubts and struggles and talk about them, and seek other ways to understand things. God does not set a test where we have to believe the right things.
Second, don’t worry if your neighbour in the pew seems to believe differently. God’s love is big enough for us all.
And third, do seek to live compassion. It will keep you busy for life! It fills life. It transforms life. You will be able to say, “The tomb is empty. Christ is risen.” And it will be true.
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