The Easter narrative fails to supply the thing we most eagerly anticipate. There is no description of the very thing which make Easter what it is. We do no see, there is no account of the resurrection.
As the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to tee the tomb.
As early as they are, the two Marys are already too late. The resurrection has already happened, out of sight. A great deal takes place as they approach the tomb, while they are at the tomb, and as they leave the tomb. There is much drama here. The tomb, as it turns out is empty. But the empty tomb is not the resurrection. That is something we are not privileged to see. And how could it be otherwise. We could not more see and describe the resurrection than we could see and describe the moment of creation. Because, with the resurrection we are dealing with the direct intervention of the power of God in the world as we experience it. The infinite steps directly into the finite and acts within it
The eternal present of God, becomes a moment in the always receding past of our reality. God steps into the world and the history that we occupy and change what and how we experience it. The resurrection is a unique event. It is quite literally beyond comparison. There is nothing to compare it to. It is qualitative different from anything else that we could describe. As it always is with the reality of God, the resurrection is at the point at which our words run out. No wonder the Gospel writers are left stammering. What we do have is what is left behind by the resurrection. Most conspicuously at tomb that doesn’t have a body in it any more. The empty tomb is not the resurrection, but it is at least something that we can put into words.
The resurrection is a miracle which we cannot see. But there are miracles which the guards and the women are witness to.
And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.
The earthquake, precipitated by the angel, is what breaks open the tomb to reveal that it is empty. What God has done is not left hidden by a mighty rock. It is tempting to think that the earthquake was caused by the resurrection itself. That such a dramatic geological occurrence would be what went with the resurrection. After all God has always promised the levelling of hills and the raising of valleys as he works salvation for his people. Why not then the moving of a rock. With the earthquake we are tempted to imagine that Jesus is almost blasted from the tomb by the explosive force of the resurrection. Perhaps it is our assumptions about power that leads us to imagine the scene that way. Which says more about us than it does about the power of God. The empty tomb is not the resurrection, nor is the earthquake, but the earthquake allows us to see that the resurrection has happened.
And because it is an earthquake, and one caused by the arrival of an angel, we do know that what we are dealing with here is the supernatural power of God. Only God can reveal God. It takes God to open the tomb and show that it is empty. It takes a direct message from God to announce what has happened. The empty tomb is not the resurrection, but it is one small part of God letting us know what has taken place.
I don’t know if you have ever noticed, but angels are conspicuously absent from most of the Gospel narrative. There are no angels during Jesus’ active earthly ministry. They are there before; announcing his birth, protecting him when he was a baby, even looking after him in the wilderness, but they don’t reappear until now. There is an angel after. The angel sits on the displace stone and speaks for God, he says:
“Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised from the dead and indeed is going ahead of you into Galilee; there you will see him.“
The angel announces what God has done. His short speech contains the entire gospel. That Jesus who was crucified has been raised, and that he is now available to those who would follow where he leads them. Once again it is only God who reveals God. It is only the direct messenger of God, in the first place, can declare what the gospel is. The empty tomb is not the resurrection but it is the place where God first speaks the gospel.
The resurrection itself is beyond our words, our ability to express, and beyond even our minds to truly comprehend. But even the empty tomb, which is not the resurrection, is overwhelming:
For fear of him [the Angel, and what he reaveals] the guards shook and became like dead men.
The aftermath of the resurrection, when one who was dead becomes alive, it that some of those who are alive become as if they were dead. For those who opposed to God, and those who are still captive to them, that the resurrection has taken place is terrifying. It demonstrates that those who rejected and killed Jesus are wrong. It shows that all those who claim the power of this world, or serve it as their master, are wrong. The empty tomb is not the resurrection, but it is terrifying because it shows that any attempt to live without God is doomed. What we might take to be life: all those things that easily attract and excite us, all the thing that that the world chase after, what has been taken to be life is in fact death. The power that anyone might wield in this world, and the power that any of us my be trapped in is not final
The emptiness of the tomb shows that the power of this world is finite, and that God has power beyond that. The empty tomb is not the resurrection but it is what is left behind when the resurrection has happened.
It is the sign. But it is an ambiguous and contestable sign. The striking thing about God’s own revelation of God is that God never leaves us without the option not to believe. Faith in God can only emerge where the opposite of faith is still a plausible alternative. So critical to God is our freedom, and so important it is that our relationship with God be one of faith and trust, that even at the point of God’s most decisive intervention, we are left with a sign that might bear another explanation. The empty tomb is not the resurrection, you can have an empty tomb without a resurrection. The guards later, and Jesus’ opponents loudly, can and do offer alternative explanations. Such explanations are usually transparent as attempts to safe face, or to shore up the illusion of power and authority. But their denial merely served to confirm that the tomb is indeed empty and therefore requires an explanation. The empty tomb is not the resurrection, but you cannot have a resurrection without an empty tomb. The empty tomb is what gets left behind. It is merely the sign that the resurrection has taken place. But it is a necessary sign.
The empty tomb is not the resurrection, but it does demand an explanation. It is the angel who supplies the explanation of what it is the sign means. The angels says:
“He is not here...”
He rather states the obvious. The empty tomb is not the resurrection, but it is a correlative of the resurrection. Saying “the tomb is empty” is the logical equivalent of saying “He is not here.” Jesus was once in this tomb. The tomb is now empty. So he is not here, which is why the tomb is empty! The point of the resurrection is that Jesus is no longer bound by death. Jesus is not to be found among the dead. Faith had brought the women to the tomb. Perhaps it was even a faith that was hoping against hope, that what Jesus had promised, that on the third day he would rise, would turn our to be fulfilled. The angel indeed confirms that their faith is not misplaced. But faith in the resurrection must carry them away from the tomb. He is not here! The empty tomb is not the resurrection, so it is not the place where faith stays. The angel continues his announcement. “He is not here,” begs the question, “then where is he?” It is a question which the angel answers:
“…he is going ahead of you to Galilee.”
The answer is startlingly mundane. Following Jesus in fact brings the disciples full circle, through death and resurrection, they go back to the place where they started. They go back to the scene of their lives before Jesus. But they go with an utterly transformed understanding of themselves, of the place where they came from and their place in it now. The empty tomb is not the resurrection, so it is not a place to hold any of us. The resurrection does not remove us from the life we are living, rather it returns us to that life with a completely changed point of view.
The empty tomb is not the resurrection. Christian faith is not faith in an empty tomb, Christians believe in the risen Christ. The empty tomb does not hold the women for more than a moment:
So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.
The women make once more the faithful response, this time to the emptiness of the tomb and the news of the resurrection. And so they are met with the real presence of Jesus:
Suddenly Jesus met them.
The empty tomb is not the resurrection, in a way it is the much less important left over of what the resurrection really is,
the living Jesus. And we are dealing here with a resurrection, not the resuscitation of a corpse, like we did see and could describe, in the case of the widow of Nain’s son, and in the case of Jairus’ daughter, and most recently in the case of Martha and Mary’s brother. Each of those lived again, but also died again. In Christ, however, death is overcome. I love to quote the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger’s convoluted observation about death, he said: “the ultimate possible possibility will not be out done.” Well actually in Christ, it is outdone. Christ lives to die no more. That is a reality as solid as the Jesus that the women clung to and worshipped that morning. In Christ death loses its power over us. The empty tomb is not the resurrection, but even for us the tomb is empty.
Both the angel, and then Jesus himself in fact announce the effect of the Gospel.
“Do not be afraid.”
All along it is fear, of one sort or another, that drives human being along. It was surely fear that drove Judas, and the chief priest and the Pharisees and the Roman procurator in their actions that led to Jesus’ death. And it is the very attempt to flee from the fearsome reality of dying that makes death’s power more real and more pressing. The empty tomb is not the resurrection, but what it may be is the end to the fear that might drive us. Death does not have the last word over Jesus, and in him nor does it have the last word over us. Our lives can be lived with the same freedom as his. That the tomb is empty, and that Jesus is risen is the end of fear, the beginning of freedom, and the start of life in all its fullness that God offer.
Another sermon based on this reading (Matthew 28:1-10) is to be found here
The Empty Tomb Is Not The Resurrection by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0