THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE EMPTY TOMB
(The Rev. Dr. Winfred B. Vergara, St. James Episcopal Church, 84-07 Broadway, Elmhurst, NY 11373. 04.20.2014)
“Alleluia. The Lord is risen!” Response: “The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!”
|"Who rolled the stone away?"|
The Christian faith always has an element of unpredictability about it. As Forest Gump of the movie once says, “life is like a box of chocolate; you’ll never know what you’re gonna get, until you open it.”
Early on that first Easter Sunday morning, at dawn, the three Mary’s: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Mary Salome came to the tomb where Jesus was laid. Jesus died on the cross on Calvary. He was laid in the tomb owned by a rich man, Joseph of Arimathea.
In life, Jesus said that the Son of man had nowhere to lay his head. So now he rested on a borrowed tomb. It was a gesture of generosity that Joseph of Arimathea, who was a member of the Jewish Sanhendrin---and a secret follower of Jesus---offered his own grave for free! The tomb was carved out from the rock. A huge circular stone covered the tomb. Was it of the Holy Spirit that he knew it was a tomb on temporary loan?
It has been three days since Jesus died. The body might be smelling bad by now, so the women brought with them an alabaster flask of ointment to anoint the body of Jesus. On the road, they worried among themselves. “Who will roll the stone away? How can we roll that stone away, the stone door that covers the tomb?”
But what a surprise! The tomb was empty and when they look inside, Jesus was not there. And the angel of the Lord asked them, “Who are you looking for? Jesus of Nazareth? He is not here; for He has risen!”
I believe the miracle of the empty tomb is the greatest miracle on earth---and this is the centerpiece of the Christian faith. What is the significance of the “empty tomb” in our life as believers of Jesus Christ? I offer today three meanings of the empty tomb: one, it established the uniqueness of our faith; two, it provides a final answer to the problem of death; three, it gives us a mission in life.
- UNIQUENESS OF THE CHRISTIAN FAITH
The empty tomb is the hallmark of the Christian faith. Our faith is anchored in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again” is our mantra. The empty tomb established that of all religions in the world, we alone can claim that Jesus rose again and opened for us the entrance to eternal life.
The uniqueness of the Christian faith, to claim that Jesus is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” is, to use the words of St. Paul, “a folly to the Jews and a stumbling block to the Gentiles, but to us who are being saved, it is wisdom of God and the power of God.”
Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and all major religions in the world believe in God---but only Christianity claims that God was in Christ, who came down from heaven, lived among us, was crucified, died, buried, and on the third day, rose from the dead.
I admire Mohammad, whose followers of Islam number some 2.6 billion people and considered the fastest growing religion in the world today. Mohammad was a bold prophet, a great religious reformer, a brilliant political leader. He triumphed against the atheism of his time and united the diverse and conflicting tribes of Arabia into one single Arab community. But Mohammad died and his body was buried in Medina in Saudi Arabia. Millions of Muslims do a pilgrimage to Mecca every year and hoping to get a glimpse of the green dome of the mausoleum in Medina, the Al-Masjid-an Nabawi, where his relics are located.
I admire Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, whose Buddhist followers number over a billion people and whose philosophical, cultural and religious influence continue to dominate many parts of the world, especially in Asia. I like the Buddhist concepts of human suffering (dukkha), self-denial (anatta, shunyata), ethics, karma, rebirth and enlightenment and Nirvana---and some of them correspond with basic Christian concepts of faith, hope and love. But the Buddha, the Enlightened One, died and did not rise again. His ashes and relics are to be found in Uttar Pradesh in India.
One of my heroes, the great Mahatma Gandhi, admired Christ but did not become a Christian because as a Hindu, Gandhi believed in many gods. Gandhi studied the Bible and was greatly influenced by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. His philosophy of non-violence (ahimsa) was greatly influenced by Christian values. He loved Christianity (though he has problems with some Christians) but he could not reconcile one thing “to put Jesus on a solitary throne.”
But that "solitary throne" is precisely the uniqueness of the Christian faith. Only Jesus rose again. Mohammad, Buddha, Zoroaster ---all prophets and martyrs, philosophers and holy people. They all died but did not rise again. The solitary throne of God-incarnate belongs to Jesus because He alone died and rose again!
Our faith is anchored in the resurrection of Jesus Christ! Alleluia! Jesus alone is Savior and Lord.
2. 2. FINAL ANSWER TO THE PROBLEM OF DEATH
There was a little girl who was seriously drawing a figure. She had all the crayons and pencils and the drawing pad. Her father asked, “Honey, what are you trying to do?” Then little girl said, “Dad, I am trying to draw the picture of God.” “But honey, no one has seen the face of God,” the father said. The little girl replied, “Dad, they will see; once I am finished drawing it.”
Prior to the coming of Jesus, the problem of death was unanswerable. What happens when we die? Is there a soul? Will our spirit separate from our body? Where will our spirit go somewhere? Or will it be reborn in another form?
So death is either to be feared or be conquered as the last enemy. Every fear known to man ultimately leads to the fear of death. Why do we eat? To live. Why do we work? To survive. Why do we keep our body in good health? To live longer. We are afraid to die because we don’t know what lies ahead. The mystery of the unknown drives us to fear adventure, to fear death.
But the resurrection of Jesus provided the final answer to this question of life. St. Paul explains it in 1st Corinthians 15:51-55
“Listen, I tell you a mystery: we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed---in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound and dead will be raised imperishable and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothe with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: death is swallowed up in victory. “Where O death, is your victory? Where O death is your sting?”
After the resurrection, there will be a new body, a spiritual body, a glorious body, to rise up and dwell with God in the heavens. The lost Paradise has been regained. The resurrection of Jesus opened to us, who believe, access to eternal life. Jesus said in John 14: “Let not your hearts be troubled…In My Father’s House there are many mansions. I go to prepare a place for you; and when I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you with me so that where I am, there you maybe also.”
The Book of Revelation speaks of that new life in heaven: “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain…but life everlasting.”
The empty tomb of Jesus is the assurance of this promise of everlasting life. Jesus is the first fruit of this promise and we who live and believe in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.
- EMPOWERMENT FOR MISSION
When Jesus was arrested, tortured and crucified, his apostles were filled with fear, with shame and with guilt. Judas who betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver was overcome with guilt that he went and hanged himself. Peter, who denied Jesus three times, was sulking in depression and shame. Only John, the youngest of the apostles and Mary Magdalene and Mary, his mother were there beneath the cross of Jesus.
Later on, Peter and the other apostles would go back fishing. That was what they did when they first met Jesus. They were rugged fishermen of Galilee and Jesus called them and transformed them from being fishermen to being "fishers of men."
Do you know the difference between the fishermen and the fishers of men? The fishermen catch fish alive and put them down dead. The fishers of men catch men dead and put them down alive. Jesus taught them to proclaim new life and called them for a mission to heal the sick, the cure the lepers, to drive out demons, to save the lost. But when Jesus died, they also lost their passion for mission.
When you tried and failed, you tend to go back to doing what you did before. Mission is like a lifeblood that gives you energy and strength and meaning to your existence. With the death of Jesus, they felt they lost their sense of mission and decided to go back to their former comfort zones.
Once I read a testimony in “The Upper Room Magazine” written by one Stephen Bishop of North Carolina. He said that as a boy he had mastered the art of catching crickets which they used as bait for fly fishing. First he had to find a patch of tall grass. Then he would walk systematically through the grass, with one foot sweeping forward in a slow and dance-like motion. Scared crickets would leap, at which point, he would crouch, cup one hand and sweep up the crickets.
But somewhere along the line, in his adult life, Stephen lost the passion of catching crickets—and on a larger scale, “the art of trying and mastering new things.” After experiencing failures, rejections and disappointments, he retreated into his comfort zone, scared to try new things. He lived “more like a cricket than a person, hiding and leaping in fear.”
Brothers and sisters, do you sometimes feel like a cricket cowering in fear and unable to move on from your failures and disappointments? Remember that success is failure turned upside down. And if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. In life, there is adventure in keeping the balance: “take care and take risks.” You do not want to live the rest of your life with “what ifs?” For me, the greater sin is in not trying, and in not living life to the full. And we can only live our life to the full if we have a sense of mission.To the Christian, life is full of surprises!
Mission is our reason for being. The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori said, “the heartbeat of the Church is mission, mission, mission.” The Swiss theologian Emil Brunner wrote, “The church exists by mission as fire exists by burning.”Former Archbishop Desmond Tutu of the Anglican Church of South Africa asserted, “We are missionaries or we are nothing.”
Brothers and Sisters, do you have a mission? What is your mission? To know Jesus and make Him known? To know the power of His resurrection? To live, love, learn and leave a lasting legacy?
The resurrection of Jesus was the spark that re-ignited the apostolic mission. The empty tomb opened the hearts of the apostles to the excitement of proclaiming the risen Lord and turning the world upside down. No other faith can compare to the uniqueness of Christ as the Son of the living God. They moved out from their comfort zones and proclaimed the Gospel with power--- from Jerusalem to Judea, to Samaria to the ends of the world. The empty tomb opened their hearts to the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s universe and the desire of their Master that all people will be saved and come to the knowledge of the Truth. The empty tomb emptied their hearts from the fears of the unknown and empowered them to face even death with such courage, dignity and honor.
Because He lives, I can face tomorrow. Because He lives, all fear is gone; Because I know, He holds the future. My life is worth the living just because He lives!
May this Easter Day, re-ignite your mission, infuse new energy and empower you to live the life worthy of the risen Christ. Amen.