But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest.
Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
MESSAGE “He Is Not Here” Rev. James R. Renfrew,
What is your earliest memory of Easter? My earliest memory is all about Easter baskets. My sisters and I each had baskets that were hidden somewhere in the house. But my Mom had a hard and fast rule: we had to eat breakfast in the Dining Room first. No matter how much we begged and pleaded, the hunt for the baskets could not begin until everyone was done with their breakfast. And where were the baskets to be found? Easy to find for my youngest sister, Tina, behind a chair or a door, a little harder for Betsy, maybe in the closet, more difficult for me as the oldest brother, down in the basement or in the back of a kitchen cabinet. And the baskets, of course, were filled with goodies like jellybeans, chocolate rabbits, and decorated Easter eggs. It wasn’t the same as Christmas, which had many more presents, but, still, a basket of candy was something to look forward to.
I don’t remember there being much of a Biblical Easter story being told on Easter morning at our house, though we were a church-going family. We did go to the Presbyterian church each Easter after we had found our baskets. My parents sang in the choir. There are family photographs with my sisters standing out by the driveway wearing their new Easter hats, and me with a new sport coat and tie. My Mom would get a new Easter hat, too. One year we drove on Easter afternoon from Connecticut to visit our grandparents in New Jersey and somewhere on the busy interstate highway my mom’s new Easter hat flew out the window, never to seen again.
In some ways our earliest memories of Easter contain all that we need to live better lives – loving families, the joy of discovery, a shared meal, happy visits with relatives, and some tasty candy. If that’s all Easter is, love and joy, then we’re all the better for it.
But, of course, that’s not all there is, and for the last sixty years I have been slowly leaning more about it. Over time I have read the Bible story of Easter many times – there are four versions of the story in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. I could tell you almost everything about the details of these stories, and how the four accounts are similar, bit some ways very different from each other. Each of the four Gospels is well worth reading. Each of them is well worth discussing with children, grandchildren, brothers and sister, with anybody.
Baskets, jellybeans, and Bible stories continue to draw us together year after year, but as we proceed further along life’s spiritual journey there are some new levels of understanding that we reach.
At some point it’s no longer an interesting story from long ago, but it has a claim on our lives. It’s a living story, a living tradition, a living faith. Like with our seven friends joining the church today, the story moves us to take new steps in our spiritual journey. Each year we ponder certain questions, and enjoy sharing our insights with each other.
How did it happen? The details in each of the Gospels differ in some places, but the heart of the story is that God intervened, that God took action. God took on despair, God took on violence and injustice, God took on inevitability, God took on death. Every prayer that you have ever spoken, every hope you have ever imagined hinges on the Easter fact that God intervenes in this world.
Why did it happen? The details in each Gospel story differ, but the heart of the message is hope. Every time in the history of the world since the first Easter, when people feel, lost, stuck or defeated, the hope we feel in our hearts is because of what those women found when they looked into the empty tomb. They began to hope, and hope alone is enough to change the world.
Has anything changed? As Jim Moore commented last Sunday, these stories about Easter in the Bible have touched millions of lives over the course of 2000 years. I claim that all of the good things in life that have emerged with the passage of time have their start in Easter. There is still a long way to go, because there are many obstacles and set-backs, Easter empowers agents of change.
Have you changed? I can’t answer that question for you, but Easter still being celebrated two thousand years later gives you the opportunity to tell your own story about it. What does the resurrection mean to you? The story continues to affect the world, because it is now YOUR story. (Story of Ryan Pellman – “it’s your church”)
God is not limited by the worst of human behavior. Sometimes we feel chained to the worst behavior of others. But not God. That we experience violence, injustice, murder and war, that there seem to be limits on what we can hope to achieve in this world, does not limit God in any way. If nothing else, the story rattles the chains that hold us down, making us aware of what is aiming for. Violence and death do not have the last word.
What happens next? It means that when we feel stuck, God is opening a door, speaking a fresh word, looking forward in hope rather than backwards in fear.
He is not here. Let’s go find him, see what he is doing, and join in!