An Empty Tomb and an Open Future

Contributed by Bruce G. Epperly

Easter 2009 (Year B)

I Corinthians 15:1-11
Mark 16;1-8

In one way or another, eventually all of us ask the question articulated by the weary and hopeless pilgrims that first Easter morning, “Who will roll the stone away for us from the entrance of the tomb?” These women – Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome – had come that morning to the tomb of Jesus in order to give one final act of love to their friend, teacher, and healer. They had come to anoint him, so that the smell of death, the stench of hopelessness and defeat, would be neutralized at least for a few more days.

Yes, at one time or another, we all walk alongside these weary pilgrims, wondering “Who will roll the stone away for us? Who will break down the barriers between us and the future we imagine? Who will restore hope and open the door to new life?” The stone that blocks the future seems immense, and before it our powers meager.

Think a moment: what immovable object stands in the way of living your dreams? What death-full realities block your way to the future?

I think all of us know the hopelessness of Holy Saturday – the day of uncertainty, mourning, and pain in which there is no promise of healing, transformation, or new life. I confess that I have lived with a great deal of uncertainty over the past few years. Like the women at the tomb, I have sought help in rolling away the stone of dread and hopelessness as our family lived with our son’s cancer last year, as I journey with my closest friend who is facing two cancers, and as I ponder the seemingly unsolvable challenges of global warming and economic injustice and insecurity.

During our son’s hospital stay, I recall mornings, walking through Georgetown, when I could articulate only the simplest of prayers, “Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy!” The stone of cancer dwarfed my meager powers. Still, I knew my only hope in supporting our son lay in the presence of the One who could give me hope, courage, and strength to face those grim days and do my best to find a way to push aside what appeared to be an immovable object.

Who will roll away the stone that blocks our future and stands in the way of living God’s dream for our lives? In the days following a sudden and unexpected loss – whether due to death, job elimination, illness, failure, or depletion of retirement savings – we, like the women who came to the tomb, typically feel numb and depressed. The future contracts to the size of our grief and despair, and to stone that lies before us. And this was no exception for the women that day. They had no Easter expectations, and they possessed no vision of resurrection or everlasting life. That Holy Sabbath, in which no work could be done and no final act of kindness could be given a beloved friend, must have been interminable to the women. Moments seemed like hours; hours like days; time passing with nothing to do or look forward to. Their only release was the hope that they could anoint their beloved teacher and friend ; but, even that final act of love was placed in doubt by the reality of the stone that sealed the tomb.

Without a future to inspire or energize them, like countless mourners before and after them, the women drag themselves to the tomb – drawn only by the love they felt and the duty – yes, the duty that love demands. Mark implies that they were so downcast that they did not even notice that the tomb was empty until they stood before it. To their astonishment, the stone had been “rolled back,” as Mark simply notes, and the tomb was wide open.

But, what they saw and heard at the empty tomb was more than they expected or imagined – a man dressed in white, an angel, perhaps a messenger of God, with a world shattering message: “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.”

And then they receive a commission, “Go tell his disciples, and Peter, that he is going ahead of you to Galilee.” All of a sudden, the world shifts before them. They are amazed, fearful, and for awhile silent. Could death have truly been defeated? Could Jesus truly be alive? And, if this is true, what shall we do next?

Now, think a moment: go back nearly 2000 years to one of the early Christian communities, perhaps Corinth, where you have already heard Paul’s words of triumph, now recorded in I Corinthians 15, and perhaps circulated a decade or two before Mark’s gospel. Listen to Paul’s testimony: “He was raised on the third day…he appeared to Cephas [Peter]…five hundred brothers and sisters at one time….then to James…and to me.” Paul’s hymn ends triumphantly, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

And, then in that same early Christian community, you hear Mark’s simple story, with no elaborate theology, no resurrection-sightings, no mystical experiences, not even a hint of triumph….simply [at least in the earliest versions of Mark] the narrative of an empty tomb and three frightened women.

Perhaps, you – and your first century companions – might ask, “Is an empty tomb enough to inspire a life-transforming and death-defying faith? Can you build a faith solely on an empty tomb and not a graphic encounter?” And, that is our question today as we hear the barebones, unvarnished narrative from Mark, and as we live with more mystery than certainty as we face the future.

Mark’s story ends with the women presumably returning home, amazed, fearful, and silent, and at least for the moment, and keeping to themselves the good news of resurrection. Can you build a faith on mystery, on radical openness to the future, on a story that’s yet to be told, or on a future that’s wide open for God and ourselves?

Farmer-activist-poet Wendell Berry speaks of “practicing resurrection.” And, these women, in their own humble way were the first practitioners of resurrection. Even though they told no one initially about the resurrection, their witness lives on in whenever the gospel is proclaimed by words and actions. In their simple practices, they show us how we might practice resurrection in a world in which our futures are uncertain, challenging, and wide-open…in which resurrection faith in all its hopefulness does not do away with the problems of global warming, economics, death, or injustice.

Yes, practicing resurrection is often un-dramatic, and lived out day by day in times of desolation, stress, and uncertainty. You can’t anticipate a resurrection, nor can you conjure up a resurrection as an act of will; but you can wait and prepare for surprising new life in the same way that a caterpillar and cocoon prepare to become what they yet do not know, a glorious, freely-flying butterfly. On Holy Saturday, the waiting can be intolerable, but still we can practice resurrection even there are no guarantees and the future is in doubt. We can walk to the tomb, not knowing what to expect, but we can walk nevertheless, inspired by duty and love!

These women, the first witnesses to the risen Jesus, initially practiced resurrection  simply by performing love’s duty, by showing up to anoint their beloved, even if the task was impossible and the stone remained in place. Lovingly practicing resurrection is not about success or victory or even achieving a pre-established goal; but faithfulness through every season of life. Mark’s gospel tells us that acts of love, performed in times of uncertainty, are the primary witness we make to the resurrection way of Jesus. Despite the odds, we are called to remain faithful to the path God calls us to.

Second, the women took a moment in their despair and grief to look up as they approached the tomb and to recognize that as deadening as grief often is, new and unexpected possibilities still remain ahead of them. They remind us to look beyond our grief and failure for seeds of hopeful transformation.

Third, they held onto the story, treasuring the experience despite its incomprehensibility, not telling the world until the time was right. They allowed their experience to sink in; they allowed time to soothe their grief; they allowed the mystery to deepen in their hearts until the impossible to become an experienced reality. And, then, we have to assume, at the right time, they shared the good news with conviction and certainty. They remind us that our witness to Jesus can be given even in the context of all of our doubts and failures. We can share “good enough” news – not relying entirely on our qualifications – but on God’s enduring and overcoming love.

If resurrection can’t be hurried, neither can our witness to it. We are called to practice resurrection – to be faithful in difficult times; to perform the duties of love, regardless of how we feel; to look up and embrace surprising possibilities; to treasure the story; and then, at the right time, to share good news of new life.

The Easter story in Mark, simple, unadorned, mysterious, and open-ended, is punctuated by the messenger’s words, “he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” Yes, Jesus is going ahead of us. Practicing resurrection means embracing the future in all of its mystery and unsettledness; it means keeping your eyes open and moving toward an uncharted horizon that beckons you forward. It means walking one step at a time and living one day at a time following the Risen One. It means going forward toward God’s horizon even when the path is uncertain, trusting that in the very act of walking we will find our way.

“The stone is rolled away!” The tomb is abandoned and empty. That is Mark’s Easter proclamation. The future remains surprising, open, and uncertain for Mark, the women, and us. But, Jesus is unbound and going ahead of us, showing the way that we called to travel and inviting us to rejoice this day in resurrection; practicing, singing, walking, and proclaiming, guided by hope and promise of “an empty tomb and an open and inspired future.”

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagement.