Expecting to find a corpse, the women were bringing spices. They had watched Jesus draw his last breath.
Joseph of Arimathea carried Jesus’ limp, tortured body to a tomb that he had bought for his own future use and laid Jesus to rest there instead. Having followed Joseph to the burial site, the women were certain just where to go to find Jesus’ grave.
So, when they got to their mournful destination, they knew that they were in the right place. Instead of a shattered corpse, they saw an empty tomb. No Jesus.
We’ve heard this story often enough to commit it to memory. Each year we imagine the women’s shock, their bewilderment, and ultimately their joy as they begin to realize that the empty tomb points to a risen Christ. Believers ever since have been reassured of the truth of the resurrection by drawing on the empty tomb as evidence.
But the empty tomb provides an additional and an equally crucial lesson. And that lesson emerges when we remember that Jesus chose to appear on several occasions. So, not appearing on this occasion was a significant choice. It conveys a decisive lesson.
Luke recounts two appearances of the risen Christ in the Gospel bearing his name. Matthew records two different appearances. John gives us four additional accounts of Jesus choosing to show himself to his followers. And St. Paul says that Jesus appeared to 500 people at one time.
People can touch Jesus’ resurrection body. He eats like everybody else. And yet he appears and disappears at will. He can pass through locked doors. He walks to Emmaus with two disciples and also travels back from Emmaus to Jerusalem in an instant.
Jesus’ body is real but it is more than an earthly body. It is what Paul calls a spiritual body and the Roman Catholic Catechism calls a glorious body. He can dwell in space and time and yet is no longer constrained by their limitations. It’s the sort of body that awaits us in the resurrection.
Clearly, Jesus chooses when and where and to whom to appear. And yet here, on this first morning, Jesus chooses not to appear to these faithful, bereaved women. For that matter, Jesus was a no show when Peter dashed to the tomb after the women had reported what they had seen. Or, who they had not seen, to be more precise.
The experience of the empty tomb teaches the women to look for Jesus in the right places. Angels appear at the tomb to help them get the point: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5) They were looking for Jesus in the wrong place.
The angels’ lesson is in keeping with Jesus’ primary mission from the start. Jesus came to show us where to look for God.
For centuries humans had looked for God in all the wrong places.
We projected our own frustration and anger and resentment into the sky and conjured up a wrathful moral bean counter.
Or, devoted to the pursuit of our own comfort and status, we projected a celestial enforcer who would justify our own agenda and ensure its success.
Perhaps more humble but just as misguided, we yearned for a butler to fetch our own small wants and needs for us: a good grade, a sports victory, a choice parking space, a get out of suffering free card.
We had been—and from time to time still are—looking for God as if God is who we would be if we were God.
To put an end to this God became a man. God took on human flesh to show us just who God really is. God’s identity apparently turned out to be quite a shock back then. It still is today.
From the start of Jesus’ life, God turns out to be something different from what we expect. Instead of being born in a marble palace, Jesus chooses to arrive in an outbuilding on a poorly lit street in a rotten neighborhood of a town nobody wants to visit. What we take to be important, to mark us as successful or blessed, holds no attraction for Jesus.
Once Jesus starts teaching, plenty of people would rather that he keep his trap shut. The last will be first and the first will be last. All of our wealth and status and power counts for nothing. In the Kingdom of Heaven God recognizes only humble service as greatness.
Turn the other cheek. Forgive the unrepentant until it becomes second nature. Love your enemy. Jesus doesn’t write anyone off, vote anyone off the island. And neither should his followers. Even and especially when those people are different or inconvenient or even dangerous.
Give your stuff away, especially the stuff you cling to most fiercely. Feed the hungry because they’re hungry, not because they meet somebody’s stingy standards for deserving aid. Shelter the homeless and liberate the oppressed because that’s what Jesus tells you to do and who he wants you to become.
Once Jesus starts picking friends, he embarrasses us by simply failing to be selective enough. Tax collectors, street walkers, uncouth laborers, Bible scholars, seething revolutionaries, super patriots, biker chicks, girl scouts, slackers, embezzlers, and accountants follow him all the way from Galilee to Golgotha. Worst of all, he expects us to love one another as he loves us. How unspeakably awkward!
Jesus is the perfect revelation of God. God in the flesh. And in Jesus we see that God will go to any lengths to be in relationship with us and to bring us into relationship with each other.
He even dies on a cross. Lies in a tomb. Descends to hell to release the captives. Wherever we are, that is where Jesus goes. That is where God goes. To be in eternal relationship with all of God’s children.
That’s what love looks like.
If we stopped at the cross, then love would look like a failed romantic ideal. But love did not stop there. God rolled away the stone. God raised Jesus from earthly life to eternal life. Jesus raises us with him.
We find God in Jesus. In love in the flesh. In the suffering and joy of our neighbor. In the humble sacrament of bread and wine, body and blood.
In Jesus we see what Presiding Bishop Michael Curry
and Rob Bell teach. We see that love wins.