Most pastors that I know have a collection of funeral stories about awkward, embarrassing or downright hilarious things that have happened to them while trying to provide a dignified funeral. By far the best I have ever heard happened to a United Church of Christ colleague this past fall on a rainy afternoon. As the family and friends of the deceased gathered at the graveside, my friend stepped forward to give a final blessing and slipped on the fake grass turf and disappeared into the hole beneath the casket. It’s the kind of thing that happens in comedies and cartoons, but it actually happened to my friend. It’s a true story, not just an idle tale.
The men who heard the women’s account of the empty tomb on the first Easter morning scoffed at them. They were either sleeping in or hiding out while the women were up early to bring embalming spices for Jesus’ body. The gospel reading says that the women’s story seemed to them to be just an idle tale. The word “idle” is interesting, I think. The most common use of the adjective means “not working, inactive, doing nothing” which describes the men very well that morning. The word “idle” also means “silly” or “having no basis in reason,” which is what the men were accusing the women of. I guess we can’t fault them, since the idea of someone waking up the morning after their death and wandering away stretches credibility.
If you want to visit Jesus’ tomb today, you have two choices. The first is the favorite of Protestant Christians and is known as “the Garden Tomb” or “Gordon’s Tomb” after the British army general who is credited with its discovery. It’s exactly what you might picture: an ancient grave carved into a rocky hillside, surrounded by a lovely garden with benches for resting beneath the palm trees. The problem is that almost no serious Bible scholars or archaeologists believe that Jesus was buried there.
The more likely location for Jesus’ grave isn’t as pretty. In fact, it is deep within the walls of a dark and ancient church that was expanded many times over several centuries. The church is so big that it contains the site of the crucifixion itself and some distance away a very large, ornate, marble tomb that is obviously not the original. When I saw it last, hundreds of people were queued up, hoping to look inside a small brass opening to see that it is indeed empty.
Since the year 1187, the key to that church, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been held by a Muslims. The responsibility for locking and unlocking the church has been passed down from generation to generation of one Muslim family for nine centuries. Every morning, the key-holder goes to the church very early and opens it up for the Christians waiting to get inside. The church is actually owned by three different monistic orders representing Catholic and Orthodox Christians. The problem is that they have never been able to get along. In fact, sometimes the disagreements have been so serious that the Israeli police have had to come to restore order. And that is why a Muslim holds the key to the church where Jesus’ tomb is located.
It’s ironic that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is symbolic of the angst that exists in the Holy Land today. Even the Garden tomb is located in the backyard of the Arab bus station which is part of the apartheid-like system of separate busing for Palestinians and Jews.
A message of hope is needed in Jerusalem today and that message is needed everywhere even if some might consider the message of Easter an “idle tale.” Seeing pictures of the Pope washing the feet of Muslim, Christian, and Hindu refugees this week and declaring them all children of the same God gave me some new hope this week.
There are many deep feelings described in the gospel story today. The women who had gone to the grave early in the morning were clearly grief-stricken as they returned to the site of Jesus’ burial to finish the job of covering his body with embalming spices. Because of the Sabbath laws, they were prevented from doing so for an entire day and a half. It was the first time they were able to be near Jesus’ body in the daylight since his death two nights before. Their grief was fresh. The next feeling was this: they were perplexed when they found the stone already rolled away and the body missing. That soon turned to terror when two strangers in angelic garb appeared and talked with them. And then they returned to the male disciples who responded with disbelief.
Grief, confusion, terror, disbelief. Those are the feelings people experience when the normal, expected patterns of their lives take an unexpected and tragic turn. The world looked at the terror attacks in Belgium this week with the same emotions: grief, confusion, fear, disbelief. Families of the dead and wounded have had to deal with unimaginable circumstances. I saw a young American man interviewed who was at the Brussels airport returning from a missionary assignment when the bomb exploded. His face and body were wrapped in gauze as he spoke, and I was reminded of Jesus’ body wrapped in linen and placed in the tomb. His parents had taken the first plane from Utah to be with him, and I wonder what they felt on their journey, not knowing what they would find. They hovered over their son as he spoke, like Mary and the other women who needed to be as close to Jesus as possible.
This week, we also saw evidence that political discourse in our own country has reached a new low. When the wives of presidential candidates are both objectified and ridiculed for their appearance and are used as tools in an ugly campaign, we have to call fowl. In contrast, the story of Easter morning is a blatant gospel example of women being honored. The women who Jesus treated with respect and dignity in a culture that did neither were the first to witness the resurrection.
We also heard this week the belief that Muslims in American neighborhoods should be monitored, much like the monitoring that takes place in the West Bank outside of Jerusalem. Christians are viewing Muslims with the assumption that they are by nature violent. And yet this very Easter morning a Muslim opened the door of the church of the Holy Sepulchre because Christians can’t be trusted to manage a single key without a fight.
It hasn’t been a great week on the news cycle, and I didn’t even mention the legislative over-ride of non-discrimination laws in North Carolina. Wherever we are, we are in need of a word of hope.
Jesus certainly had a bad week prior to that Easter morning. Betrayal by friends and receiving an unjust death sentence determined by a corrupt court are more than most of us will ever have to deal with in a week. Throughout those days, the momentum of accusation and threatened violence rose, and each night Jesus retreated to the Mount of Olives and the hospitality of his friends. From Sunday through Thursday he woke up and walked the narrow path leading back to the city.
The Mount of Olives isn’t a mountain so much as a hill. It is separated from the wall that surrounds Jerusalem by a deep gully called the Kidron Valley. Today you can walk from the Mount of Olives to the Zion Gate in about twenty minutes. Halfway down the hill is a small chapel topped by a golden rooster recalling Jesus’ words to Peter that he would deny Jesus three times before the cock crowed. Across from the chapel is a vast cemetery. It’s a pretty creepy place since all of the graves are above ground due to the rocky soil. There is no grass or trees, just rows and rows of bleak concrete tombs. When I walked down the narrow trail a few years ago, I stepped into the cemetery and took in the view of Old Jerusalem and the gold-domed mosque on the Temple Mount. I almost sat down on one of the tombs to enjoy an orange and some figs, but I figured that would be disrespectful. On most of the tombs are scattered a collection of small rocks. I was curious about why the rocks were there. I took photos and later looked online for an answer. What I learned is that The Hebrew word for ‘pebble’ is also means ‘bond.’ The traditional prayer offered at the graveside asks that the deceased be “bound up in the bond of life.” Placing a stone on the grave shows that someone has been there, and that the individual’s memory continues to live on in and through others.
The angels at the tomb asked, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” In other words, how silly it is to come to a grave to find the one who can never be claimed by the forces of death.
Many Christians struggle to make sense of the resurrection which can seem like an idle tale, in other words not based in reason.
I was part of a conversation this week with UCC pastors on the nature of the resurrection. Most were eager to share that a physical, literal resurrection is not essential for their faith. The message of new life and new hope contained in the gospel accounts and experienced in the lives of Christians is what matters. Others spoke of their belief in a literal resurrection and made a point I had to ponder. They emphasized that a bodily resurrection affirms the importance of the body. We are not just spirits, but we live with a body that is created by God and unique. Jesus’ body was important, too. In other words, they would say he was not just resurrected in spirit.
Recently, I read a Buddhist perspective on the resurrection of Jesus that said this: “My belief is that the real “resurrection” of Jesus does not rely on whether he rose from the dead or not. I would think that the real “resurrection” occurs when Christians receive the teachings of Jesus within their hearts and minds. When a Christian does that, then Jesus truly “comes alive.” If Christianity focuses on the historical event of Jesus rising from the dead, then it stands on one event in time. If instead it focuses on Christians receiving the teachings of Jesus in their hearts, then it becomes a faith that stands beyond time.”
Belief in a physical resurrection is not a requirement for Christian faith, but the message is still central. Jesus’ ministry did not end with crucifixion, but with resurrection. You cannot bury and be done with anyone whose very nature is life.
What do you believe today? The opposite of faith is not skepticism but indifference. Whatever you believe about physical resurrection, don’t be indifferent to the message of Easter. Today is a day to embrace the life and the words and the hope that Jesus brings to us even now. Jesus is not dead. Jesus is alive in us. Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed!