But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5The 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. 6Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again." 8Then they remembered his words, 9and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12But 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. Luke 24.1-12 NRSV
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
One Easter Sunday, at some church (not this one!), a woman approached the usher and took a bulletin. The usher didn't recognize the woman, but then this was Easter Sunday, when there were lots and lots of visitors. This was one of those churches where ushers actually usher, as in "showing people to their seats." The woman informed the usher she'd like to sit in the front row, right in front of the pulpit. "Ma'am," the usher said, "I don't recommend that. Our pastor can be pretty long-winded, and truthfully he's kind of boring, so most people like to sit farther back where they can nod off without anyone noticing."
"Young man," the woman replied, "Do you know who I am?" "No," he admitted. "I'm the pastor's mother." After an awkward moment, the usher said, "Well, do you know who I am?" "No," the woman said. "Well," he replied, "thank goodness for that!"
On this Easter day, so we are told by those who study these things, some two-thirds of Americans attend church-approximately twice as many as on a normal Sunday. Quite a good number of those, like our hapless usher, would probably just as soon remain anonymous. There's comfort, I imagine, in coming to church on Easter just because it's easy to get lost in the crowd. And sometimes that's just what we want.
Fading into the woodwork
We are not the first to feel that way, either. Several of the characters in the Easter story would like to remain anonymous, to fade into the woodwork-that is to say, they don't seem exactly eager to pull out the trumpets and herald the resurrection of Christ. You can't blame them, of course; Jesus has just been crucified, put to death after a tumultuous trial that almost resulted in a riot. This is not exactly the time that any disciples or sympathizers of Jesus would want to call attention to themselves. It's safer to remain anonymous, unknown.
But there are other reasons. Take the women in Luke's account, for example. They feel very ill at ease to begin with. They are bold enough to go to the grave, but they do so very early in the morning. I suspect they have in mind doing their duty, anointing the body, and then getting out of there, before anyone could see them.
When they find the tomb open, and the body gone, there are new reasons to remain anonymous. First, they are perplexed. They don't understand what has happened. It makes no sense to them. And then, when suddenly two figures stand before them-angels, apparently-and begin to explain what has happened, the women are utterly terrified! They leave the tomb with this awful mixture of confusion and fear. It's interesting to compare the gospel accounts of what happens next. Mark claims the women say nothing to anyone, because they are afraid; Matthew says they run with joy to tell the disciples. Luke strikes a middle course: they don't rush away in joy, but they do go and tell the disciples. That seems like the right note to me: they tell the disciples, not with joy and excitement, but with perplexity and confusion. And for all that, the disciples don't believe them. Yes, I understand why the women would just want to stay in the shadows. They don't understand this, it frightens them, and no one seems to take them seriously.
Maybe there are some of us here this morning who are like that-some of us who have come this morning largely out of a sense of duty, or perhaps out of custom, but who just feel confused or even a little frightened. And so we're still trying to sort it all out. At least until we can come to terms with what this all means for us, we'd just as soon stay anonymous.
Taking refuge in unbelief
But it's not just the women. The disciples also seem unwilling or unable to step up to the plate here. They had been such dedicated followers! They had truly believed that this was the Messiah, they had left their homes, their families, their livelihood to bet their lives on this man. Then, when things became difficult, they had abandoned Jesus.
Of course when we abandon someone or something that has been so important to us, we find all kinds of reasons to justify it. Sometimes we just decide we're tired, burned out. One could understand that in the disciples; after all, they've been tromping around for three years, with Jesus 24/7. It can't have been easy. When the going gets tough, sometimes, human nature being what it is, we just step back and drop out.
But maybe there's more to it in this case. Here the disciples take refuge in unbelief. They hear what the women have found. They are not total idiots-surely they remember what Jesus himself had told them was to happen to him. But confronted with the evidence, it is easier simply to dismiss it. "It seemed to them an idle tale"-that's one of the most remarkable phrases in the gospel. "It seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe." And so, after all the boasting, all the vaunted courage, they now simply give it up. They want just to fade into the woodwork, and pretend the previous three years never happened.
And maybe some of us here this morning are a bit like that. We are here, yes, but we don't really buy it. We can't really believe it; or perhaps at some level we believe it but we just don't think it matters much any more. Maybe we did once, but now-well, it seems an idle tale. My college roommate was Jewish, and he had a brother who had actually planned to become a rabbi. He gave it up, though-gave up not just rabbinical studies, but his faith. I asked him once what had happened. "I don't know," he said, "one day I just stopped believing it." I have no doubt that is true for some of us here this morning. We just can't believe it.
I enjoy Bill Keane's little comic "Family Circus"; I describe it as truth from the mouths of children. Friday's installment had the mom showing one of the children a crucifix. His from-the-heart response was this: "I like seeing Jesus in the manger better." That's a common feeling, I suspect; Jesus the innocent child, Jesus the one of humble birth, Jesus the teacher-that's easy enough to embrace. Jesus dying on the cross for me, Jesus rising from the dead-well, that's a good bit harder. Plenty of people, truth be told, find it an idle tale and do not believe it.
Going home discouraged
Then there's Peter. He's the guy who probably has more reason than anyone to fade into the shadows. The leader of the disciples, when the crunch came, he utterly failed. He denied his Lord-said in so many words, "No, I'm not his disciple. I don't even know the man!" What a load of guilt and shame he must be carrying on this Easter morning! What a burden of promises broken, of utter failure! In Luke's account, he goes to the tomb, sees that what the women had told him is true-and then he promptly goes home. My guess is that he wasn't taking any calls that afternoon. He was thinking, "I have really blown it."
And there are some of us here this morning who feel that way, too; who recognize, in the bright light of the day of resurrection, that we have not been the disciples we wanted to be. We're here, but we'd rather remain anonymous; we'd rather no one noticed us, and we'd just as soon, along with Peter, go home and feel bad, discouraged, disappointed in ourselves, and wondering if things will ever be for us the way they once were.
All for you
The story from Luke this morning ends with an empty tomb, and with erstwhile disciples wanting to fade into anonymity. But the story goes on from here. While each gospel tells it a bit differently, the upshot is that Jesus himself appears to the disciples; and while perhaps not in so many words, his question to them amounts to this: "Do you know who I am? Now, after all this, do you know?" Their answers are stumbling, tentative. They are almost afraid to answer. Perhaps what is in their heart is that same fearful question: "But Lord, do you know who I am?"
And of course his answer is something like this: "Yes! I know you, Mary, Peter, disciples! I know your timidity, your betrayals, your denials! I know it all-your earnest love gone cold, your courage gone to cowardice, your doubts, your discouragement! But don't you see? This was all for you! This was all for you, my beloved friends! The pain, the suffering, the death-all so that you might be mine and live with me forever!"
And today, my dear friends, today the Lord Jesus speaks words like that to you-words of love, of mercy, of forgiveness; words of encouragement; words of peace, with arms spread open in welcome. And he invites you to his table, spread before you. "Come unto me," he gently says. "Come unto me, and I will give you rest."
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! And to him be the glory and praise, now and forever. Amen.