Text used – Luke 24:1-12
What an Easter morning! We have the early morning. We have the women coming to make the ritual preparations for Jesus’ body. We have the tomb and the stone so startlingly and unmistakably not where it’s supposed to be. We have two messengers garbed in gleamingly bright clothes bearing the strange and unbelievable message: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He isn’t here, but has been raised.”[i] There it is! Right there! We have the good news: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
But what was missing on that first Easter morning? Women? Check. Messengers? Check. Empty tomb? Check. … But where was the risen Savior? When we read Luke’s account of the resurrection, Jesus is nowhere to be seen. This seems to be a bit of a thing with Luke, doesn’t it? Last week, we read the Palm Sunday passage … but Luke’s version was missing the palms. Now this week, we read the Easter passage … but Luke’s version was missing – well – Jesus! Seems like a pretty crucial omission, right? Well, before we talk about why it’s so important that Jesus is absent from Luke’s resurrection story, let’s talk a little bit about what is there.
First, there are the messengers and their full proclamation: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He isn’t here, but has been raised. Remember what he told you while he was still in Galilee, that the Human One must be handed over to sinners, be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”[ii] This is important because it’s the first in a number of spoken testimonies of the Risen Christ that we get in Luke. Remember that each of the gospels was written with a specific audience and intentionality in mind, and that Luke was particularly written as the gospel for the Gentiles. These were people who didn’t grow up with centuries upon centuries of Jewish texts and traditions that pointed the way to the Messiah – people who didn’t bear the history of oppression and deep-seated desire for freedom that the Jewish people bore. These were people who would have heard about Jesus not in the synagogues or the Temple but through word-of-mouth: on the streets, in the markets, at the town well, and so on. And here in his gospel account of the most miraculous and significant event in the life and ministry of Christ – his resurrection after death – Luke delivers the good news not through long-foretold means or by harkening back to the words of the great prophets of Israel, but by word-of-mouth. In this, Luke evens the playing field. He makes the good news of the Risen Christ the same good news for everyone who hears it. He unifies the body of Christ in both the deliver and the receipt of that message, no matter what their background or current circumstances may be.
The second element that we do find in Luke’s version of the resurrection story is the women. The women, the women, the women! Never ever ever forget, friends, that the first people to preach the gospel were, in fact, women. They had gone to Jesus’ tomb early that morning on the day after the Sabbath to perform the necessary rites and rituals for the dead in the Jewish tradition – prayers, anointings, and paying respects to one that they had so dearly loved. Their presence at the tomb itself is not the surprise in this story. As Rev. Dr. Michal Beth Dinkler of Yale Divinity School puts it, “They have a completely predictable, if gut-wrenching, job to do, one they have likely done many times before. Yet, to their great surprise, the women do ‘not find the body of the Lord Jesus’ (24:3). Jesus is absent. Most of us are desensitized to how utterly shocking this must have been: if anyone should be present in a particular place, it would be a dead body in its tomb. But Jesus’ body is missing.”[iii] But Jesus’ body is missing! Instead, in its place, they find the two gleaming messengers and the good news of the gospel waiting for them: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
And I have to say, I don’t think the women get enough credit for what happens next. They are surely bewildered beyond belief by the situation in which they have found themselves, yet they do not run away. They do not clam up for fear of not being believed. Scripture tells us, “When they returned from the tomb, they reported all these things to the eleven and all the others.” Dr. Dinkler speaks to the heart why this element is so crucial. She says, “Jesus’ absence from the tomb creates the opportunity for the women to speak boldly and faithfully on his behalf, and they do. Their proclamation that Jesus is present—he is alive on earth again—is an act of redemptive remembering, in two senses: their remembering is a recalling of Jesus’ earlier teachings, but it is also a remembering insofar as they re-member the body of Christ. They seek to draw together again a community that has been dismembered—torn apart— by fear, confusion, grief, and distress.”[iv] Despite whatever fear, whatever confusion, whatever disbelief, whatever joy, whatever … whatever may have been swirling around in their own hearts and minds, the women told the story anyway. They delivered the good news anyway. They let the gospel message of Christ’s resurrection override anything and everything else going on around them and inside them. They let that light shine!
The final element that’s present in Luke’s gospel resurrection story is doubt. Uncertainty. Disbelief. Even after the women have delivered their compelling testimonies – their very first sermons! – and shared the good news of the Risen Christ, the rest of the disciples don’t believe them. Our text this morning said, “[The women’s] words struck the apostles as nonsense, and they didn’t believe the women. But Peter ran to the tomb. When he bent over to look inside, he saw only the linen cloth. Then he returned home, wondering what had happened.”[v] This is an important element in the telling of Luke’s version because it makes space for the disbelief of others. Imagine being a 1st century person going about your daily business and suddenly hearing that that revolutionary Jew that your neighbor told you the Romans had put to death had suddenly come back to life, and that this happened because God (a god you’ve never believe in, by the way) supposedly loves you. That’s a hard sell! What a crazy message! What an unbelievable message! By including so much detail about the disciples’ own disbelief, Luke holds space for others’ disbelief as well. It’s okay to struggle with accepting this Risen Savior story because even his closest followers and confidantes didn’t believe it right away … but that disbelief doesn’t make it any less real, any less true, any less life-changing.
So why is the lack of an appearance by the Risen Christ so important for us as we read this ancient story today? Because in all likelihood, we will continue to go about being in this world without ever laying eyes on that Risen Christ. Sure, some people have spiritual experiences in which they have visions of Christ appearing to them, but those experiences are the exception rather than the rule. They’re uncommon. And sometimes when things are tough … when things are strained … when the world feels upside-down and injustice feels rampant and we haven’t been able to worship in-person together or take communion in the same space together or hug people outside of our own households for more than a year, we can sometimes feel like the good news of a Risen Christ is far off – like the reality and the unconditional love that burst forth from that empty tomb along with Jesus is hard to grasp, hard to feel, just … plain … hard.
Just like life, our faith journeys are not a steady plateau of feeling connected and joyful and immersed in love all the time. We have mountaintop moments that embody all those things and more, but we also have valley moments – moments when the dazzling brilliance of the mountaintop (or the gleaming brightness of the messengers’ clothes) feels oh, so far away. In those moments, we can feel mystified by the perceived absence of that same Risen Christ. Where did he go? Why isn’t he here with me? How can I find him again? Will he be able to find me again? What will become of me while I wait? Should I stand still or move forward, trusting that we’ll catch up with one another again? While Luke’s gospel doesn’t give us answers this morning, it does give us reassurance that it’s okay to not always have the answers. The women that morning didn’t know where Jesus had gone. Neither did Peter after he’d run to investigate the tomb on his own. But Jesus Christ was still risen. God’s Love still walked out of that tomb and was waiting for the disciples just around the next corner … down the road a piece … ready, willing, and more than able.
Let me leave you with the words of Rev. Dr. David Lose, pastor at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. This is what’s called a reverse poem, so when I read it one way, you’ll hear one message, but when I read it the other way, you’ll hear another:
[i] Lk 24:5-6.
[ii] Lk 24:5-7.
[iii] Michal Beth Dinkler. “Commentary on Luke 24:1-12” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/resurrection-3/commentary-on-luke-241-12-7. Posted for Apr. 4, 2021, accessed Apr. 4, 2021.
[v] Lk 24:11-12.