Easter Sermon 2006

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Come with me to an empty tomb in an abandoned stone quarry just outside the Jaffa Gate of Jerusalem. It is April, in the year 30 of our time -- the sixteenth year in the reign of Tiberius, in the only calendar that mattered in those parts at that time.

The quarry was used to cut huge stone blocks for Herod's building projects, but one misshapen pile of rock remains. "The stone neglected by the builders," as they joked at the time -- misquoting an ancient Jewish legend about the missing stone needed to complete the first temple, but overlooked by the builders.

Others called the place, "Skull Hill." The pock-faced lump of raw stone could look like a human skull in dawn's half light, and again as the shadows set over the place at day's end.

Three hundred years later the first Christian emperor of Rome would erect a massive church in the middle of the stone pit -- the Church of the Holy Sepulchure or, as the Greeks would prefer us to call it, the Church of the Resurrection. In the dark space between the church wall and the wall of the quarry you can still feel the marks left by the workers as they hacked out the stone.

When the quarry was not needed for stone, it became a rubbish dump (like any decent-sized hole outside the city limits it filled with trash) and its exposed walls were used to cut fresh tombs. In the fashion of those times the tombs had a large work room where the deceased was prepared for burial, and several narrow tunnels where the body would be sealed for a year or two before the bones were recovered for secondary burial in a simple ossuary.

We have the bone box for Caiaphas,[1] and some forgers have tried to fool us into thinking we had the bone box for Jesus' own brother, James.[2] But Jesus seems a different case ...

Questions at an Empty Tomb

So we stand -- in our imagination, at least (like the millions have have passed this way before us) -- at the empy tomb, as we reflect on the questions we would like answered: about Jesus, about life, about us.

But what kind of answers can be provided by an empty tomb?

  • Wrong Place (no-one by that name has ever been placed here)
  • Wrong Time (he is not here, he is risen)
  • Wrong Question (why do you seek him here?)

The empty tomb may pose questions, but it cannot provide answers to life's questions. We have to live the questions, rather than answer them. Our faithful living with, in and through the unresolved questions of life, is our best way to respond in faith and to the questions posed by the empty tomb, and every other challenge life presents us.

In fact we have several empty tombs in Jerusalem, including a few within the Church of the Holy Sepulchure itself. And there are more in Galilee.

We doubtless bring our questions to such tombs, but they also pose questions to us.

An Empty Tomb as a Sacrament of Faith

Most weeks I get an email from St Matthew's Anglican Church in Auckland, and yesterday's newsletter included some reflections on Good Friday and Easter. In one of those items, Clay Nelson reflects on the strange connections between faith, certainty and violence:

It occurs to me that it is in the finding, not the seeking that religions go awry. No one turns in a family member for the capital crime of converting if they still have questions. No one who denies a fellow pilgrim a voice because of her different gender is still looking. No one ostracizes a six year old because her mother wants to be the one responsible for her religious upbringing unless they are blessed with the arrogance of certainty. No one blows themselves up for Allah if they are in doubt.

As Christians prepare for Easter, it occurs to me that what is remarkable about this holiest of days is that it celebrates the God that was not there. They came looking, but the tomb was empty.

At this time of year I long to turn the TV on and see this paraphrase of a controversial Australian tourism ad:

The cross has been taken down.
We've rolled away the stone.
The tomb is vacant.
So, where the bloody hell are you?€

Empty tombs foster faith; not certainty. Empty tombs do not mark the end of the chase, only the beginning. An empty tomb invites compassion born of empathy for those still looking. An empty tomb proclaims God is out of the box and not to be possessed. An empty tomb suggests that God is elsewhere. It is Easter. Hunt God as well as eggs. Eggs you may find, but pray for your sake and the sake of the world, that God will continue to elude you.

The Tomb of Adam and the Harrowing of Hell

In the imagination of the Eastern Christians, Golgotha is not just the place where Jesus died. It is also the place where Adam was buried. They believe this to be the significance of "Place of the Skull." They imagine the blood of the Second Adam trickling down through the cracks in the flawed rock of Golgotha to bring new life and resurrection to the First Adam -- sinful humanity.

An ancient Christian homily for Holy Saturday [3] takes up the idea of Jesus descending into Hades to rescue Adam. Let me read you just a few excerpts as we ponder the meaning of the empty tomb.

As I read those lines, I find myself doing what Marcus Borg describes as the practice of Native American storytellers. As they begin their tribe's story of creation, they say words to the effect: "Now I do not know if it happened this way or not, but I know this story is true."

As we stand at the empty tomb, I invite you to embrace the deep spiritual truth that is captured for us in the Easter story:

Christ has died.

Christ is risen.

Christ will come again.

No hands but ours ...

How is the truth of Easter -- the presence of the Risen Christ -- made real and effective in the world today? The answer lies in our hands, in our hearts, in our own choices.

As the great 16th century Christian mystic Teresa of Avila expressed it:

Christ has no hands but ours,

no feet but ours.
We bear him to humanity,
we bring him forth to his world like Mary his mother.
Without us he can do nothing:

that is how he chooses it shall be.

The tomb may be empty but the world is filled with people who claim to be agents and servants of Christ.

That is our calling and privilege as well. We are the Body of Christ. His Spirit is indeed with us. We are little Christs, christianoi.

  • How can we be Easter people, the hands and eyes and heart of Jesus in our world?
  • How can we be people of faith, without being fundamentalists?
  • How can we be a community of peace, without adding to division and fear?

One recent statement of how people of faith can take up God's call upon us in Christ is a document known as the Phoenix Affirmations. Copies of that text are available as you leave the service, but I would like to read the affirmations as an invitation for us to become what we are: the Body of Christ, servants of the Love of God.

Those words capture my response this Easter as I stand at the empty tomb.

©2006 Greg Jenks