Sermon delivered by the Rev. Cristina Rathbone
24:1 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The 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. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But 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.
Love is Stronger than Death
They were told, and they were told, and they were told. Over and over again they were told by Jesus himself that instead of being praised and admired he would be put to death and then, on the 3rd day, he would rise again.
They must have tried to believe it, those men and women who loved Jesus so much – John and James and Peter and the rest. And when they found it too confusing and scary and downright impossible to believe, many of them I’m sure would have tried to make sense of it in some other way. Some maybe took long walks to help its meaning sink in; others perhaps woke up in the middle of the night, worrying it through; and still others must have talked and talked and talked about it with their friends. However they worked with it, though, none of them, not one –with the possible exception, as we heard last week, of Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, and of course of the other Mary, the first one, who had somehow known it all along, Jesus’ mother — apart from these, not one of them managed to take it in, or believe in advance.
It isn’t entirely surprising, of course – because it wasn’t a little thing they were being asked to believe: the end of the once-and-for-all annihilating power of death. It was, in fact, an enormous thing! And in part because they – like we, today – see the power of death seemingly triumphant all around, it seemed self-evidently wrong. But after the fact – they finally came round because after the fact there was a moment in each of their lives which opened their eyes to the truth of all Jesus had said. For the women in the gospel reading from Luke today, it was the visitation of the two angelic beings who said, so movingly: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” For Peter it was hearing the women’s words, rushing to the tomb, and then finding it empty for himself. And for the rest it wasn’t all the warnings Jesus had given them, or the story of the women, or the verifying testimony of Peter but their own encounter with the risen Jesus: in a locked room several days later; or on the beach by the sea of Galilee; or along the road to Emmaus; or watching a man break bread, or explain scripture in a way they so clearly remembered Jesus breaking bread, or explaining scripture before he had been killed.
Later the greatest evangelist of all, Paul, also failed to believe Jesus’ greatest teaching of all, until he too had an encounter with Christ alive on the road to Damascus and then he believed very passionately indeed, as did all the rest –passionately enough to give their own lives in order to share with others the word that had led to the freedom, the love, the mercy, and the new life they themselves had been transfigured by.
So what was this word? I mean, what was the truth that became the source of their new-found clarity and fearlessness and joy? Not that death isn’t real, because of course we all know that death is real. And to underline this fact, Jesus himself surrendered to its power, allowing himself to undergo a slow, lonely and agonizing death on a cross, and then lay dead – utterly ceased and stopped – for three days.
Yes. Death is real. But it isn’t the end. This is what Jesus’ resurrection revealed to his disciples, one by one. Death is real, but love is wrapped around it and woven through it as surely as it is wrapped around and woven through life.
Was there love before we were born? Of course there was. And is there love, remaining and abiding and waiting and diffusing its gentle caress through even the darkest days of our lives? For sure. Though we can’t always feel it at the time, we can, most of us, trace its course through our lives in retrospect, holding us up, willing us along, carrying us through whatever grief, or fear we were over and over again almost swamped by. So yes, love has been here, and is here, both before we were born and through every turn of our too short lives too.
And what about after death?
Even after death, Love remains, pulsing and real. This is the heart of the Christian story. This the truth that the birth and the life and the death and the ultimate resurrection of Jesus is trying to make tangible and manifest to us all:
Love is before birth, love remains through life, and love is again after death.
Love not death is the constant. Love, not death, the thread upon which hangs the whole universe and everything in it – everything that breathes, and grows, and strives, and struggles, and hungers, and thirsts, and stands still and silent too. Love the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, and the ground of all that lies between.
And love and Jesus are the same thing – this is the other essential truth of Christianity. Jesus was love made flesh, love taken shape, love, for once, made visible, tangible, touchable and vulnerable. For thirty-three years, love walked and breathed and ate and drank and, of course, drew people together, and bound up those who needed binding up, and released those who needed releasing until the powers of death grew afraid and finally sought to destroy him.
And for a time it looked as if they had won; as if death, in all its forms, really did have the final say. Except that silently, invisibly and ultimately irrepressibly, the force of love persisted until – containable no more – it rose up again in ways that others could finally see and hear and recognize. And one by one they were transformed.
There was nothing grand or impressive – or even particularly otherworldly – about the encounters with the risen Jesus that changed the disciples’ lives forever – most often they were run of the mill seeming like I said: a meal with a stranger on a beach, or in an inn, or a conversation with a man from out of town on a road, or with another who looked like a gardener….but they were enough to convince his grieving and dejected followers that Jesus-who-was-love really had risen from the grave and that death, as a result, had lost its power. Fear fell away from them then – and they became free – just as Jesus was free – to open the doors of their hearts to the fullness of the pain of the world around them, and to walk out into it armed with the only power that matters, and the only power that lasts, and the only power that heals and fills and feeds and sustains, the open, gentle and infinite power of love.
This is why Jesus became one of us, and why he taught as he did and acted as he did and died and rose again as he did: that we may learn from him, and – filled with his own love for us – do as he did first, and as the disciples did later: open our arms to the depth of life — and death — all around us, and wade in, unafraid, in love, with love, for love.
You know, on Ash Wednesday, the day that begins the season of lent, we marked each other with the sign of the cross and the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” And they are true, those words. But there is another truth, stronger, and more elemental too – and it is this: Love is stronger than death – and to love you are returned. Our own bishop Doug gave us these words when the clergy gathered last Tuesday to reaffirm our ordination vows and I’d like to share them with you now, as he did with us then. Some of you have already done this on Wednesday at our Contemplative Eucharist, but – taking the lovely, hapless and finally faithful and courageous disciples as our guides – it feels as if it can’t hurt to do things over and over and over again. With this in mind then, let’s bless each other now, with words, and with holy oil, as we enter together this season of new life in love. Several members of the congregation have vessels of holy oil with them and invite each one of you to first receive and then offer a blessing to you neighbor: Love is stronger than death, and to Love you are returned….Hallelujah!