Friday, May 10, 2013

The Easter Vigil Sermon: The women at the tomb

This sermon was given by The Revd. Luther Zeigler at the Easter Vigil on March 30th, at Christ Church Cambridge. The Gospel reading for the day on which he preaches can be found here.

In the name of the risen Christ, through whom we are given new life, fresh hope, and everlasting joy.  Amen.

In churches around the world this evening, preachers are climbing into the pulpit, like I am tonight, in fear and trembling, not sure if we can muster words that do justice to the good news of Easter.  Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the greatest theologians this country ever produced, once quipped that even as a diehard Protestant who loved a good sermon, his preference on Easter Sunday was to sneak off to a “high church” service where all the emphasis was on the liturgy, music and sacrament because, he insisted, the Easter message is best absorbed just by listening to the gospel story itself, singing the great Easter hymns, and sharing the bread and wine together as a renewed community.  

It is hard to quarrel with Niebuhr.  Words from the pulpit do not seem adequate to describe God’s mysterious and mighty act of raising his Son from the dead so that we might live, this event we call ‘the Resurrection.’  It is tempting just to leave it at “Christ is risen!  Alleluia!” and get on with the Eucharist.  And yet, with all deference to Niebuhr, I honestly don’t think we as preachers, or indeed any of us as Christians, can get away with sidestepping the question of what the Resurrection means.  

Yes, it is true that our words will never be up to capturing the mystery of the Resurrection, but nevertheless the challenge for each of us each day is to ask:  how do I live more fully into resurrected life?  For there is a grave danger in thinking that the Resurrection is merely some over and done with historical event – something that happened in an empty tomb a few thousand years ago – that is either to be believed or not.  In fact, the Resurrected Christ is a living and ever-present Christ, who is continually calling us into new and healthier ways of being human. And to discern how to respond to that call, we have to ask ourselves, what does resurrection mean for us here, right now?

A clue to how to approach this question, I might suggest, lies in our gospel reading from Luke and his account of the women at the empty tomb:  

The first thing to note is that these women – Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and certain other unnamed women – are present.  Despite their grief and the obvious risk of being caught by the authorities as one of Jesus’ followers, the women are all there, seeking their Lord.  Unlike the male disciples, all of whom have fled the scene in fear, in some cases having repeatedly denied even knowing Jesus, the women persevere in being present.  What their example teaches is that the living Christ appears to those who seek him and remain present to his reality in the world.  And for this reason, in baptism, we promise, as May just did, to seek and serve Christ in all persons.

What a great joy it is, I might add, for our Chaplaincy community to be here today with our mother parish to welcome into God’s family one of our own young women, May Chow, a Harvard Law School student and a product of the Episcopal campus ministry at the University of Michigan.  I am so grateful to May for her faithful presence this year in the Chaplaincy, as I am grateful to this parish for its continuing support in helping our Chaplaincy be a welcoming presence to students like May.

The second thing to note about the women in Luke’s story is that their presence at the tomb is not animated by some idle curiosity or self-interested motive, but rather they come out of an overwhelming sense of compassion.  They bring spices as an expression of their care for their Lord, so as to honor in tenderness and love the dead body they are expecting to find.  Indeed, it was this same sense of compassion that brought many of these same women, according to John’s gospel, to sit at the foot of the Cross as Jesus died on Friday.  They seek to be a balm to the wounded, a comfort to the dying.  Thus, the second lesson we can take away from the example of these women is that the risen Christ appears to those who open themselves to the hurts of the world, who tend to the sick and the dying, and whose hearts are filled with Christ’s own spirit of compassion and care.

Finally, upon discovering that the tomb is empty, and being reminded by the angelic visitors that Jesus had promised he would rise to new life, note that the women immediately trust in the risen Christ’s presence and run to tell their story to others.  Again, unlike the male disciples, represented in Luke’s story by Peter, who seem to require some tangible evidence of resurrection in the form of the discarded linen cloth, the women come to faith by trusting in the memory of Jesus’ ministry and the promises he had made to them.  They are willing to believe in the enduring goodness of what they had experienced in him, while others seem first to want proof.

This is no mere gullibility on their part.  Remember that these women, whom we first encountered in the eighth chapter of Luke, had been followers of Jesus throughout his Galilean ministry.  Indeed, Luke tells us that they were women of means who had given up their resources to support Jesus and the disciples.  Selfless servants, more often than not a silent presence in the background, they nevertheless had been devoted followers from the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, and were present for his teaching, for his healing of the sick, and for his prophetic challenges to the powers and principalities of this world.  

The women, in short, had come to trust in his divine authority and the Kingdom he had begun to inaugurate.  These truths were not things they could prove with tangible evidence or data, but they were truths they had come to live by and were willing to stake their lives on.  They had met a man who was a true God-bearer and they believed in his risen life.  And they were eager to proclaim his message of love, peace, and reconciliation, even as the men initially dismiss their belief as “idle tales.”

In sum, one of the most striking truths about the gospels is that Christ’s story begins and ends with women.  God chose to enter our world through the faithful willingness of a young woman, Mary, to bear him as an infant child, and God also chose to entrust the astonishing news of his Son’s resurrected life first to the care of women.  It is the women, not the men, to whom God seems to turn first.  Moreover, while the women (like the Blessed Virgin and Mary Magdalene) are always faithful and trusting in their response to Jesus, the men more often than not are off pursuing their own glory (like James and John vying to be the greatest of the disciples), or denying their friend in a crisis (like Peter), or even worse, betraying their friend into the hands of death (like Judas).

Perhaps God’s decision to entrust the women first with his message of love and hope tells us something important about faithful discipleship.  In answering the question of how we can best live into the resurrected life of Christ, maybe, just maybe, it is to the lives of the women of the New Testament that we should primarily turn – to their abiding and faithful presence; to their compassionate care for the suffering and abandoned; to their openness to God’s goodness; to their willingness to trust in God’s promises; and to their courage in fearlessly proclaiming his message both in word and deed.  It is to, and through, such people as these that the risen Christ appears most manifest.

Let us give glory to God for raising his Son from the dead for our sake, and let’s give thanks to the women for believing and sharing the good news of God in Christ.  Happy Easter.  Alleluia.

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