Bearing Witness – Easter

March 31, 2024
Luke 24:1-12

Christ is risen!
Christ is risen, indeed!

Christ is risen!
Christ is risen, indeed!

Each year we start our Easter sermons with this refrain – and yet, when the story opens on Easter morning it is not a story of celebration and alleluias. Instead, as the story begins we find ourselves on the path towards the tomb, in the company of some of Jesus’ beloveds. Beloveds who carry in their hands spices to anoint Jesus’ body in burial while their own bodies and spirits are full of sorrow as they lean into the painful reality of the death of Jesus. This is not a space of alleluias. It is a space of obligation and grief.

They have come to the tomb with spices and ointments that have been prepared to follow the rite of burial for their beloved, a ritual they are likely well acquainted with. As they arrive at the tomb they find the stone rolled back from the entrance, likely a welcome sight, freeing them from the task of moving the rock themselves or having to track down helpers to shift the stone so they can enter the tomb and apply the spices and ointments. It is upon entering the tomb, stepping into the reality of their grief that the familiar patterns of this journey fade into mystery as they find the tomb empty.

What could this mean?

Where is Jesus?

Has someone taken his body? Stolen it for political gain?

The women are at a loss over what to think. They do not have an established framework or tradition to guide them through this moment. They are not inspired by the emptiness of the tomb, or aware of the messages of liberation and renewal that it will come to represent. For these women, an empty tomb has no point of reference, they don’t understand it. They are perplexed.

Many of you are aware that our household welcomed an Irish Setter puppy into the fold at the very end of 2023. Many of you have been kind to share wisdom, toys, and supplies with us for Milo, for which we thank you. Many of you have also been kind by listening to the stories of challenge and joy that have come to pass as we have adapted to sharing life with a puppy and for that we are also grateful. What I didn’t fully grasp when we welcomed Milo into our lives is how much I would need to learn and grow in order to understand his actions and help him understand our expectations. As a kid, I shared a brief season of my life with a dog and loved it dearly. However, what I have quickly learned is that having experience with a dog is not the same as having experience with a puppy.

A puppy doesn’t really have an instinctual point of reference for living in relationship with the patterns of people. It knows how to be part of a pack, it knows how to love, play, tussle, and be close to other creatures and all of that being present is a strong start. However, a puppy doesn’t have a grasp on the language we humans use to communicate with it. And that can be a perplexing space for both humans and puppies.

What my crash course and recent life experience in puppy training have taught me is that in order to give a puppy a frame of reference for a word and its intended meaning, you have to first spend time modeling the action or behavior you want that word to mean and then, once the puppy understands the action, you add a command word to it so that the puppy can begin to understand what it is you are asking the puppy to do when you use that word. I could say sit repeatedly to a dog, and if I haven’t helped the dog first understand what a sit feels and looks like in their body, the dog won’t sit. And in fact, if I say the word too often without tying it to the specific action I am looking for, the word itself can become even more meaningless to the dog, to the point that they may begin to ignore it. So it’s essential to model first, before labeling the action with a word in order to create a frame of reference.

Jesus, in his life, was modeling God’s love lived into the world in and through human systems and relationships. Jesus’ witness shows us what it looks and feels like, in our bodies and spirits, to be God’s loving presence in the world, for ourselves and each other. Jesus modeled this living love and in so doing, created a framework that invites people into participation and offers us points of reference as we practice that love in our own living and being.

And it takes practice!

During Lent we have been encountering the stories of the early Jesus followers attempting to practice the ways of Jesus as recorded in the book of Acts. In these stories we have witnessed the outpouring of the Spirit into humanity and have seen the ways in which people and communities are altered by that Spirit. We have witnessed people fighting against the framework Jesus modeled. We have witnessed people encountering the transforming power of God’s presence, a presence that renews life, brings about healing, breaks down barriers, sets captives free, and is ever expansive. We have witnessed communities striving to model God’s love, as taught by Jesus, as they live in relationship with each other and the world around them.

Learning to live God’s love in the world is an ongoing practice. It is a choice in every moment of our living, in each encounter, we get to choose if we will put love into practice. The more we choose to practice it, the more familiar it becomes as we ourselves are altered by love. Just like practice and repetition works to create an association in the mind and body of a puppy between an action and a word. And if you really want that association to stick – using a tool like a tantalizing treat helps to further implant the word and action within a puppy. It inspires them to remember.

Back at the tomb on that early Easter morning, while the women are at a loss about what to think, two dazzling figures appear, surprising the women and inviting them to also remember:

“Why do you search for the Living One among the dead? Jesus is not here; Christ has risen. Remember what Jesus said to you while still in Galilee – that the Chosen One must be crucified and on the third day would rise again.”

These words prompt their memories. The words of Jesus come back to them and off they go to share the news of the empty tomb with the disciples and other followers. Jesus is not in the tomb; Christ has risen.

It is news that is greeted with disbelief. And not simply disbelief, it is actively written off as nonsense. The testimony of what these women have witnessed is doubted, they are not granted social credibility. Their witness is mostly, and quite easily, written off.

Over the weeks of Lent (and through today) we have been collecting a special offering to support the work of Life After Release, an organization led by formerly incarcerated women working to provide opportunities and support for women after release from prison. Among the many efforts of Life After Release (LAR) is a project called: Courtwatch PG in which volunteers show up in courtrooms to bear witness to the proceedings as a way to hold the justice system accountable for their treatment of those under prosecution. Too often the system has not granted social credibility to women, people of color, and the poor – too often it writes off their testimonies, their very lives, as nonsense. Courtwatch is one approach to saying no to that systemic dismissal and calling it out when it is observed. Last week we heard excerpts from courtwatch experiences interwoven with the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. Tucked within those stories was a moment when the presence of courtwatch representatives inspired a judge to at least pause and consider the validity and humanity of the person on trial before them. Bearing witness can be a powerful tool – it alters us and it alters those who receive our witness.

And while the women who brought the news of the empty tomb to the gathering of followers were mostly ignored. Peter was curious about their story. Curious enough to run to the tomb and see for himself. He too found nothing in the tomb but the empty wrappings that had held Jesus’ body. So he went away marveling at what had happened – his spirit full of both disbelief and overwhelming amazement.

And that’s where the text stops for today. It’s still not a story full of alleluias. It’s a tale of perplexed wonder. So what’s the deal with us being so celebratory on this day? We celebrate today because Easter is a beginning. Easter is not a finale to Lent, Easter is an invitation to continue the journey and practice of bearing witness to and living out the perplexing, wondrous, spirit altering love of God into the world.

Easter models for us a reminder that life is to be found among us even in the midst of grief. And there is much to grieve in these days – suffering, war, injustice, climate change, personal struggles and losses – grief is a collective and individual reality that repeatedly rips us into pieces. Grief alters us.

Easter models for us a joyful spark of resilience in the midst of grief. At the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross the curtain in the temple that cordoned off the Holy of Holies, a special place for God’s presence to reside in the temple, from the rest of the space was torn in two from top to bottom. In that ripping open is the reminder that the Holy has been unleashed upon the world – everywhere, everything, everyone is a space for the Holy to reside. The presence of the Holy in all things is joy in action; it is a collective and individual reality. Joy alters us.

My wife Becky has a sticker on her water bottle that I can’t help but see as an Easter message. It has one circle that holds the word grief, and another circle that holds the word joy and where the two circles overlap to form a Venn diagram is the phrase: being alive.

Easter is an ongoing invitation to be fully alive in the midst of the wonderfully messy mix of grief and joy. It is an invitation to embrace grief, to honor the journey it takes us on, and to supplement it with joy. It is an invitation to lean into creating spaces of joy as acts of resistance and resilience, while realizing that joy will sometimes be tempered by grief. And in each case we bear witness to what it is to be authentically alive. The kind of alive that Jesus witnessed to by modeling for us what it looks and feels like, in our bodies and spirits, to be God’s loving presence in the world, for ourselves and each other. And that is a cause for celebration. That is a space for alleluias.

Christ is risen!
Christ is risen, indeed!