When my Eliza was four years old, she surprised me one night as we were getting ready for bed by asking me to teach her how to shake hands. “Show me how to shake hands, Daddy,” she said looking up at me with those beautiful brown eyes. “Sure sweetheart,” I said. “Put out your hand.” She put out her left hand. “No, No sweetheart put out your other hand, your right hand. That’s right.” She took my right hand in hers and gave it a good shake. As I began to pull away she tightened her grip. “Come down here Daddy,” she said. “Come closer.” Still holding hands I bent down so that we were at the same height with my face close to hers. She looked at me for a second and then stepped forward and – licked me, right in the face. Surprised and a little damp, I stepped back and said, “Sweetheart, what are you doing?” Sheepishly she looked up at me and said, “Daddy, I heard you tell Marshall that when he shakes hands with someone he always has to lick’m in the eye. How do you lick’m in the eye when they’re taller than you?” God love her, she was trying so hard but I think something got lost in translation.
The eleven disciples sitting alone in the upper room must have thought the same thing about the women who came running from the tomb on Easter morning. Mary the mother of James, Joanna, Mary Magdalene and the others had gone early to care for the body of Jesus. They had waited until Sunday because it was against Jewish law to do this kind of work on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. They brought spices in order to lovingly care for the dead body of their master. But his body was gone. The stone had been rolled away and the tomb was empty. Instead of finding the corpse of their friend they were greeted by an angel. An angel who told them that Jesus was alive.
Imagine these women busting into the room where the disciples were hiding reporting what they had seen, all of them talking at once, all of them short of breath after running from the tomb, all of them trying to describe the empty tomb, the angel, the missing body. Peter, James, John and the others must have thought they had lost their minds. What the women had to say was too wild, too fantastic to believe – something must have gotten lost in translation.
A lot of Easters have come and gone since that first one. Peter, James, John and the others are long gone. Today it is you and I who hear the proclamation of the women. Today you and I are the disciples. Today the women run to tell us the news of the empty tomb. If you think about it, the Easter message is just as fantastic, just as bizarre today as it was all those years ago. How are we to handle this news? Can we take it at face value?
Some people think we can’t. Some people think the only way to make sense of today is to look past the specifics of the resurrection and talk in generalities. They think you have to simplify things and talk about Easter as the yearly commemoration of the greening of the world. Easter is simply a seasonal festivity. Spring is here, the flowers are blooming, winter is over and new life is rising out of the earth, (this church is full of flowers). Easter becomes a celebration of the death and rebirth of the world – kind of like a holy rogation day.
Other people think that Easter is more metaphorical than historical. The crucifixion is history but the resurrection is only symbolic. The empty tomb is just a metaphor for saying that the spirit of Jesus lived on in his followers long after he was gone. Jesus didn’t really rise to new life; he only lived in their hearts. That’s what some people say. Does it help to make more sense out of today? . . . . Not for me – too much gets lost in translation.
The truth is I don’t think we get to make sense out of today. I don’t think the women or the disciples were able to make sense out of it 2,000 years ago. But we don’t get to water it down either. Easter is not a celebration of nature. Easter is not a metaphor. Understand it or not, our faith tells us something real and wonderful and beyond imagination happened on Easter Sunday. Jesus rose somehow, someway – physically, bodily, alive. For Christians, Easter is the starting point for everything. We may not understand it but in the empty tomb we discover how God treats those he loves – he raises them from death to new life.
No too long ago I was out and about running a few errands when this young woman approached me. I was standing in the checkout line when she noticed my collar and wanted to talk. She had just seen the movie The Passion and she found it very powerful. She wanted to know what I thought about the ending to the movie, the brief scene when we see Jesus rising from the grave. She wanted to know what I thought about the resurrection. I could tell this woman was well educated but I don’t think she had been in a church in a long time. So, wanting to be helpful I began to give her a little theology 101, laying out the basic tenets of the faith. After about thirty seconds of me talking she interrupted and said, “No, I want to know what you think. What does the resurrection mean to you?” She didn’t want my theology she wanted my personal testimony. She wanted to know what was in my heart without any translation at all. I have to admit she silenced me for a minute. She caught me off guard. But she asked the right question.
What do I believe? I believe Easter is our only hope. Without it we are nothing but sinful and broken human beings trapped in a sinful and broken world. I believe God raised Jesus from the dead, and forever transformed everything. I believe God loves us so much that he holds out the promise of our transformation too, both now and at the hour of our death.
Most of all, I believe in the risen Christ, not because I am convinced by an empty tomb, but because I have known Him in the midst of my own life and I have seen him in the midst of the lives of others, including many of you. I have seen him in the smiling face of a little boy named Malik who lives in one of the worst housing projects in our city. A little boy undaunted by the poverty around him. A little boy who loves to hold my hand while I read him a story or help him with his ABC’s.
I have seen the risen Christ in the selfless love of a woman named Janet who left her job and her life in Boston packed up and moved to Savannah to care for her mother Dorie, dying of cancer. Day after day, week after week, month after month Janet did everything to make her mother’s last days meaningful. The risen Lord was there in the deep faith of these two women. He was there in the new life Janet gave to Dorie and Dorie gave to Janet even as they faced down a long. slow and terrible death.
I have seen the risen Christ in the weathered and beautiful face of our friend Charlotte who sleeps on the porch of this church eight months out of the year. She is part of our parish family. She needs us and we need her. This past Christmas Eve she moved me to tears when after the late service she appeared from the shadows wrapped her arms around my neck and said – “He has come, the Lord has come. Thanks be to God.”
Finally, I have seen the risen Christ in the joyful sacrifice of adoptive parents in this church willing to travel great distances at great expense, to bring home a child they have never seen before. And I have seen the risen Lord in the transformation of these children as they are covered and smothered in the love of their new family.
God raised Jesus from the dead as surely as I am standing here – that’s what I believe. And the living Christ walks among us all the time, right now, right here, this instant. In the words of my favorite American song writer, Mr. John Prine – Just give me one thing that I can hold onto, cause to believe in this livin is just a hard way to go.
I’ve found my one thing, the tomb is empty – Christ is risen. Go and find him for yourself, go and bear your own witness. Go and seek him among the living and in so doing you will find yourself and the gift of eternal life. Amen.