There is something primal about the empty tomb—primal in the sense that it is the origin of our faith, primal in the sense that it is primitive, undeveloped. What is the meaning of an empty tomb? God knows it says a lot, so God provides the dudes in the “dazzling clothes” to hone the message: “He is not here, but is risen.” So Mary Magdalene and the other women with her become the first human witnesses of the resurrection, the first people who see that primal empty grave, and explain that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.
“Nonsense!” the apostles say. “An idle tale,” our NRSV translates it. Contemporary homiletician Anna Carter Florence translates it as a bunch of punctuation, as a comic strip may censor profanity. Our closest contemporary approximation is something we don’t say in polite company. A nice, clean, academic definition might be, “Totally devoid of anything worthwhile.” You can imagine Peter’s response: “Look, I’m just as upset as you are about Jesus dying, but we both know that this didn’t happen. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go…check something.” It sounds totally devoid of anything worthwhile, but something compels Peter to investigate. Something compels Peter, and something compels us to be here.
The world calls what we are reading and doing here “totally devoid of anything worthwhile.” And it is not that the story of the resurrection is weird, or doesn’t hold up to fact-checking. People believe all sorts of weird stuff. Just go to snopes.com. You know this website? It is dedicated to checking if stories shared on the internet are real. Take a look sometime at all the ridiculous things that we have to waste time debunking, and tell me that people today cannot believe in the resurrection. The resurrection is not the problem. The problem is that Death runs the show. Death is the resurrection’s sworn enemy, and Death label the resurrection as “nonsense.”
Death is a clever ruler. Death looms for everyone, just waiting for an opportune time to snatch us from life. Death claims everything, inevitably. Yet Death convinces us that we won’t die. We live in a society that doesn’t age, doesn’t get sick, doesn’t have accidents. And if those things somehow befall us, we don’t “die”; we “pass away.” So Death can say to us, “Hey, I don’t want to take you.” And, at the same time, Death harasses us with threats to our existence. With every terrorist attack or North Korean missile test we sense Death’s menace, and feel the need to feed Death someone else. We kill, doing Death’s work for it, vainly believing that this will preserve our lives. Every people, every nation, has the same unspoken creed: Feed Death, lest Death feed upon us.
But it is all Death’s propaganda. Death rules by selling you its twisted version of the world, and punishing you if you dissent. In Nazi Germany, the Nazis ruled by selling the population a version of reality and enforcing that version brutally. Propaganda shifted with the acquisition of new enemies, demonizing the Poles, then the French, then the Russians, all the while lifting up Hitler as impossibly smart, strong, and fatherly. In late 1943, the propaganda shifted focus from a string of battles won and countries conquered to super-weapons, the promise of technological breakthroughs that were just around the corner, and the possibility of victory through total war. Adept citizens could detect something wrong. And indeed, by late 1943 the Allies had liberated North Africa and Sicily, and the Soviets had the upper hand in the East. The Nazis were doomed, and even their devoted propagandists knew it.
In the same way, Death desperately sells us its version of reality—where we believe we will never die so long as we kill—but it is all to keep us from asking too many questions about that empty grave. See, Death can no longer claim a 100% success rate. Christ is risen. Christ’s resurrection is the beginning of Death’s fall from power. If God raised Christ, Paul writes, so will God raise those who belong to Christ, so will God raise everything, until Death has no claim to anything except being Christ’s footstool. Something about Mary Magdalene’s story won’t let go of us, and makes us slip out with Peter, “to check something.” Death tells Peter Mary’s story is nonsense. Death meets Peter at the door and says, “Don’t go looking in the graveyard; people will see you and you’ll look stupid.” Death stands at the gate to the cemetery, saying, “See: nothing but dead people, here!” Death throws itself in front of the tomb, spreads its coat trying to block Peter’s view of the empty tomb. But Death has lost its grip on Jesus, on Peter, and on you and me.
That primal empty tomb throws into question all of Death’s claims on us. It says so much. The words of the men in dazzling clothes tell us, “It doesn’t have to be this way, you know? Before there was Death, there was God. And God will be here long after Death has met its demise.” Mary’s story is “an idle tale,” I know. It’s ridiculous, like most of what people believe, and it flies in the face of Death’s version of events. But that empty tomb has drawn you here. For whatever reason, we are here on Easter Sunday. Maybe it’s because you’re singing or ringing. Maybe it’s because Grandma said you had to. Maybe it’s because you bought that Easter dress and come hell or high water you’re wearing it to Church on Easter. Maybe it’s Sunday and this is where you are on Sunday. Maybe it’s Sunday, and you believe that Jesus rose from the dead on a Sunday. Maybe this is the day that the Lord has made and you rejoice with your brothers and sisters in Christ every Lord’s day. Whatever the reason, that empty tomb has spoken. It is primal, the origin of our faith, and too primitive and undeveloped to explain in a single sitting. But something about it challenges the powers that lay claim to us, and something about the words of those guys in the lightning shirts rings true to us even though it can’t be: Death may cling to power now, but after Death there is Life in Christ.