This is Easter Sunday. Our early service (8:00) will use only Luke 24:1-12, and the 10:30 service will use Luke and 1 Corinthians 15:19-26.

Where are we?

Between the Palm Sunday reading and Easter Sunday, a whole lot happens in Luke’s gospel. Jesus teaches in the Temple, talks about the end of time, celebrates the Passover with his disciples, institutes the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, prays, is arrested, goes on trial, receives a death sentence from someone who doesn’t think he did anything, is crucified among common thieves, dies, and is buried in a donated tomb. And that all took place by Friday sunset, because nothing was allowed to happen on the Sabbath. The women have waited since Friday afternoon, with the spices ready to anoint Jesus’ body.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul has been arguing for unity and responsibility in the church. In this chapter, he sets that exhortation in the context of the resurrection, the event that sets all the rest of our faith lives in perspective. He talks about our coming resurrection, the proof of which is the resurrection God has already begun in Christ.

What’s going on?

Paul is arguing against those who doubted that Jesus had truly been raised from the dead. This was as actively questioned in the early church as it has been more recently; Paul insists that the hope of Christian life is founded on the resurrection, and the hope of our resurrection is founded on Christ’s resurrection. He is the “guarantee,” that is, the “first fruits” that indicate that the plant will produce a harvest this year.

While Paul is certainly basing his argument on a literal understanding of Christ’s resurrection, he seems to allow more room for interpretation about the resurrections the rest of us will experience. Later in this chapter, he compares the resurrected body to the plant that grows from a seed when it is planted in the ground. For believers, we don’t have to imagine that our resurrection will look like this world, only better. We can understand it as a transformation, a different kind of reality than the one that we typically experience.

The first round of resurrection stories in the Gospels could be called “The Case of the Missing Messiah.” We’ll have some thoroughly tangible encounters with the risen Lord over the next few weeks, but on Easter Sunday we get none of that. We get a tomb that is mysteriously open and unmistakably empty. Nobody believes the women’s story about their encounter with the angels. There is a demonstration of the resurrection for those who go to the tomb, but it’s only after we leave the place of death that we’re able to see new life again. (Mary’s encounter with Jesus just outside the tomb, in John, may be an exception, but even she has to turn away from the tomb to see her Teacher.)

Both here and at Jesus’ ascension in the beginning of Acts (also written by Luke), the angels ask Jesus’ disciples why they’re still looking at where Jesus used to be. In fact, Luke’s gospel (as opposed to his story in Acts) presents Jesus’ ascension as happening on Easter day. In a sense, it has already happened here in the morning.

The angels quote Jesus’ words, “The Son of Man must…” The necessity of what Jesus is doing has been a theme throughout his journey to Jerusalem. It’s how he invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house, and it’s how he told his disciples to invite themselves to the Passover. Everything has happened the way it needed to; why it needed to be that way is, as they say, above Luke’s pay grade.

The final verse of the reading, about Peter going to see the empty tomb, isn’t in all the ancient manuscripts. Since Peter is the archetype of the church itself, and such a central figure in the book of Acts, we can imagine why a later copyist might include him in the Easter sightings. John writes him in much more thoroughly.

Arland Hultgren notes that there must have been at least five women at the tomb, since Luke accounts for “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James; they and the otherr women with them…” (24:10).

So what?

What do you mean, so what? Paul just told us that the resurrection of Christ is the central promise of the whole Christian life!

Oh. You mean, “So what difference does it make that Jesus never turns up on Easter?” Well, that’s a better question.

The first thing I think it means is that we can’t go looking for God’s future in the ruins of the past. We have a tendency to continue looking among the dead – dead traditions, dead relationships, dead dreams – for the one who is alive and so gives life to the world. Christ’s life is always going on ahead of us (I’m mixing my gospels here) and leading us into something new.

Of course, our tendency to look to the past makes sense on a couple of levels. First, where else should we start looking for life than in the place we most recently remember seeing it? When we’re faced with new challenges and uncertainties, why not start by trying what worked before? The only thing is, we have to hold our past success very lightly and be ready to follow into something that will change the world that much more.

Second, this whole idea of resurrection suggests that it’s precisely the dead stuff that should be filled with new life. Imagine if, just maybe, the women came looking for Jesus here because they knew that when he was raised, this is where it would happen. We’re talking about resurrection here, not the old saying about how God closes a door but opens a window. But then, the resurrection always does get out ahead of us. Jesus will turn up elsewhere, and it will be the very Lord; it happened to this, but it turns up over there. We have to keep our eyes open and be ready to see the Risen One when he happens to be visible, because it doesn’t last long.

Marilyn Salmon reassures us that amazement and perplexity are the standard responses to God’s activity in Jesus throughout Luke. In Acts, awe and wonder will come to take on a more positive spin. God is always doing more than we can expect or even imagine, and it’s in that understanding that we should read this otherwise baffling story of the empty tomb. When we’re most confused, perhaps then Christ is most alive.