This post originally appeared as an article in yesterday's parish newsletter, The View. To read the rest of the newsletter and to learn about St. John's, Decatur, click here.
Do you wish that you could have been there on the Day of Resurrection to peer into the empty tomb? Would you have wanted to stand there with the women as they heard the young man in white announce that Jesus had been raised? Have you dreamt of running alongside Peter and the beloved disciple to see for yourself that the only thing left in the tomb were the discarded grave cloths? Would you like to have that proof for yourself—to behold with your own eyes the miracle of Easter?
The historicity of the empty tomb has become a fashionable test for delineating between Christians who accept the supernatural claims of scripture as fact and those believe that such stories are merely ways of communicating the deeper truths to which they point. In short, if you can believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus then likely you can also believe in the other miracles of the bible. Some are quick to dismiss skeptics as thoroughly un-Christian while others are just as quick to disregard the claims of traditionalists as “primitive” or “naïve.” For what it’s worth, I think that it’s possible to do both—to hold fast to beliefs as ancient as the actually empty tomb and to emphasize the thoroughly modern metaphors that such historical claims represent. Either way, however, I don’t think the empty tomb is the right place for us to start.
Instead of peering into the tomb to see whether it is empty, I believe we need to look around the table to see whether Jesus is there.
The gospel lesson appointed for Wednesday in Easter Week is the story of the walk to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). On the afternoon of the same day that the empty tomb had been discovered, Jesus joined two disciples as they walked the seven miles between Jerusalem and the town of Emmaus. We are told, however, that the disciples “were kept from recognizing him.” Even when this stranger used the Hebrew scriptures to explain why Jesus needed to die before being raised on the third day, they still did not understand who he was or that he had risen. Then, as it was getting late, the disciples unknowingly urged their Lord to remain with them that evening, and, while sitting at table together, Jesus “took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” In that moment, “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.” But, as soon as they saw that it was Jesus, he vanished from their sight.
Every year, during the great fifty days of Easter, I read with amazement as the truth of the resurrection sinks into the hearts and minds of the disciples not at the empty tomb but later on—when Jesus meets them elsewhere. The Emmaus-bound disciples reported the news of the empty tomb to Jesus as they walked down the road, but they did so out of confusion rather than belief. Only when Jesus blessed and broke the bread and gave it to them could they see that he had indeed been raised. Likewise, in John’s account, Peter and the beloved disciple believed that Jesus’ body was not there, but “they [also] did not understand” what it was that had happened. Famously, as we will read this Sunday, Thomas refused to believe until he had the chance to touch the risen Jesus and feel the nail-marks for himself, yet, when Jesus gave that invitation to Thomas, it was enough to change his heart.
In all four gospel accounts, individuals who see the empty tomb require an additional encounter with the risen Lord before they understand what the resurrection means. No one comprehends the miracle of Easter simply by staring into the place where Jesus’ lifeless body once lay. Instead, they must meet the living, breathing, walking, talking, teaching, loving Lord whom they had known before his death. Why would it be any different for us? I do not know what I would have seen had I peered into the tomb on that Easter so long ago, but I do trust that even seeing it would not have been enough for me to believe. Like Peter, Thomas, Mary Magdalene, Cleopas, and the other disciples, if I want to know the resurrection, I must search for Jesus himself.
Jesus gathers us together at his table. Bread is taken, blessed, and distributed to us—to his disciples. Jesus himself commanded that we eat that symbolic meal in memory of his death, but he also joins us in Communion as the resurrected one. When you kneel and extend your hands to receive the morsel of bread, can you see that the tomb is empty? When you gather together with the other disciples, can you tell that he is there?