Why Seek the Living Among the Dead?
A Sermon for Easter Sunrise Service at Tasso UMC cemetery, 2014.
We are gathered here in the church cemetery where we bury our dead as our ancestors before us have for over 150 years. We come by from time to time to remember them by visiting their graves and placing flowers and other mementos there. In the more than twenty-five years I have been associated with this cemetery, many people I have known have been buried here. From reading the tombstones and reading the history of our church, I can piece out the stories of others here. But many of these stones are so old that their story is being eroded by time. Other graves are unmarked. Many of those who have recently been buried here will soon join them in obscurity, known but to God
I can remember when I was on a tour through what had recently been East Germany in 1999. Much of the area was terribly impoverished. I can remember seeing the crumbling apartment complexes, all in dull grey without shutters or anything which would make it look inviting. They looked like grey tombs for people without names. But I also noticed something startling in their cemeteries. The stones were of finely polished granite with gilded inlaid letters. In East German terms, these stones cost a small fortunes. The rocks cried out “Remember Me!” These people who had no name in life were so desperate to be remembered that they probably saved what little money they had made in life for these gorgeous stones. As granite is slow to weather and gold does not tarnish, they hope to be remembered for the ages to come.
We know in the land of the living the desperation of people to be known. Some of the most terrible acts of violence have been done by people who were so desperate for their fifteen minutes in the world’s setting sun that they would resort to anything to get attention. For since we are all fixated on the bad things people do, these people resort to carnage so that they can make the nightly news for a few days while the rest of the world ponders why. This horrible sickness of anonymity is the curse of the fallen world. Surely there is a better way to be remembered.
When we look at this morning’s text, it appeared to the world that Jesus’ fifteen minutes of fame was over, ending with a spectacularly gory death on a cross. He was dead and buried as far as the world was concerned. His crestfallen disciples would lament His death for a while as they returned home to their previous occupations. His enemies then and now hope that all remembrance of Him will disappear from the pages of history, eroded away by the processes of time and silence, just a tombstone in history without a name.
The group of women who came to the tomb of Jesus did not expect to find a living Jesus. They were doing just as we do at funerals. They were coming to perform the proper act of remembrance for the dead. They were especially saddened by the means that Jesus had died just as we are troubled by those who have been murdered. They brought spices to anoint the body, perhaps not knowing that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had already done this. They weren’t coming with joy but extreme sorrow. They weren’t thinking about how to roll away the stone to let the living Jesus out but rather to let them in to anoint the corpse of Jesus.
We can only imagine the shock they were about to receive. It was so shocking that the accounts of the first appearance of Jesus to them seem a bit jumbled. This is exactly what we would expect under the circumstances. I don’t have any quibbles about the details all being correct, but at the same time the witness of the resurrection is quite realistic to what human witnesses testify of under similar circumstances. We can piece together the accounts and come up with a reasonable harmonization of what happened. In the same way, the men who were cringing in fear behind locked doors thought the account the women brought was simply crazy. These disciples were not wanting their fifteen minutes of fame at this point. This was a good time to be anonymous. But things were about to change for them all. They were about to go into the world, led by the Holy Spirit and make an impact which would last far more than fifteen minutes, and for good and not evil.
The women discovered the stone was rolled away. They did not know what this meant. John’s gospel reveals that Mary Magdalene felt that the body was stolen. Then they were startled by the appearance of two “men” is brilliant white garments who asked them “Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here but is risen.” These “men” also reminded them of Jesus’ own words concerning Himself.
We sang the song “Up From the Grave He Arose” at the start of our service here this morning. Death could not keep its prey. Jesus our Savior has risen from the dead. All the attempts to silence Him were in vain. All the attempts to limit His fame to the allotted fifteen minutes were in vain. The tomb was empty. There is no need that anyone come there to weep and remember. Rather it is for us on this morning to remember that He is risen and ascended to the right hand of the Father to make intercession for us.
Many may feel that they belong to the Walter Mittys of this world. You may feel like you are an anonymous face in the crowd who will never see your fifteen minutes in the setting world’s sun. But the resurrection changes everything. The Father did not forget the Son but raised Him from the dead on the third day as promised. And if we know and are known by Jesus Christ, we are remembered by the one who has the keys of death and the grave. Because Jesus was not forgotten, neither shall His people be forgotten. Those who have died in the Lord are now indeed blessed because they have been remembered by the only One in the universe that truly matters.
We are mortal in this life. Our memories are short. Our remembrance of the past has to fade if we are to go on and live our own lives and not relive the lives of all our ancestors. But God is not limited by time or knowledge. And those who have died in the Lord are not limited by death any longer. Jesus says “Because I live, you shall live also.” So let us go on, encouraged by the promises of God who cannot lie or in any way fail to accomplish His purposes. We can bury our dead in the Lord here in hope and certainty that they are remembered to Jesus. And if the Lord should tarry, and it is His will that we should join the others here in this cemetery that we have a remembrance far greater than polished granite and letters of gold. Rather we shall have our mortal remains interred here, knowing that we ourselves are anchored in a Rock far more precious than granite. Our remembrance is written in the precious blood of Jesus which was shed for us and for our salvation.
The great feast of remembrance, our Lord’s Supper is a remembrance of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. His body was broken and blood shed for us. But it is also a promise that we shall join him to drink the cup in the Kingdom of God. This cup of the Lord’s death shall become the cup of everlasting life with Jesus our Lord.
It is quite all right for us to mourn our dead. It is a testimony that their lives were important to us. How sad it is for one to be buried without tears. But at the same time, Paul tells us to mourn in hope and not the despair of the hopeless. The dead in the Lord are not gone and lost forever. For the Christian, we do not come here to say good bye but “See you later”.