Easter Day Sermon: Empty Tomb, Empty Hands

Easter Day 2022
Penelope Bridges

Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

You may be familiar with the British tradition of giving chocolate Easter eggs at this time of year. The truly traditional egg is a large hollow egg (think ostrich egg or larger) made of your favorite variety of chocolate: Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, Bournville Dark, Black Magic, Milky Bar, Galaxy, or Maltesers. Often these eggs are filled with the named candy, but sometimes you just get the empty egg. I used to be quite disappointed on those occasions when there was nothing in the egg. Something was missing.

Luke’s story of Easter morning has a surprising detail: Something is missing; Jesus is not in it. The story is all about what is not there: there is no body in the tomb. The mysterious beings say, “He is not here.” When the women run to tell the other apostles what they have found, they are not believed: it is dismissed as an idle tale, an empty piece of nonsense that has no substance. It is merely hearsay – and in ancient Israel a woman’s testimony carried no weight in court.

Who would believe such a claim, anyway? Bishop NT Wright has pointed out that resurrection was so far outside the frame of reference of the ancient Jews that nobody would have made up a story of resurrection expecting people to believe it; therefore it must be true. For the men who had followed Jesus, the tale of the empty tomb was an empty tale, something to be ridiculed. But we have the last laugh, because, if we can only accept it, the emptiness is the point. And, it seems, Simon Peter had an inkling that the women might be on to something.

While the Gospel story tells of the discovery of the empty tomb, before any of the disciples had actually encountered the risen Lord, Peter’s sermon in the Acts of the Apostles, which was our first reading this morning, comes weeks later; after the risen Christ had appeared to hundreds of his followers, after he had ascended into heaven, after the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. By now Peter himself has raised a woman from the dead, and now he is responding to a call to evangelize foreigners, members of the occupying Roman force.

Peter has come a long way from the man who had denied knowing his Lord, and who dared not believe the women’s good news but ran to the tomb and went away wondering at its emptiness. Peter’s embrace of the resurrection truth has led him to leadership among the apostles and to this moment of tremendous courage, where he stands in the home of the enemy and boldly proclaims the power of Christ to judge the living and the dead.

Peter’s journey from unsophisticated fisherman, to the rabbi’s right-hand man, to his heartbreaking denial of Jesus, to leadership of the fledgling church, is a remarkable testimony to God’s ability to turn lives around. Peter was emptied out on Maundy Thursday: in that late-night scene at the Praetorium he relinquished any self-image as  the best friend and protector of Jesus.

On Easter morning, as he wallows in his guilt and grief, Peter is an open and empty vessel, no longer able to trust himself. He hears the women with their wild story, this incredible claim of resurrection, and it speaks to his broken heart. He desperately wants it to be true; he craves the opportunity for forgiveness and restoration. So he runs to the tomb and sees for himself: the linen cloths on the stone, no body, Jesus gone, a chance that it might after all be true. Emptiness makes a space for hope, and Peter’s journey to rehabilitation and healing begins. The emptiness is once again the point.

For most of us, the idea of emptiness conjures up thoughts of loss, abandonment, grief. An empty womb, an empty place at the dinner table, an empty pantry or refrigerator when your children are hungry: all these are valid reasons to dread emptiness. The Ukrainian people have good cause to grieve their deserted and devastated cities and villages. Empty promises, whether from a lover or a national leader, can have serious consequences.

But there are times in our lives when emptiness can be positive. The absence of an abusive partner from the family home is a welcome change. Seeing “Zero owed” on a loan document can take a great weight off your shoulders. The scan that no longer shows a tumor is a reason for celebration and renewed hope.

Emptiness can be a doorway to holiness. When we can empty our minds of all the busy-ness and fretting and unimportant nonsense that tends to fill them up, we are much more likely to be able to hear the still small voice of God calling us to newness of life, calling us out of the darkness into light, calling us to step from Good Friday to Easter. When we gather to worship, we can better focus on the sacred business before us if we can empty out the mental and emotional baggage that accompanies us to the church door.  We must be empty before we can be filled.

Archbishop Rowan Williams writes of this emptying, calling it a self-forgetting that is an element of baptism. He writes, “To be a disciple, to be with Jesus, is to be baptized: baptism is the way in which each person is made present to Jesus, crucified and alive, by a ritual act which places the person in … the process of self-forgetting that leads to the cross. Forget you have a self to be shielded, reinforced, consoled, and lied to: hear the bitter truth that the cross enunciates, and accept the pain and disorientation of that enlightenment, in the trust that you are not hated or abandoned; and come up from the flood with a new person, ‘alive to God’, living with your eyes set firmly on the ground and goal of hope which is Jesus.”

And when we come to God’s table, hungry for the bread of life, we hold out empty hands, bringing nothing with us but our longing to be loved and forgiven; and when we hold out our empty hands, God will fill our hands and our hearts.  Approaching the altar with hands held out we demonstrate our utter dependence on the risen Lord: there is nothing we can bring him but our own selves, empty, and ready to be filled. In the end, we must be empty if we are to fully experience Easter, just as Jesus emptied himself of his divine identity in order to take into himself the sins of the whole world. And having taken it into himself, he transformed it by utterly submitting to it and so, by a divine alchemy, defeated death and made the whole creation new.

So here is the Easter invitation: standing at the door of the tomb, seeing it empty, believe the good news that he is risen. Empty yourself. Cast off your anxieties, your burdens, your preoccupations with image and wealth and status; drop them all into the grave of Good Friday and step forward into the light of Easter unburdened, emptied of what was before, ready to be filled with the new life of resurrection and grace. In the morning light, emptiness becomes liberation, and today we celebrate above all our liberation from the old way of death, and our embrace of the new creation. The emptiness is the point.

Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

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