Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Empty Tomb as a "Thin Place" (or a Gaping Hole)

Easter Day – Year A
Acts 10.34-43; Psalm 118.1-2, 14-24; Colossians 3.1-4; John 20.1-18
Sunday, April 24, 2011 (8:00 a.m.) –
Trinity, Redlands

In ancient Celtic tradition, there are locations known as “thin places,” where the separation between heaven and earth is tenuous, where the two nearly touch, and may even be somewhat permeable. In these “thin places,” it is said that the veil is drawn back sufficiently that one can experience the other realm, possibly seeing into the other side, maybe even sensing or feeling the presence of the holy. It is sometimes said that in such “thin places,” the ordinary becomes sacred and the sacred becomes ordinary.

The thing about “thin places” is that not everyone experiences them the same way. There is a full spectrum of awareness and experience of “thin places.” Some people are completely unaware of them. Others have some sense of their existence, having a vague feeling that there is something different, maybe even special, about a particular location. And others still have incredibly intense experiences.

I think that the tomb encountered by Mary Magdalene, the empty tomb with its stone rolled aside, was just such a “thin place.” If anything, the tomb and all that it represents is not just a “thin place” where the veil is pulled aside, but is rather a place where the fabric of existence is ripped open, creating a gaping hole between heaven and earth, between the ordinary and the holy.

Nonetheless, or perhaps because of the extraordinary nature of this thin place turned gaping hole, John’s Gospel records varying reactions to what is experienced, spanning the spectrum. On one end you have Simon Peter’s reaction. Upon hearing the news about the empty tomb, he runs to the tomb, goes in, and finds Jesus’ linen wrappings lying in a heap on the floor. The Gospel does not tell us specifically how he reacts or what he thinks. But the way I read it, he surveys the situation, sees a pile of linen, and just sort of gives up. He sees Jesus is gone but doesn’t seem to really comprehend the magnitude of what has happened. Eventually he does come to a greater understanding, but for now, he seems to need time to figure it out. He’s seen enough and so he leaves to go home, presumably to continue cogitating on the matter.

The Beloved Disciple seems a little more thought-filled or even awe-filled than is Simon Peter. When he arrives at the tomb, he sticks his head in to survey the situation, but does not go in. After Simon Peter enters, the Beloved Disciple does likewise. When he sees the full scene from the inside, we are told “he saw and believed.” The implication is that while he may not have completely understood what happened, he did understand the significance of the empty tomb, and that he trusted what Jesus had foretold about his own death and resurrection. With this, he too goes home, presumably to further ponder the situation.

And then there’s Mary Magdalene. She obviously doesn’t quite know what to make of finding the empty tomb. Her initial reaction is that someone has removed Jesus’ body. But even in her distress, she perseveres in trying to figure out what has happened to her Lord. Even after Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple have gone home, she continues to try to make sense out of what has happened. Mary is confused and certainly distraught that Jesus’ body had apparently been taken away. Even though he is dead, if at least she could find his body, it would be something to hold onto, something to help ease the grief of the previous few days, maybe even help make sense out of the situation. Unlike Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple, she is not going home until she gets some answers. So she persists in her search for the truth. And her perseverance pays off. When things look hopeless, she encounters the risen Lord – the first disciple to have such an experience. The elation she must have felt when this seemingly unknown person calls her name and she recognizes that it is Jesus. “Rabbouni!”

Mary’s natural reaction is to reach out and try to embrace her master and her friend. She is undoubtedly dismayed when he stops her, saying, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” Why can’t she embrace and hold onto this man whom she has been following for years, whom she loves more than life itself? This is the one thing she cannot comprehend. What she does not yet understand is that in resurrected form, Jesus cannot be physically grasped; just as what has happened to him cannot be fully grasped, fully comprehended by the human mind. In his resurrected form, Jesus is no longer confined to this realm. Jesus cannot be held here in our presence. What is happening is for a greater purpose, as he foretold to the disciples. For Christ’s ascension extends the promise of the resurrection beyond this existence, through the “thin place,” through the gaping hole, into the heavenly realm. The promise of the resurrection is taken to the heavenly realm that transcends our own, to be located in the heart of God. And there, the promise of the resurrection, the new and eternal life that is promised to all humanity through Christ’s death and resurrection, will abide forever. This resurrection is not limited in its duration as was that of Lazarus. No, this resurrection and the ensuing gift of new life for all are for ever and ever.

Each of the disciples, Mary, Simon Peter, and the Beloved Disciple, had their own way of approaching the empty tomb and coming to understand the resurrection. But this was not something that happened in an instant. For with the death and resurrection of their Lord and Master, the disciples were moving from pre-resurrection life in the presence of Jesus the man, to a post-resurrection life in the presence of the Risen Christ. In the days and years that follow, they would struggle to find how to express the experience of Jesus Christ, as living man and as Risen Lord. They would need the rest of Eastertide, with its various post-resurrection encounters, to more fully understand what has happened to Jesus, and what this means for them, his followers.

Our other lessons, from the Acts of the Apostles, and from Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, show this continuing attempt on the part of Jesus’ followers to more fully understand the meaning of post-resurrection life in the presence of the Risen Christ and the implications to those who are and will become his followers. That’s what the entire New Testament is about. That’s what the entire Christian faith is about – making sense of Jesus’ life on earth, of his death and resurrection, and of our part in the continuing story.

We talk about Easter being the culmination of Holy Week, which it certainly is. You cannot have Easter without first having Palm Sunday, with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. You cannot have Easter without first having Maundy Thursday, with the institution of the Last Supper, followed by Jesus’ being betrayed and arrested in the Garden. You certainly cannot have Easter without first having Good Friday, with Jesus being tried, convicted, and sentenced to death; without Jesus being crucified on a cross, and then buried in a tomb. So yes, in Christ’s resurrection at Easter, we have the end of a tumultuous journey. But Easter is not the end of the story. It is merely the beginning. That story is being played out through the rest of the New Testament. It is being played out through two thousand years of Christian history. And it is being played out in our own lives, here and now, and will continue to play out for the rest of our lives.

That’s why we’re here today, in our continuing efforts to try to make sense of what happened two thousand years ago at a tomb in the countryside outside Jerusalem. Because just like the disciples, we each have our own unique way that we approach the empty tomb and come to understand the resurrection. We would do well to take our cue from Mary Magdalene – to not give up so easily, but to persevere, to continue searching for the Risen Lord.

Of course, this side of existence, this side of the gaping hole that is the empty tomb, we cannot, nor will we ever fully understand all the whys and wherefores of the resurrection. All we really need to know is that in that empty tomb, in that gaping hole, heaven burst forth into the earthly realm. All we really need to know is that God’s love broke through in a new way, destroying the bonds of sin and death that had a hold on humanity. All we really need to know is that Christ is risen, thereby providing each and every one of us with the gift of new and eternal life in him. Everything else flows from that promise and from that assurance.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

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