Death hits the wall
I came here ready to rebuke these ladies. They head out to Jesus’ tomb with their spices. I know, I know, Matthew says they came to look at the tomb. The other gospels tell us their plans: to finish the perfuming of Jesus’ body they started on Friday.
But they needed to look at it too. They needed to see. To understand. To experience. They needed to face this. The corpse. The tomb. The death. The dread sorrow of a dead God.
But he had told them, “On the third day I will rise again.” So, we itch to bury these women in rebukes: “He told you! He talked about resurrection all the time! O ye of little faith!”
O me of little faith. I’ve yet to go a cemetery expecting anything but tombstones. I expect nothing from corpses at funerals except silence. I don’t enter hospice rooms expecting much except the inevitable onset of death.
We do this because we know nothing except death. Death with no return. Ever. Death that just becomes, “He stinks,” because bodies at death tend to stay at death. And decay. That’s all we know about death. No wonder the Marys took spices to the tomb. It doesn’t matter what Jesus said.
It didn’t even matter sometimes what someone saw. Matthew reports that after Jesus rose from the dead, after he appeared to the women, to Peter, to the disciples, still he encountered resistance. He gathered together his disciples up in Galilee and “when they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” Doubted? Doubted what? You saw him. He ate in front of you. The women touched him; Thomas poked his punctures.
Death grips us this hard. Think back. Jesus once fed more than 5,000 with a few loaves and fish. That night he sends the disciples on a boat across the Sea of Galilee. He catches up with them in typical Jesus fashion: walking on water. They see him and cry, “Ghost!” He says, “No, you dimwits.” Jesus climbs into the boat and Mark says: “they were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.”
I’m not saying they didn’t know any better, or these women didn’t know any better, or we don’t know any better. I’m not absolving them or us. It’s not that we don’t know any better. We just don’t know anything except death. We hate it. We hate funerals. We hate the onset of death. But we can’t stop it. Our best attempts at medical miracles only make it worse. Now death lingers on for days, weeks, months, years. We’ve created more angst and moral dilemmas with our death-defying medicine. And we hate death all the more. Unconquerable death offends more than ever.
Because death accuses me. “You stink,” death says, even before we actually begin rotting, because death takes everything from us. Strength, speech, dignity. So we propagandize death, “Natural; circle of life; karma.” No. It’s not. Death came to all men because all sinned, starting with Adam. Accepting death as natural is just whistling past the graveyard. All our attempts to avoid death, to hide from death, to deny death belie our big talk about crossing over, kicking the bucket, pushing up daisies. Every funeral forms the closing statement at our trials: “Guilty. Sinner. Death.”
So, it’s natural, perversely so, that these women brought spices to Jesus’ tomb. They expect an inert body; even though they believe in the resurrection of the dead. Remember, Mary’s sister (not these Marys, one of the other ones), Martha told Jesus, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Resurrection then. Not now. Now only death. Only stink. Only a need for perfume to cover the odor of sin and death.
And in a twist that our world and sinful natures just can’t abide, this defines the Christian church. Death. We wear crosses with a dead or dying Christ on it. We center our year around the day they nailed Jesus to the cross. Our favorite hymns and Bible passages talk about the sacred head wounded, bleeding, dead. For goodness sake, our book starts with death. No sooner does God declare everything very good than he says, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” Cain smashes in Abel’s skull and Lamech starts waving his sword around. Then God kills everyone in a flood. The Father even foretold the death of his own Savior: “He will crush your heard, but you will strike his heel.” It has the feel of that tragic story that you know ends in heartbreak, but can’t stop watching.
Until it doesn’t end the way you expect. “I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said.” In their fear mixed with joy these women run away, with their spices, and “suddenly Jesus met them.” He met them. Not in a dream. Not in a vision. Not in perfume-huffing haze. He met them and they “came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him.” They touched him. Because he was alive. Not dead. Not stinking. Not rotting. Alive. This is a new death.
The kind of death that brings life. As the angel said, he had told them all about it. On Palm Sunday Jesus said, “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” One death brings abundant life, because this one death was for the world. He laid down his life so that he could take it up again. He laid it down because our sins demanded it – sin equals death; God must be just. He took it up again because our justification, our innocent status demanded it – we shall be saved through his life!
His death means God removes the guilt of our sins. Removes, not reduces, and puts it all on his forsaken, dead son. That son’s life means that God decrees death destroyed, not just handcuffed or delayed. “He has risen, just as he said.”
The awe, the fear, the adrenaline must have been off the charts. Is it still? Or is it just another day, except today you get honey-baked ham? Do you see now why we asked for silence on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday? Why even this morning started differently and not because you had to get up earlier. It’s that tension. We know nothing about death except it comes and takes us. Is it too much to stand silent before this, God showing us the end of death? Or does it put you off to be confronted by your sins? Too much awe, too much reverence, I don’t want that. But we need it. Without the tragedy of it all, my sin, his death, how can we celebrate at all? If it’s just another holiday, how will that fear and joy fill us when we hear, once more, “Greetings, good tidings! I was dead and now I live! I hold the keys to death and Hades!”
That’s what happens in this place, in this church, in the Holy Christian Church. Here we find the holy things for God’s newly-declared holy people. It’s not a cutesy day of new dresses and Easter bunnies. It’s a hyperventilating kind of day, an adrenaline rush kind of day. Here the Word of God kills us and brings us to life. Here God drowns us in our Baptism and revives us. Here God feeds us, like Jairus’ little daughter, with the medicinal food we need: bread and wine that is so much more: his body, his blood, my forgiveness, the end of my death! What a day!
Praise the Lord it’s not a day of vengeance for our little faith, for expecting death. It’s the day Jonah saw when that fish saved his life. It’s the day Paul wrote about: “You have been raised with Christ….For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” Hidden from death through faith in Christ. Hidden from sin for a new life of sinning no more, through faith in Christ.
Yet death comes for us, expectedly and unexpectedly. In a sense, we are, like Jesus, seen, yet not fully seen. Mary saw a gardener. The Emmaus pilgrims saw a fellow pilgrim. When others look at us they see one dying, and soon, dead. Except not. For he is risen, he is risen indeed. He put to death sin in his own body so that now the Holy Spirit puts to death whatever belongs to our earthly nature in our own bodies, including death.
Which Jesus says, for the believer in Christ is now a sleep. A sleep from which Christ awakened on this earth-shaking day. A sleep from which our bodies will awaken on another earth-shaking day, when the stars fall and the moon turns to blood, when the Son of Man comes in his glory to take his faithful to heaven. As Martha said, so say we: “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting,” because death ran into a wall named Jesus Christ and Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia! Amen.