“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”, Colchester Federated Church, April 21, 2019, (Luke 24:1-12) Easter Sunday
There’s a wonderful story that can be used to explain death to young children called Water bugs & Dragonflies. The gist of the story is that there’s a colony of water bugs that live in a beautiful, quiet pond. They have a wonderful life chasing one another near the bottom of the pond far away from the blinding sun. Though a strange thing happens. Sometimes their friends climb up a lily stalk and just disappear. The water bugs can’t understand this at all. Then one of the water bugs suggests that the next bug who goes up the stalk should come back down and tell the others what’s happening up there. What are they seeing up above, and why take that journey in the first place? All the bugs agree that the next one has to come back and report what’s going on.
One spring day, the water bug who came up with the idea to report back feels a strong urge to climb up the lily stalk. He can’t understand this urge, and can’t even seem to control himself. He must climb up and up toward the light. He breaks the surface of the peaceful pond and finds himself on a broad, beautiful lily pad and sleeps peacefully. He wakes up and looks down at his body—a dramatic change has happened. What once was his stubby body now has four silver wings and a long tail. He’s become a beautiful dragonfly. Swooping up in the air and flying back down among the flowers he feels happy and free, exploring this new world. Though he stops to rest and remembers his promise to the water bugs. He wants so badly to tell them what adventures lay in store for them, adventures that will be wonderful and need not cause fear. But as he attempts to dive back down to their watery home the dragonfly discovers that he can’t get back. He hits the surface of the water and bounces up into the air. The dragonfly realizes that he looks so different his friends wouldn’t recognize him anyway, and they must wait and see what bright futures lay in store for them. So the dragonfly wings off happily into his new home of air and sunlight.
As Nicole shared in her children’s message, there’s a reason that butterflies are Easter symbols. They are symbols of Resurrection. The journey that a caterpillar takes in the cocoon and emerging out of that mysterious place as a butterfly. The same can be said of dragonflies who symbolize transformation in many cultures. When the earliest followers of Jesus laid him in the tomb on Friday, they were not expecting transformation. They were not expecting that he would emerge from that tomb as the Risen Christ. Even though Jesus foretold his crucifixion and resurrection multiple times in the Gospels, the miracle was still unexpected for his first followers.
The Gospels differ a bit in describing the events of that first Easter. This year’s Lectionary Gospel text comes from Luke. And Luke Chapter 24 focuses on the women who came to the tomb very early in the morning on the first day of the week (Sunday.) Luke makes sure to name some of the women—Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James. The women bring fragrant spices and perfumed oils because they had witnessed how Jesus’ body had been stored in the tomb but not properly washed and anointed after he was crucified by the Romans on Friday. So these women make preparations to bury Jesus honorably after the Sabbath. This is what they journey from their homes in that morning’s darkness to do.
If we were in their shoes, let’s imagine for a moment how we would feel. We probably would have emotionally prepared ourselves for the difficult task ahead. We would have organized the spices and oils on Friday right after Jesus took his last breath on the cross. We would have decided on a place to meet early Sunday morning. And then we would have rested on the Sabbath as was our custom. Letting the grief wash over us. Allowing the tears to flow. Facing the future without a person who meant the world to us. Feeling numb or angry, sad and lost. Wondering how we could possibly go on with life as usual. When Sunday morning begins to dawn, we would have walked to the tomb. Still in mourning for Jesus. But wanting to do something to take care of his body that had been brutalized. And isn’t that often the way of grief—wanting to do something to keep occupied, to not have to fully face the emptiness we feel inside of us. Wanting to honor those we love to the best of our ability.
Though the stone is rolled away. There is no body inside that tomb. When the women looked around and probably began asking questions, they noticed that there are two men who are standing beside them in gleaming bright clothing. Spoiler alert—these appear to be angels. And the women are frightened. Who wouldn’t be? Jesus’ body isn’t anywhere to be found and a couple of angels appear out of nowhere wearing blindingly bright clothing. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary, and the other women gathered inside bow their faces toward the ground and hear the angels ask them that piercing question: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Before they can even formulate an answer, the angels say, “He isn’t here, but has been raised. Remember what he told you when he was still in Galilee, that the Human One must be handed over to sinners, be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” The women, to their credit, remember the words that the angels reference, the words that Jesus spoke to them when he was still in Galilee. The women remember the past and have faith in the present.
The women eventually return from the tomb and tell the eleven disciples everything they had just seen and heard. And the disciples don’t believe them. Luke writes, “Their words struck the apostles as nonsense, and they didn’t believe the women.” So much for trusting one another. So much for remembering that Jesus told them too (multiple times) that he was going to be crucified and rise on the third day.
Even Peter runs to the tomb, bends down to look inside, sees the linen cloth, and returns home wondering what’s happened. The Risen Christ will appear to some of his followers on the Road to Emmaus and later will appear to his disciples. But Luke’s Easter story this morning doesn’t include a Resurrection appearance from Jesus himself. It’s a story about believing in our hearts even when we may not yet see any evidence before us. The story continues in Eastertide when the Christian Church explores Christ’s Resurrection appearances and what they mean for us in the present. Though Luke’s story this morning is about believing people when they share something with us in vulnerability. It’s a story about not looking for the living among the dead.
Sometimes in our lives we cling to the past with all our might. We stay in the Good Friday world, not recognizing that Easter has dawned. Because even if the past is bad, the past is familiar. There may be issues, but those are issues that we know about. If we’re really honest, those are sometimes issues that we’ve created for ourselves—both because of things that we’ve done and because of things we’ve left undone. That is baggage we understand because we packed those bags ourselves, thank you very much.
But the angels turn the women’s worlds upside down, the apostles’ worlds upside down, our worlds upside down with that question: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” The answer to that question is as obvious as the dragonfly who can’t get back down to the mud on the bottom of the pond, not after wings have sprouted and transformation has occurred. Not after the dragonfly has discovered that he is free to fly in the sunlight. As poet Tyler Knott Gregson reminds us, “I know you’ve got feathers, though you may have forgotten them. Hidden away because so many others won’t leave the ground. Don’t you dare hide your wings because someone else is afraid to fly.”
The past is finished and gone. New life is on the horizon, and my friends—we’ve got to go. We have been set free from the enslaving bonds of the past. Set free to live powerfully in every present moment. Set free to love God, love our neighbors, and love ourselves. Set free to work with God in building a loving and just world. Jesus said that he came that we might have life and have life abundantly. Easter reminds us every year that the past cannot hold us back any more than the tomb could hold Jesus back. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Thanks be to God. Amen.