Connections 04.21.2019: Leaving the Tomb Behind

Luke 24:1-12

When a loved one dies, their absence is so intense that it can feel like a presence. Somehow, the space their body used to take up still seems to hold them.

My grandfather died in 1993. I remember how our weekly visits to my grandparents’ house changed. There was the chair where Granddaddy always sat to watch the Braves. There was his bedroom, a pack of Doublemint gum and some spare change still lying on his dresser. There was his closet, filled with shirts and pants that smelled of gum and cigarettes. The presence of his absence was intense.

One of the children we serve at the Jay’s HOPE Foundation died in 2017. I remember how my time at our nonprofit office changed. There was the picture of Karma’s cute, smiling face hanging on the playroom wall. There was the couch where she had curled up under a princess blanket one day, playing a handheld game. There was the fish tank where she had stood, trying to find the starfish. The presence of her absence was intense.

I think about how it felt for Jesus’ loved ones those long, confusing hours after he died on the cross. How did their lives immediately change? There was the cup he had passed among them that final night. There were the steps his sandaled feet had climbed, his muscles tired like theirs from so much walking. There was the sound of his voice still ringing in their ears as they realized that everything he said had indeed come to pass. The presence of his absence was intense.

As we walk with the women to the tomb that we already know is empty, I urge us to try to remember the great sense of loss, confusion, and grief that Jesus’ loved ones were feeling.

The men were so frightened and upset that they were “gathered together” (v. 33), uncertain of the next step to take. John even tells us they had locked the door out of fear (Jn 20:19). I don’t blame them. Do you? Maybe the women were fearful and uncertain of the next step as well, but they decided to follow through with burial traditions. Maybe they thought this ritual would bring a little order to the chaos of what had happened.

They put one foot in front of the other, taking actions that seemed right to them, and their faithful duty was rewarded by the greatest miracle of all. At the site of Jesus’ tomb, where the women were prepared to weep in utter grief as they cared for his body, they encountered heavenly beings who informed them that Jesus did what he said he would do: he rose from death to life. He left the tomb behind.

Because of what Jesus did for us, he will never be absent. His presence is within us and around us, working through us as often as we allow ourselves to be open to him.

Discussion

• If you have experienced the death of a loved one, what was that like in the days immediately following the person’s passing? What is it like for you now?

• What do you think it means to feel the presence of someone’s absence? Do you have personal experience with that?

• When we read today’s lesson text, why is it important for us to approach Jesus’ tomb as if he is still inside of it? How does that help us fully understand the power of his resurrection?

• What does it mean for us that Jesus left the tomb behind? How then should we live?

Reference Shelf

Discovery of the Empty Tomb, 24:1-12

…Unlike Mark’s women, Luke’s are not worrying about the stone as they approach the tomb. Since Luke never says “it was very large,” his audience can assume it wasn’t, or that the women felt sufficient to handle it. Like Mark’s women, Luke’s find the stone moved and go into the tomb, but Luke specifically says “they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.” While they were puzzling over this, “behold—two men dressed in dazzling clothes were standing by them.” The “behold” is meant to signal that the two suddenly appeared. Angels? Probably, but we should notice that at the transfiguration, the two men were Moses and Elijah, and allow for the possibility that Luke thinks those two returned to remind Jesus’ followers about what he’d said about his “exodus” (9:31). Why two? The usual answer is that according to the Law of Moses, two witnesses are required to establish anything. And so there are pairs of witnesses in several places: at Jesus’ birth (Simeon and Anna), at the transfiguration (Moses and Elijah), at his trial (Pilate and Herod Antipas), and at his crucifixion (one of the evildoers and the centurion both said Jesus was guiltfree). But these two are angels or saints, testifying to Jesus’ resurrection; if the women were going to be like Zechariah and doubt the word of one angel, would two make any difference? Possibly Luke has been influenced by Zechariah 4:11-14, with its “two ‘sons of fatness’ who stand by the Lord of all the earth” (4:14 LXX), or possibly the pattern of two angels (continued in Acts 1) is a carry-over from the transfiguration story.

The women certainly act as if they are seeing angels; they become frightened and lower their faces to the earth (or lie facedown on the earth). The angels, uncharacteristically, do not say, “Don’t be afraid,” but begin by rebuking the women: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” …the angels treat the women as if they should already have known what was going to happen, since Jesus had predicted it. What the women need, then, is to be reminded of lessons already learned but perhaps forgotten momentarily….

The angels thus summarize Jesus’ previous teachings about his death, drawing on various expressions from various parts of the Gospel. All this presumes that the women were present for all of it and could be expected to remember it. Although they were initially confused by the crucifixion, once they remembered Jesus’ teachings, they understood. Just as Mary and Elizabeth served as prototypes for the prophet-leaders that their sons and their sons’ followers would be, so this group of women—who may include Mary—serves as prototypes for the way Luke thinks people come to faith. God—in this case through angels, but perhaps in most cases through the Spirit—brings one to understand the teachings of Jesus that one has already heard.

The women do remember his words, and, in sharp contrast to Mark’s women, do not run from the tomb in fear, but return home to share their experiences with the rest of the community. Mark’s angel tells Mark’s women to go and tell the apostles and Peter; these women need no prompting, but “announce these things to all the eleven and to all the rest.” At this point, let us remind ourselves that Luke imagines not just a few women, but a bunch, and that Luke has told the reader early on that these women were part of the group from the beginning, and that their ministry and their providing of their means kept things going. Why, then, do the guys ignore them? They heard the same predictions the women did; Peter, James, and John knew that two heavenly messengers appeared with Jesus before, and so the testimony of the women should have been credible. They know these women; James and John are doubting the word of their sainted mother, for crying out loud. Like Zechariah, they are not thinking straight when they dismiss the testimony of their wives, mothers, sisters, and companions in the faith as “foolish chatter.”

Peter, however, has second thoughts. “Jumping up, he ran to the tomb and peering in, saw only the wrappings, and went away by himself amazed [or wondering] at what happened.” Just as earlier he followed Jesus into the courtyard, but remained “at a distance,” so now he follows the women to the tomb, but is too late to hear the angels. Peter’s amazement is somewhere between the men’s disbelief and the women’s faith; he is essentially where the women were when they first saw the tomb and had not yet been reminded of Jesus’ words by God’s messengers.

Luke’s audiences, ancient and modern, face many of the same issues illustrated by the divided responses of the early followers of Jesus. We have the testimony of early believers; according to some traditions, we could even visit Jesus’ tomb and like Peter note that it is empty. But our experience will be different from the women’s. Had the rest of the apostles gotten off their keisters early that morning, maybe they all could have heard the angels; but they didn’t, and we can’t. We either accept their testimony or we don’t.

I think it is significant that both in this episode and in the next one, where Jesus appears incognito to the two disciples on the road, Jesus’ words can make “our hearts burn within us” when we are given a chance to hear them, remember them, and then have those memories stirred by an agent of God. The angels speak to the women; Jesus will speak to the two on the road and to the rest in Jerusalem; the Spirit will speak to the crowd in Jerusalem on Pentecost. It is a mystery how and when God raises Jesus’ words in our consciousness, why sometimes they lie dormant and other times they change our lives. But thank God that it happens—it’s Easter, and he lives, and we live with him!

Richard B. Vinson, Luke, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2008) excerpts from 740–44.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor of Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. She is also the office administrator for Jay’s HOPE, a nonprofit serving families of children with cancer. Kelley enjoys spending time with her daughters, Samantha (14) and Natalie (12), and her husband John. Occasionally, she appears onstage in community theater productions and can sometimes be found playing board games with a group of rowdy friends. She loves Marvel movies and Doctor Who, and she’s still trying to write a young adult novel that her girls will enjoy.

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