By Paul Fromberg
Two Wednesday evenings ago, I was sitting in a restaurant with my husband Grant. It was a nice place with good food and soft lighting; a short escape from the many, many tasks of Holy Week. I’d actually spent months getting ready for all of the liturgies: revising the words, thinking about the sermons, imagining the beauty of this space. Dinner was a short respite, a bit of a reward for a hard, long slog to the resurrection. Then he said it: “I hate to ruin the surprise, but you know how the story ends? Jesus always comes out of that tomb.” It was an offhand comment by my agnostic husband that balances the mystery of the faith and the mystery of our human situation.
We think we know how the story ends. Just like the three wayward women who went to the unremarkable tomb of Jesus. They certainly knew how the story ends. When the sun finally rose and they made their way through the hushed streets of Jerusalem, outside the walls of the city to a garden-tomb, they went to mourn their dead companion and leader. And, as with all of our mourning, it wasn’t just about the loss of their dead friend; it was also about the loss of their dead hope. The future that Jesus had spelled out for them – a future where least was first and master was servant and outsider was intimate – that imagined world of Jesus was surely dead too. They had come to complete the burial of Jesus, and to begin the burial of their dream. They knew how their story ended.
I looked across the table at Grant. Dinner was over and we split a dish of ice cream. I remembered the first time we shared a meal; it was at a Passover Seder, hosted by mutual friends. And there was this dazzling man who’s energy ignited the room. And I knew how the story would end. No love for me: too many tries and too many failures and too many regulations about Episcopal clergy dating people of their own gender. So I put the dazzling image behind me. And three years later, at the same Seder meal in the same home, it happened again – the energy and hope. And there I was a decade later sharing ice cream with the same man in a city on the edge of the world.
You see, every time we think that we know the way the story ends we have to come back to the way the world actually works. Nothing is certain. Not even death. The three women at the tomb discover that instead of a slightly decaying body it contains a young man dressed in white. It’s as if he is waiting for them to trouble their certitude about life and death. “Do not be afraid; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”
Do not be afraid.
But we are afraid. We’re afraid of so many things, and you know what you’re afraid of, don’t you? Maybe you’re afraid that there won’t be enough money or food or water or shelter to keep you safe. Or maybe you’re afraid that there is no love for you, no hope, no joy, no future. And all of that fear is real, it just is. But it isn’t the last word. The last word is always the word of that nameless young man, awaiting a mournful clutch of women, “He is not here.” It’s both good news and challenging news for the three women. Jesus has been raised, and he no longer needs a tomb. He no longer needs the comfort and certainty of death. Which means that we no longer have need for death.
That’s hard. It’s easier to rehearse what is known then it is to go chasing after life that expands beyond our control. Jesus is not here, not in the tomb, not in death. He has gone on ahead of you. And where he goes is a place on the edge of the world neither you nor I has any control over. We can’t contain or control the life that he carries with him. We can’t delegate it to the worthy or force it on the unready, because it is the life of God that fills every life. It is like the love of God: indiscriminate and unbounded. It is life that goes everywhere and changes the ending of every story.
So the surprise of Easter is that the experience of resurrection is not guaranteed. It doesn’t just come up and grab you by the shoulders and make itself known. We have to seek it out. We have to pay attention to the world with our eyes and hearts and minds open to see that the story isn’t over yet. Like those three women at the tomb, we have to go on ahead to the place that we do not know yet, to see the one who will be found; the one who promises that our seeking will not be in vain and our stories are not determined. I don’t want to ruin the surprise for you, but the life of God poured out in Jesus Christ is over all, and in all, and through all. And it is here. Now.
Where you go from the empty tomb is your business. The life that you will find is God’s business. That is the promise of this night. You will see signs of it here, this life that floods from the empty tomb. As we called down saints and strangers to join our celebration; in a meal of bread and wine; in endless dancing and delight, we saw signs of this life. But if you want to see it in your own story you’ll have to go on to that place that lies just ahead, where the risen Jesus waits to tell you what happens next.
The surprise will astonish you.
Paul Fromberg is the rector of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco.