A Sermon for Covenant
“The Easter Witness”
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
March 31, 2013
Kyndall Rae Renfro
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
I see these women, so faithful, so focused, so few, the rare ones who did not go into hiding, who did not hole away in their grief, but instead, rose early in the morning to tend to the body of their Lord. They are the first risers that Easter morn, and I wonder, how much did these women want to stay in bed? Wouldn’t they rather evade the reality of his death with sleep? Surely they would have preferred a stupor to awakeness, but something got them out of bed. Maybe it was their friendship with each other. They had made plans to meet at the tomb and while none of them wanted to get up and go, neither did anyone want her sister to walk the road alone, and so each one rose in order to join the other women, walking side by side to the place where all their hopes lay buried.
I see their silhouettes in the darkness, topping a grassy hill right when the night sky is turning gray, the soft light gently announcing that the Sun is coming. They walk in silence, alone in their thoughts, alike in their purpose. There is a heaviness and somehow a holiness to the daunting stillness, so different from the rioting crowds and taunting soldiers of the Friday past.
I see them reach the tomb. It’s still dark enough that at first they do not see it, that the tomb has been uncovered. This is odd; they fully expected to be the first ones here, and they expected to arrive alone. Gingerly, they step inside the opened tomb one by one; it takes a minute for their eyes to adjust to the further darkness of the cave. A small gasp escapes Mary Magdalene’s lips, and she squeezes tight the hand of Joanna, whose face is whitening, and they all stand stunned inside an the empty tomb in dazed bewilderment and building alarm.
I see suddenly, like a flash of lightening, two men who light up the darkened cave. The women jump, and sensing that something cosmic is occurring, they kneel instinctively with their faces to the ground and try to breathe into the dust despite their terror. Mary Magdalene is trembling, and JoAnna can feel drops of sweat beading up on her forehead. Mary tries to pray, but the prayer gets stuck; she doesn’t know what to say.
I can see one of the men, looking as frightening as Moses’ burning bush, kneeling down beside the women, bringing his light in close, lifting Mary’s chin with the tip of his flaming forefinger, and asking gently, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
I can see Mary’s heart pounding, her eyes searching inquisitively this messenger’s shiny face. “Can it be? What is he saying?”
I can see the standing messenger raising his arms like it was a benediction, “He is not here; he has risen!”
I can see the women being blessed despite their bewilderment. I can see them slowly sitting up, standing, receiving strange words and trying to let them sink in. I can see the kneeling messenger still on his knees looking up at the women with open palms as if offering them a gift, his voice tender. “Remember, remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee.”
As the angels spoke, I can see the women beginning to remember what they already knew. Jesus had promised just such a thing, but it had been too mysterious to grasp back then, before he was dead, before his tomb was found empty. It is to their great surprise that they already knew, though it took something remarkable to jog their memories and to make the past coherent with the present.
I see the tears that come to their eyes. None of this really makes any sense; it hardly seems plausible that Jesus, their Jesus, could be up and alive . . . and yet, maybe . . . they remember Jarius’ daughter, the widow’s son, Lazarus. Those stories felt like far-off, fading memories when Jesus was on the cross, doing nothing to save himself. But now the exhilaration of his miracles comes surging back, and they begin to dare to hope, “Maybe he is back.” The messengers have departed in a flash, but their message keeps ringing in the women’s ears, “He is not here; he is risen!”
I see them head back to tell the Eleven, and others, what they had seen, what they had heard, what they had remembered. When they arrive, their stories tumble over one another. Mary talks about the kneeling messenger who seemed to have touched her with fire, Joanna gushes on about the flashing of light, Mary recounts an opened, emptied tomb and a towering angel who claims Christ is risen.
I see the mounting skepticism in the room. The women’s words sound delirious and impossible. Their stories seem like nonsense. None of the Eleven remember Jesus saying on the third day he would be raised, or at least, whatever he said, that’s certainly not what he meant.
Only, Peter listens intently to the women. He’s normally prone to speak first, listen later, but a few denials can humble a man. He’s learned a thing or two in the last few days, and so for once he listens without passing judgment or assuming he knows better. He dares to wonder if there’s more to their story. If there’s more to be known, more to be heard, more to be seen. He decides he wants to see for himself, and so he goes. He too finds the tomb empty and leaves the place wondering . . .
Those women remind me so much of what it is to be a person of faith. You rise and keep rising, even on dark mornings, even in the face of grief, to walk beside friends as you tend to broken dreams. You rarely expect anything all that grand, but somehow you keep stumbling upon empty tombs. Heavenly messages interrupt your path like flashes of lightening, so quick you second-guess yourself after they’re gone. Did I really see that? Despite your lack of faith, you see things and hear things that startle, frighten, confound, then fill you with light for the next step and hope for the future.
You catch wind of the Good News that you have a Savior and that he is alive, roaming the earth among the living. You walk dazed and bewildered out of the graveyards where you once wandered, and before you even see him with your own eyes, you go to tell the story to those you think would want to know.
But often they do not believe you. You seem a little loony, a little out-of-touch with the real world. But you open your mouth anyway, your dogged belief in hope and resurrected dreams undaunted. Some mock you; most just don’t even listen.
But there are a few—maybe only one—who will hear you, sort of hear you. Hear you enough to get on their feet at least and go exploring. They may not believe you per se, but you’ve sparked their interest, enlivened their curiosity, and that’s about the best a witness can do, is plant the possibility in someone’s mind and heart that God is love and that love has won. You help a person find their wonder.
Of course, every witness has a slightly different account of things—if you read the four Gospels side-by-side, you’ll see what I mean. The stories topple over one another, and no two versions are exactly alike. For some that makes the story all the more unbelievable and unreliable, and I can’t really blame for them for expecting that all the witnesses should have matching accounts. If this were a courtroom case, that would be important.
But the thing about stories, I mean, the really good ones, is that they tend to take on a life of their own. They get retold with passion and with the unique mark of each specific teller. Details morph from one speaker to the next, not because their memories are poor but because their memories are so alive and personal.
There are so many ways to tell the truth of resurrection. That’s the mark of a true witness—somehow who can tell the story in a profoundly personal way, so that you know they’ve experienced it, walked around inside it, and lived to speak of it.
And so this Easter day and forever after, may our own voices join the chorus, speaking of what we already knew, once we paused to remember that we knew it. Together we all sing the same words but in a thousand tunes, “He is risen! He is risen indeed. Amen.”