God’s love cannot be stopped by anything we fear: Christ is risen, God’s love is for the whole world, and we are witnesses with our love to this great news.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Resurrection of Our Lord, year B
Texts: Mark 16:1-8; Isaiah 25:6-9
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
There are electric lights in the tunnels now.
But the air is bone-chillingly damp. Deep under Rome in the Catacombs of Priscilla, you can sense how frightening it would be in such darkness with only your torch or a few oil lamps.
Step down off the tunnel into a small family tomb. In the dim light you can see three frescoes on the back wall – on the left, a young woman and man being married; on the right, the same woman with a child in her lap; in the middle, this woman standing with arms raised. These pictures are deeply moving, speaking to us from between 1,500 to 1,850 years after her death.
And she was a Christian. Look up to the ceiling at the fresco of the Good Shepherd, with a sheep over his shoulders.
Now, turn to your right in this very small space, to a fresco of three young men in flames; above them, a dove with an olive branch. And on your left, a fresco of an old man, a young boy holding a bundle of sticks on his back, and a ram. Now, turn to leave and you see it on the ceiling near the opening: a long sea-serpent, coiled and deadly, with a man partially out of its mouth.
These are the images this faithful woman’s family painted on her tomb – in the center, Jesus the Good Shepherd, surrounded by three Hebrew stories of deliverance from death – Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who should have died in the fire but were saved by God; Abraham and Isaac with wood for the sacrifice, and the ram who died instead of Isaac; and Jonah, being spit up after three days in the belly of the fish.
But they painted a great sea-serpent, not a fish. Because the Jewish translators from Hebrew into Greek didn’t use the words “great fish” as the Hebrew does. No, the Greek Old Testament has the same word in Jonah that was used in Job 3 to translate Leviathan – the great sea-monster of the deep, the symbol of chaos and destruction.
And it’s not just this faithful woman’s tomb. These images are spread throughout early Christian sites.
Jonah’s picture survives in 60 frescoes in Roman catacombs. Isaac’s redemption survives in 23, and the three young men 22 times. When these ancient Christians contemplated death, and remembered the saving power of Christ’s resurrection, they chose images of great terror where God intervened and brought life out of the mouth of death.
And that is exactly what we need. In our world, cute bunnies and duckies at Easter won’t cut it. We need to know if God can be trusted. We need to know that there is no terror, no chaos, no destruction, that can stop God’s love for us and for the world.
Because this world is filled with death, and we’re terrified.
We fear facing our own death, avoiding that it’s our future. And every day death spreads across this planet with no boundary, no limit.
Human sin has brought greater suffering and pain in the last century than we can begin to understand or deal with. Thousands die every day of hunger and hunger related disease. Thousands are killed every day in wars all over the planet. Uncountable people are touched by suffering, illness, pain, grief, loss, in every corner of the globe. Systems and structures become agents of death, crushing lives without pity.
And death’s touch infects our own lives: our hearts, our relationships, even our faith.
Isaiah today describes our world with painful accuracy: he sees a death shroud stretching over the entire planet. A burial sheet enwraps our earth in death.
But in our fear, we find companions this morning in the faithful, dear women who came upon a frightening scene in Sunday’s early hours.
When Mark tells the Easter story, he ends his Gospel there, abruptly, in fear.
Mark says that after being told Jesus was risen, the women left the tomb seized by trembling and amazement, and said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
They weren’t afraid of their own death. They were shaken and terrified by all that had happened since Thursday, and by all they now unexpectedly found: a stone rolled away, a strange person in white telling them news they couldn’t begin to process in their shock and grief and loss.
And their fear silenced them. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
Now, Mark knows this didn’t last. Writing years after the Resurrection, everyone knew the women broke their silence. They found the other disciples, told them, started a morning-long run back and forth to the empty tomb.
But ending this way, Mark places us with these women in our fear. Mark says they were frozen, they couldn’t do anything out of terror. So Mark is saying to you: what’s your next step? Will you live in fear? Or can you live as witness to a God whom death cannot stop?
Go back into that family tomb beneath Rome once again.
Facing the death of a beloved mother, her family claimed God’s power to bring life out of death, claimed hope for a life to come.
But those images aren’t limited to confidence about our future after we die. They are images promising what God can do right now to bring life into a world filled with death. We need these images to help us live our lives now.
Isaiah’s proclamation about the planetary death shroud is just such an image. Because his promise is that in days to come God will destroy that sheet spread over all peoples and nations. God will swallow up death forever.
This is the God to whom you belong. A God who doesn’t supply a ram for a sacrifice, but becomes the sacrifice. A God who, in human flesh, lives divine life into this world, and serves you in love, drawing you into God’s heart, until you kill him on a cross.
But this God isn’t stopped by fiery furnaces. This God isn’t stopped by great sea-monsters or chaos. This God isn’t stopped by planet-sized death shrouds. And this God cannot be stopped even by death.
This is the marvel we celebrate this morning: the love of God that takes the path through death and explodes into new life. Christ is risen, and now you know death has no power over life, over you, over anything. So you don’t need to remain immobile in fear.
This is why Mark stands us with these beautiful Easter women.
As afraid as we are of so many things, so were they. Whether it’s our pain, or the pain of the world, we know fear, like they did. And yet, filled with God’s love and courage, they began to speak. Disciple after disciple heard the good news, and started losing their fear. Jesus himself appeared to them and breathed the Spirit into their lives and hearts.
And they began to live as God’s embodied love in this world, unafraid. Because if God can’t be stopped by furnaces or monsters or shrouds or even death on a cross, then nothing is impossible for God. Love can heal this world. Life can rise out of death and renew your heart, renew families and relationships, renew whole cities and nations and cultures. Jesus himself, risen from death, meets you in Word and Meal, giving you courage and strength for your journey of faith and life.
What would life be if you lived without fear? If you trusted in such a God, with such a love for you and for the whole world?
What would change? And what’s stopping you from joining these women and living as if Christ really is risen, and death is dead, and God’s life is healing all things?
In the name of Jesus. Amen