He is risen.
Those three simple words tell us the meaning of Easter.
Christ was crucified. Christ is risen. After suffering death on the cross and descending to the dead, Jesus conquered death, rose again and forever opened the door for us to follow him out of the grave.
The first evangelism of Christ’s resurrection is recounted in the Gospel reading from Luke 24:9-10: “When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles.”
The import of this message is as elusive as it is glorious. Christ is risen. Death is conquered. That is what God did for us. That much is clear. But – and this is where it gets sticky – what does it mean for us? Yes, we’re saved. But, what does it mean for us to do? To what action does the resurrection call us?
Too often, I think, we embrace the first part of the message (as we should): Christ is risen – We are saved; but we overlook the second part: How does Christ call us to follow him, what does he call us to do, at the mouth of the tomb? It is hard to fully accept the grace and love that awaits us there. It is harder still to embrace the responsibility that comes next.
To fully understand this, we need to go back to Jesus’s words to the disciples at the Last Supper, in John 14:6-7: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
Early Christians, drawing from this passage, referred to their movement simply as “The Way.” Far more than simply bearing a name and proclaiming a creed, being a Christian meant walking in the way of Christ – following in his footsteps spiritually, and if necessary, in a literal physical sense.
It doesn’t take much of a review of the stories of Holy Week to understand how radical, how impassioned, is this call to The Way. To follow in Christ’s footsteps means setting aside – no, utterly overturning – everything on which the world tells us to focus. It is the way of self-sacrifice. It is the way that, on the eve of suffering and death, cries out “yet not my will, but yours be done.” It is the way that tears open the heart and crucifies the ego, so that we may die to ourselves and rise to serve only God.
Shortly after Jesus fed the four thousand, and immediately after Peter proclaimed Jesus “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” Jesus told the disciples the reality of what it would mean to follow him:
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 16:24-25
Denying ourselves. Taking up the cross. Dying to self. Following Christ means perpetually going back to the beginning of the Via Dolorosa – the Way of Suffering – to take up the cross on our shoulders, and begin the long walk to Golgotha. For most of us, this means spiritually sacrificing ourselves, crucifying our ego for the greater glory of the kingdom. For the apostles and martyrs it has literally meant giving up bodily life to pursue the spiritual walk with Christ.
Paul, in his Epistle to the Galatians, wrote of the transformation that occurs when we accept the cross, and follow The Way:
“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” Galatians 2:20
When we give up ourselves, we gain Christ.
In this light, it’s clear we’re called to follow Christ to the cross, and to the grave. But, to what are we called after the grave?
Place yourself there, with Jesus, in the tomb. The stone has been rolled back. The glory of resurrection surrounds you. Outside is the light. But, also outside is the world that crucified Christ. Outside is the world that put you in the tomb in the first place. Wouldn’t it be safer to stay there, in the dark solitude of the tomb, quietly thanking God for the resurrection? After all, the part of the story that saves us already is complete.
Of course it would be safer to stay there. It’s dark, and quiet and safe in the tomb. And, if we’re not careful, that’s where we keep the risen Christ – in the tomb of our safe, spiritually cloistered lives. But, that’s not the point of resurrection. If our walk with Jesus ends in the tomb, then we’ve cut the legs off the Gospel and confined Christ to a prison of our own making. That’s not our calling. We are called out of the tomb, to be the hands and feet of Christ, striding into the light – and into the danger.
The true nature of our calling beyond the tomb – to walk with Christ, to be the Lord’s hands and feet in an uncertain and dangerous world – is revealed throughout Acts of the Apostles. In one particular passage, the apostles find themselves imprisoned, their lives threatened for speaking Truth.
In their darkest hour, an angel springs them from prison: “But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out.” Acts 5:19
Huzzah! They’ve been released. But, to what task are they released? The next verse reveals our task after the tomb:
“Go, stand in the temple courts,” he (the angel) said, “and tell the people all about this new life.” Acts 5:20
Having just been released from their prison – from their would-be tomb – the apostles aren’t sent to the ease and comfort of cloistered celebration. They’re sent right back to the place where they were arrested. Right back into the fray. They are freed, not for ease and comfort, but to shine light into the same dark places that entombed them in the first place.
The apostles, as we know, obeyed. They went back to preaching the Good News. And, with the exception of John (who only had to persevere through torture, privation and a long, lonely death in exile), all suffered martyrdom.
What does this all mean for us? Hopefully, it doesn’t mean any of us will be called to the kind of ends that met the apostles, and many more after them. But, it does mean we’ll have to have a measure of their courage. We’ll need it, because we’re not called to repose peacefully in the tomb, gazing out on the light of Christ’s glory. No, we’re called into that light, beyond the tomb, to take up our cross and carry it into the most unwelcoming corners of the world.
In a dark world, we’re called to be the light. In a world obsessed with war, we’re called to preach peace. In a world that lauds the rich and powerful, we’re called to honor and lift up the poor and the downtrodden. In a world that cries out “Me first,” we’re called to die to ourselves, and find life in Christ. In a world that crucifies the weak, we’re called to take up the cross, and set our feet toward Golgotha.
All of this self-denial and striding about boldly in a dangerous world may not sound appealing – when measured by the standards of this world. But, if we believe in Christ’s message, then we measure not by this world, but by the Kingdom, where we gain life by giving it up.
The glory of following Christ out of the tomb is assured to us in the words of Jesus, speaking to Martha outside the tomb of Lazarus: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.”
And then, there’s the eternal question Christ poses to us all: “Do you believe this?”
If we believe this, then we are called. We are called not just to the gift of the resurrection in the tomb. We are called beyond the tomb, to be Christ’s hands and feet in a world that sorely needs his love.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, give us the strength and courage today to stride with you beyond the grave, to die to ourselves, to find in You life beyond the tomb, and to carry your love and grace into the world without fear. Amen.